Good things often come in small packages. Gunpoint is just such a good thing in such a small package. Like the tiny buildings you circumnavigate and infiltrate the game in, Gunpoint itself is an intricate series of interlocking circuits and gears that are fine-tuned and waiting for you to bend them to your will.
You play as Richard Conway, a trench coat spy who, after a failed job, is embroiled in a paranoid '70s-style corporate espionage conspiracy. You will accompany him on infiltration missions as he sneaks into apartment buildings, high security facilities, office complexes, and weapons manufacturing laboratories to pursue the truth.
Gunpoint may be a stealth game, but Conway isn't a Sam Fisher wannabe crouching in the shadows berating unsuspecting guards. His methods are a little more flashy and a lot of fun. He has super-powered pants that allow him to throw himself several hundred meters into the air and land without damage. Players align their jump by holding down the left mouse button, similar to aiming in tanks or worms. Let go and sprout!
Every little building Conway infiltrates into is manned by little guards who are no less keen-eyed and deadly because they are so small. If you get lost in a guard's field of vision, you will be shot instantly. It does this with shocking immediacy and very little fanfare. So it becomes very important to negotiate around the guards to a corner computer or hidden prototype that you want to hack or steal.
To do this, you will need to rewire the building's security devices and devices. This is where Gunpoint differs from other stealth games. Via a wonderfully simple interface, players can switch to a hacking overlay called "Crosslink" which they can use to access and manipulate the building's wiring.
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Seeing it in action (like in this trailer above) is easier than explaining it, but I'll try: on the floor above you is a guard that goes left and right. You are standing next to a light switch. When you get into the overlay view, you'll (of course) see a wire from your light switch to the light above your head. However, if you switch to connectivity mode, you can rewire your light switch to open a door on the level above you. If you choose the right time, you can have the guard open and turn him off. Or you can rewire the light switch to send a charge to an electrical outlet and electrocute it as you pass. Or let it open a trapdoor and let him fall to his death. Or you can turn off the lights, sneak behind him, and bring him down with a well-timed jump. Or or or.
The game consists of a collection or reprogrammable binary equations. With the exception of the guards, every object in the world has two states: on / off, open / close, activated / not activated. By layering so many fundamentally simple variables together, Gunpoint manages to be complex without feeling overwhelming.
The guards are the X-Factor of the game and they set Gunpoint apart from the superficially similar (albeit differently entertaining) iOS game Beat Sneak Bandit. Guards behave according to simple but realistic AI programming, which means you'll have to go through a level in half the time manipulating them like you're manipulating a keyboard or door. When you turn off the lights in a room, you will find that the security guard in the room immediately flips the light switch. So if you first rewire the guard's light switch to open a vault door that you cannot access and then turn off the lights in his room, he will accidentally open the vault for you.
Gunpoint is never that difficult, especially if you don't mind leaving a significant number of bodies behind. That said, you will be rated for your performance at the end of each building, and getting a perfect rating without killing anyone requires a much smarter, more creative grade.
Despite the many times Conway shot during my time with the game, I never felt punished. This is thanks in part to the ingenious QuickSave implementation which is one of Gunpoint's smartest ideas. After death, you will be given several quick charge options, each a few seconds back in time. It's used for experimentation, and the near-instant loading times mean that failure will only set you back a few seconds. The system messed me up a bit, especially on the final level when an annoying bug got me lost for a few minutes. But I suspect this was just a bug and will be fixed quickly.
Gunpoint's script is also a winner. Between missions, Conway will be texting his various contacts and employers, and they're full of fun (and, as it should be said, definitely British) humor that will delight fans of 90s point-and-click games me a bit foggy. It runs in a kind of "low chuckle," and Conway's gentle, sardonic approach to death-defying wet work is a welcome contrast to your average oh-so-serious video game anti-hero.
(Also noteworthy: Gunpoint has some of the funniest Steam achievements I've seen in a while. Why can't every game have so much fun with achievements?)
The soundtrack also deserves a mention, although it's a bit uneven. (That makes sense because it was written by three different composers.) At best, it conjures up the smoky jazz of classic noir cinema. The strongest pieces include a live jazz ensemble, while some others morph into overly hectic sampled instruments when they'd have done better to keep things understated. (While some of the pieces feature nice tenor sax solos, another features keyboard sax. Yes. Keyboard sax. What's that, a They Might Be Giants album in the mid-90s? (You know what, don't answer.) In Another cool touch has the music recorded twice for each level, resulting in a more synth-heavy, atmospheric feel when you switch to the crosslink overlay. It's nifty and reminiscent of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. You can get the full soundtrack on Bandcamp.
Amazingly, Gunpoint is by and large the work of one man – it was designed, programmed, and written by Tom Francis, who was a writer for PC Gamer magazine outside of his working hours. (I don't really know Francis personally, but I think he's a good writer and a shrewd critic.) It's hard to believe this is his first game. Not only is it well-written and fun, it's flawlessly designed and contains some really new ideas. He kept a large collection of development diaries and his process was very transparent. He's even published a manifesto about the types of games he wants to make. As you read it, it is clear that he designed Gunpoint with each of these goals in mind.
There are of course more. Gunpoint comes with a full level editor that players can use to design their own missions. It ends with a wonderful bonus that I won't spoil, although I can't imagine it will remain a secret for long after the game is released. Suffice it to say, Gunpoint is smart, creative, responsive, surprising, and obsessed with unusual respect for the player.
In the middle of the story, Conway notices twist stacks stacking on backstab stacks on double cross: "I love this job." It shows.