First-person shooters aren’t exactly new, but in recent years we have been witnessing a push towards a different, or rather, classic feeling in them. The so-called throwback shooters are all about speed, picking up ammo and health from the ground, and being punished for standing still with a swift death. BPM: Bullets Per Minute certainly feels akin to this group, but instead of trying to stick close to an already established path, it creates a new one based on a simple question: What if everything you do is tied to the beat?
Bullets Per Minute is a first-person shooter and a roguelike, but it also mixes that with a rhythm game. In order to dash, shoot, reload, use an ability, or reload, you need to be following the music’s beat. Moving is excluded, sure, but it’s barely a mean to an end – aiming at an escape route to dodge a projectile, moving just enough mid-air to land on a safe spot after a double jump, leaning just enough around a pillar to shoot at that one annoying bat that won’t leave you alone. Every other action is tied to this audio chain, and once you grasp the basics, you just go with the flow. And it’s brilliant.
It’s worth admitting that it took me some time to get to that point. The game starts, and it kinda throws you into the action without any sort of guidance. You begin with just one character, so that makes it an easy choice, and then you’re on the first level holding a pistol and seeing a different kind of reticle on the screen. I started moving following the beat, but there was a lot I didn’t understand. Were my attacks stronger by keeping the pace? How am I punished for missing a note? Well, the smaller penalization is that you lose a scorestreak, which is always on the right side of the screen keeping track of how well you’re performing. The largest, however, is that you are blocked from doing said action. So, if you’re in the midst of a tough encounter with several projectiles coming at you and you happen to miss a note when dodging, it’s game over.
Now, before I move on, I want to clarify that this can be customized in a number of ways. You’re given the choice to tweak rhythm detection between strict, normal, and loose options. The crosshair can also be changed, as well as the HUD or even showcasing the minimap. Lastly, there is an Auto Rhythm mode, but it disables the score multiplier. I haven’t found it too punishing on the default options, but I must say that making the gameplay as accessible as possible is always a good thing.
In fact, I ended up learning more about the game from the options menu than in the levels themselves. It’s odd, since it’s not inherently a bad thing, but Bullets Per Minute would benefit from at least a quick tutorial of sorts. If you want any guidance, the loading screens share some actual helpful tips, but it’s the sort of game that wants you to try and fail until you have mastered the basics, and then go from there.
You start off with a pistol, but that simplicity helps you get to grips with the basics. The clip starts with eight bullets, so you have eight shots. Each one of them can fit in either a quaver or a semiquaver, or to put it in less strict terms: a shot, a pause, a shot, or shot pause shot, in a more rapid manner. Reloading is tied to this as well, so you have to manually press the button as many times as needed until the clip is refilled. Now, apply this to all other actions as you try not to get killed by demons. The silver lining is that it all sounds more complicated than it really is – if you’re accustomed to first-person shooters already, you know all of these actions. You just need to feel the beat and move to the tempo.
I like to move it, move it
The best part is that everything else follows this same rule. There’s a total of four different areas, each divided into procedurally generated stages and ending with a boss fight. They all have different enemies that exploit the possibilities of rhythm in their own unique ways – a bat can move twice before shooting, while some scorpions announce their presence with a jarring sound before they stampede towards you, interrupting all momentum. To make everything better, each stage has its own song, so you start with a rather classic rock tune, jump into one that mixes electric guitars and chipmunk sounds perfectly, and then end up with a slow, almost stoner-like riff that has you following the beat in real life as well tapping the foot or nodding with your head.
I was really surprised by the quality and sheer variety of the soundtrack. Depending on how focused you are at a given moment, it might become just a background sound, but all of the songs follow the action perfectly, and it becomes easier and easier to join in. Bosses also have their own tune, and they do a great job at getting you out of the comfort zone. One of my favourite details is that, once you’ve depleted their health bar, they’re left in the air waiting for you to deal the killing blow, and each shot causes a song note to shatter the arena. You’re free to set the pace for them, creating a short, yet epic melody as you catch your breath after a tough fight, ending with a huge explosion before you pick up your loot and move to the next area.
That’s how the standard loop of Bullets Per Minute goes. You enter a stage, start roaming around the rooms, find the boss’ lair, defeat them, and continue onwards. There are gold coins to spend in altars to upgrade your stats, purchase weapons and abilities, or just exchange them for health upgrades and keys in the shop (the latter, as far as I understood, is the only consistent progression between runs, as every purchase helps to increase your loyalty with the shopkeeper and obtain benefits over time). You also have four slots for equipment, each with its own properties, and secondary abilities to use.
This is the rhythm of the night
The variation is massive, and very much welcome. Challenge and mini-boss rooms also help, but I was quite fond of the randomized permutations that can appear during runs. Sometimes the floor will have ice all over, so you basically end up sliding everywhere, or the rooms become pitch dark, and you end up relying on a flashlight. These apply to bosses, too, but aside from some obvious ones I couldn’t tell much of a difference between them because, again, not much is explained.
For me, the standout and biggest example of how the developers made the best use out of staying on beat, lies in the weapons. They all behave differently, and the key is in the way they reload. Pick up a revolver, and you’ll reload for each bullet, while a laser cannon will have you reloading three times, but with almost no pause in between each shot. Then you have the shotgun, which you have to shoot, and then pump in order to shoot again, but requires a reload that takes two actions to regain your full clip. Each weapon feels like a different extension of how you’re reacting to the music, demanding you to change your playstyle on the fly. At times I would empty half of a clip, press reload once, dodge, press reload twice, dodge again, and start shooting again. Once it becomes second nature, you find out there’s so much you can do inside the rhythm.
The procedurally generated element keeps each run fresh and exciting, and after several hours I still kept finding items and weapons I hadn’t seen before. All five characters have their own twist, too, either by replacing the health bar for a shield in exchange of a more powerful starting weapon, or my personal favourite, a sort of mage who instead of weapons uses their hands to shoot beams at enemies, which means there’s no need to reload, but you start with half the usual health.
Every day I’m shuffling
I wasn’t a fan of the lack of initial guidance, however, and I still haven’t found one of a side challenge (which are unlocked after meeting a certain requirement in the main runs) that felt well implemented. There’s one that turns everything pixelated to evoke the vibes of retro shooters, but it’s more a filter, so enemies end up being just colour lines or dots that get lost fairly quickly in the background. The second I found was a tribute to Superhot’s slow-motion mechanic, which did not translate well here. Despite all of this, I was still inclined to return and do one more run on the standard mode, but I think there’s room for more ambitious twists, given how well the main structure works.
Bullets Per Minute has an interesting foundation without bringing anything too complex, and then gives you just enough tools to mess around with it. Even if you’re not a big rhythm game player, it’ll keep you at your own pace, and you’ll get better and better as you go. This subgenre is barely starting, and whilst it is early to tell how it will evolve from here, others would do well in taking cues from this experience, where simplicity behind the premise and a set of rules is enough to hit the right notes.
[Reviewed on PC]
Diego is a freelance journalist from Argentina and a frustrated bassist. He learned English thanks to video games and is probably listening to music right now, or procrastinating on Twitter.