There’s something so lovably indulgent to the way you go about moving your character in the world of Gunbrella. With no intention at offering a slight at Doinksoft’s work across the breadth of their latest offering, it wasn’t long into a recent sampling of the game’s first half that I instinctively decided on moving about its tinted “noir” world in a somewhat-erratic zig-zagging motion. Diagonally-up on the controls, to then thrust diagonally back downward just as swiftly. Zig-zag, zig-zag; an occasional requiring me to battle a nuisance foe, tackle a perilous platforming or just talk to one of the local residents. But mostly it’s zig-zags all the way. All the way to the cut-off point where one’s words here aren’t permitted and the point to which I can gladly claim that those prior bursts of satisfaction last year have well and truly continued into what one assumes is the final build (or at least close to such) of the game.
But this [unhealthy] fascination on a solitary application for one’s movement is part of the wider point here. Gunbrella revels in these smaller details. Details that may well come and go without a care or a mere glance from most people, but nonetheless is well appreciated. Doubly so for the dense pixel art, small-picture conversations between NPCs serving as novel spots of world-building. Even the soundtrack; expectant it might seem to have a game — one centering on a suspicious cult conducting equally-suspect deeds — focus on more foreboding tones, incorporating surprisingly-effective use of deep bass and cavernous percussion instrumentation. The kind of sounds that immediately conjured fond memories of burying one’s self in the newest wave of industrial and ambient-aligned electronic music surfacing in the early-2010s.
These comparisons might wind up being too personal, yet for all its focus on the weapons-based combat coupled with one’s swift, aerial maneuverability, Gunbrella‘s best moments are when the fighting has temporarily ceased. Not to say that the combat here is flawed, or some lesser component — far from — but it’s hard not to consider the additional work Doinksoft have dedicated to crafting their world of citizens, passers-by and occasional odd-balls you meet and sometimes see again. It’s these parts — those the game may not deem all that important or vital to one’s progression — I wind up gravitating toward.
The two NPCs encountered during one’s prior preview — the squabbling pair whose conversation didn’t really go anywhere? They pop up again and their insistence on arguing over nothing is still appreciated. And then there’s the case of a family of three, whom join you on your trek up a mountainous path. Given the gruesomely-bloody attire of the plot — and the unhinged delight in showing such violence in all its pulp — I was almost expecting Gunbrella to deem it necessary (natural even) to dish out some black comedy-esque shenanigans on this mother/father/child combo. I’ll neither confirm nor deny this takes place, though (in what’s becoming a common trend to Doinksoft’s stylings here) the surprise at what’s to be found in their conversations made this minor investment worth it. To then go about my quest with that exact same thought: “…would be nice to see them pop up later in the game.”
Four paragraphs in and I’ve barely registered the main combat loop, huh? An almost Quake-like one-on-one dance with one’s foe — as if both are you keen to slay the opponent with direct or AoE blasts alike, but are so afraid of being left vulnerable (in your case, due to the default single-slug shotgun) that more often than not, encounters devolve — or should that be evolve — into desperate, erratic strafes upwards and sideways alike. But much like a fellow Devolver Digital-published brethren in Boomerang X, this risk of directionless, random absurdity very much plays into the peril and the risk that is at the heart of Gunbrella‘s genuine challenge.
That peril only elevates further when it comes to what one could consider the main boss fights of Gunbrella. Less a case that this is some pre-programmed series of patterns to recognize and windows to time correctly and more so a repeated instance (because beware, you’ll die plenty of times getting familiar with just how chaotic these encounters can get) on simply staying survival. But that blurring the line, the indistinguishable nature of Gunbrella‘s main set-pieces — between what one must avoid and what simply survive through — only adds to the inevitable elation of victory. Even with a boss’ health-bar being slowly chipped away, Gunbrella rarely falters on its high-risk approach to combat. Combat you must thrust yourself into in order to succeed, but in doing so comes with a hefty cost if one isn’t careful. So few hearts and fewer still resources to recover lost health — in theory, Doinksoft’s demands should feel too much, too soon. But again, it’s those small details — the chaotic, unruly, hard-to-properly-track details in what enemies are in fact doing — that make these encounters work. Frustratingly increasing total of deaths or not.
Call it a natural evolution for a developer moving onto their next project. Or maybe it’s just an insistence to break from out the perceptions created by their prior release, but where Gato Roboto utilized its singular, unifying and perhaps unconventional black-and-white aesthetic in applying it to a well-worn genre, with Gunbrella the team at Doinksoft appear to have inverted those former standards. Crafting a game full of well-worn and familiar traits visual and mechanical alike, but whose more compelling moments are those that aren’t so unifying or front-and-center. Those you may well have to stick around for to spot. A smidgen of some sprite work, or few lines of dialogue, or just how manic one solitary combat encounter can get. You’ve heard of the saying “death by a thousand cuts.” Gunbrella might well wind up that idiom’s antithesis: a lively game populated by a plentiful number of small but satisfying details.