“There is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.”
-Dante Alighieri, Inferno
So I guess it turns out that marketing isn’t always about deception. GoNNER, an indie game by developer Art in Heart and published Raw Fury, has been pitched to the player as a “tough as hell” roguelike platformer. Eternal damnation must be quite the challenge because this game is as difficult as roguelikes get, and anyone familiar with them can testify that they are indeed tough. But more on that later. As steep as GoNNER’s difficulty is, it’s not even the most significant feature of the game.
GoNNER is an ethereal game of colors and darkness without dialogue to guide you through its strange worlds. The game puts you in the shoes of some kind of amorphous being that falls like a droplet from the skies. This blob is named Ikk (as identified in material outside of the game). Ikk defines itself by putting on masks or heads, resembling various skulls.
Ikk befriends a floating spectral whale one night, a creature named Sally. Taking up arms, Ikk ventures into bizarre realms to fight monsters and ghosts, though the exact nature of his excursion is open to wild interpretation. And trust me, I’ve taken some time to try to discover what this game is all about but without much success. There are rampant “fan theories” and little else.
While some players have attempted to describe Ikk as an offspring of Sally or as a creature of the stars, an alien, or define the game as circular, this can’t be taken past conjecture so far as I’ve seen. It’s at least clear that death is a central theme in the game, especially considering its title and the appearances of the characters. The official description of GoNNER explains that the game centers around “the largely misunderstood and altruistic Ikk on a journey to cheer up his only friend in this world—a giant landbound whale named Sally—by searching for just the right trinket in the deep and dark places nearby.”
…But I didn’t really see that, even after making it through the game. It’s somewhat poignant in its mystery and imagery, though its dedication to abstruse storytelling may prevent some from engaging with it or from it being memorable in this area. A lot of it seems like an inside joke I never got let in on. The presence of the Victrola, the floating whale skeleton, the final scene certainly all baffled me.
Onto the structure of the game, something concrete.
Starting a new game will take you directly through the intro where Ikk meets Sally, and then directly into the gameplay with a basic setup of a machine-gun weapon, a backpack that lets you carry extra ammo, and a basic skull accessory that gives you a moderate amount of hit points. If and when you die, you can go backward to rearm yourself with different weapons and accessories you might’ve picked up during your dungeon crawling. You’ll also have the opportunity to swap out your head if you’ve discovered any others by getting them from a figure which appears to represent death.
These different pieces of equipment and collecting them help make GoNNER interesting. Different weapons have varied rates of fire and firepower. Different heads grant different amounts of hit points and allow you access unusual maneuvers or abilities such as improved gun strength or acrobatic flips. Different accessories worn on the back grant additional capabilities, as well, such as stopping time momentarily or dramatically increasing your jump. Finding the right balance for your favored style of play will involve scouring the depths to collect parts and pieces of equipment, and then combining these in an assortment that fits you.
I personally went with the chase-laser gun, the basic backpack for ammo reserves, and the teddy bear head for the extra mobility and extra jump.
There are four areas in GoNNER: a cavern, a robot world, a pit, and the land of the dead. Each of these four areas feature several stages, secret areas, secret armaments, shops, and bosses that must be beaten in order to advance. At the end of each stage, a worm awaits that will take you to the next stage. Each of the random layouts of the procedurally generated stages are filled to the brim with enemies that must be killed in quick succession to maintain your combo meter.
The combo meter is what really gives GoNNER its sense of frantic pace and adrenaline. It’s one thing to play it safe, hang back, and pick off enemies slowly from a distance. It’s another thing entirely when you’re given incentive to race through the stages at breakneck speeds, blasting away indiscriminately in order to keep that combo meter happy. But why maintain a combo meter at all?
Because of the little purple glyphs that represent an in-game currency-slash-continues system, and also because you’re going to get the highest score possible by bumping up those combos. And also because it’s awesome. Normally one glyph will drop for every 5 enemies killed in succession, but this increases at higher combo levels.
The glyphs can in turn be used to purchase armaments from ghostly vendors who appear before the boss at the end of each of the four areas. If you want to collect everything in the game, then you’ll have to drop cash on these at least once to do so, though they can also be helpful if you want to swap out your head or weapon in preparation for an encounter that requires a different approach.
The combo meter builds with each enemy kill in quick succession.
You won’t want to spend all your glyphs during every run through GoNNER’s random stages, though, because your collection of glyphs also represents your continues. When you die, you spend a certain amount of glyphs in order to avoid a game over. The number of glyphs required to earn a continue goes up as you progress through the game, up to your maximum of 24 glyphs that you can carry!
There’s a neat little balance here: you can either spend your glyphs on gear customization and little perks, or you can reserve them for a guaranteed continue. Your confidence level will determine what you do. Either way, you’re going to want to earn as many as you can and that’s why combos and rushing headlong in order to maintain them are so important.
