This was already going to be a hard year for year-end "best of" lists. We saw this coming with the likes of Zelda and Starfield dominating discourse pre- and post-release, but as if on cue, a hot pack of indies slides in at the end of the year to remind you where the real flavor is. Sea of Stars, Videoverse, Chants of Senaar... and now, Gunbrella.
Gunbrella is not just a good game, it's a game that offers multiple entries into those "best of" lists. You've got the game's namesake throwing itself in for the Best Weapon of 2023, the game's mood-setting soundtrack slotting in easily for Best Soundtrack of 2023, and more than a few oddball characters settling in for Best Characters of 2023.
Will the game on the whole land itself near the top of that all-important ranking of Best Games of 2023, though? Honestly... all signs point to yes.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Sept. 13, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
Doinksoft is a small team nestled in Eugene, Oregon: noteworthy because, as the team says, "As it is so often in Oregon, it is always raining in the world of Gunbrella." They are a small team. You could count the number of major contributors on this project with your own two hands. After Doinksoft captured the industry's attention with the likes of Gato Roboto — an adorable mini-Metroidvania — and the various fun projects they did in association with Devolver Digital, Devolver decided they'd seen enough evidence and bought the team up in 2023.
Gunbrella is the first project to come out of that holiest of unions and saw most of its development during the pandemic. Doinksoft used Gunbrella to explore the frustrations they had with the world during that time: with the environment, with cops, with something uncontrollable taking over their world and putting their lives at a standstill.
And it all works so well. Considering how much the game would have worked without any narrative, what is here is all the more impressive and enjoyable.
Gunbrella is a neo-western with "punk-noir" vibes, a revenge story that centers around the eponymous shotgun-umbrella hybrid and the rugged revenge-focused man, Murray, who wields it. The game's cold open sets the stage simply and quickly: After gathering some ingredients for dinner, Murray returns home to find his home in shambles and blood spattered everywhere. His wife is dead and his infant daughter is gone. Kidnapped. All that he has as any kind of evidence is a strange umbrella weapon left at the scene of the crime.
Through his single-minded, blood-soaked revenge, something that feels unstoppable and powerful with your control, you can feel Doinksoft wrestling back some power from the "unprecedented times" we've all worked against these last few years. You'll rummage through factories that are bleeding the planet dry, topple an authoritarian police force whose singular focus is hatred, and take down anyone who stands between Murray and his kidnapped daughter. It's a cathartic feeling. But it isn't all down in the dumps and that painful kind of nostalgia. Gunbrella has character.
From the jump, when you wander into the game's first town and meet the likes of a pill-addled shopkeep named Bill and a strange man in the sewers who can cook up various critters you pick up in the world — aptly named Sewert — you've got a sense that Doinksoft is down to clown (if their studio name didn't already give you a hint). And if VGG's known for anything, it's a general love for clownery.
Gunbrella's got a very endearing cast of weirdos littered throughout its world. The game constantly presents both sides of its coin: the brutal, painful revenge story with horrifying monsters (human and not) and the light, goofy world where umbrellas are weapons and cultists have mommy issues. It toes that line and manages to make it all work thanks to a few of its first-rate aesthetic decisions.
Gunbrella's lightly discordant, flip-floppy tone is channeled through every means possible: the film grain effect that gives the pixel-art side-scrolling affair a grittier filmic quality; the soundtrack that jumps swiftly from jazzy noir to hectic drum and bass at a moment's notice; the burgeoning darkness revealed in the first act that makes the lighter moments all the better when they surprise you.
And that dense pixel art makes the world feel lived in and familiar as you explore and see common building blocks shared across towns. Characters are made all the more charming thanks to their stout design and their small, unique animation quirks — like Murray's hat lifting just off of his head each time he jumps. Gunbrella will have you exploring the gritty landscapes of dingy towns, creepy castles, industrial factories, and a literal junkyard. It all hits just right.
I also found the NPCs' Sims-like gibberish voice lines endearing. My personal favorite is Bill's "Rabadeebo!" in Gunbrella's second town. It always brings a smile to my face.
I quickly acquired a taste for Gunbrella's story. But my first love was its gameplay.
