Roguelikes; since the indie market exploded a few years back, everyone’s played at least one. Occasionally they lacquer themselves in a pleasing sheen in a brazen attempt to draw in new players, their shiny and playful exteriors offering no hint of the exacting punishment locked inside. Far more honest are the ones where the outward aesthetic reflects the contained brutality and strife proudly, as a declaration of intent. Roguelikes are like Marmite; they’re not for everyone, and they know it.
In the wake of such staples of the genre such as FTL and The Binding Of Isaac steps Nongünz, a strange starkly-coloured world of death where a nondescript skeleton man perpetually ventures into a massive mausoleum to slay the bizarre beasties within and escape with the riches they guard. On each foray into the curious crypt you’ll encounter a series of linked rooms selected at random, but there will always be three of note clearly marked: a red skull where a punishingly hard boss resides, a black chest where a special item can be yours for free, and a white skull where a friendly gravedigger and shopkeep can sell you even more mysterious items. What said items do can be a bit of a skull-scratcher; aside from obvious weapons like Uzis or rocket launchers, the purpose of the others remains hidden until you have actually picked them up. Luckily, any unwanted nicknacks can be instantly burned up for a quick health boost. Speaking of skulls, there are plenty of these to be found and collected which bestow entirely new abilities, from a powerful and fiery ground smash to Portal-style teleportation.
Controls are nimble and precise enough to be best played with a pad if possible; although you are not free to aim you do have a few tricks up your sleeve (well, metaphorically speaking). A dodge roll is useful for avoiding timed attacks, while a laid-back slide can get you into tight areas and has the added effect of letting you fire straight up to bother aerial enemies. Windows present in some rooms offer the chance to escape back outside, that you might heal up and grab some new gear before heading back to tackle a troublesome boss. With death’s cruel sting however comes the loss of everything you worked for, save your perennial pistol, with nothing to do but rise from the earth and try again. The one bonus which persists is the band of cultists which you can individually find and rescue; they will remain outside praying to the towering obelisk to violence and chrome, raising your score in the process.
In addition to being gruelingly difficult, Nongünz is also standoffish and obtuse; aside from a brief movement tutorial for your unnamed, featureless boney avatar, there’s nary a help menu or other semblance of guidance in sight. Much as not holding the player’s hand too tightly is to be applauded, almost nothing is explained here, from saving your items to how shops and money work, or even your overall objective. Text is almost completely absent, with the purpose of items and controls explained by crude pixelated pictograms. Indeed, the only prominent sentence is etched into the crumbling marble of the monument; the game’s adopted slogan, ‘Dulce Bellum Inexpertis’, a quote from the Greek poet Pindar which translates as ‘War is sweet to those who have not experienced it’. Reminiscent of Spec Ops: The Line, we appear to have a game that revels in unlimited violence but does so in service to an underlying counterpoint.
The overall aesthetic is very similar to Downwell; mostly monochrome with the occasional lurid splash of red left by the enemies as they fleshily squirm and ooze around. Gothic columns loom above you, and rooms are filled with dusty furniture and decaying equipment. As with any roguelike the room layout is generated at random each time, but due to the art style and palette it all starts to look the same very quickly, and after a while you’ll start to recognise the same rooms popping up in different configurations. An old-style CRT monitor overlay is on by default, but can be disabled if you find it obstructive. Interestingly for such lo-fi visuals the soundtrack is surprisingly comprised not of the expected gritty chiptune but rather sparse, but unmistakably real instruments. An urgent acoustic guitar stabs unrelentingly as an ethereal choir laments in the background, providing a very fitting atmosphere.
It’s unforgiving, relentless, and pulls precisely zero punches; even the treasure chests hurt to open. Then again, some of you weirdos are probably into that. Nongünz offers a fresh slice of the macabre for masochists who’ve already mastered all the genre favourites, but newcomers might want to first try something a touch more friendly and forgiving like Rogue Legacy or Spelunky. If they get a taste for it, Nongünz and its crypt will be here, waiting.