GoNNER is partly haunting and partly addicting, or if you’re not into roguelikes then it may just be mostly off-putting. There’s a knife’s edge under its emo/cute exterior that doesn’t play around. I actually really like when developers do this, masking brutal gameplay under a “kiddie” guise.
The 8-bit Review
The first time I saw this game was during Nintendo’s “Nindies” Showcase video presented early this year, but the game had already been released October 2016 on Steam. Still, because it was my first time seeing it, I knew it was one of the games I wanted on my upcoming Switch. From the very beginning of the Switch’s reveal, I talked with my friends about how great of a platform it could be if it embraced indies. Turns out Nintendo did and turns out it is verifiably awesome.
What caught my eye about GoNNER was its unusual visual style. It looks chalky with its pastel colors, no true blacks, shades of red and purple and blue. It at once looks both vicious and adorable. I was really enchanted by the way that a sense of light and darkness was hinted at in the way the room lit up and revealed itself around your character as you progressed. I thought that made the random level layouts doubly interesting and the constant jittery tweaking of the walls and floors, which become more energetic as your combo meter raises, makes the game feel alive.
It’s a title which gives only impressions of things: floating blobs of color could be rising smoke. Everything seems to glisten and glow but it’s because the colors pop on the backdrop. The heavy contrast of colors is riveting and it helps keep the simplistic graphics from melding together. However, since they are so simple, there were plenty of times playing the game when I didn’t see an enemy because there was so much red on the screen. Even with the trimmed down details, things can become visually hectic quickly.
There’s not much “normal” about GoNNER, so it really shouldn’t be out of place but the soundtrack is weird. At times it’s some kind of urban hip hop or house or funk or reggae or an acid trip… I don’t know. It’s actually quite hard to nail down what exactly is going on musically in GoNNER. This is not a soundtrack the likes of which I’ve heard before. I guess that makes it hipster (which would explain a lot about this game).
The big surprise is that somehow this hodge-podge of a soundtrack actually works. A lot of it is catchy and even the ambient, dissonant portions of it aren’t revolting to the ears. That’s not some kind of backhanded praise. I mean that GoNNER’s OST isn’t overly distracting. It’s toe-tapping and as charming as anything else you can find in its randomness. “Janky” gets only halfway there in describing it.
As mentioned, the visuals reach an energetic flux when your combo meter rises, like molecules stirred into a kinetic frenzy with the application of heat. This cues you in to how big your combo is getting, since there’s no actual number you can consult for how many kills you’ve strung together. Once the screen looks like it’s about to explode with all that energy, then things freak out.
If you can reach 25 kills in a row, you’ll enter Combo God Mode. The game hits slow motion and the colors begin to shift and change on a neon palette. Your attacks get stronger but some enemies spawn in more powerful forms. Every time you kill another foe, the colors morph yet again. It’s disorienting and beautiful. After that, at 50 enemy kills in succession, you’ll enter Combo Infinity Mode. The colors fade away, leaving you with a bleached black and white game. Honestly, I have only reached this combo level twice and I wasn’t able to hang out in it much or make too many observations, so who knows what else goes down in Infinity Mode?
So keep up those combos and don’t forget that you can jump on enemies to kill them, just like Mario.
Next, I’m going to list and explain all of the different heads, weapons and gear so if you don’t want to have any of those surprises and experiments potentially spoiled for you than Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip to the next section.
Each head has a different amount of hearts associated with it which represents Ikk’s HP. (From bottom right to upper left) The basic skull head has five hearts but no additional perks. It may be basic but having that many hits can come in handy and I used it now and then if I found myself dying too often. The block head only has three hearts but it will prevent you from dropping your gear after being hit. The bug head lets you glide after a double jump, which isn’t helpful at all since some weapons let you glide. The teddy bear head lets you triple jump and turn in mid-air, which is helpful for aiming weapons that shoot straight forward up at the ceiling. The gun head is literally a gun and a head at the same time, which sounds awesome except the infinite head-ammo is a trade off for having only one heart. The fire head is for daredevils. It makes enemies explode when killed, which can actually kill you if you’re not careful. The pyramid head (step aside, Silent Hill) reduces the cool down time of your back-mounted gear. And finally, the legendary poop head turns the screen brown. And that’s it. No other perks. Oh, and it has zero hearts, so one hit and you’re mud.
(From left to right) The basic backpack stores ammo as previously mentioned, which is great for focusing on building up combos rather than having to stop to pick up reloads. The shark fin gives you a momentary rapid fire burst that doesn’t consume any ammo. The mini-robot throws up a circle of explosions around your character, which can be helpful if you’re surrounded but the blasts can also hurt you. The ball gives you an additional jump. The “god box” gives you invulnerability for 4 seconds, but you won’t be able to fire any weapons while invincible. The pause-pack temporarily stops all enemies from moving. Each of these has a short cool down after being used. Finally, the cross will save you once from death or damage you if used before that.
