Wildcat Gun Machine is a simple enough bullet hell dungeon crawler packed with plenty of explosive fun. Working out of a small studio in Brisbane, as first timers Chunkybox Games can be well pleased with their results on Wildcat Gun Machine, released on May 4 to Steam, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
Sleek, elegant in simplicity, and hugely enjoyable, Wildcat Gun Machine is a neat pick-up-and-play title that doesn’t need to offer much more than it already has.
Doom as a Dungeon Crawler
Wildcat Gun Machine takes its cues from the original Doom in more ways than one, working the simplicity of those hugely influential to create a game that, to its benefit, puts all onus on gameplay that is just fun to play.
The premise is basic enough and instantly recognisable. Armed with a pistol, you find yourself in an unknown scientific facility inhabited by otherworldly demons, all of which are hell-bent on killing you. You move from room to room clearing waves of enemies, picking up coloured keys to unlock the next set of rooms until you get to the end level boss. Rinse and repeat through increasingly hellish realms.
TLDR: Doom. And I don’t mean that in a flippant way or to be a knock against the game. Translating the Doom style to an isometric bullet hell dungeon crawler is perfect. It leaves the concept simple and instantly recognisable enough to just allow you to get on with the shooting and blasting. Wildcat Gun Machine doesn’t need to do much more than that to be worth the price of admission, as the game streamlines itself down to the simple brass tacks of what a videogame is at its core – and where we started with games like Doom – really should be: just fun!
An Explosive Arsenal
Like Doom, Wildcat Gun Machine shines in its weaponry. At any time you have a handgun which is your most basic weapon and has unlimited ammo. You then have a secondary that is more powerful and variable, but has a limited use until you can find an ammo pickup throughout levels. These secondary weapons are found throughout the world as pickups, and rise in scale of power and novelty the further through the game you go. Early secondaries will be simple enough like a shotgun or an AR, giving that little bit more of a punch for more difficult enemies or bigger swarms but ultimately aren’t too exciting, while later variations might be a flame thrower, or a lightning caster, missile launcher, laser blaster etc. The more chaotic the enemy waves the more chaos your arsenal can throw into the mix to really build on the franticness of the bullet hell experience.
Your handguns, meanwhile, are bought at checkpoint stations with “bones” accrued through combat. Each again gets more powerful as you progress and the level of variation tends to up itself as well to give more unique options further through the game.
There are a little over 40 weapons in total. The variation in weapons is fun to play around and experiment with, allowing the game to stay fresh throughout since you are always switching up the way you play through design. You fire in a full 360 motion around your character either with your mouse or with the sticks for console versions. The 360 movement is quick and feels nice and smooth to keep the action flowing well.
My only complaint would be that since some of the guns are so entirely unique the game would be better served if there were some sort of upgrade system to bring your favourite weapons up to level later in the game, because essentially as soon as you’ve unlocked the latest weapon the rest before then tend to become out levelled by the difficulty of the enemies instantly. But, then again, that might also leave the game at a static point once you have found your favoured combination.
Skills can be unlocked and upgraded as well at checkpoint stations with bones. A dash skill allows you to dodge with a brief invulnerable period to get out of sticky situations, and this dash can also be upgraded to decrease the recharge time or to add more dashes. Movement speed can be upgraded too, and different grenade abilities are available as well.
If you find yourself dying a lot you can also lessen the punishment by upgrading your lives. Though this means you will still die, rather than spawning back at the checkpoint station and having to go through the same rooms again you can merely spawn just before the room you died in until all your lives are depleted. These are replenished again every time you return to a checkpoint.
Health, ammo, and armour pickups are also available throughout rooms a la Doom with a couple of special temporary boosts (slow motion, damage boost, deflection shield) appearing from time to time too.
The final ace in your arsenal is your ability to turn into a “gun machine”. This is your ultimate attack that becomes available through defeating enemies. Gun machines are a temporary super attack that allow you to become invulnerable and unleash unrelenting hell upon your enemies. It is a useful quick escape when the chips are down, you just have to make sure you time it right since it takes a while to build back again but it will undoubtedly clear any room regardless of what is in it.
Any dungeon crawler worth its salt needs an armada of enemies to keep every room fresh. On this front Wildcat Gun Machine certainly succeeds with every variety, of which there are numerous, providing something different to force you to switch up your approach.
As Chunkybox Games themselves have described their approach, every level is specifically designed to be treated like a puzzle in its own right. Unlike many other dungeon crawlers and bullet hell games the levels are not procedural. Instead, the layout of every stage and the placement of enemies as and when they spawn is handcrafted to make the experience more like a specific puzzle box to be solved rather than an out and out brute force adventure. Some levels will provide a more exacting challenge than others leading the player to take a more thought-out approach at particular points. These action puzzles are brutal enough that the wrong “answer” will most certainly punish you over again until you pursue the right one. Even something as simple as changing your weapon loadout might prove to be the key since some levels are evidently designed with a particular choice in mind (although that’s not to say you definitely won’t still find success otherwise).
The enemies all have their part to play in crafting these puzzles. Some will fire slow moving bullets directly at you while others will fire in specific patterns, or in AOE’s to cover more of the map and force you to be quicker and keener on your feet to dodge the many incoming projectiles, while others will pursue you for melee combat to add an extra layer of difficulty to the mix. The design of each of these enemies is nice as well. Early enemies take inspiration directly from the Doom imps and hell-marines, signalling nice and early what Wildcat Gun Machine is supposed to be, but later enemies do begin to branch out into their own thing with plenty of unique designs. Slug worms that break into even smaller slug worms, brain demons that give a psychic buff to everything else in sight, laser firing eyeballs, bullet happy wolverines. Hell comes in many forms to try and kill you.
Every act also comes with its own set of bosses each of which again are nicely designed and offer a different type of challenge. The difficulty of these bosses can be pretty steep with my attempts often getting quite high before I fully cracked the solution, but importantly that difficulty never feels unfair even if it does at first look like a brain mass spraying hundreds of projectiles while laser beams swirl in a circle and fire bolts track you is an impossible task. I mean it is called a bullet hell for a reason.
Wild Out With Wildcat Gun Machine
Wildcat Gun Machine works because it exists in simple subtlety. There isn’t really much of a story to follow, nor does there need to be one since the premise of “shoot demons, kill demons, free some cats” is all the motivation you need. The 2D art style is nice without any need to be flashy or high end. The gameplay is by no means ground-breaking, but its simplicity allows it to focus on just being as fun as possible. You get how to play instantly allowing the chaos of the bullet hell style to then easily take over and build with every level.
The challenge, however, probably does slant quite a bit steeper the further the game goes on, making the later stages far more difficult than the earlier stages are easier. It is by no means an easy game but the general enjoyment found in the gameplay is probably just enough to keep you coming back for more even if it is kicking your ass.
All in all, a thorough recommendation for some simple yet fun-filled action, especially at its lower price point.
Final Score: 7/10