Review: Exit the Gungeon

Some game concepts do not weather a format shift very well.

Enter the Gungeon was something of a darling with reviewers when it arrived; it was a top-down dungeon bullet-hell roguelike, a potent blend of different ideas that sounds like it should have been a shambling, mismatched mess but wound up being a clean and polished experience of constant gunfights with often bizarre weapons. People loved it. People still love it. It’s one of those overwhelmingly loved games that people will look at you askance for not playing, an indie darling where most people either at least like it or recognize that the game isn’t bad, it just isn’t for them.

The point of Exit the Gungeon is not to be a sequel (despite the title) so much as a spinoff into both a shorter development turnaround and an altogether different style of gameplay. Rather than being a top-down affair, it’s a side-scrolling platformer bullet hell…er…not actually roguelike, but it’s pretending to be. And if that sounds like a lot of genre descriptors to shove into a single line and you’re wondering how a game could be all of those things…well, it sort of can’t.

And, unfortunately, the ways it tries to fit all of that into the same space is also where Exit the Gungeon starts to become a seriously irritating piece of work.

Exit the Gungeon is out now for Nintendo Switch, Apple Arcade, and Steam. The Steam version was played for this review.

Primer and Powder

Despite the fact that the whole stated premise of Exit the Gungeon is not to serve as a sequel, the game is not just a sequel but an explicit sequel to the first game. This is kind of its greatest strength and its biggest weakness.

The premise of Enter the Gungeon was that within the eponymous Gungeon lay a gun that had the power to shoot and erase the past. Each of the game’s numerous Gungeoneers were shooting through the place in the hopes of acquiring that gun to correct something horribly wrong in the past. Exit the Gungeon picks up after the aforementioned characters have attained their goal, only to find that the thing about shooting the past is that it tends to create a whole lot of temporal paradoxes and problems in the process.

In other words, the Gungeon is now coming apart. Which also means that each of the Gungeoneers is trying to climb back out while only having the faintest memory of what brought them into the Gungeon in the first place.

It’s not an excuse plot, but the whole thing is handled with a comfortable tongue-in-cheek style of absurdity. Everyone is an outsized personality, often times serving as both a reminder and a reference of other games while also being familiar presences for experienced fans of Enter the Gungeon. If you’ve played that game, it’s kind of a nice chance to check in on what happened after the credits rolled…

…except it also isn’t. Because, as is sadly too often the case, by trying to make a story set five seconds after the first game ended, you turn the whole experience of the first game into a shallow prelude before things go wildly south.

See, the endings of Enter the Gungeon were meant to be conclusive. Exit the Gungeon immediately removes that conclusion and traps you right back in a situation wherein all that you accomplished was hastening the end of your world and removing any sense of accomplishment from before. So it’s a sequel that actively demolishes the engagement you had with the prior game…if it is a sequel.

Therein lies the problem. All of the characters in the game refer to you as someone they already know. If you haven’t played the prior game, then all of that can read like fun lampshade-hanging on the fact that you as a player know who these characters are even as your character doesn’t. But if you haven’t, you don’t get any sense of completeness or sympathy or connection. They’re just names that you’re told should be familiar, and you have no sense of place. Was this shopkeeper an old enemy? An ally? Just the same shopkeeper as always? Is this a reference or not?

But the developers have stated in posts on Steam that this is not a sequel. But it has to be a sequel, because the plot and setting are literally a sequel to the point that they make no sense otherwise. It’s at once a sequel and not a sequel and all in the worst possible morass of both.

Obviously, I can understand the impulse to at once have the game not be a sequel in the sense of “you must play this to finish the story” while still wanting the connective tissue. But this never gets there. Instead, it feels like a bunch of references you either don’t get or ones that are as likely as not to frustrate you. You never forge a connection with these characters or their situations, but you’re assured there is one…but it winds off piggybacking off ones you already have or simply leaving you with nothing.

Rifled Barrel

All of the issues I just discussed with regards to story, though, are… background elements. They’re there, they’re real, but they’re the sort of thing you could blow past if you were having enough fun with the gameplay. And…

Well, you can’t fault the game’s designers with lack of ambition. Unfortunately, you can fault them for where all that ambition wound up.

Enter the Gungeon was, like all roguelike games including shooters, about crafting builds within the space you had to work from. You couldn’t control exactly what would show up, but you did have control over how you built your character over time, picking out different weapons based on how they interacted with your items and vice versa, measuring your personal playstyle against same.

Now, the game did have an optional mode known as a blessed run, in which your weapon was constantly changing while you played. It was a challenge mode, meant to change things up if you were accustomed to the game’s quirks. It was a way of offering a different struggle.

It is this game’s default and only mode of operation. And it is the root of so many problems that quickly turn things into an irritating mess.

