‘Gunpoint’ Review – An Unrivaled Experience
Even though I immensely enjoy action platformers, puzzle platformers tend to deter me. As much praise as Braid received over the years, it remains on my list of shame, largely due to the fact that I know it features brain-bending puzzles that frankly, I’m just not interested in solving. The simple physics-based puzzles in the Trine series or the whimsical puzzles found in Incredipede, —where failing often results in hilarity— are about as close to the border of puzzle platformer as I want to get.
At first glance, Gunpoint looks incredibly puzzle-heavy: getting from Point A to Point B and escaping to Point C often involves rewiring electrical currents, syncing light switches to trigger guns, hacking motion detectors to turn off the lights when activated, —the list goes on. However, much like the protagonist sleuth himself, the puzzle elements blend into the gameplay so well that I hardly realized they were there as I played through the game.
Led by Tom Francis, development team, Suspicious Developments, spent the past few years developing Gunpoint. On the Suspicious Developments website, Francis came up with a manifesto where Francis listed ten goals that he strived to make a reality in Gunpoint (and future titles). Francis and his team have hit them all on the mark with Gunpoint. Perhaps the most prominent goals that Francis set are number five and six: “I want to make games that are fun to learn” and “I want to make games that feel good but still use your brain”. Gunpoint excels at both.
It all begins with a murder. Before I even realized what I was looking at, a gun went off and a body fell unceremoniously out of a window and to the ground below -thud- thus beginning my career as a spy. Straightaway it is evident that Gunpoint’s simplistic user-interface is the Yin to the game’s rather complex mechanical Yang. There is no excess in Gunpoint, everything is streamlined and clearly presented; everything has a purpose and nothing is a waste of time. The pre-mission context is held in a tight text message conversation which serves as a light narrative that string together the levels. The chats can be skipped altogether, though you’ll certainly miss out on some great dry humor by doing so.
Gunpoint tip-toes along the fine line that runs between blatantly holding the player’s hand and dropping them into new situations with no instruction whatsoever, —glaring at you Starseed Pilgrim. There is no tutorial level, but that is because Suspicious Developments did such a great job at constructing the levels in a way that force players to practice with new gadgets without telling them to. When a gadget is purchased (using the money you earn from missions) a simple, single-sentence tip pops up, and that’s all the tutorial there is. With that said, I was still learning things up through the last of the game’s twenty levels. Just as the game ended, I finally started feeling like I was getting good.
While I just started feeling like a professional spy as the game concluded, Gunpoint never punished me for fumbling around the earlier levels like Mr. Magoo. If players are killed, Gunpoint gives them the option to respawn at various intervals mere seconds back in time.
Say I trigger an elevator door to make the guard look at it and away from the window that I plan to jump through. Everything is going to plan until, whoops, forgot to activate the gadget that allows me to muffle a window break. The guard turns, sees me still sliding through the shattered glass, and without a second thought, puts a bullet in my belly. A menu then pops up with the option to respawn 5, 15, or 20 seconds prior. I respawn 5 seconds back, fix my error, and successfully infiltrate the building.
Gunpoint’s soundtrack (composed by Ryan Ike, John Robert Matz, and Francisco Cerda) is absolutely standout. Noir games are few and far between, and Gunpoint takes full advantage of that fact by engaging players with an urbane collection of tracks. In the commentary that comes included with the Special Edition of Gunpoint, composer Ryan Ike talks about his influences for Gunpoint’s soundtrack, specifically the “Five Floor Goodbye” which is named for the act of killing someone as seen in the opening scene of the game. Gunpoint’s music is catchy, slick, sexy, and has just the right amount of the genre’s iconic inauspiciousness to perfectly set the tone of the story.
There are only three types of enemies in Gunpoint: guards, armored guards, and agents. I never really noticed a difference between them since they all could be incapacitated with a leap-pounce attack and a few judo-slaps to the face. Even though Gunpoint is a one-shot, one-kill, game…avoiding the guards was pretty easy thanks to the protagonist’s ability to cling to walls and monkey-bar across ceilings. Upgrading the spring power of the pounce-attack enabled me to knock guards out of windows for easy kills…which I found strangely enjoyable.
While Gunpoint is a fairly short game, (I clocked in about two hours from start to finish), the fact that I felt I was just getting good at the end makes me want to go back and play through the levels again. The Special Edition comes with a commentary track that places Tom Francis and other members of the Suspicious Development team within the levels as interactive avatars. Walking up to one of these avatars and interacting with them triggers a short audio track relevant to that level. The amount of insight I gained from these bits of commentary was very impressive and made me appreciate little things that I would have otherwise never noticed (like the pre-mission text conversations actually impact the game). The commentary only comes with the special edition, which is double the price of the base game, but also comes with Gunpoint’s lovely soundtrack, which alone is easily worth the price difference.
A level editor comes with Gunpoint, and it was neat to see how the parts of the levels break down to pieces that players can then reassemble to create their own office settings. However, once assembled, there is nothing to do with the level apart from playing through it on your own. There is no option to share levels “with the cloud” or any other fancy business like that. I looked over the official website and the only mention of level sharing I could find was, “All editions come with the level editor. The levels it makes are saved as simple text files so they’re easy to share.” So if that helps you figure out what to do with your saved levels, good, I’m glad. If you’re still lost…you’re not alone. Considering that little bit of research is more than most people would do, the level editor will probably be useless for most players. I even checked Steam’s Workshop feature, hoping that maybe there would be a shadowy corner for Gunpoint player-made maps, but there was nothing.
Gunpoint, from start to finish, was a persistent challenge, but never felt like a chore. The simplistic visuals and interface layout made what could have been an overly complex experience, an incredibly fun one. The soundtrack and the humor blend seamlessly into the gameplay, resulting in a final product that will remain in the back of my mind for months to come. Gunpoint is a near-perfect example of what a 2D stealth platformer should be, only falling short on extracurricular material that would have served to reinforce an already solid experience.