Don't lose your head so you can save a giant whale.
The world of indie games has been filled with roguelike-likes and the like for years, but only with the advent of the Nintendo Switch and its burgeoning indie scene has the weird sub-genre really found its way to Nintendo platforms. Gonner, from developer Art in Heart and publisher Raw Fury Games, is an overly stylish take on the roguelike trend. It’s borderline oppressive in its dark aesthetic, but fortunately, outside some early growing pains, Gonner is an impressive (and very hard) platformer with some novel ideas.
The overbearing-yet-brilliant art design helps this extremely challenging game give off a hell of a first impression, even as you face countless deaths in the early going. The learning curve is extremely high, made more so by the fact that little is explained in this world. On one hand, I adore the mystery - Why is there a giant whale? Why did my head fall off? What the hell do these items even do? - it really does add to the mystique of the graphical style. But on the other, I had no earthly idea what progression meant in this game. It wasn’t until I read a guide on the Steam community page that I even knew how to essentially play Gonner with any sort of purpose.
The good news is that, when you do know a little more, Gonner becomes more than a pretty face and shows itself to be a well-crafted platformer with a weird combo system and a variety of weapons and items to find. At the kickoff of every run, you pick three things to build your character: a head, a gun, and a backpack. The head determines your health and some other passive abilities. The gun is your main weapon, ranging from a shotgun to a crazy lightning-shooting beam of death. The backpack grants you an ability, like an added jump or an instant reload. You start off with one of each and can unlock more options permanently as you find secrets and stores throughout play.
Gonner’s structure is similar to Spelunky. As far as I can tell, there are four main worlds, each with their own enemies and obstacles. You journey through a few procedurally generated levels in each before facing off against the area’s boss and moving on. Along the way, you collect glyphs that are used to earn a continue when you die, increase your score modifier, and purchase new heads, guns or backpacks. The path through these levels is fraught with peril to an almost alarming degree. I wouldn’t call Gonner friendly in any way, shape, or form, but I’d also say it’s relatively fair. Learn the mechanics and play well? You’ll be rewarded with secrets, more options and more fun. Miserably beating your head against the wall? Well, if that’s the case, Gonner’s not worth the time. Outside of the main progression, the only other option is a Daily Challenge that often lets you try out new items and modifiers. As of launch, online leaderboards were not up, but they are “coming soon.”
Gonner presents a stiff challenge that might not be for everyone, but if the potential oddities of this disquieting adventure seem up your alley, it’s well worth trying to figure out; just be prepared to maybe look up a few things for clarification. It’s not quite the tops of this take on the roguelike genre, but Gonner definitely earns its spot at the table.