Yes, that is the core mechanic – your gun is constantly shifting into a new gun every 20 seconds, with no real control over what the next one will be. You do get some control; the higher your combo counter (the number of enemies you’ve hit and/or killed without being hit yourself) the better gun you’ll supposedly get.

But this immediately leads to several problems. It’s a counterbalance to a bad decision, and it has three major knock-on effects right away:

  1. There’s absolutely no clear standard about which guns are “better” or “worse” than any others, nor does it seem that you’re necessarily going to be spared a gun that works worse for your situation and build even if it’s technically more powerful. You could have a bunch of items that make you very good at turning one shot into a sniper bullet that kills anything it hits…and then wind up with a rapid-fire rifle that does you no favors.
  2. Since having a bad gun makes it more likely you’ll get hit or fail to kill things, getting one bad roll means you’re more likely to get another. That means that you quickly get locked into a cycle of hurting wherein you don’t really have any escape valves.
  3. I mentioned “having a bunch of items” rather than “having a build,” and that’s because not having a consistent weapon to plan around means you cannot have a build. Instead, you have items that will hopefully do good things for you regardless of the random gun you get.

If that weren’t enough (and it is), a lot of the items you get are already temporary, meaning that you feel less like you’ve picked up a useful build change so much as you’ve gotten a very temporary powerup you can’t count on for the future. A lot of the fun of these sorts of games, wherein you feel like you’re gradually gaining in power and toting a personal arsenal, gets whittled away immediately.

Fine, so you’re left with a randomized bullet hell platformer, that doesn’t sound so bad…except that while the dodge roll from the original is still here, due to the changes in gameplay, both jumping and descending from higher platforms turns into a dodge roll. In addition, the hit boxes for the various bullets you’re dodging never feel entirely right, and there were a lot of things that I swore I dodged but still hit me…or that I was sure hit me which I wound up dodging. Because the dodge roll makes you invulnerable as you’re moving, it can be hard to get a good sense of where you’re going to land afterwards, and it’s all too easy to find yourself without the space to dodge roll safely.

The problem isn’t that the underlying gameplay is awful, though. That would make the game just bad. The problem is that so many moments are “this is fun, but it’d be more fun if X.” It’d be more fun if you could actually pick your weapons and had a sense of building upon them. It’d be more fun if the bullet patterns felt less all-encompassing on bosses. It’d be more fun if dodges felt organic and fun instead of desperate and flailing, like they did in the prior game. You get the idea.

Hammer Action

One element of the game that can’t be faulted in the slightest is the graphical presentation, which is downright gorgeous. The pixel art is clear and well-animated, and if the screen gets a little overloaded at times with visual information that’s part of the design rather than an accident. Bullets are also helpfully color-coded, so you can immediately tell if something is coming at you and will harm you even if it’s in an unusual color or configuration.

Everything is also filled with cute touches; boxes explode with debris when you run into them, for example, certain enemies leave behind specific residues or body parts, and so forth. If there’s anything to complain about it’s how small the character sprites are, which can sometimes make it harder to see you against all the action, but that’s a minor quibble.

Boss designs are particularly impressive and well-animated, which makes even the more annoying bosses a treat to behold even when you’d rather not be fighting them. The environmental design is also great, a collection of themes without anything pretending at a unifying aesthetic, managing to inject some character into a game that is, at its heart, about 70% riding in an elevator while enemies jump in.

Music, meanwhile, is…acceptable. It sets the tone well enough, but it’s not very memorable beyond that fact. To its credit, rather than driving beats or thumping bass it opts for atmospheric, trance-like music as you move through the game… it just doesn’t tend to stick with you for very long, as the choice to go for atmosphere over memorability leaves it as more of a background aspect.

Squib

On some level, it feels unfair to compare Exit the Gungeon to Enter the Gungeon. They’re both trying to be very different things. But at the same time, Exit the Gungeon has a title based upon its predecessor, explicitly sets itself up as a sequel to the same, and then demands that it’s not actually a sequel but a spinoff that just feels the need to do everything you’d expect to see in a sequel.

Well, everything aside from building up the elements that made the first one work so well.

Honestly, I feel like this one is a game that manages to make a lot of little bad decisions, but the fundamental mechanic of how it handles weaponry speaks to a basic desire to make a game all about weird guns in which you never care about any of them. They’re all just momentary blips you’ll never get to hang on to, so you don’t care about their quirks and can’t build around them at all. You always feel like you’re playing with half of your tools.

And that’s the biggest problem with Exit the Gungeon, at the end of the day. I found myself looking at a pile of things that seemed like they would be fun, like there was a fun game under everything else, but the whole thing needed another few passes at the design stage to actually get out that fun game. The lack of work done getting there made the game, ultimately, something of an exercise in frustration.


~ Final Score: 5/10 ~


Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Devolver Digital.