Gunbrella is tight (both in the cool old school '90s lingo definition and the excellent game feel meaning). For starters, Gunbrella controls beautifully — and that all centers around the versatility of the Gunbrella itself. The ways Doinksoft managed to squeeze mechanics out of this goofy lil' thing is something to write home about. It's probably the best new weapon that's been introduced since the Portal Gun. You'll use this umbrella for everything. And almost every single thing that it does just feels right.
It all starts with the movement. Any time you open up your Gunbrella and move in any direction, Murray soars up in that direction and then begins to float as long as it's out and you've got no land under your feet. It doesn't take long for you to get into a flow where you bunnyhop around using the Gunbrella's dash-like ability to glide through spaces with ease. It eventually can be used as a little hook as well to swing across gaps, which, when paired with the dash, makes it feel like a good old grappling hook. Platforming has never felt better this year (and maybe in past years, but you'll have to check back with me because I'm too scared to make a definitive statement like that).
In combat, another perk of the Gunbrella being opened is it serves as a shield. The Gunbrella can push back just about anything that's shot your way, and if you time it just right, it even returns to sender for some satisfying counters. While it never quite crosses over into bullet hell territory, enemies can mob you with attacks. The Gunbrella's defensive abilities always made those situations feel manageable... almost to a fault.
If there's any issue I have with Gunbrella it's the simple fact that at its normal difficulty, some of the more climactic moments are simultaneously the easiest. A lot of the boss fights, while appropriately epic and themed well, are a little underwhelming in difficulty, particularly in the back half of the game when Murray and the Gunbrella feel exceptionally unstoppable. Just block the enemy's telegraphed attacks, shoot a bunch, and you win. Rather than a crescendo of a "stage" and all that you learned within it, you often just breeze past.
Meanwhile, it's easy to end up mobbed by simple enemies and tossed to your death while just getting through a basic room. Not the biggest issue in the world, but certainly a bit uneven.
As a weapon, the Gunbrella mainly serves as a shotgun. You have a short-range burst of shots and have to do a quick little reload in between shots. And man does it feel satisfying. Crunchy, powerful, impactful. It's so good that I struggled to pull myself away to use any of the various other ammo types that can be fed into the Gunbrella to make it more akin to a burst rifle, a grenade launcher, and others I won't spoil. Especially because the base weapon can get so upgraded that it stands superior to all others.
The Gunbrella is good, y'all.
As for the actual flow of moment-to-moment gameplay... Gunbrella shares a lot of DNA with Doinksoft's first title, Gato Roboto. I wouldn't say Gunbrella is a full Metroidvania, more an action-adventure side-scroller with large cities serving as the game's "chapters." You'll be given wide open spaces to explore, and there are tons of fun secret nooks and crannies, but it's not so much the traditional "find abilities and items, backtrack to unlock new areas, don't really know where you're headed" as it is pushing through linear dungeon-like spaces, blowing through enemies, and pulling off some nifty platforming while stopping in town to purchase upgrades and cook up critters for healing.
But while that sense of exploration makes you feel like you're familiarizing yourself with a space, the game is only setting you up to have it suddenly shift on you.
These cities and the "dungeons" within them are well designed, specifically for the Gunbrella's movement and combat capabilities — to the point where getting through them is intuitive. The landscapes invite you to try out specific dashes and beckon you to interact with the environment in a fun way.
I found Gunbrella to be the kind of game where the time breezes by, and before you know it, it's over. Gunbrella clocks in around 6-7 hours for a casual playthrough and 7-8 for those who strive to see everything the game has in store. While not a major detractor, the game does feel like it rushes to its end, sacrificing some exploration in its fascinating final third.
But I'll tell you what... that doesn't hold it back from the greatness it achieves.
Playing Gunbrella reminded me of the first time I played classics like Cave Story, Untitled Story, and Owlboy: games that nailed the vibes in all facets, provided a play experience I could just lose myself in, and didn't overstay their welcome. Games that delivered satisfaction on all levels. Games that more than earn that declarative "video games are GOOD" while playing.
Doinksoft had already cemented itself as a studio worth following with games like Gato Roboto and Demon Throttle, but Gunbrella makes them a "no questions asked" team moving forward. It's one of the best games I've played all year.