Tom Francis is a writer. He’s been one for quite some time, having spent more than a few years as an editor over at PC Gamer. As a consequence of such a profession, he has probably played and forgotten about more games in his career than you’ve thought about buying in your entire life. He’s likely encountered trash that you would look at and assume it came from a box of cereal. He’s found gems so far off the radar that convincing anyone to give them a go would be like asking someone to give you their foot.
He also made a game. After teaming up with a couple artists and a few musicians, Francis made Gunpoint, a 2D stealth game about a freelance spy named Richard Conway. After being found in some less-than-desirable circumstances that would lead the authorities to believe he killed a woman (he didn’t), Conway gets caught up in some Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest level of backstabbing and flimsy loyalties. Aside from an above average talent for casual snark, Conway is just a regular dude who dies from single bullet wounds. But he does have a pair of hypertrousers that allow him to jump super high and fall from any height as well as a thing called a Crosslink, a device that allows him to rewire pretty much any piece of electronics.
It’s worth noting that Francis is a games journalist because Gunpoint is—if nothing else—a streamlined experience. It screams of the tastes of a man who has played so many video games now that cutting away the cruft in his own game seems like the only sane thing to do. Your mission briefs are short and to the point and yet still totally skippable at the press of a button; rather than committing to any particular upgrade and forcing you to grind for more money, you can simply refund those that you don’t want to buy the ones you do; and death is nothing more than a mouse click-sized speed bump on your way to the end. After years of being forced to watch cutscenes and listening to NPCs teach you how to use new techniques and devices and find discrete save points before quitting, Francis saw fit to rectify all that in Gunpoint.
Which makes the sentiment that those decisions are a shame quite odd. There’s just so much to like about Gunpoint that shortening it to a three-hour experience seems wasteful. First off, the writing is genuinely entertaining. All of the dialogue takes place in little text speech bubbles and smartphone chat, the latter of which allows you to choose response options and recap the case file. Conway can often choose between agreeable, frank, and sardonic dialogue options, all of which lean into painting a rather interesting portrait of man who loves trenchcoats and espionage. The story itself can get a bit loose and becomes somewhat unraveled towards the end, but the act of ingesting it plenty of fun.
The music is also superb, though it feels a bit disjointed. This seems like the inevitable end to working with three different composers for the game, but the individual elements are still good ear candy. There is smooth and sleek old school spy jazz going on in some parts (in what might best be described as “smoky”) and there is excellent upbeat, frenetic music in others, but none of that or anything in between feels like part of a cohesive aural whole. It’s still good, though, and maybe worth downloading from Bandcamp.
As for the gameplay, Gunpoint is easier to talk about because it is unequivocally good. You move about with WASD, but they also provide contextual use for interacting with your environment, so hacking, going up and down stairs and elevators, and generally doing things is easy and intuitive in the same way just holding your stick towards your objective in Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine felt right. Holding down your left mouse button allows you to charge your super jump and reveals a trajectory arc similar to what you would see when you throw a grenade in a first-person shooter. Doing so affords you the ability to jump up and cling to walls and ceilings, tackle guards before punching them in the face, and diving into and out of windows like a badass.
Save for the punching part (and using guns, once you can get your hands on one), all of that is vital to getting around the game, but only one thing could possibly trump locomotion as a requisite utility: the Crosslink. It’s a device you can buy that allows you to flick up on your mouse wheel to highlight all the electronics in any given level and allows you to connect them as you so desire. So if you want to make it so a hand scanner opens a door that knocks out a guard, you can do that. If you want to turn off a light and then make it so its switch electrocutes anyone who turns it on, you can do that, too. It’s a wonderful system that allows you to poke and prod at a system of interacting rules and objects that appeals to your inner rulebreaker and tinkerer more than anything.
The rolling autosave feature plays into this idea; you’re never further than five, 10, and 15 seconds away from correcting a mistake and optimizing your run (better stealth ratings regarding violence, noise, etc. impact your rating and your earned monetary commission). This, however, makes the game feel egregiously easy. Well, this and the fact that everything like store and upgrade refunds and how towards the latter third of the game, the choices you make within the level feel a lot more linear and far less experimental. It got to the point where I kind of questioned why even bother putting so much thought into elegant solutions when quick, brute force ploys would work just as well. And at three hours of gameplay, that is a total shame.
It’s also a waste because I feel like so much more can be done with what Gunpoint has thus far set up with its systemic methodology of stealth and game world alterations. By the time Conway’s interesting but ultimately confusing story wraps up, you feel like the game is just barely scratching the surface of what is possible and what results can be achieved with further experimentation in level design. However, the level editor seems well suited for others to delve into that.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a games writer, too, that I enjoy what Tom Francis & co. (though he solo’d the design, writing, and programming aspects) has created in Gunpoint. It’s a facilitated experience in ways that I find more agreeable than unfortunate, though the consequences of a quick and breezy run may rub you the wrong way harder than they did me. But the individual components, including a great look and fascinating gameplay hook, are irrefutably good, and I happen to find the end product greater than the sum of its parts. So go play Gunpoint why don’t ya.
+ A great but disjointed package of sights and sounds
+ The interactions with the world make sense and the hypertrouser jump is endlessly entertaining
+ Crosslinking things to make guards do dumb things and make me look like a god damn genius is great
– It might come across as too easy and too short for some people
– The story gets muddled in its latter half and results in me totally not caring about its conclusion
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Gunpoint
Release: June 3, 2013
Genre: Side-scrolling stealth action
Developer: Suspicious Developments
Available Platforms: PC