I like Bunker Punks. I really do.
It’s a fantastic mix of smooth gameplay and simple mechanics slowly building up to one hell of a satisfying twitch shooter.
Unfortunately, Bunker Punks is also a bit of a confused and limited mess – so much, in fact, that I can’t bring myself to recommend it at full price. Definitely worth picking up in a sale, but consider what you’re willing to pay for an hour or two of solid entertainment before fatigue starts to set in.
First, the nitty gritty. Bunker Punks is an Early Access FPS with roguelike and base building mechanics that’s been on Steam since 30th March 2016. The game is split into two halves – frantic, fluid FPS action as you blast through corporate bases full of various robotic underlings, and the between-level titular “bunker” building segment.
Bunker building is dull, but serviceable, and offers significant gameplay changes. After each level you can spend your hard-earned credits to buy extra rooms or upgrade ones you’ve already installed. These will do things like boost the damage you deal with a certain weapon, increase the base health of your punks, let you heal from chaining kills, etc.
Honestly, that’s about it – they’re all about static stat boosts, but thankfully those boosts are big enough to not make the whole thing feel pointless.
The FPS sections are gloriously satisfying to play. I had more than a slight feeling of the old Doom games with a dash of Quake’s fluid movement – it feels incredible to dart around, twitch aiming your way to victory.
The dungeons themselves, however, all have the same aesthetic of a faceless corporate research lab or warehouse. In itself that’s not a bad thing, as it fits with the premise of toppling a post-apocalyptic corporate entity with more than a hint of Mad Max.
Unfortunately, while the gameplay distracts well enough for the first hour or two of play, beyond that it becomes painfully obvious that you’re running through the same procedurally generated rooms, with only the enemy number and variety showing the progress you’ve made.
Speaking of which, the enemies are much the same story – a nicely varied selection for a short run time, but not nearly enough variety for more than two hours of challenge. Again, they’re simple enough to let the core gameplay shine, but there aren’t enough interesting effects to stack against you in battle.
For example, you could run into a bunch of the basic suicide bots along with a rocket turret, a giant mech, a spider tank, and some cyborg-style scientists, with some regular turrets for good measure. In that crowd there will be a grand total of 3 attack types coming at you – suiciding small robots, regular bullets, and rocket shells. It’s enough for some solid entertainment, but the selection wears thin when all you have to do is jump around the room a bit.
The weapon selection is also very limited the first time around – you can find a pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, and a baseball bat. The pistol’s damage and rate of fire is too low to warrant using, the baseball bat is pitiful, and the assault rifle is decent but highly inaccurate at long range. This means that at long range and in crowds (if you’re out of the blast radius) you’re better using the rocket launcher, and everything else is best dealt with hit-and-run shotgun tactics.
Thankfully, before knowing this I chose to start with the punk “Dallas Reach”, who has extra shotgun damage and an ability to block the next hit you take (the ability recharges as you kill enemies and pick up “chi”). This ability, combined with the boosted shotgun killing most things in one shot point-blank, is invaluable considering you have practically no invincibility frames in Bunker Punks.
In other words, everything is frantic as all hell.
Every hit you take is significant due to the semi-rare health packs healing so little, and combined with the fluid movement and effectiveness of shotguns at close range the entire FPS segment turns into beautiful chaos. It’s a truly elegant dance of risk/reward as you dive into the heat of battle, frantically dodging bullets before focusing for just long enough to blast the closest enemy.
Faster (and close-range) play styles are further encouraged by both the pickups and main sources of healing. Enemies and boxes can drop health and ammo when destroyed, but these drops fade after a few brief seconds. The only other way to gain a worthwhile amount of health is to buy a particular room in your bunker and then chain enemy kills together (again, fast movement and burst power are incentivised).
The only pickups that don’t fade are items – weapons and clothing, which are your most common method of getting stat boosts, such as defence, extra healing, or bonus damage with a certain weapon. Weapon drops count as everlasting ammo bins (weapons have fresh magazines, letting you run through them to replenish your ammo if you share the same weapon), while most clothes are pretty useless.
The problem is that many pieces of clothing either give bad stat boosts or are pretty much useless. For example, one set of clothes makes health packs heal more, while another gives general damage reduction. On paper both make you live longer, but in reality the damage reduction is far better – reducing damage will ALWAYS have a good effect, while “more healing” is useless if you’re already topped off.
Also, most boosts aren’t better than straight-up defence. Extra damage with different weapons is nice, but the static damage boost from your bunker rooms and character are far superior. Not to mention that none of the starting bunker unlocks give you defence, so you end up stacking all clothes with the highest damage reduction.
The only contender is the set which gives extra credits. Tempting, but again, if you’re going purely for what’s effective you’re likely going to run out of things to buy towards the end anyway (or it’ll get so expensive that it’s not worth saving up for the danger you put yourself in).
Finally, if you end a level with a pickup then you gain a copy in your bunker to take to the next level. This means that if you end the first level with one set of clothes, then end the second with a different set, you’ll be able to go into the third with a mix-and-match of all of them.
Now, there’s one thing missing from this review – the roguelike elements.
Along with regular credits to upgrade your bunker you collect “tech” at a much slower rate (it’s a pretty rare drop). When all of your punks get killed off, the game resets and wipes your progress in the main levels and also your bunker (say goodbye to your upgraded rooms).
In return you’re given the chance to spend tech at vendors to unlock extras for your new attempt, including new weapons and items, different characters, bunker rooms, and more character slots. In turn, the extra slots mean you can die and just retry the level with a different punk – it’s extra lives, but with different stat boosts and abilities.
Here’s the problem – I never saw any of that. In my roughly hour-long first playthrough I completed the game without dying once.
I came close, sure, and it’s worth noting that I don’t think Bunker Punks is too easy. However, with my playstyle and experience with other similar-feeling games (the old Doom games, Nuclear Throne, Ziggurat, and even TF2) I was able to pretty consistently breeze through the whole thing, with the exception of when the red spider mechs showed up. Their rate of fire and overall strength may be a little on the unfair side.
I think my main issue with Bunker Punks is that it feels like it hasn’t committed to a particular vision of what it wants to be, and so many mechanics clash with each other.
You’re constantly pushed towards a fast, close-up style of play, but doing so makes the majority of items and weapons useless. In turn, this makes most of the bunker upgrades pointless. Pointless upgrades render credits next to useless, which means that you’re better off just jumping past every room of enemies to save your health and ammo for the one final room you have to clear to beat the floor.
Then there’s the whole tech issue – if you want your game to have roguelike elements where so much replayability is gained by dying and unlocking new content, make the game hard enough to almost require those elements.
I’m not saying make it unfair (those red spider tanks are just too hardy), but introduce enough variety that one playstyle won’t get you through the entire game. Make the player want to go back and unlock your new items because that’s how they’re going to get an advantage.
The main thing, however, is that there isn’t enough content to recommend at full price. It’s fantastic to play, and I’d encourage you to keep an eye on the updates for extra content or even a sale of some sort, but there just isn’t enough there right now.
Nevertheless, here’s to finding a diamond in the rough of Steam’s Early Access program.