Clutching my Pizza Thrower (which actually spits out flying sawblades, not an oven-baked flat bread), I shoot at the door, opening it, because Video Game Logic. I survey the large hall, a neo-gothic foundry with orange lava-rivers. My entrance spawns turrets – rows and rows of machines that gaze at me, promptly sending a barrage of slow-moving bullets. I move to a small corner of the room, out of sight of any of them, and turn my attention to several flying rounded-blade-droids chasing me, finishing them off first. Enemies explode in a confetti of multi-colored drops, and I proceed further, rushing down turrets which are too slow to hit me. A few rooms later, I kill off a boss; a flying, spinning contraption, which spits out lots of insignificant projectiles.
Enter Tower of Guns, a rogue-like FPS developed by Joe Mirabello, who one-manned the project with the help of his brother, Mike, who did the music, under the studio name Terrible Posture Games. It’s his first project, having before worked as a artist for AAA ventures. And his graphic skills show; in the comic-book like, slightly cell-shaded visuals that are vaguely reminiscing of Unreal Tournament, yet completely original. (The game is made using the Unreal Development Kit.)
Getting down to the nitty-gritty: ToG follows a schema similar to games like Risk of Rain and Rogue Legacy, giving the player a randomized, challenging walkthrough that has long-term rewards. Indeed, at the loadout screen – where you can select one gun to venture with as well as one perk – you can see how to unlock extra weapons and new perks. Then, you start at the Foyer level, with your level 1 gun, and you’re off killing turrets, tanks, and various contraptions. ToG has a good variety of enemies, none of the living kind, but lively nonetheless and moving from time to time. Basic turrets will greet the unwelcome intruder, teamed up with smaller, flying enemies, harder tanks, and a host of bosses. Defeated foes drop yellow orbs which recharge an item (once you acquire one), health, blue chips that increase your weapon EXP, money coins, and occasional “badges”, which buff your character.
The primary objective – defeating turrets and progressing through levels – highly varies because of the room’s wild customization. Most often, you enter huge rooms with staircases on the side, some platforms, big drops, and occasionally tighter spaces. ToG does well with easing you in; giving just a few, weaker turrets at first, and later upping them to utter hordes harassing you. The problematic part with room design, especially the large ones, is that it’s too easy to get in some corner or small section where you have to deal with only a small part of the spawned enemies. You can take out the seekers first easily, while none of the turrets can reach you. While this seems like smart play, very frequently there are turrets that don’t aim — as in, they shoot a designated spot — which effectively makes them harmless targets. It’s something new to have them placed on the ceiling, and they shoot straight down, but it’s too easy to just not be in that space, take out all the other enemies, and then just stand and take all of the remaining ones down – they were never able to hit me. That left me with mixed feelings, because I didn’t feel like a smart, skilled player, rather like someone who found a hole in the system and exploited it.
In fact, enjoyment from ToG goes significantly down when you discover that as long as you’re moving, about 90% of things in the game can’t hit you. Which makes sense in a way, but just feels too simplistic since it works like an easy solution for almost all of the game. Sadly, this applies to many of the bosses. There’s 15 of them. One of the first I met is Dr. Turret, a spinning tower that has multiple parts attached to it. Initially, I used the columns for cover and peeked out to shoot, but that wasn’t very effective because of flying seeker minions (they respawn a little too fast for me to remove them and stay in my strategic spot). But, all I needed to do is run in circles while facing and shooting the boss, and I hardly got hit by Dr. Turrets’ barrage of bullets, saw blades and explosives. Unfortunately, this “strategy” works for almost all the bosses, Grandpa Napoleon probably being one of the bigger offenders. Lanternofolus, Doomball, Mama Spinbot are all easy pickings. Just move and shoot, and even though they usually send a barrage of explosives at you, hardly anything will hit you. A few bosses do require a different strategy or some creative thinking – for instance, the Wall of Spikes and Egg Scrambler – who put up an environmental challenge. But, simultaneously, the Egg Scrambler is particularly unforgiving and has wiped me out almost every time, even when I play with decreased difficulty and a lot of powerups.
