The shape-shifting Tower of Guns offers a briefly irresistible Rogue-like that borrows Quake's pacing and Borderlands' outlandish arsenal.
The gun remains the most heavily relied upon tool in video games, and perhaps it will always be this way. Guns excel and dominate on the interactive small screen. They allow us to interact with objects near (the lunging zombie) and far (the high wall-mounted switch) with an ease and speed only rivalled by the bow and arrow (which, alas, doesn't provide quite the same racket or variation as its modern descendant). Invention is rare. Perfect Dark presented us with a gun that could peer and reach through walls; Half-Life 2 a gun that could slurp up loose objects and, with a reversal of gravity, spit them out again as impromptu bullets; Portal a gun that could create shortcuts in the fabric of space and time. But these are outliers. Elsewhere, the evolution of the video game gun follows that of its real world counterpart, a dour and constant sprint to improve its rate, recoil and impact.
Tower of Guns, as you might expect from the name, makes the progression explicit. As you hurtle upwards through the tower, floor by floor, you must gobble up the blue chips that improve your chosen weapon as they confetti from downed foes. You may carry only one gun through the game, so evolution, rather than substitution is the only way to keep offensive power abreast of the tower's constantly strengthening enemies. A fully levelled weapon will obliterate the opposition, but as you take damage you gun's level takes a hit too. Find yourself struck by a barrage of missiles late in the game and you can be left with a sliver of health and nothing but a base-level peashooter for protection.
It's an ingenious design that sits comfortably within the broader context of this Quake-style Rogue-like, not least because it encourages caution when everything else in the game is urging you to press on through the phalanxes of cannons. Each of the tower's seven storeys has a 'par time', which, if beaten, will often net you a new weapon or perk. The higher floors of the tower are filled with an array of apocalyptically large turrets, flying tanks and floating bombs, and often the best way to progress is simply to race toward the door. But fail to find the exit and you may find yourself instead cornered instead. In Tower of Guns, a run can be over in seconds, sending you back to the beginning to try again.
This is, ostensibly, a short game: the main arc can be completed in less than half an hour (an Endless Mode awaits the victorious). But interest and variety comes from its randomly generated structure. Each of the tower's floors is pieced together from a range of different room layouts, and the position and type of enemies and items within changes each 'run'. As such, you never know quite what's behind each door, something that offers an element of architectural surprise but also the need to react accordingly. There's a pleasing variety to the final boss character designs on each floor, everything from a room filled with rotating spiked walls (you must attack the giant cog that turns them) to a weaponised pipe organ. But the strategy required to defeat each one is too similar; usually you need only strafe while firing.
The rhythm of play is most notably altered by your choice of starting weapon. Initially you have just two options: the 'Peas-N-Carrots Pistol' (a weak but serviceable handgun) or the 'Portable Pizza Oven, which fires saw blades. But as you complete certain challenges (by, say, destroying a set number of tanks, collecting a set number of different items, or finding a set number of secrets) you unlock new options. Some, such as the 609mm Hand Cannon, fire tiny missiles that, as the gun is levelled up, explode with greater range and force. Others, such as Egon's Pride, are rapid-fire rifles. In each case, you are rushing to reach the final evolved form of the gun, which usually makes short work of the opposition.
During each run you're also allowed to install a single perk that grants, for example, immunity to fall damage, a triple jump (necessary to reach higher platforms), or a boost that ensures loot doesn't disappear after a set amount of time. While you can only have a single perk equipped at any one time, you can pick new perks up during a run, and these will stack so it's possible to reach the final boss with numerous buffs working concurrently.
The design of the constituent rooms ranges from ingenious through dull to plain unworkable. In one area, if you fall to the bottom ledge you'll need to 'tilt' (the game's parlance for restarting an area) in order to get yourself out of the predicament. Each floor of the tower is home to a multitude of secrets, usually areas behind false walls (which you can reach simply by walking into the texture). This design encourages a certain amount of exploration, but also contributes to the general sense of flimsiness to the environments, which lack the weight and solidity of, say Quake or Borderlands (the two games with which Tower of Guns shares the most similarities).
There's a light story of sorts, delivered via un-voiced dialogue boxes that appear on screen each time you enter a new floor. These are difficult to read while playing unless you find a safe spot to take them in but, if you do choose to engage (the entire story can be switched off via a menu toggle) there's some lightly amusing context for the action. The game's creator, Joe Mirabello, often addresses the player via these conversation snippets directly, and takes the time to apologise for bugs or to implore the player to tell their friends about the game so he won't have to return to a big budget game development studio. This fourth-wall breaking material works better on PC, where the independent spirit and irreverent chatter is charming, but on PlayStation 4 it sits less comfortably.
The arcade-like structure and mounting pile of perks and weapons gives Tower of Guns an irresistible, if brief, appeal. There's tremendous fun to be had questing up the tower, amassing buffs and improvements to both your character and their weaponry, and racing against the clock. But soon enough, the repetitious enemy and environment designs begin to tire, and the initial bullishness of the evolving guns feels a little conservative; nothing goes quite far enough. Tower of Guns fails to reach the heights it might have reached, then, but provides an enjoyable run all the same.