If games were judged solely on their ability to create an atmosphere, then you’d have your indie title of the year right here. There is, of course, more to a game than that, and luckily roguelite platformer Nongünz has a few more tricks up its sleeve, even if its greatest achievement remains its foreboding tone.
I can’t go further without talking about the visuals, which are striking from both a technical and artistic viewpoint. With the palette essentially limited to grayscale, backgrounds display a high-detail pixel-art style that recalls those memorable ’80s text adventures where static rendered screens gave the player a flavor of each location. The music, too, is distinctive, with its somber guitars and haunting vocal. It all combines to form a supremely oppressive gothic horror ambiance that gives Nongünz its unique character, successfully setting it apart from a thoroughly crowded genre.
You awaken suddenly, a tiny figure amongst the cracked tombstones of a decrepit, empty graveyard. It isn’t long before you figure out that your only route forward is through the huge doorway of a decaying crypt. Within its depths, you’ll fight grotesque monsters (mainly animate human viscera…that’s right) in a number of interconnected rooms. Each room is predesigned, but they’re arranged together in a different, randomly generated order for each run. And there will be many runs: Nongünz is rock-hard, and its roguelite nature means that death results in a trip back to the graveyard and a restart, with some of your previous life’s achievements, and loot, accompanying you into the next.
Not that any of this is clear from the start. With virtually no onscreen text and no obvious visual clues, Nongünz is one of those rare examples of a game that doesn’t handhold. At all. Some of the elements are straightforward enough to grasp if you’ve played something similar. You’ll blast enemies, hop between platforms, loot treasure chests, and fight your way to a boss. Other parts of the game are incredibly opaque, though; how should you use the playing card-like pickups littered throughout the levels? And what are the strange creatures you’re freeing from the depths that find their way back to the graveyard to greet you when you respawn? Far from being a negative, I found figuring out how everything worked a real thrill. It deftly demonstrated the extent modern games worry about keeping the player in the dark, leading to an overreliance on exposition, tutorials, and tooltips, sapping some of the joy of discovery.
The game drip-feeds progress really well, too. Even if, like me, you spend the first hour trying different approaches to the combat, doing plenty of dying and restarting in the process, your character’s stats increase over time, along with the rate you accumulate wealth (spent bullets are, bizarrely, the currency of Nongünz—each time you fire, a number increases, and that figure is exactly the amount your have to spend on items).
The main issue I had with Nongünz is that once you get past the wonderfully appealing aesthetic, the game’s mechanics are nothing special. That’s not to say combat isn’t fun, it’s perfectly fine. It’s just not doing anything particularly revolutionary, which is a shame when you consider that the game challenges convention in so many other areas.
Nongünz is a total oddity, but a rewarding one if you put the time in to discover its mysteries (I’ve purposely left undescribed the peculiar and utterly unexpected framing mechanism you’re treated to when you attempt to quit—I’ll leave that for you to discover). Though the gameplay itself has its limitations, there’s more than enough here to justify Nongünz’s meager price-tag. In fact, its bravura alone is well worth the price of admission.