You can’t fault the pitch. In Gunbrella you’re a sort of cowboy dude with a shotgun that’s also an umbrella. You use the umbrella to deflect enemy projectiles, block attacks, fly up into the air like a furious Mary Poppins and zoom along ziplines. You use the shotgun, as you might reasonably expect, to do the majority of your big murdering.
Gunbrella is a classic 2D platform shooter in the style of a steampunk western. It’s like Deadwood crossed with Singin’ In The Rain, if Gene Kelly ever used his umbrella to blow holes through anyone who didn’t sufficiently praise his tap dancing. Some light exploration bits have you travelling by train from frontier towns to mining villages, much of them decorated with giant spinning cogs – so you know it’s steampunk – and populated by a small cast of quest-giving locals, pill-dispensing shopkeepers and monologuing villains.
Just like with Gene Kelly and his magical feet, your umbrella unlocks a range of fun and nimble traversal options. You can use your gunbrella to dash forwards and backwards. You can pop it open in mid-air to effectively double-jump. You can hook it on to ziplines to whizz along them in either direction, up and down, physics be damned. And you can glide on the wind, like everyone’s favourite demonic British nanny.
In combat the umbrella becomes a shield, but time the opening of your brolly perfectly and you’ll deflect shots directly back at their owners. Your shotgun packs a satisfying, gutsy punch too. Pull the trigger when standing close enough to your target and you’ll send hot, wet body parts scattering everywhere, like a butcher’s van dropping its cargo on the motorway, painting streaks of gore up the walls and across the floor.
Gunbrella has been described – not by the developers, mind – as a Metroidvania type of thing, but it doesn’t fit into that genre. While you do revisit some towns, there’s none of that classic backtracking to access previously blocked-off areas with freshly unlocked abilities. Instead this is an almost entirely linear adventure, with some branching and looping dungeon-style levels as you progress further and further east towards your goal. The game is a lot narrower in scope than a Metroidvania fan might be expecting, and keeps a firm focus on forward progress and encounters with increasingly smart enemies. Gunbrella is more Cave Story, less Hollow Knight.
Messing around with the gunbrella is the driving force of the game, so it’s a good thing that it’s a fundamentally fun tool to use, with plenty of opportunities to use it. As you progress you unlock new kinds of ammunition to expand your combat repertoire. A machine gun lets you pick off enemies from long range. Grenades let you take out patrolling groups of baddies from behind cover. Later on, you can tag enemies with sticky bombs. Delightfully, because Gunbrella only ever uses two buttons – ‘fire gun’ and ‘open umbrella’ – you trigger your sticky bombs to detonate just by opening your umbrella. There’s a gentle logic there that’s deeply pleasing – a bit like that old idiom, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. Except with umbrellas.
As entertaining as the blasting and umbrella-batics all is, Gunbrella struggles to evolve into much more than a straightforward side-scrolling shooter. The stuff that spills out of dead enemies’ pockets hints at a more complex game that never quite shows up. Cogs are a currency that can be used to upgrade your gunbrella, for example, though there are only two upgrades you can ever purchase: faster reload times and increased attack power. These make little material difference to the core loop of flying and bouncing around the screen, giddily blasting away at baddies until they’re goop.
The coins you collect can be used to buy pills or cook food, which restore health or give you temporary extra hearts. But save points and vitality-restoring benches are so liberally dotted around Gunbrella’s world, and the punishment for failure is rarely more than just a minute of your time, that death isn’t something to be afraid of or even actively avoid. If you encounter a particularly challenging room, it’s usually quicker and a lot more fun to repeatedly throw yourself back into the fight than it is to backtrack, cook up a few more rats, bolster your health and try again.
These light cooking and upgrading options unintentionally underscore the parts of Gunbrella that aren’t actually present – a little strategic depth, customisation and added complexity that never reveals itself in the few hours it takes to reach the game’s end – but crucially they never get in the way of the good stuff either: the shooting and the running and the jumping around with your shotgun that also happens to be an umbrella.
Gunbrella is a short and intensely fun little shooter, whose biggest fault is occasionally luring you into wanting it to be something more than it actually is. What’s here is a bouncy, blasty, highly original 2D platformer with a silly and interesting weapon at its core, set in a filthy dirty steampunk western world, with dialogue that’s cute but not too cute, a catchy musical score and a screen that shakes just right when you fire your shotgun into a guy.
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