Funnily enough, the drops from the enemies are one of the first, if slight, frustrations of ToG. Loot disappears after about 15-20 seconds, which frequently means you have to dance and dodge all the bullets, making an effort not to forgo gains. Oftentimes, turrets are placed far on the other end of huge halls, which means you won’t get to them on time. Occasionally, I had even more significant loot – a badge – get stuck on a wall or ledge just a little too high for the tiny jump you start with. There are some solutions to this: there’s a perk that stops loot from disappearing, and it’s possible to have additional, higher jumps. But sacrificing other valuable perks (the one buff you choose at the beginning of the game) for loot that stays a bit longer won’t matter in almost all other situations, and finding extra jump badges might not happen until later parts of the playthrough, if at all. Another situational drop is an increase or decrease in difficulty, which seems to affect a lot of factors. But the chance of getting the right one to match your situation are just not very good, and can even backfire on you if you misjudge how well you’re doing.
Drops feel unbalanced, and even though ToG is supposed to feel very random, being a rogue-like game, the loot drop system is either a great hit or unsatisfying miss. The badges, which offer bonuses such as improved damage, stronger armor, faster moving speed, higher jumps, more luck, max health etc. simply feel very generic. They’re just uninteresting. Of course, damage and armor are the most practical, but there were multiple playthroughs in a row where I didn’t find a single one of them. A Magnet that draws in loot a little better might seem useful, because I don’t have to run around in a circle gathering dropped items, but there’s a point where the loot becomes somewhat obsolete. The blue drops that level up your gun only do so to level 5, 6 the most, which means you can max out the power of your gun at stages 2-3 (and with one of the perks that I chose consistently, even earlier).
It’s really too bad that the gun won’t level up more, because it’s just asking for more interesting upgrades. The saw blades from my Pizza Thrower still only bounce off the walls a single time, as they did at level 1, with the addition of increased fire rate and damage. A weapon like this is just begging for a more interesting effect, like more wall bounces, or the ability to go through enemies. This is helped by having a gun mod, usually dropped from bosses, but those drops were either almost non-existent or far too frequent, and you can have only one gun mod. The gun mods, again, are a hit or miss. Some are generic – faster fire-rate, increased critical hit chance, vampiric health drain, and aiming upgrades – while some of the more interesting ones give spread fire, target seeking, or mine-placing. The problem with gun mods is that some are clearly better, and you can have only one, so not all of them present a strategic choice. Why have a precise gun (which you don’t need anyway, since most targets are big) that shoots perfectly in line with the aiming reticle, when you can have seeking bullets?
Design-wise, a lot of credit goes to the creator for having a creative sense of humor that permeates throughout the game; from the item and gun names, to the witty dialogue that accompanies you at the beginning and end of stages. The dialogue is nonsensical and gives a semblance of a story, changing randomly with every playthrough; it’s usually a conversation between two unusual characters, like a dog and his master, the Mirabello himself and the creator, or even you, the player. One of the best ones was a throwback to text adventures. It’s something small, but it ties well with the ridiculous theme of the game and its guns, like the “Consolation Charger” that you get after dying four times. It’s definitely worth it to discover the guns, which vary greatly in their use, but a few like the Babel Gun are an all-in-one sort of package, with great damage, speed, and area-of-effect burn. Bosses, too, are very creative, complicated creations. It’s unfortunate that in practice, they don’t work so well.
Therein lies the most encompassing issue with ToG. The ideas in the game — randomized rooms, enemies, loot, usable items that you carry with you, almost all of the bosses — sound better on paper than they are in practice. The loot is unbalanced, and the perk selection has too many duds. You can find up to 64 usable items in the game that recharge with yellow orbs from enemies, but again, many of them are borderline useless. Again, having just a single usable item seriously limits you, since many of them are so situational. I’d much rather see the game difficulty upped a lot, in exchange for letting your gun level up a lot more with far more interesting badges, drops, and so on. The times when I built a satisfying, good loadout, with a great gun mod and item, were quite rare.
The experience with ToG can be very ambivalent, especially given that it’s easy to discover strategies against rooms full of enemies. Many times running to the other side, behind turrets, results in easy domination. But it’s not that ToG is a walk in the park (it certainly isn’t), and that there’s no effort involved. There is some depth to it, but it’s too watered down by the unexciting perks and badges, and the weird frequency of drops, along with the poor placement of many turrets. It’s perplexing to discover that rooms are entirely skippable, and defeating the enemies is actually optional. Obviously, this is detrimental early on, but once you’re buffed up, you can speedrun easily. Ultimately, ToG illuminates a delicate difference between something somewhat simplistic, and something easy; unfortunately, it is much more often the former.