We've been jumping around lasers and spikes in a game that would have benefited from being three times as long as it actually is.
A huge spaceship is floating somewhere in outer space, filled with spiky surfaces, trigger-happy enemies and lots of lasers. One little warrior is pitted against the entire ship's collective defence system, and that little warrior happens to be me. Equipped with a wide laser sword, a beam shield and a backpack that allows me to triple jump, I embark on what appears to be an attempt to unite Super Meat Boy and Hollow Knight in a sort of synth-heavy science-fiction mix with true arcade spirit. Gunborg: Dark Matters wants to be a lot of things but often struggles to live up to its own ambitions.
The concept of Gunborg is simple and well-tested many times over in the broad sub-genre of similar side-scrolling platformers made before, and involves jumping, fighting and shooting your way through a small plethora of levels. The courses available are for the most part quite simple and can generally be completed in a few minutes, making Gunborg an ideal game if you want to pass time for a short while, as it does quickly becomes monotonous in longer sittings. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of challenge on offer during the course of the game, with levels in Gunborg largely limited to a few rooms where you have to manoeuvre around a course where either spiky surfaces or laser beams provide the main opposition. There's also the occasional enemy positioned at a strategic point to make progress slightly more difficult.
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Unfortunately, the level of difficulty rarely increases so much that Gunborg ever feels particularly rewarding to get through. The changes to the challenge are minimal and I'm never introduced to any new mechanics or skills during the game, instead having to kindly make do with my triple jumps that were included from the start. It's not until the very last levels that the difficulty is raised in any noticeable way, and then it's a substantially harder level that doesn't feel at all in line with the previous progression curve. Sure, it was nice to finally push Gunborg to his limits, but with such a shock increase also comes a frustration in that the game simply didn't prepare me for this and once I started to feel like when I was getting into the tougher parts, the game was suddenly over, after 12 levels. Crazy.
When Gunborg is at its best, though, it's quite entertaining. As well as the sword, as I said, I have access to a shield that reflects anything directed at me. Managing to manoeuvre around a group of enemies while sometimes stabbing, sometimes reflecting their own shots back at them is a titillating sensation. Defeated aliens also leave behind their laser weapons for me to pick up and use until their ammo runs out, and they actually add an extra layer of excitement to the heat of battle, even if they do feel rather difficult to handle in some cases. If I manage to kill a certain amount of enemies in a row, without taking any damage myself, I enter the "Dark Matter" mode where the properties of my weapons are enhanced and I become even more dangerous until I get hit and my combo runs out. While it enhances the experience to see what the dark matter does to the various buffers, the short nature of the levels means that I rarely get to use the mode to any great extent before the fun is over, which is a shame.
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Controlling Gunborg is a simple phenomenon and the control scheme is well thought out in almost every sense. By "almost" I mean that someone during development thought it was a good idea to put the jump button on L2 (for the PS5), which drastically reduces the accuracy of the more difficult jump challenges as it takes too long to get the trigger down all the way to effectively triple-jump through a laser-filled passage. Fortunately, it's possible to change the layout of the controls and after switching from the L2 to the X button, my manoeuvrability improved significantly. However, I would have liked some sort of dash function, which I think could have both made the battles more interesting but also created more variation in the design of the platforming, which becomes tedious for lack of innovation.
Stylistically, Gunborg: Dark Matters has some charm and I like how developer Rickard Paulsson has built an interestingly simple animated world filled with neon colours and designs. The retro-futuristic soundtrack, complete with a synth tone brings to mind 80s arcades in a strangely nostalgic way and, together, with the well-integrated sound effects, creates an intriguing soundscape that enhances the experience considerably. The DualSense controls again do an exceptional job of conveying what's happening on screen directly into my palms and whether it's the swishing sensation of a sword strike or the resistance of my laser weapon's trigger, the PS5's controller takes me right into the situation and does wonders for my immersion.
Although the basic concept is there, Gunborg: Dark Matters leaves a lot to be desired in terms of difficulty, length and variety. With 12 measly levels to offer plus 3 bonus levels, it moves through far too quickly for me to develop any sort of taste. However, when the battles are given enough space, the reflective properties of the shield allow me to have some real fun at times, even if only for fleeting moments, and if I had my way I would have thrown in far more enemy encounters as well as many more boss fights than the few currently on offer. Perhaps if each level had been given its own boss, the game would have been more of a challenge as each level could have been given more of its own identity. However, the visual style and music together create a rewarding atmosphere that I would like to see more of in the future, but right now it's not quite enough to elevate Gunborg: Dark Matters any further.
5 / 10
Cool neon colours. Good use of Dual Sense features. Shield is fun. Great arcade feel.
Far too short. Poor difficulty curve. Lacks variation. Levels lack identity. Too few bosses.