This Saturday was awful.
Here I am, October a month away, and I’m trying to write all of these horror pieces, but then I hear about how good Bad North is. Then I hear about Nefarious being worse than finding out your mother knew a relative of Hitler. Then I start playing today’s subject, and you know what? In the eyes of those horror drafts, you could say I was a GoNNER. BOO– Everyone’s already made the joke, I’m not proud of that.
This is the debut commercial title from one Art In Heart, who I believe are a Swedish studio helmed by one “Ditto”. Together with two other people, Ditto and his band of ragtag lads have made several small titles on itch.io, a lot of them painting the picture of what GoNNER would eventually become. KRYP, DAGDORM, hets; They are the path leading up to today’s title, and what a nice path, y’know?
You play as Ikk, a small little guy with a handful of friends in this world. There’s a landbound whale named Sally, and some bloke named Death, who seems like a killer mate. Ikk has made it his goal in life to appease Sally, which is something easier said than done, because everything hostile in the world hates Sally. It’s down to Ikk, and by extension you, to take care of the baddies and find a trinket that’ll make Sally happy.
Gameplay’s your usual platformer roguelike deal, as Ikk can run, double jump, and use a bit of gravity know-how to dispose of enemies. Even though blasting your enemies away with a variety of weapons is the main combat, ammo can drain quickly, along with ammo pickups being common but unavailable due to the density of enemies. Thankfully, Ikk can recreate his favourite moments from a Mario game and jump on top of enemies if the ammo runs dry.
Strapped onto this gameplay is a fat handful of weapons, helmets and backpacks that you can use to utilize your character for whatever playstyle you choose. You can have a laser rifle with a triple jump, a machine gun that shoots an entire clip out, or a shotgun that you can reload, etc. Beyond the ton of combinations you can experiment with when it comes to the weapons and cosmetics, the general gameplay is where it all clicks.
The gameplay is truly something special, we’re talking some Grade-A brilliance here. It’s both a frantic mish-mash of arena spectacle and fury, yet it can also be methodical, precise, and meticulous. A lot of the level design takes into account the chance of something “impossible” happening, and by “impossible”, I mean a sudden difficulty spike that doesn’t match the rest of the levels.
GoNNER is also one of those rare titles that can achieve difficulty without being obviously overwhelming. The controls are watertight, the fights aren’t endless bullet sponges and gimmicky, and everything’s a quick little challenge that doesn’t want you to spend more time on it than you need to. It’s nice to see a game choose to be a game first, not add pretenses or any other pan-handling bullshit.
The different worlds all have different gimmicks that revolve around different parts of the controls. The cave world/first area is just a general tutorial area, one where you can stretch your legs and dispose of the enemies blocking the way as you see fit. After the finicky boss fight, you jump out into the presence of your only friend, as a soothing slow synth track punctuates just why you’re doing this. It’s a genuine highlight, as you and Sally just sort of look at each other and smile. S’cute.
The world beyond that is where you can truly hone your jumping-on-shit skills. This is where the biggest sense of accomplishment comes, where you just glide through the air and eliminate everything in your path with the combo meter just racking up and up and up. That or you can just take the bottom path and eliminate any chance of being damaged, like a big baby with a frilly dress; your call.
Visually, the game isn’t a monument of art design. It’s maintaining this minimalist tribalism and cave drawing style, reminiscent of games like Frost, Wuppo and Ink, but it’s a nice mix between the three. It definitely helps with conveying a mood or message, especially with moments of tenderness and reflection, which is also boosted by the music, which is… mmm.
The music for this game also keeps the same feel as the art design; plinky-plonky beats and mildly industrial instrumentals. What’s really interesting is that the music ties into the gameplay, in that the better your combo is, the faster the track gets. It’s a really neat mechanic that increases both tension and mood, and it works perfectly.
If there’s one failing point I have with GoNNER, it’s the context and narrative. Don’t get me wrong, those moments with Sally are sweet, when I give her the bouncy ball and she smiles with Ikk, they make me smile and pump the tar off my heart, but there’s no enough of it. It isn’t a case of “roguelikes sacrificing story” either, it simply feels like the progression is disjointed and off. I just wanna see Sally smile, man.
In terms of context within gameplay, a lot of the backpack upgrades either don’t do anything, or nothing incredibly apparent. One of them reload your gun sometimes, another one sprays out an entire clip sometimes, and even when I know the next time to use it is ready, it still won’t work. I dunno, it’s just weird to try and figure out a consistent pattern.
There’s really not much that GoNNER gets wrong, but there’s so little in the game that there’s not much to get wrong in the first place. Its biggest fault is its art style, where it’s a lot like Ink, with this unbelievably minimalistic art style that can only carry you so far, and despite GoNNER tying to be better, its victory over Ink only goes so far. Aside from the aforementioned difficulty understanding the backpacks, that’s that.
In the end, there’s not much to say about GoNNER, but it’s still worth your time. It’s a brilliant roguelike, and one of the few that define the phrase “Hard, but fair”. Strap some fantastic music onto that, along with an understated, if tiresome art style, and you have a wondrous achievement from Raw Fury and Art in Heart. Stellar stuff, lads.
This review of GoNNER is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A great gateway title for roguelikes, and a great game on its own rights.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.