Sharp shooter: A review of ‘Gunman Clive’

Gunman Clive is an action platformer in the same vein as Megaman or Bionic Commando. Playing as either the eponymous Clive or Ms. Johnson, you run, jump and shoot your way through increasingly difficult levels laid out against a western backdrop. It’s a brief game, but its brevity is part of its charm. The one hitch is the somewhat finicky controls that require more than a single playthrough to learn.

Gunman Clive stars two playable characters, both of whom sport their own respective pros and cons. Clive is agile with a quick run, whereas Ms. Johnson has the ability to float for a few moments after she jumps, not unlike Peach from Super Mario Bros. 2, but she moves a bit slower on account of her being swaddled in saloon-appropriate attire. The impact of the differences in character movement are minimal for most of the game, though I did find that Ms. Johnson’s floating ability made certain sections more manageable by allowing me to correct potentially fatal errors.

Gunman Clive deftly capitalizes on its Western theme in its soundtrack and art style, both of which are sparse yet striking. The art itself is minimal. Environments are rarely more than a foreground and the barest hint of background to convey the setting, whether that be the rolling hills of the frontier, the boxy outline of a small town or a crater.

The color palette invokes the feeling of yellowed locomotive schematics, lost to time. Interactive objects, such as enemies, explosive barrels and weak points on bosses are the only items presented in vivid color, which immediately communicates their importance. The soundtrack is similarly subtle, at times emulating a lethargic version of the frenetic soundtracks of the Super Nintendo era, while conducting a vaguely digital western ballad at others.

There are a variety of weapons to assist you in your quest. Weapons drop from enemies in the environment and are discarded the next time you take damage, meaning that you’re rewarded for playing better. Certain weapons also go better with certain stages, meaning that the loss of a weapon to an absentminded mistake is felt all the more. One odd thing that I noticed, however, is that the frequency and logic behind how weapons are doled out is not necessarily consistent. For example, a weapon I had never seen before dropped on my third playthrough.

The difficulty often feels like it takes its inspiration from action platformers of yore, requiring the player to memorize the obstacles and enemy placement in levels and demanding on-point reaction time. A death means that you start at the beginning of a level, though this is rarely a setback as the levels are short.

Unfortunately, using an Xbox 360 controller, the controls don’t always feel up to the tasks the game presents. Jumping, ducking and most nuanced movements failed me frequently on my first playthrough. On subsequent playthroughs I became more insistent with my movements on the dual analog sticks and found a greater degree of success.

Whether Gunman Clive is a particularly difficult game is up for debate. If you cut your teeth on the tough-as-nails action platformers of yore, you’re liable to find the game to be a cakewalk. Otherwise it presents a challenge that is not easily surmounted, but also not impossible. With patience and attention to detail, nearly any obstacle can be overcome, though that latter claim becomes less certain as you start ratcheting up the difficulty. Gunman Clive also tracks how quickly you complete a level and if you took damage, meaning that there is an incentive for perfectionism.

Oftentimes after finishing a game, I’ve found myself wondering if I could have completed that game pacifistically, without firing a single shot. Gunman Clive is one of the few games I’ve encountered that seems equally interested in answering that question. An unlockable third character trades the ability to shoot for a bit of added maneuverability.

Without the ability to kill enemies, health pickups become rare, cherished items and simply jumping from one narrow platform to another can be harrowing. Level layout and enemy placement remain the same in the unlockable mode, with a few exceptions, though boss fights are nixed. It’s a fun, experimental modifier that made me think about areas I had already been through in a completely different way.

Gunman Clive is not a long game. It can be completed on the normal difficulty setting in under an hour. Bumping the difficulty up to hard, where your chosen character can only take two hits, rather than the standard four, increases the overall completion time to just about an hour. The brevity of Gunman Clive makes the game feel like it was built for multiple runs with the various characters on the different difficulty levels. The combination of simple mechanics, beautiful art and character abilities make it not only a treat but, at the asking price, a steal.

Gunman Clive was reviewed on the PC using a copy purchased by the reviewer.