Good things often come in small packages. Gunpoint is just such a good thing, in just such a small package. Like the diminutive buildings you’ll spend the game circumnavigating and infiltrating, Gunpoint itself is an intricate array of interlocking circuits and gears, finely tuned and waiting for you to bend it to your will.
You play as Richard Conway, a trenchcoated spy-for-hire who, after a job gone wrong, finds himself caught up in a paranoid, ’70s-style corporate espionage plot. You’ll guide him on infiltration missions as he sneaks into apartment buildings, high-security compounds, office complexes and weapons-manufacturing labs, all in a fairly laid-back pursuit of the truth.
Gunpoint may be a stealth game, but Conway isn’t some Sam Fisher-wannabe, crouching in the shadows and garroting unsuspecting guards. His methods are a bit flashier, and a hell of a lot of fun. He owns a pair of superpowered trousers that allow him to launch himself hundreds of feet into the air and land without harm. Players line up his leap by holding down the left mouse button, sort of like taking aim in Tanks or Worms. Release and sproiiing!
Every wee building Conway infiltrates is staffed with wee guards who are no less sharp-eyed and deadly for being so wee. If you stray into a guard’s field of vision, you’ll be shot in an instant. This occurs with shocking immediacy and very little fanfare. It therefore becomes very important to negotiate your way around the guards to whatever corner computer or hidden prototype you’re trying to hack or steal.
To do that, you’ll have to re-wire the building’s security devices and appliances, which is where Gunpoint finds sets itself apart from other stealth games. Through a wonderfully simple interface, players can flip over to a hacking overlay called the “crosslink,” which lets them access the wiring of the building and manipulate it.
It’s easier to watch it in action (as in that trailer above) than to explain, but I’ll give it a shot: There’s a guard on the floor above you, pacing left and right. You’re standing next to a lightswitch. By entering the overlay view, you see a wire going from your lightswitch to the light above your head (naturally.) However, flicking over to crosslink mode, you can rewire your lightswitch to open a door on the level above you. If you time it right, you can cause it to open onto the guard, knocking him out. Or you can rewire the lightswitch to send a charge to a power outlet, electrocuting him as he walks by. Or have it open a trapdoor, dropping him to his death. Or you can turn off the lights and sneak up behind him, taking him down with a well-timed jump. Or, or, or.
The game, then, is made up of a collection or reprogrammable binary equations. Except for the guards, every object in the world has two states: on/off, open/closed, activated/not activated. By layering so many fundamentally simple variables on top of one another, Gunpoint manages to be complex without feeling overwhelming.
The guards are the game’s x-factor, and they’re what sets Gunpoint apart from the superficially similar (though differently enjoyable) iOS game Beat Sneak Bandit. Guards behave according to simple but realistic AI programming, meaning that half the time, you’ll have to progress through a level by manipulating them like you’d manipulate a keypad or a door. If you turn off the lights in one room, you’ll learn that the guard in the room will immediately go and flick the lightswitch. So, if you first rewire the guard’s lightswitch to open a vault door you can’t access, then turn off the lights in his room, he’ll inadvertently open the vault for you.
Gunpoint is never all that difficult, particularly if you don’t mind leaving a sizable body count in your wake. That said, you’ll be rated for your performance at the end of each building, and achieving a perfect rating without killing anyone requires a much defter, more creative touch.
Despite the many times Conway took a bullet over the course of my time with the game, I never felt punished. That’s thanks in part to the ingenious quicksave implementation, which is one of Gunpoint‘s smartest ideas. Upon death, you’ll be given three quickload options, each one going a few seconds further back in time. It serves to encourage experimentation and the near-instant load-times mean that failure only sets you back a matter of seconds. The system did go a bit haywire on me, particularly during the final level, when an annoying bug lost me a couple of minutes’ progress. But I’m guessing that was just a bug, and will be quickly worked out.
Gunpoint‘s script is also a winner. In between missions, Conway will engage in text-message conversations with his various contacts and employers, and they’re laced with droll (and, it must be said, distinctly British) humour that will make fans of 90s point-and-click games feel a bit misty. It runs at a sort of “low chuckle” setting, and Conway’s mellow, sardonic approach to death-defying wetwork stands in welcome contrast to your average oh-so-serious video game antihero.
(Also of note: Gunpoint has some of the funniest Steam achievements I’ve seen in a while. Why can’t every game have this much fun with achievements?)
The soundtrack, too, deserves a mention, though it’s a tad uneven. (That makes sense, given that it was written by three separate composers.) At its best, it conjures the smokey jazz of classic noir cinema. The strongest tunes feature a live jazz ensemble, though some others devolve into overly-frantic sampled instruments when they would’ve done better to keep things understated. (While a couple of the pieces feature lovely tenor sax solos, another features keyboard sax. Yeah. Keyboard sax. What is this, a mid-90s They Might Be Giants album? (You know what, don’t answer that.)) In another cool touch, each the music for each level has been recorded twice, flipping to a more synth-heavy, atmospheric vibe when you switch to the crosslink overlay. It’s nifty, and conjures fond memories of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.
Somewhat astonishingly, Gunpoint is by and large the work of one man — it was designed, programmed and written by Tom Francis, working in off-hours from his day job as a writer for PC Gamer magazine. (I don’t really know Francis personally, but I do think he’s a fine writer and a smart critic.) It’s difficult to believe this is his first game; it isn’t just well-written and fun, it’s immaculately designed and contains some genuinely new ideas. He’s kept a great collection of development diaries, and his process has welcomely transparent. He’s even posted a manifesto regarding the kinds of games he wants to make. Reading over it, it’s clear that he designed Gunpoint with each of those goals in mind.
There’s more, of course. Gunpoint comes with a full level-editor that lets players design their own missions, and it ends with a delightful bonus that I won’t spoil, though I don’t imagine it’ll remain a secret for long once the game is released. But suffice it to say, Gunpoint is smart, creative, responsive, surprising, and possessed of an uncommon respect for the player.
Midway through the story, as twist piles upon backstab piles upon double-cross, Conway remarks, “I love this job.”