Capsule Review: Gunslugs

A procedurally-generated 2D pixel-art run-and-gun shooter. Run to the right, pick up weapon powerups and shoot enemy soldiers, use crates for cover and try not to take too much damage yourself. Blow up a few enemy beacons and get to the chopper to clear the stage and fight a boss at the end of every set of stages before moving on to the next level with a different setting and tougher foes.

The mechanics are simple and the story is mostly just action-movie atmosphere rather than an actual narrative, so it’s easy to jump right in and blast some baddies without much thought, though there are also side objectives and mini-games to be found and conquered. The action is streamlined but solid, though the polish level is a bit low and it’s hard to tell when you’re being hit by enemy fire. The only feedback is the depletion of your tiny health bar off in a corner of the screen, so if you don’t notice you can be going along fine and then die apparently out of nowhere. Death is handled in a roguelike way - unless you’ve managed to collect enough coins and find a shop selling a continue, you’re sent back to the character select screen to start over and go through a fresh set of semi-random stages. Reaching later levels does unlock characters who can be used as shortcuts letting you start at those later levels.

The procedural generation is a mixed bag. You’ll die a lot, so in a way it’s good that you aren’t forced to replay identical levels every time. But it also means that levels aren’t reliably well-designed and difficulty can swing wildly - it’s obnoxious to be doing well and then die to an unlucky layout and have to start over again. And because there is a level progression, it feels like you should be able to master the levels - but you can’t, since they change every time. That also means that dying to a boss is that much more punishing - not only do you have to replay the levels leading up to the boss, but they’ll be different so you have to focus on them every time, making it harder to remember and internalize the boss’s patterns.

The cumulative result is that the game occupies a strange middle ground where it doesn’t excel at anything in particular. It doesn’t have the polish of a more-designed experience like Broforce or the mechanical depth of a true roguelike such as Spelunky. It does deliver hectic-yet-streamlined run-and-gun action - but the easy deaths and high punishment run counter to the otherwise high accessibility, and the level progression doesn’t really take advantage of the procedural generation.

I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here. With a little less friction between runs and softer barriers in the level progression, Gunslugs could have worked well as a more endless-runner-style experience. Tim Rogers once described Canabalt (the game that popularized the genre) as “Super Mario Tetris” due to the way it presents a pure and theoretically-infinite platforming experience. There’s still room for a Contra Tetris.

I Stopped Playing When: After some practice I could reliably get to the second set of stages, but the difficulty increase meant I couldn’t consistently get to the second boss. This made it more frustrating than enjoyable to learn to deal with that boss, and I put the game down.

Docprof's Rating:

Two Stars: Meh. The game has some merit - it probably held my attention for at least an hour or I came back to it for more than one play session. But there wasn't enough draw for me to stick with it for the long haul.

You can get it or learn more here.