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Review: Gunbrella

13 Sep 2023

Christopher Hastings created the character of Dr. McNinja when he just chose that as a forum user name on the Something Awful forums, and then he did art of the character stating that he was available for anyone who needed the services of a doctor or a ninja. Later, he had to give the character actual backstory and reason for being, but at the end of the day, that was always the point. He is a doctor who is also a ninja. If you do not find the idea of a comic about a character who is a doctor and also a ninja to be compelling, you will not be entertained by this. Simple enough.

I bring this up because Gunbrella feels like a similar creation right from the title alone. When it releases tomorrow on PC and Nintendo Switch (the PC version of which was played for this review), your interest in the game can be gauged by how interested you are in playing a game about using a gun which is also an umbrella. And if that sounds a bit like “how would that even work,” well, just keep reading. This is a review which is also… actually, still just a review. It’s one thing.

Gunder my Gunbrella

A grizzled old woodsman emerges after gathering mushrooms in the forest only to discover that his wife has been fridged and her killers left him a plot coupon in the form of the eponymous Gunbrella. So he heads off, armed with the Gunbrella, to find out who killed her and why. Naturally, because this is a video game, this will involve a great deal of running, jumping, and shooting which is fueled by the particular properties of this really weird weapon.

The general tone of the game can’t quite seem to decide if it wants to be a noir-ish mystery or if it wants to be a gentle satire of the same; it feels like it leans a bit more toward the latter, though, which is honestly what it’s better at. It’s a noir-style world where everyone is just a little bit dysfunctional, the world is filled with weird personalities, and while there is some genuine pathos to be wrung out of events it’s almost tangential.

What kept coming to mind in terms of tone was Shovel Knight, not in the sense that they are wholly comparable but just insofar as that game had a similar sense of serious-but-not-too-serious things occurring. The plot never particularly compelled me, but the game rarely demanded it compel me; this is definitely a game that manages more on innuendo than anything. It’s a bit formula, but it’s not obnoxious and doesn’t involve lengthy cutscenes that it can’t really cash in on.

Ten Thousand Gunbrellas

As I mentioned, the big focus here is definitely on the gameplay. And it’s here that the game is doing its best to do something experimental by centering the gameplay around the titular weapon. Your Gunbrella (specifically a Gunbrella Mk.-II, as you later learn) is good for more than just shooting things, although it is definitely good for that. The game lets you move with WASD, jump with space, and aim with the mouse, so it’s a twin-stick control scheme. Clicking fires a round from your Gunbrella, which by default is a shotgun round with infinite ammo but can be cycled to other ammunition like rifle bullets, grenades, and so forth.

But that’s just the “gun” part. The umbrella is deployed by hitting the right mouse button, and it has its own unique properties. For starters, the parasol deflects any projectiles that come into contact with it, and if you precisely time your press the bullets will actually be reflected back at their source. (Good for taking out stationary turrets, that.) Opening the umbrella while pressing a direction also lets you dash in that direction, including upward. While the umbrella is open and you’re in the air, you’ll float down slowly to boot.

Combine that with a gentle wall-grab mechanism and you’ve got a surprising range of mobility straight off. The game could get too easy by letting you get too many places too quickly, of course, but instead it keeps a sharp balance of gameplay. For example, players always have to be cognizant of the fact that they start with just four pips of life. Sure, most early enemies just take one shot to dispatch… but they’re shotgun attacks so they have short range, and they can fire quickly. There’s an emphasis on moving with precision and taking out your enemies quickly before they can hit you.

Each room has almost a puzzle feel to it, that you have to figure out how to take it on with limited supplies and abilities. And sure, you can power up and get more durable, you can use food items for extra vitality when you need it… but at the end of the day this is still a very active kind of gameplay. Once you get used to the gunbrella itself, the way you dash, climb, and move with it starts feeling remarkably fun. It’s a game wherein even from the start I was eager to see how my movement could be improved and how to use that movement for mastery in each smaller screen. That alone is a lot of fun.

Let A Smile Be Your Gunbrella

All of this is helped immensely by the fact that the game has some of the most on-point sound design I’ve heard in years. Every single sound, from footsteps to reloading to shooting, is just a perfect little noise that creates an impressive sonic foundation. Rain drizzles and pours, boots thud and your gunbrella opens with a sharp snap of hardware each time you need it. This is enhanced further by the non-voice-acted lines that just preface each line with a bit of gibberish; the tone and character of the different voice noises is memorable by itself.

The game is also a visual treat, covered in bespoke pixel assets where it’s hard to tell all the bits that are tiled and always communicate where you can go at any given moment without becoming overloaded. The game never had to tell me when a wall was solid or not, which floors I could fall through or not, and so forth; it’s always clear from structure and design, making the whole process of moving and shooting feel intuitive even as the designs are marvelously complex and intricate.

And the soundtrack can hardly be discounted. I didn’t find most of the tracks to be stand-out music, but it’s brilliantly and perfectly ambient and makes the world just feel right. As you walk through dingy corridors and moldering regions, the music feels right just like every sound feels right. It’s all just a complete, ideal package in that regard.

Yellow Beach Gunbrella

The weakest part of Gunbrella is almost definitely the plot and the simple fact that it’s kind of a wisp of a thing; the game won’t take you long to complete, but at $15 it’s not exactly selling you on a multi-hour RPG anyway. Heck, this year has had plenty of amazing, lengthy experiences that reward every moment you spend with them; sometimes it’s nice to just have something that’s a quick, confident, fun romp of jumping, dashing, and shooting.

If you like your graphics pixel-perfect, your scenery bloody, and your gunplay fast and tactile, you’ll have a blast with Gunbrella. It is a game about a gun which is also an umbrella.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

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