Enter the Gungeon: does it scratch that Binding of Isaac itch?

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As you may have worked out if you read the story in which I took a look at Enter the Gungeon, I’m quite a fan of roguelike/roguelite games. My Damascene moment was probably when the original version of The Binding of Isaac came out in 2011.

I consider that game alone a hobby, I even wrote a feature-length story on it. Because of this, Enter the Gungeon was going to have to work hard to win my affection. Did it succeed?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes, with a few caveats.

Even longer answer: keep reading.

Let’s get the comparisons out of the way, because Gungeon does crib from Isaac. Both games are twinstick-shooters-cum-procedurally-generated-dungeon-crawler. Where Gungeon uses the mouse to aim your shots, Isaac uses your arrow keys (at least on the PC versions of the games). While the twinstick shooter genre is about as varied as can be, these two games end feeling very similar to one another once you get shooting and dodging.

And dodging, or in gungeon’s case dodge rolling, is the first way Gungeon carves out its own stake in the gaming scene. While succeeding in both games rely heavily on careful character positioning, there’s a lot more bullet hell to put up with in the Gungeon. Whether dodge rolling was added to compensate for this or because “Dodge Roll Games” is the name of the company, it’s there and it adds a great deal to the gameplay.

But even that isn’t enough to keep you safe, so there’s two other ways to keep your character looking like Swiss cheese in the form of tables and blanks. Tables can be flipped to provide temporary cover where as blanks are a limited resource that stun enemies and clear all the projectiles on screen. The tables are a fickle mistress, however, as stopping to take cover usually means you get swarmed by enemies and moving out of it becomes an impossible gauntlet. It’s a strange paradox where taking cover results in taking damage.That being said, the feeling of putting a table in front of you in the split second before a bullet hits is just so satisfying.

While they can be used to actively damage enemies with upgrades, it’s mainly for defense. Blanks are more of a twitch-response item that is best used when a bullet is a single pixel away from taking away your last half heart. It can also be used to open secret rooms, which makes them more akin to Isaac’s bombs.

So that’s movement taken care of, but as Isaac has proven the real fun comes from the pickups. Another page Gungeon borrows from that venerable series is the fact that what you pick up completely changes how you play and the difficulty therein. Here, however, the focus is rightly on guns. While we do love the variety of silliness here (this game gave us the opportunity to defeat a living bullet with a pillow case), the RNG can really screw you over.

You could pick up the glacier gun which stuns enemies, destroys bullets and makes the difficult boss battles a (cold) breeze, or you could pick up a literal water pistol. Not only do these huge shifts irritate with randomness (which could be fixed with RNG or balance patches), where it really falls down is in synergies.

“Synergies” are a fan term in the Binding of Isaac community used to describe two or more pickups working in tandem. The famous items in the blood laser Brimstone becomes much cooler with Tiny Planet which causes your character to become a whirlpool of death. That’s just one of the hundreds (or thousands) of ways the items in the game work together, and they’ve been expanded upon and made better as the game has been improved.

Gungeon doesn’t have many of these, and those that are present are few and far between. While picking up the Scope item (which decreases bullet spread) is great for use with shotguns, it’s just a statistical improvement that doesn’t pack the punch or excitement of a proper synergy.

This, for most Isaac players would be the death knell for Enter The Gungeon, but I don’t think it is. Where it falls down in items this game more than makes up for it with even the combat with stock standard weapons being fun and frantic. And those fancy visual effects in Isaac are not missed thanks to the brilliant animations and art design on offer.

But, the biggest problem, and the reason many people may stick with their old friend Isaac at the moment, is a lack of variety. Taking a look around the Enter the Gungeon. While the amount of guns, items and enemies may be quite high, it just can’t compete with a game that has been continuously updated for five years now. Throw in the fact that you’ll be replaying the first couple of levels so many times it will start feeling samey, and you may be quitting and firing up that older game.

But, and this is a big but, that can change. At the time of writing Enter the Gungeon has been available to buy for less than two days.

So, that brings us right back around to the question: does it scratch the itch The Binding of Isaac is so adept at scratching. We’ve already told you yes, but it only does that scratching in the same way the original game did back in 2011. While Enter the Gungeon trumps Isaac in visuals, it just can’t compete with the variety and content, not yet anyway.

Regardless of your decision to buy the game now and play new content as it may come, or simply wait to take the plunge when/if that happens, I still think it’s a fun game which is definitely worth your time and money right now.

Clinton Matos

Clinton Matos

Clinton has been a programmer, engineering student, project manager, asset controller and even a farrier. Now he handles the maker side of htxt.africa.