Wildcat Gun Machine Review: A Thoroughly Broken Doom-Like

As my plasma rifle tears through the last grotesque, biomechanical demon in the room, the door opens, and I sprint down a winding hallway. In a small room at the end of the hall, I find a familiar and very welcome sight— a floating, bright green body armor pickup. And beside it, the blue key card that will get me into the next demon-infested wing of this labyrinthine facility. No, I’m not playing id Software’s first person, demon-slaying masterpiece, Doom. I’m playing chunkybox games’ top-down, twin-stick demon-slaying shovelware, Wildcat Gun Machine! Read on to find out why you shouldn’t!

In Wildcat Gun Machine, you play as a badass chick with an eye patch and the mysterious ability to return from death with the help of ghostlike kitty cats. The game is completely devoid of any story beyond this. Who is this cyclopian cat lady? Why is she murdering the innocent demons inhabiting this abandoned complex? Why is the cat skull tattoo on her arm also emblazoned on the giant doors to a hell dimension? What happened here, and what is her connection to this place? And what’s with the ghost kitties? Wildcat Gun Machine concerns itself with none of this.

Now, before I start ripping and tearing into this game, let me start with the positives. I’m positive this game sucks. No, I’m kidding, it’s not all bad. The art direction is decent. With a vibrant neon color palette, cute demons, and a nice grain filter that lends a bit of atmosphere to everything, Wildcat Gun Machine looks good in both handheld mode and on a big tv. 

Enemies are distinct and varied enough to read clearly and quickly, so it’s easy to keep track of what’s going on in the heat of combat. Projectiles are highly visible, and I was never left wondering what the hell I got killed by. The UI is minimal and unobtrusive, displaying your health bar, armor, super meter, and character portrait in the upper left corner, your current gun, ammo count, grenade and dash cooldowns in the lower right, and your bones, the game’s currency, in the lower left. In my favorite little nod to Doom, your character portrait changes from calm to maniacal as your health depletes. Wildcat Gun Machine is a cool looking game, and its controls are smooth and responsive. Unfortunately, it’s just kind of boring. And, also, it has some fundamental design flaws that compound on each other to ruin the whole experience. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
You begin, abruptly, in a facility littered with explosive barrels and demons, because Doom has those things. Armed with nothing but a pea shooter pistol, you navigate hallways, collect color coded key cards to open the corresponding doors, and gun your way through a series of rooms full of enemies, environmental hazards, and lots and lots of hot pink bullets. 

Upon entering pretty much any room that isn’t a hallway, the doors will lock shut, and enemies will begin to spawn into the room in waves. The doors don’t reopen until the last enemy is dead. Enemies are your standard fare— flaming skulls, zombies with laser guns for hands, cybernetic insectoids, grotesque bloated corpses, and eldritch brain horrors. But they essentially boil down to two types: ones that mindlessly chase and attempt to explode against you, and ones that stand still and fill the screen with bullets. Some can teleport around, but otherwise, there really aren’t any interesting or novel enemy behaviors or strategies required to blast your way through the game’s four acts. Keep moving, watch out for laser beams, and hold down the pew button. 

When you first start the game, you’ve got one dinky pistol. You soon find a second, Special weapon. So you always have two guns equipped— a pistol, which has infinite ammo, and a Special gun, which has finite ammo. Ammo box pickups fully refill your special weapon ammo. Of course, the existence of Special guns implies the existence of Not Special guns, and this proves true as the pistols are universally terrible and un-fun. I bought most of them during my first playthrough, and never found any of them much more useful than the pea shooter you start with. Early on, the game tells you that you can press Y to switch weapons. I never found a reason to do this. Special weapons are much more powerful, and ammo is plentiful enough that I only ever used my pistol for brief periods until my good gun was full again.

Killing enemies nets bones which can be spent at checkpoint lockers to purchase new pistols and passive ability upgrades - such as increased movement speed, reduced dash and grenade cooldowns, and more cats, which act as lives. Dying depletes one of your cats. As long as you have a cat, you can respawn outside the room you died in, and you lose no bones. If you have no more cats, death costs a portion of your bones, and you respawn back at the checkpoint, which means you have to fight your way through all the rooms again to get back to where you died. You keep any keycards and special guns you pick up, so you only need to replay the section beyond the last door you unlocked.

