Oh no, not the dailies again. Anything but that...
Stealth games are difficult to pull off. You have to properly communicate how visible your character is, give them the proper tools to not get caught and then just enough to escape if they do. Puzzle games are equally tough to get right. Again, it’s all about giving players just enough information to solve the problem you put in front of them. If you’re looking to make a game in either (or both) of these storied genres, look no further than Gunpoint for a lesson. I’d even be willing to recommend Gunpoint to budding designers, game writers, or jazz musicians; everything in this game is just so well done.
You play as Richard Conway, a freelance spy who stumbles onto what appears to be a simple murder right next door to his apartment. As you investigate this mysterious death, a web of conspiracies and double-crosses slowly reveals itself. It’s unnecessarily complicated, as noir tends to be, but the actual writing is spectacular. Whenever Conway gets a call from an NPC, the player is given some dialogue choices that occasionally shapes how the conversation goes. It’s usually a choice between one of three characteristics: businesslike (heroic), businesslike (selfish), or smarmy. I almost always picked the last option, because seeing these serious noir archetypes responding to open insults was a constant delight. This system reminds me less of Mass Effect (where your dialogue choices affect your alignment) and more of The Walking Dead (where you were building a character). Conway isn’t a blank slate by any means; it feels like you’re guiding him in a certain direction. I never felt like I was taking over this character from the writers, since all three kinds of responses felt consistent.
Gunpoint isn’t all about the writing, though. When your phone calls end, it’s time to get stealth puzzling. The game earns points from the outset with its super clean and intuitive UI: you can see everything in any given level, and your cursor turns red to inform you where guards can see. You’re given a building, some guards, objectives both optional and mandatory, and an exit point. I’m not entirely sure how to describe how the building is presented to you. Imagine a building cut in half but in a way that allows you to see everything? Just trust me, it’s really useful, especially when it comes to avoiding guards. You also have a pair of ‘Bullfrog’ super-pants that can launch you into the air to hang off the ceiling while you wait for a guard to pass, or across a hallway to knock a foe out. It’s also just plain fun to launch yourself over a whole building and land on your feet.
The ‘puzzle’ aspect of ‘puzzle stealth’ comes into play in Crosslink mode. After a couple setup missions, Conway gets access to Crosslink: a device that allows him to rewire the electronic devices in a given level. After a couple seconds of messing around in the Crosslink mode, you’ve essentially turned this building into a playground. Light switches can open locked doors, motion detectors can summon elevators, or security cameras can overcharge wall sockets that shock guards into unconsciousness. Some levels become almost Rube Goldberg-esque in terms of their complexity, but it never becomes impenetrable. The difficulty builds quite naturally as well. By the end, I was pulling off these crazy heists with ease.
However, that wouldn’t be the case without Gunpoint’s excellent save system. There is a sizable amount of trial and error involved, but the game has both hard saves and three different autosave systems going at any given time, usually within seconds of each other. No matter when you die, there’s always a convenient autosave for you to load. It doesn’t make the game too easy, instead just cutting accidental deaths out of the equation altogether. If you upgrade in a certain direction, you get access to Conway’s revolver. By right clicking before a guard draws their gun, you can essentially hold them at gunpoint (now the title makes sense, doesn’t it?) while you inch towards an escape route. If you choose to shoot them, a counter activates that gives you an idea of how long you have before a police sniper shows up. If a police sniper shows up, you’re screwed, so the gun should be a last resort.
Most stealth games will yell at you if you don’t get in and get out as fast as possible without leaving a trace. Gunpoint prefers to reward players of all types. You can get a ‘Ninja’ rating for blasting through the level, or ‘Thoughtful’ if you carefully planned out your route. It’s nice to play a stealth game that doesn’t slap me with a failing grade because I stepped an inch out of line.
There’s also an upgrade system, but I found it to be mostly pointless. There are a few worthwhile perks, but you’ll quickly find something that works for you. Messing around with the other powers isn’t entirely necessary once you reach that point. To be fair, that may be just my personal taste. I never saw the appeal of increasing my battery capacity, but maybe some of you really like the ability to crash through glass silently and plan your whole approach around it. I do recommend you upgrade your jump fully, though. Because you can jump over a building. I don’t know if I’ve made that clear enough yet.
Also, my god is the soundtrack fantastic. I don’t buy videogame soundtracks these days – listening to a couple tracks on YouTube is usually enough – but I readily gave five dollars to the people behind this masterpiece. The jazz is smooth in a way that feels effortless, and the electronic instrumentation never feels out of place. It’s the perfect compliment to Gunpoint’s neo-noir aesthetic.
There are so many poorly designed stealth games, and so many obtuse puzzlers out there. Sometimes it’s easy to forget why you even bothered with the genre in the first place. And then a Gunpoint comes along that reminds you why you keep buying crap like Hitman: Absolution or Assassin’s Creed 3 in the hopes of recapturing that lost magic: because when these genres are done right, they’re simply beautiful. Gunpoint is one of the best games period to come along in a very long time.
[Review Update: 9/15/14] Gunpoint was recently ported to Mac as part of the latest Humble Bundle, and based on a few hours with the game, I can honestly say that nobody should bother with the port. Initially, the game seemed to work just fine, but as the levels got more complex, everything started breaking. The game is literally unplayable, crashing every time I right-click using the trackpad and freezing if I want to pan around a large area. I truly love Gunpoint, so it should mean something when I say that I cannot recommend the port to anyone. Perhaps a patch will come along and fix these issues, but the version we have right now is nothing short of abysmal.