Gunhead Review – Armored Snore

For all their might, mythos, and power, giant robots are actually rather fragile. Wrap them up in a good story and truly capture their essence, you may just end up with an all-time classic. Fumble their ferocity, however, and all you’re left with is disappointment. It’s difficult to balance gunplay, scale, and aesthetic. So difficult, in fact, that some games simply don’t rise to the challenge.

From developer Alientrap, Gunhead is a roguelike first-person shooter that puts players in the cockpit of a pirate mech. Each run, we’re tasked with conquering a series of space stations. These vary in difficulty, layout, and challenge type. Every base is an engaging puzzle in itself, but ultimately let down by what surrounds it. There are good ideas here, but they’re buried beneath unengaging gameplay and lackluster presentation.

Love me some brown.

Gunhead’s core gameplay loop is simple—get in the robot, pick your guns, take a second to plan your route, and make your way to the station’s core. It’s comfortable in how familiar and simple it is. After entering a space station, you’ll have to shoot robots and system cores, unlock doors, shoot more things, then blow up a boss. There are side objectives you can take on, but these essentially follow the same path. And it’s a fun path! There’s a floatiness to the movement and shooting that works in Gunhead’s favor. We’re meant to be a space pirate, and the light step helps sell that. Rapidly moving back and forth, boosting up and down, dodging side to side; basic traversal is simply fun to do.

On the other hand, gunplay in Gunhead is a mixed bag. Guns fire fast, and there’s a good variety of weapons to keep things fresh. There’s a frenetic, high octane energy to encounters which I really enjoyed. That said, after a couple runs with a mix of machine guns, grenade launchers, flamethrowers, melee, and a standard blaster, I found little reason to play around with builds. It’s easy enough and often more ammo efficient to just brute force your way through most rooms with one-hit melee kills. Explosives help with the occasional enemy cluster, but the bots you battle are usually spaced out enough that there’s little need. More often than not, shooting devolves into near-mindless blaster spam while moving to the next objective.

Look at all those platforms.

Where Gunhead’s weapon variety really shines, though, is the boss battles. For most stations, the boss is just another system core in the shape of a brain. It might shoot lasers or be surrounded by turrets that do the same, but it’s usually just a sitting duck. This presents a fun opportunity in itself. On a controller, weapons are mapped to the four shoulder weapons a la Armored Core. Absolutely unloading all four guns at once is a sublime feeling, only amplified by seeing a massive health bar get melted in seconds. With actual bosses, like the Python, there’s even some element of strategy. Dodge the moves but stay fast and get in close, then unleash your arsenal on their weak spot. Fun as this can be, though, Gunhead’s bosses aren’t the most complex, which doesn’t uplift the already middling journey to reach them.

The map and level design also suffer the same imbalance. To its credit, Gunhead offers a surprising depth of strategic planning. Every space station will have different system cores, each responsible for one of the obstacles between you and the main core. Alarms, shields, enemy bot factories, that kind of thing. Every time I entered a new ship, I took the time to check the map and plan my route between each relevant core based on my side objectives. Sometimes I took out specific cores in a certain order, other times I just beelined to the shields protecting the boss. With either approach, I was moving in and out of the space station, between rooms and through different airlocks. It was fast, at times frantic, and usually fun. I even looked forward to Shuffle cores, which do exactly what you expect. Navigating every ship is genuinely enjoyable from a surface level.

Give ya one guess which one is the target.

Once you get into the weeds, however, Gunhead’s cracks begin to show. Exploration stops being so engaging when you realize just what you’re exploring. Drab environments abound, with squares of random piping and machinery utterly draped in some metallic brown or grey with purple or blue lighting—sometimes red, if they’re feeling spicy. I understand that each space station is supposed to be a decrepit husk, but there are ways to make that visually interesting. Here, it all blends together terribly. Most of what I ended up looking at in Gunhead was not nearly as striking as trailers had me believe. It was disheartening, to say the least. Airlocks start out as a fun way to mix up internal and external traversal, but end up a reprieve from the dull aesthetic by allowing me back into the void of space.

Room layouts also repeat more often than not, and it’s easy to learn how to venture through each one regardless of what enemies may lurk within. What little strategy there was outside of bosses goes out the window after a few runs. This is to say nothing of enemies who, more often than not, just sit there in each room, waiting for you to get close for them to go for a hit or two before pausing again. While I’ve praised Gunhead’s frenetic energy, upon closer inspection, most of it was just the way I moved through each station.

The final frontier… and the many doors into it.

And therein lies the constant struggle of Gunhead. For everything it does to delight, it manages to disappoint in equal measure. The balancing act of starting with strategy and devolving into dull, mindless blasting is difficult to maintain. There’s a power fantasy here, and at times it shines. For the most part, it’s just kind of there. I want to like Gunhead more than I do, but as it is, this gun misses its mark more often than not.


Sarim played Gunhead on PC with a code provided by the publisher. Gunhead is available on PS5 and PC via Steam.

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