Gonner is a roguelike-inspired platformer that does not care if you think it’s too hard. When you’re playing, you tend not to care, either. It’s so damn cute and smart that every punishment, even the ones you might not deserve, is easily forgiven.
The goal of Gonner (on Steam) is cheer up your floating whale friend. You’re on the search for consolation gifts. To advance, you must kill a variety of adorable, but devilish, creatures with their own specific modes of attack—some descending from above like raging jellyfish, others scaling the walls as lethargic snails. The game’s endearing darkness, expressed visually as chibi skulls and hairy worm butts, bleeds into its gameplay, which as developer Ditto advertises, is “tough as hell.”
You begin the game as a pair of wriggling legs. You need to pick up your head, along with your weapon and backpack a little ways to the right. The reason why you’re in pieces isn’t apparent until you either die or survive a level. When an enemy hits you, your contingent parts scatter across the level. To continue attacking enemies, you must retrieve them without being hit again. In the meantime, you’re a useless, frantic torso. When you make it through a level, you can fix a new head or gun onto yourself and customize your character. Some guns shoot several yellow pellets at a time. Some heads grant you a jump-spin or a little flip. Also, you can earn combos.
You reach the next level by jumping into a worm’s mouth and descending down his long body and out his other end. It’s charming until you’re pooped out into an inescapable den of attack-on-sight monsters and your only recourse is clawing up the wall.
A number of Gonner’s mechanics impressed me. It’s forgiving with wall climbs, which is refreshing inside a platformer genre that only tends to allow one or two wall bounces. For me, that’s never a restriction that breeds much fun. In Gonner, you can just infinitely scale a wall, shooting enemies at the same time. Also, the rate of your double-jump is easy to measure, which lets you easily attack flying enemies.
Nothing about Gonner is hard in ways that aren’t fun. My only complaint was that, when a monster harms you, you aren’t given a long enough buffer period to retreat before the monster can harm you again in a split-second. In a game where enemies cluster around you from all sides, that split-second is meaningful.
What is perhaps Gonner’s most delightful mechanic is how much it relies on visual and experiential explanation. You figure things out by dying and trying again—from the beginning, in proper roguelike fashion. If you’re missing a body-component, a bubble appears with an image of that component and a question mark. From just seeing an enemy, like a porcupine or a snail, you know exactly how to defeat it, either hitting its soft belly or scaling a wall. Really, my favorite visual explainer was how it explains its procedurally-generated elements. No two levels are the same, so you never know what’s ahead. To demonstrate, Gonner’s levels are sketched out piece-by-piece the deeper into them you go.
You also have the option to speed through levels, avoiding enemies rather than shooting them. Having tried both methods, it’s much easier to just clear a path for yourself.
Nothing about Gonner is easy, but everything about it is rewarding and addictive. Its spirit as a light-hearted, come-at-me platformer, wrapped up in darkly cute art, makes it feel less evil than playful.