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Gunmetal Arcadia (PC) artwork

Gunmetal Arcadia (PC) review


"Distilled down, it's platformer life management."


Gunmetal Arcadia doesnít look like much, but for me, for a time, it was everything. Upon first inspection, it conjures memories of old NES adventure platformers which surely served as inspirations, featuring its own variation of the default, tried and true hack-and-slash avatar we came to love in 8 Eyes, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Castlevania II: Simonís Quest, and perhaps most of all, in Faxanadu, the most underappreciated and most similar to Gunmetal of the bunch.

But Gunmetal doesnít exactly play like those games. Our hero, whichever of the original four on offer that we choose Ė whether it be Vireo, Grackle, Starling or Thrush Ė must lead the Tech Elves of Arcadia against the gathering threat of the Unmade Empire, slaying monsters and collecting the coins and stars (the latter toward powering subweapons) the fallen leave behind. Gunmetal is about entering doors, in plain sight or hidden, open or locked: in order to seek refuge at inns, purchase goods at stores, or uncover riches locked away in chests. Some doors will lock you in once entered, and force you to kill everything inside before allowing egress Ė a nasty business when youíre not expecting it.

And you wonít expect it, and therein lies the rub. Because each time you play Gunmetal, itís different. Thatís right, Gunmetal is a roguelite game: I know that for some folks, that term is a bad word, and for others, simply hearing the word spoken aloud causes an instant orgasm Ė for me, itís nothing more than a descriptor. Putting aside the instant thrill or disgust the concept might elicit, know that the ingredients are constant from stage-to-stage, but that the mixture is not. Youíll always get the same four bosses, but sometimes boss one will be boss three. You will always progress through the city, forest, cave, and evil lair locales, but the layout of each stage is similarly changeable, so enemy placement and concentration will sometimes be favourable, and sometimes insidious. The only thing you can count on is the finality of death.

Gunmetal Arcadia (PC) image

The key to winning at Gunmetal then, is to have a strong initial push during your run. Early on, your three heart vitality capacity will make you feel decidedly vulnerable, and so when things go awry too close to the start, youíre finished. There will be certain items you can purchase from shopkeepers en route that will go a long way towards making you feel at ease. If youíre fortunate enough to find a store near the onset that sells the combat bracers accessory which allows you to strike directly upward with your weapon; or if you can find the axe, which is both the gameís most powerful and longest range melee weapon; or if you can find the item which permits you to heal yourself; or (it almost goes without saying) if you can find precious heart containers Ė or in the best case scenario, all of those things Ė your mission will settle into a manageable rhythm later in the proceedings. You wonít ever be on autopilot or even remotely comfortable at any point, because you just donít know exactly how things will shake out, but youíll feel far less fragile and better equipped to deal with whatever randomization throws at you.

This is the irresistible genius of Gunmetal. Itís not a pretty game: it doesnít have beautiful 8-bit vistas and majestic mountainsides in the distance, soaring by on the wings of eye-catching parallax scrolling. What it does offer, is a challenging, changeable journey ahead that kicks off as particularly daunting, until you can eke out some critical supplies on the back of crisp, mistake-free play and a good helping of luck, and it offers a phenomenal original chiptune soundtrack. I sought out the OST on Youtube just to listen to in the background while I did other things Ė itís that hummable, itís that atmospheric. A handful of the tunes here are anthem-like and elevate the experience to a rarer air than would be possible without their inclusion.

Admittedly, Gunmetal isnít a large game in scope: four levels isnít a lot, and yet, a perfect run will take about 45 minutes, which is about par for the course for an actual action-adventure title of yesteryear. That you have only one life to live helps matters, as the rogue element (see what I did there) will force you to tread carefully. And, despite the smallness of the actual adventure itself, there is actually a surprising amount of content to experience. There are five characters in all with which you can beat the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. One comes equipped with the combat bracers from the get-go. Another has four heart containers.

Gunmetal Arcadia (PC) image

You can join one of two factions, or none at all. Your decision here will inform how shopkeepers from each of the factions treat you. Enter a store kept by a competing faction and youíll be treated to some good old fashioned price gouging. Conversely, someone wearing your sigil will help you out with discounts. In beating the game, you are given a choice of what to do with the gameís MacGuffin Ė give it to faction one or two? Keep it? Destroy it? Besides affecting the tale your ending tells, your decision here may manifest a further boss encounter. Once itís all behind you, continuing on with the same save file will initiate the legacy feature: to a limited degree, your previous runís results and your choices during that run will affect your next.

Gunmetal is an example of keeping it simple, and thatís not a bad thing. The gameís backdrops are interesting enough to maintain adequate immersion, but theyíre not the actual draw: the graphics are just serviceable. The music boasts fantastic compositions, like the pop songs you canít get out of your head, only you are free to appreciate Gunmetalís sounds in public, without the self-loathing. And yet the chiptune score presents those tunes with prosaic instrumentation. The game has only four levels, four bosses, and a good, but not great, collective of enemies to vanquish. But it gets deeper than that.

The crux of Gunmetal Arcadia, the soul of it, is that the experience is distilled down as platformer life management. Every time you embark, you wonder if you will make it through to the end. After a time, youíll look back and recount all the many false starts and early deaths. So many times you were punished for your hubris when you were at your most fragile and thought you could ninja your way out of a tough spot. So many times, you made the mistake of becoming complacent Ė after all, you had all your favourite equipment in tow, and you managed to put it all together so early on during this run! Ė and a particularly obstinate screen packed with bullet-firing eyeballs, and leaping, stabbing wraiths, and damnable, evilly situated seahorse turrets Ė all made it go to shit so quickly, your extra heart containers drained as if they werenít even thereÖ Why didnít you rest at the inn to top off those last two hearts when you had the chance? You couldnít have known what was around the corner; you should have known better. Itís the game of life, played out in an unremarkably quaint 8-bit world with a remarkable soundtrack keeping score. And once you get rolling, if itís your thing, itís tough to stop playing.

4/5

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (November 27, 2017)

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