As for weapons, most of them are fairly straight forward. I thought that the heads and backpacks were interesting but most of the guns feel somewhat ordinary and even interchangeable. The machine-gun is a basic weapon with 20 rounds. The shotgun only holds 7 shells and it’s short range… and it has some tremendous recoil… but it is a freakin’ shotgun after all and it puts out some great damage in clusters. The laser gun fires quick, long-range blasts that will pierce through multiple enemies. The chase-laser gun (my fav) slows your movement down and even lets you glide while you hold down the fire button to lengthen the laser, which will snake from enemy to enemy for quite a distance. This makes it easier to reach enemies that aren’t directly in front of you and it makes racking up high combos and high scores much easier. The scythe is a close-range melee weapon for cutting down your foes without stopping.
Weapons, gear, heads, and accessories can be purchased from vendors.
Video games can be played without dialogue and without tutorials but when there are pieces of gear with specific functions, games like these can become perplexing. Not every armament had an obvious use to me playing through most of the game, and it wasn’t until I looked up what they did online that I had an “ohhhh” resound through my gray matter.
You’ll want to test out new pieces of gear but you can’t always do that unless there are enemies around, and when they are you can get crowded and killed fairly easily. The fortunate thing is you’ll be playing through these stages again and again and again since it’s so easy to die, giving you plenty of time to experiment under pressure! That doesn’t negate the fact that the game deliberately lacks clarity, though.
GoNNER is hard because it forces you to think on your feet at all times. Should you spend your glyphs or save them? Should you throw yourself in harm’s way to keep up that combo or should you play it safe and risking dropping it? Should you hang back to pick up more ammo and glyphs that drop or should you keep going for the sake of that combo meter? And what armaments should you take with you anyway? It’s tough to answer these questions because the stages are procedurally generated. You never know exactly what to expect. Some of the random stages will be crowded with enemies placed rather unfairly, while they’ll be a breeze at other times.
I found this especially true with the second area in the game, the robot world. Screw that place. I thought it was just as hard as the fourth area, much harder than the first and third areas. That’s because of those dang-blasted turret enemies which shoot at you from a distance with remarkable aim. When there are more than a handful of them on screen at once, and they’re placed just right, it’s a real platforming nightmare.
Another enemy type which takes advantage of this is the invisible ghost that appears in the fourth area. You won’t be able to see them until they reveal themselves, and that won’t happen until you’re right next to them. So not only will you not know what’s ahead but you also won’t be able to see these enemies sometimes until it’s too late to adjust your course of action. Jerks.
For those looking for a real rousing horrific time, there’s something akin to a hard mode via a secret passage above death’s tree where you pick your heads and gear. You can use a gliding head or weapon to reach it, but expect to be massacred unless you’ve built up some skill at this game. Otherwise it’s like sticking your tenders in a blender.
Daily challenges can also be accessed, well, daily. These give you a set of gear and some horrible random stages to make your way through. Expect to last about 30 seconds.
GoNNER is addicting. Even though you have to go back to the very first stage every time you get a game over, somehow the game makes you want to push yourself further each time. You’ve got a high score to top and you think you can make it just one more level farther. You’ll mess up and die in the first or second world and won’t even make it that far, but the game holds out the chance of you beating it like a pretty, shiny bauble and you’ll reach for it like the tiny tot you are, thinking it’s within your grasp. Yes, this game is addicting.
I’ve played a handful of roguelike games by this point in my life and GoNNER is one of the most visually interesting and mysterious of them all, though it doesn’t do much to change up the actual structure of the genre and gameplay style it adheres to. If you play a lot of roguelike platformers, there aren’t any real surprises, but it’s fun and distinctive in its presentation, nonetheless.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
GoNNER is a fun title that’s perfectly suited for the Nintendo Switch. I enjoyed coming back to play it (and still do), whenever I have a few minutes to kill. Sometimes those few minutes amount to over an hour and this was my go-to game for a few weeks whenever the television was occupied. I hope that GoNNER sets a precedent for more indies like it that are “pick up and play” games to appear on the hybrid console (Downwell on the Switch!). It’s not the best roguelike I’ve ever played but it had all of the earmarks of a good one: brutal challenge, addicting gameplay, equipment options. It has just enough mystique about it to intrigue, though not really knowing what’s going on is somewhat sated by the iconic nature of its visuals, imagery which does just enough to inform without expounding. It’s a game which clearly isn’t for everyone but I recommend it for Switch owners sifting through cheaper titles and indies in the eShop, provided you have the patience GoNNER demands.
Just don’t get so mad you throw your controller, which in the case of “handheld mode” on the Switch could be disastrous.
Aggregated Score: 7.3
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Categories: Game Review