Nongünz. Non-guns. A funny name for a game where the only thing you can comprehend from the off are the weapons. Nongünz is a rogue-like action platformer from game devs Brainwash Gang with an unhealthy dose of nihilism. And it takes this designation to the extreme. Nothing is explained. Instead, you’re left to discover what everything means yourself. Even the control scheme isn’t immediately obvious. For maybe the first hour, all you do is run and gun your way through procedurally generated dungeons, killing a whole host of disembodied enemies, hoping that it will suddenly all make sense. But that never happens. Instead, you’ll unravel the mystery little by little – I found myself becoming ever more proficient after each of my many deaths. Does Nongünz benefit from this minimal hand-holding? Maybe. It’s a little extreme in my opinion. I came away from the game still not fully understanding everything, but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy trying to figure it out.
You start as a headless skeleton with a pistol and traverse a dungeon strewn with sentient body parts and treasure. So far, so macabre. What I immediately loved was the soundtrack, and this love didn’t diminish over my 8 hours with the game. It reminded me of the music from the desert prison in Final Fantasy 7 – full of despair and effortlessly haunting. The overall sound design, including weapons firing and monsters roaring, is clear, crisp, and never intrusive enough to break this feeling. To this eerie audio, you wander through a desolate graveyard, and at this point you’re starting to notice the lack of any sort of tutorial. I’m not saying I need an in-depth tutorial for every game explaining all the tiniest mechanics, but I had to delve into the menus just to try and understand the control scheme. Even then it isn’t that clear.
Moving, shooting and jumping are obvious, but you can perform some kind of pirouette that I thought was pretty, but had no idea it actually allowed you to dodge through enemies until after a couple of hours of playing. There’s so much more in this game that takes way longer than it needs to to understand. Even after all those hours, I still don’t think I get some of the mechanics. Throughout the dungeon there are treasure chests that contain items that, once collected, appear in your inventory as cards. These cards have a variety of designs, with symbols that indicate…something, and numbers that indicate…something else. My assumption was that either they’re buffing me somehow, and their effect is so imperceptible as to be almost unnoticeable, or they’re just collectibles. Then I discovered that by highlighting and clicking on them, they can be destroyed to replenish some of your health. So that’s what I did. Only later did I realize that they do indeed offer passive buffs when they’re in your inventory, such as bigger bullets, less gravity or more accuracy, but even then the symbols on the cards aren’t that clear on what specific buff they offer. So I’ll just keep eating them thank you.
It’s a good thing I understood enough of what was going on for Nongünz to still be a solid rogue-like. Every time you plunge back into the dungeon after what will inevitably be a succession of deaths, you’re presented with a completely new level layout to challenge your platforming skills. These levels are filled with a variety of weird and wonderful enemies – dismembered legs that jump across the map, flying eyeballs that love to get in the way, and what I can only describe as goo-shooting half-lizard half-slugs. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love trying to best these monstrous monsters, even after losing all your progress for the millionth time. To help quell the rage, there are rooms throughout the dungeon where you can collect either a new weapon or a skull, and there plenty to discover. Weapons include one-hit-kill axes, powerful shotguns and even a rocket launcher. Skulls can let you double jump, dash, and at their best confer Portal-like teleportation abilities. Each of these changes-up the gameplay considerably, and once mastered, will see you past two or three bosses easily.
Oh, the bosses! If you manage to reach the end of the first level during your initial hour, you’re faced with something grotesque that will undoubtedly wipe out what’s left of your health. There’s a definite Dark Souls style of punishing difficulty that takes a while to overcome, but you’re rewarded with plenty of warm-feelings when you beat your first boss. Even if you die, there are ways to augment your next run to make it a little easier. Jumping from a window in the dungeon allows you to leave prematurely and bank the points you’ve gained from killing enemies.
Back in the graveyard you first arrive in, you can spend your points on upgrading your weapons with the menacing “wall of murder”, as I called it, but this in turn makes the enemies in the dungeon harder. I thought this was a little bit pointless, but then again it does fit in nicely with the whole nihilism angle. And who doesn’t love a more powerful shotgun? Eventually you’ll find other weirdos hanging out in the dungeon who will join you back in the graveyard, and you can buy more of those buff cards from a grim reaper-looking character, gamble some of your points away in a slot machine, and even gather an army of worshipers who will add to your score to create a kind of idle-game on the side. But who wants to sit around waiting for your points to build up when there’s killing to be done?
Nongünz needs you to sit patiently with it for at least a few hours to truly appreciate it. I felt myself being compelled every time I died to enter the dungeon again. When I didn’t understand something, I strove to figure it out, and for every discovery you’re rewarded with a new tool in your arsenal against the legions of the dismembered. And I’m sure there are plenty of other secrets that are waiting to be unearthed. I found it a little ironic that while Nongünz professes to be thematically nihilistic, the gameplay itself is rich and complex. This game won’t set the world on fire, it’s a fun way to blast away two or three or four or five evenings. Because in this pointless existence, what else matters…but gaming?
Nongünz is available on Steam right now for $6.99/£4.99.