Bullets Per Minute, from developers Awe Interactive, describes itself as a “rhythm-action FPS rogue-like”, and that does a great job of encapsulating the experience. When everything clicks, the movement, gunplay, soundtrack, and visual feedback all combine into an almost cathartic experience as you tear through rooms of enemies to the beat. However, when you’re having a bad run that gifts you with underpowered weapons and scant upgrades, you’ll have time to notice flaws in the gameplay and presentation.
There’s little narrative to talk of in Bullets Per Minute. You play as a Valkyrie – one of several you can unlock as you progress, each with their own strengths and weaknesses – fighting through randomly-generated dungeons themed after the realms in Norse mythology. You dash, jump, and shoot your way through randomly-generated layouts (sometimes with variables like icy floors for an added challenge), before entering the boss chamber. Defeat a Norse-inspired monstrosity and you’re teleported off to the next area.
Single-use shrines offer you the chance to level up several attributes when you find them (I’d recommend focussing on damage and range if you’re short of coins) but their frequency varies wildly based on RNG, and I found your gear and weapons are far more impactful anyway.
Despite the setting, you’ll be using firearms exclusively, starting with a rubbish pistol and – if the RNG gods favour you – swiftly upgrade to shotguns, chain-guns, rocket launchers, and pulse weapons. Enemies and chests (either those gained from clearing rooms or secrets), churn out coins and, rarely, a new gun or armour piece. These coins allow you to purchase skill upgrades at shrines or new items, weapons, and gear at one of several stores (all of which, naturally, may or may not appear). Die – something very easy to do so at first, even on “easy” difficulty – and you’re back to the beginning of the run.
So far, so rogue-like. However, Bullets Per Minute adds a twist by forcing the player to time their actions to the beat of the soundtrack. This is backed up by a dynamic cursor for visual feedback, but you’ll need an ear for rhythm if you’re going to get the most out of the experience. Dashing and jumping can be done any time but only chained together on the beat. Firearms, depending on their fire rate or projectile type, can be fired on every beat or half-beat. Reloading is typically a multi-stage action, and this too operates on the beat or half-beat (generally, better weapons have more elaborate reload sequences to offset the damage output).
There are plenty of “safe” room that can contain cute merchants that’ll sell you equipment and guns, allow you to bank coins for your next run, unlock slowly recharging spells, or provide optional combat challenges if you’re feeling lucky and flush with health.
When everything comes together – and I wasn’t panickily misfiring my weapon off-beat – Bullets Per Minute shines. You’ll move, jump, and dash into range of enemies while avoiding projectiles, line up your shots and empty the clip to the beat, before dashing away and reloading your weapon with several quick taps on the half-beat. Mercifully, the game allows you to decide how strict or loose it is with syncing your actions. If you’re really struggling, you can even turn on “auto-rhythm” but loose the score multiplier you build up between rooms. I had several great runs that felt fantastic in motion and was happy to click “retry” again and again, with complete runs only lasting an hour (or less if you’re not exploring every corner).
Unfortunately, numerous back-to-back sessions with rubbish luck highlighted several flaws. Twitch shooting is an important part of Bullets Per Minute (it’s one of the few shooters I’d recommend not using a gamepad despite supposedly offering a degree of auto-aim) but RNG has a much bigger impact on your success. In all my successful runs, I discovered a heavy weapon in the first or second level, upgrade shrines in almost every room, and a store in every level to buy healing potions before tackling the boss. Plinking away at a boss with a basic pistol or shotgun is possible for some but far too risky for most. Additionally, failing to find better weapons or upgrade your damage output leaves them feeling severely underpowered – never a good thing in an FPS. I quickly discovered bad RNG on the opening level rarely made it worth pushing on.
Bosses can range from nigh-impossible to pushovers depending on your luck with weapon drops. The plasma weapon in this screenshot allowed me to steamroll every boss until I got cocky in the 7th level. Admittedly, hitting smaller, nimble enemies was a pain but they rarely present a major threat if you stay mobile.
When it comes to presentation, Bullets Per Minute is not the most visually impressive game (though at least it runs well on older PCs) but it does have an amazing soundtrack that fits their “epic rock opera” description. Each level has its own soundtrack but, despite the variety, they all seem to follow a simple 4-beat rhythm that makes it easier to master the game. Bullets Per Minute’s biggest issue is unavoidable – the repetition the roguelike genre is known for. Levels already lack distinctive features – or enemies for that matter – outside of a different colour palette, and these slowly blend into one another. The music you were previously bobbing your head to while shooting quickly get’s old, especially when you’ve got to grips with the basics and find yourself cruising through the early levels with ease.
Make no mistake, Bullets Per Minute deserves credit for combining several genres I never expected could coexist and, when all those elements come together and you’ve mastered the rhythm-based actions, it makes for a shooting experience like no other. Unfortunately, the overreliance on RNG – and the crushing difficulty you’ll experience if it doesn’t go your way – makes this a game that sometimes absorbed me for hours, and other times had me walking away within 15 minutes. When it’s good, it’s empowering. When it’s bad, it’s frustrating.
BPM: Bullets Per Minute is Developed and Published by Awe Interactive
BPM: Bullets Per Minute is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Written by Andrew Logue
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