A snake ate and shat me into a room full of enemies: I haven’t had a new level start as inglorious as this since I last played Nidhogg. GoNNER [Official Site] is Art in Heart’s first project, a sequel of sorts to developer Ditto’s pay-what-you-want Hets, available on itch.io, and it’s got style. This is a platformer that’ll have you running through procedurally-generated levels while gunning your enemies down and doing your best not to, literally, lose your head, all of this while trying to never stand still for more than a second.
There’s not much in terms of story – some blurb on the storefront tells me that you play as Ikk, a (semi-)headless critter that ventures into deep and dark places in search for a trinket for his friend, Sally the landbound space whale. Characters don’t talk and Ikk’s interactions are limited to emojis – smiles, flat faces, hearts – a whimsical feature that contributes to the game’s atmosphere, with the characters and the scenes reminding me of Adventure Time or other cartoons of the sort.
In terms of gameplay, GoNNER approaches itself to a roguelike, keeping only a handful of permanent elements you can then draw from whenever you start a new run. Before you start you can equip Ikk with three items: a head, which grants him a passive ability; a backpack, which grants him an active ability; and your weapon, which has different fire modes and damage according to the gun chosen. You unlock more of these as you play the game, but unlike other roguelikes where you can stack items or gain some benefit from having multiples of them, in GoNNER you can only equip as many items as your initial loadout – effectively, this means that you’ll be as strong at the start of a run as you are at its end, and whatever you find during a run is more likely to change Ikk, not improve him. Another consequence of this was that outside from when I first discovered something and decided to give it a spin, a preferred loadout did eventually consolidate itself, as I started favoring having a second double-jump over being harder to kill, or a gun that deals a small amount of damage to everything in a straight line instead of the hard-hitting shotgun.
While I’ve seen parallels drawn between GoNNER and The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky, the game that I was most reminded of – both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay – was Downwell. GoNNER actively encourages you to take a faster playstyle, trying to chain as many kills in a short period of time as possible, by offering increasing rewards if you’re able to keep a combo up. While there are secret areas you can reach by completing certain tasks, such as eliminating all foes on a certain level, the game doesn’t punish playing quickly: items don’t stack and the currency you do get is increased if you are trying to get chains, which meant that I never felt like I was missing out on things if instead of meticulously scouring each level I went in guns blazing.
The brisk pace doesn’t limit itself to the gunplay, either. As a roguelike in which you’ll die multiple times, being able to get back into the fray with little to no downtime is crucial to not dropping your experience’s momentum – and GoNNER has that down to a science. If you’ve gathered enough of the game’s currency you can start over from where you are, with all your starting equipment and a fresh batch of ammo and health; otherwise, you can just as quickly pop into the first level and start anew. Likewise, when Ikk is hit he drops everything equipped and turns into a plodding blob that the enemies won’t, at least for a few seconds, attack: you can then quickly gather your belongings and try getting back on your feet, as a headless Ikk dies in one hit, a solution that integrates itself into the game’s mechanics and dodges the artificiality of checkpoints.
Those are mostly the objective aspects of the gameplay, but GoNNER has other elements that just make it feel right. While they’re both very different, I couldn’t help but remind myself of Nuclear Throne while I shot enemies down: Art in Heart doesn’t spare in recoil, kickback and screenshake, and the sum of these factors makes the game more mobile and fluid than static. Add to this the fact that every asset in the game – the ground you walk on, the enemies, Ikk and even the snake that eats and shits you – has a small, constant vibration, and you have a game that seems to be constantly on the move.
If the aesthetics part of the game as a whole was very well done, what really tied the game’s mood and whimsical nature together was the soundtrack. This is one of those games where I associate the different zones and levels more on a basis of what song is playing than the actual visual or enemy variations. Its humorous, synthetic tunes walk hand in hand with the cartoonish look of the game and the wibbly-wobbly feel running around has.
All that said, one thing that’s important to keep in mind when considering whether GoNNER is a game you’d enjoy or not is its difficulty. The first zone is deceptively easy, with relatively straight-forward enemies and no pitfalls, but as early as the second zone you will be facing turrets, explosive enemies that push you back and, what has a synergy with this in the worst possible manner, pitfalls which you can drop into and instantly die. It has the same brand of difficulty as the aforementioned games – The Binding of Isaac, Downwell, Spelunky and Nuclear Throne – without relying on the luck of the draw in terms of items or currency found.
The difficulty curve can be a bit punishing, and I think the rate it changes could’ve benefited from a more gradual slope instead of its current one, but it still keeps that typical roguelike feeling of getting further and further each game as merit of your skill, and not time invested or items accrued. The elements that make it a good game are all visibly there, but it’s that something extra – the right amount of kickback, the lack of downtime, the fitting aesthetics, the weight each weapon has when you fire them, the plodding character that’s still capable of acrobatic feats, and god knows what else that I, as mere player, could not identify – that coalesces to make GoNNER one of my favorite action games of recent times.