You ever play a game that you love and hate in equal measure? Do you keep coming back even after you’ve shouted a mountain of terrible shit at the developers and cursed them with every fibre of your being? Lately, for me that game has been Enter the Gungeon and after almost fifty hours of playtime I have some thoughts. So let’s get into it.

Developer: Dodge Roll
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: Apr 5th, 2016
Available on: Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows, Mac, Stadia, Linux

The first thing that most players are going to run into with Gungeon is the difficulty. This game does not give a fuck about the player. The learning curve is so steep that it is akin to a cliff and little is done to keep players invested whilst they’re learning. You see, Gungeon only rewards success. If you want to unlock new equipment and really dig into all the game has to offer, at a minimum, you’ll have to beat the first boss and unlock the shop keeper. Without doing this most players will be stuck using the same subset of equipment on every single run.

In addition, there are no permanent stat increases. The only ways to increase your character’s health is to get lucky and find an item that increases health, most of which need to be unlocked, or players must defeat a boss without taking damage. This increase is only temporary and further exemplifies how Gungeon doesn’t care to help struggling players. You either git gud, or get out and I wouldn’t be surprised if most players bounced off Gungeon after only playing the opening hours.

A lot of this difficulty can be attributed to Gungeon’s somewhat unique melding of top-down shooting and bullet-hell gameplay. In most top-down shooters you’re focused on where you’re shooting, while in bullet-hells you’re focused on not getting hit. In Gungeon you need to do both by weaving through bullets while aiming and firing your own shots with limited ammunition. This means runs in Gungeon will usually end in the blink of an eye after several unfortunate decisions cascade into failure.

There’s also the issue of how much luck plays into any given run. I would estimate that Gungeon has the lowest reliance on luck of any rogue-like I’ve played. However, poor luck dramatically influences the relative difficulty of any given run. While it is technically possible to finish the game with the weak starting weapon, doing so would be incredibly tedious due to how bullet spongy all of the later enemies and bosses are. This makes any run where the player doesn’t find a powerful weapon feel like a complete wash while also being a boring slog.

Speaking of tedium, players are going to be seeing the first level of Gungeon a lot which gets very repetitive. This would be mitigated if there was a quick way to find new weaponry in a run, but there isn’t. As a result, some runs will take an agonizing amount of time to get off the ground as you slowly work your way through the first floor.

Now, having said all of that I would fully understand if you thought I hated Enter the Gungeon. Trust me. I’ve been trying to write this review for over a week and every time I read what I’ve written I say, “Damn. I fucking hate this shit.” So why is it that I can’t stop playing Enter the Gungeon? Well I’ll tell you why.

Despite the asinine level of challenge, Gungeon provides one of the most visceral and satisfying gameplay experiences I’ve had in the last while. There is just something so satisfying about running through the many chambers and corridors of Gungeon, gracefully winding through a flurry of bullets, all while exploding the hordes of baddies the game has thrown against you.

There is also a slow progression of mastery that is extremely apparent over prolonged exposure to Gungeon. I’ve written before about how mastery is my gaming crack, and Gungeon’s penchant for rewarding perfection gives very tangible feedback that players are improving. It starts with you making it to the third level for the first time, then you get your first perfect win against a boss, and eventually you’ve won a run. While it can feel like your gear carried you there is no denying the immense satisfaction that washes over you once you’ve clawed your way to victory for the first time.

There’s also an absolutely insane amount of variety in Gungeon. This game has a lot of guns and almost all of them manage to feel distinct from one another. For example, there’s a mailbox that shoots letters, but for the final shot it shoots a package that explodes for massive damage. Sometimes it’ll even glitter bomb the enemy. While this doesn’t provide any gameplay advantages, it does distinguish this weapon and similar types of unique characteristics can be found throughout Gungeon’s array of armaments.

This variety mostly comes from the myriad of pop culture and video game references that Gungeon packs into its content. These references don’t make Gungeon a better game, but seeing something you recognize is always a treat. One of my favourites is a gun called Heroine. It’s Samus’ blaster and has a charged shot just like it does in Metroid. There’s also stuff from Golden Eye, Megaman, Mario, Doom, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Warhammer 40K, Metal Gear, and Cave Story just to mention a few of the many sources that Gungeon uses for referential material.

Both the variety and the references play into what is quite possibly one of my favourite aspects of Gungeon: upgrades. Instead of using a traditional upgrade system, Gungeon has set equipment combos that empower weapons. For example, there is a gun called Corsair which shoots tiny boats, but once you pick up the Glacier, a weapon that fires ice blocks, the Corsair begins shooting cruise ships that explode. This cheeky upgrade is an obvious Titanic reference and is only one of the hundreds of available weapon interactions to be found. This expand the overwhelming amount of variety and ensure there is a minuscule chance that players will embark on identical runs.

There’s also a number of secrets to discover in Gungeon. I’m not usually one for secrets, but Gungeon has a way of teasing things such that I’ve felt compelled to hunt them down. What’s truly amazing is that the reward at the end is always gratifying. This further entices players to finish following each of Gungeon’s secret threads through to completion.

Enter the Gungeon is a game that I love and hate. Sometimes I’ll have a blast and other times I’ll direct a number of mean spirited comments at the developers. The level of challenge is complete bullshit and can lead to the game feeling both punitive and incredibly tedious at times, but for the majority of my playtime I’ve really enjoyed Gungeon. The level of variety, the feel of the game, the tangible sense of improvement, and all the little references makes for an experience that begs to be played again, and again, and again. I’m glad I gave Gungeon a shot because it is one of the most fun games I’ve played all year.