Into The Spine of: Exit the Gungeon

Same town, new story

There’s something about Enter the Gungeon that always pulled me back in over the years. It’s probably the closest a roguelike has been to The Binding of Isaac, the first one I ever played and one I’ve been looking desperately to put lower on my list. It managed to keep each room, and the one after, thrilling and inviting. The loop was rewarding enough to always have you trying for one more run. But it was also tough as nails, and I haven’t returned to it in years.

It’s been patched several times ever since. There was never a paid DLC for it, as the developers focused on delivering massive content updates right until 2019. The colossal scale is worthy of praise, but it’s hard to compromise oneself when there’s so many barriers in between, as luring as the destination might seem. Exit the Gungeon takes much of what it made its sibling so important for the genre, and comes up with a far more approachable experience.

It begins on the aftermath of Enter the Gungeon‘s ending. The group of adventurers spent hundreds of hours and thousands of failed runs to reach the depths of the fortress, and now, they have to do the same on the opposite direction. There’s yet another hub where you can switch between them, and once you’re set, you’ll be thrown into an elevator, and upwards. It serves as a room of sorts, with enemies spawning from everywhere in waves (although these are completely random and don’t follow a strict pattern) as you shoot your way to the top. After every zone, you can expect a boss fight. Defeat them, and you’ll be granted loot and money – continue with a quick visit to the merchant, and onto the next one.

And yet, there’s a sheer variety tailored to each character that makes it compelling to keep coming back to. They all follow the same route, but the elevators, and sequences in between, are completely different. Choose The Pilot and you’ll see levels with balloons and even a jetpack, whereas The Convict can showcase a chasing scene or a prison riot. This adds a lot of personality, and different levels to traverse, too, such as rooms that feel more familiar to the experience the predecessor is known for.

It’s all in 2D now, of course, but the action translates well thanks to a few important additions. Now, aside from the usual roll to either side, there’s a dedicated button that lets you dodge upwards or downwards depending on the movement you’re doing. This adds so much, and it’s such a clever element that I would love to see in more games. It makes sense for Exit the Gungeon to have this, considering how fast-paced everything is, and the constant danger of having your entire screen covered with projectiles.

It’s even more interesting to see how the game has changed over time

The other big element… well, it’s been a bit more divisive. Instead of picking up new weapons and sticking to them until the next chest, the game switches them up randomly after a couple seconds. Kill enough enemies with them, and you’ll start earning a particular score that increases the chances of having better weapons, while getting hit will restart it. This is based on an ability from the first game, only that it has now become the main thing of the experience. I’ve grown used to it, and I think it suits everything else well enough.

But not everyone has taken it so well, leading to a public note from the studio just two days after launch, with several patches ever since and an incoming huge update that is looking to offer traditional weapons, currently in beta. I’ve actually spoken to Dave Crooks from Dodge Roll Games about this before. There was a mixed misconception of seeing Exit the Gungeon on Apple Arcade first, and landing on Steam and Switch as a “mobile game”, when it really wasn’t the case. But this is still present to this day, and the developers have chosen to act upon it to try and “amend” their decisions with dozens of patches, and additional work of course.

I’ve been playing this game in and out ever since March. It hasn’t become my go-to during quarantine, and at first I must admit it kicked my ass so much that I was ready to abandon it as I did with Enter the Gungeon. I don’t think it will become my favorite roguelike over time, either. But I appreciate the idea behind it, that easily approachable loop that always brings a new character, a new weapon, a new surprise. It’s even more interesting to see how the game has changed over time.

But when these become demands, it’s just damaging

As of a couple hours ago, I had never got past the second or third boss with the five characters. Just before starting this review I decided to do a quick run, and I finally got to the final boss, who decimated me without hesitation but its scale was breathtaking, and the animations distracted me just enough from the action to take me down in seconds. Just as I was heading there, I stumbled upon yet another character that later greeted me in the hub with yet another set of unlockable items. There’s just so much to this game, from the presentation to the way it makes all of your senses get lost in the action, right until you reach that moment of focus where you dodge every single projectile with grace, feeling unstoppable for the rest of the run.

I spent a significant time thinking about what it mean to be on top of this on going development, even after launch. Enter the Gungeon was in development for 5 years, getting bigger and better until the developers finally gave it its deserved farewell. Now, I see Exit the Gungeon getting closer to a similar destiny with each new update, but the scenario is far more grim. They’re not just making it bigger for the sake of it, but are instead pushing back on design decisions because the “norm” is that mobile games can’t match their PC or console counterparts, or just because fans expected Enter the Gungeon 2 and got mad when they experienced something different.

I don’t think it’s fair to them nor any other studio to try and appeal to everybody, as much as I don’t think players, or consumers rather, should continue perpetuating this behavior, especially when neither Apple Arcade nor spin-offs from successful titles are disappearing anytime soon. There’s value in feedback, and in voicing concerns or ideas. But when these become demands, it’s just damaging. Exit the Gungeon might be the most prominent example I can think of right now, a game that didn’t try to surpass its predecessor but instead offer a new way to experience its universe, completely nailing such task. It’s a shame that part of that essence has to be compromised. But it’s a bigger shame that this won’t be the last time it happens.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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