Each level contains two boss chambers. There’s always a portal right outside the boss room, so I could easily hop back to the checkpoint to top off my health and ammo and make sure I had my preferred loadout before heading in to face the boss. Every boss room is lined with ammo boxes, so there’s no need to conserve it. At the start of the game, you can only walk and shoot, but upon defeating the first boss you’re awarded grenades and a dash ability. And this is where the game falls apart.
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Dashing is, simply, broken. It has a brief cooldown after use, but with the correct timing you can dash again immediately. The timing is extremely forgiving, and there’s no limit to how many times you can dash in succession. So without any skill at all, you can chain dashes infinitely. Dashing also has invincibility frames for not just the entire dash animation, but several frames afterward. So as long as you’re chain dashing, you are one hundred percent invulnerable to all damage. From any source. Bullets, enemy contact, laser beams, explosive barrels, spikes, you name it. If you’re dashing, you cannot be hurt. And you can always be dashing. And again, this requires no skill or precision whatsoever. Just rhythmically tap the L button to activate god mode. You even have time to grab an ammo box, loot a skeleton, or lob a grenade between dashes and keep the dash chain going. And you can shoot while dashing, so combat devolves into constantly tapping L while directing your trajectory with the left stick, trying to keep your gun trained on enemies with the right stick, and holding down ZR.

So what this does is trivialize all encounters from the first boss onward. Especially bosses. While I did manage to dash my way through pretty much every room of the game, sometimes the layout of the room would make dashing impractical, as it can be difficult to keep your shots on target while sliding all over the place. But when you’re completely invincible, all it takes is a little patience and you can clear any room eventually. And to answer your question, no, this is not fun. 

The other, more convincing reason not to just rely on dashing in every encounter is that certain enemies, the ones that mobbed me up close, could push me through walls if they crowded me while dashing into a corner or against a door. This caused me to become stuck outside the locked room, or in the black space outside the map, and I couldn’t clip back in. I could usually get my gun to clip through the wall just enough to shoot any enemies that were against the wall. But if even a single enemy was out of my range, I wouldn’t be able to clear the room to end the lockdown - forcing me to have to quit and reload my game. 

Bosses suffer most from the dash mechanic because they’re all just big meat sponges that spray bullets everywhere. So I was able to defeat all of them by simply dashing against a wall, or in some cases the boss itself, while holding down the trigger as their health bar slowly ticked down. In the end, the first boss was the only one I remembered fighting because I didn’t have the dash ability yet. I didn’t have to learn any of the other bosses’ attack patterns because I was invulnerable.
So, remember how I said one of the upgrades you can purchase is increased movement speed? Well, because dashing works the way it does, I never felt a need to walk faster. So I just never bought that upgrade. This turned out to be a game-breaking mistake.

See, the final boss flips the script and takes away both your guns and your ability to dash - replacing them with a light and dark switching mechanic. Instead of dashing, pressing L now toggles your bullets and a disc at your feet between light and dark. The boss, which looks like David Cronenberg designed a new mascot for Taco Bell, fills the screen with intricate patterns of black and white bullets. Being in light mode lets the white bullets pass through you, and vice versa. It’s a neat mechanic that I wish had been a part of the core gameplay instead of a last minute rug-pull. 

After beating my head against the final boss for an hour, I realized I needed the increased walk speed to avoid the bullets and outrun the diamond shaped projectiles that kept killing me. And there’s no way to earn more bones or return to the locker to buy the necessary upgrades. And so, after trying in vain for another hour, I relented, and played through the entire game again. 
Wildcat Gun Machine is only about 5 hours long, so playing through it again wasn’t that big a deal. But from a design standpoint, it pisses me off. Did the devs even play this game? They had to realize dashing was busted— it took all of 10 seconds for me to see that. And again, it seems like an exploit, but the game tells you to do it. So you’re given a tool that effectively solves every single problem the game throws at you, and then the final encounter takes that tool away, and punishes the player for failing to anticipate the value of an upgrade rendered useless by the tool. And there’s no way to acquire the necessary upgrade once you realize you need it. It’s cheap, it’s lazy, and dammit, it just ain’t cool. 

Gamelancer gives Wildcat Gun Machine a 4/10

The game is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows.
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