Bullets Per Minute is what happens when somebody plays too much Guitar Hero and Beat Saber, and then decides to play DOOM at 3 am. It’s a first-person-shooter mixed with a rogue-like structure. Then, imagine the Doom: Eternal soundtrack but on a tighter budget. That solid thumping beat and tasty guitar riffs that make the foot tap and the head nod. It’s perfect music for a fast-paced FPS. But that killer soundtrack isn’t just pleasing to the ears, it’s the core of the entire damn game. Shooting, jumping, using abilities and reloading all have to be done in time with the beat. Pull the trigger out of rhythm and all you’ll get is a sad click. Time it right and the bang of the gun will become a part of the music. Once you get good at it, it’s really satisfying to hear everything you do mix into the music. Yup, Bullets Per Minute is an awesome concept.
Maybe I’ve got a bit of an advantage because I’ve been playing the drums since I was but a wee lad in diapers sipping on a beer ( roughly last week) and so I find it pretty easy to keep the beat. But there’s a bit of help for the more musically challenged players out there, starting with the chevrons that move across the screen. The large chevrons match the beat, while the smaller ones are used for the half-beat. If that isn’t enough you can venture into the options and turn on auto-rhythm which will let you hammer the keys like an ape while the game adjusts your commands to match the beat. The thing is when you turn this option on Bullets Per Minute becomes a competent but very basic shooter. While I applaud the developers wanting to make the game accessible, I think auto-rhythm should have been left out entirely. Timing everything to the music is the fundamental core of the game. It would be liking taking out the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto.
It’s a bloody hard game to learn, mind you. The default difficulty is Easy mode, and you should probably stick with that for a while until keeping the rhythm becomes second-nature. I’d also advise rebinding reload from the R key because when it comes to something like a shotgun where you have to hit reload for every round while matching the beat, keeping on the move becomes awkward. And staying mobile is key unless you want your brains splattered over the wall like a crappy modern art installation.
It doesn’t help the learning curve that the starting pistol is crap, either. It has iffy accuracy, but more importantly, it has a range of a couple of metres. It forces you to get up close and personal with enemies until you get a new weapon or get lucky with some range upgrades. In other words, be prepared to die a lot when you’re learning Bullets Per Minute. Even if you’re a human metronome.
The shooting itself is solid. There’s an old-school feel to it, almost like Serious Sam. Mostly you strafe side-to-side and toss in some jumps while delivering death to basic enemies. There’s a good selection of weapons on offer, too, including shotguns and a minigun. Although the feedback when scoring hits is piss-poor. The shooting works certainly, but if you did strip away all the rhythm stuff then no, Bullets Per Minute wouldn’t be worth playing.
But when you combine the shooting with the constant beat, Bullets Per Minute becomes really addictive. I reckon the magical state known in gaming as “flow” has a lot to do with rhythm already. It’s why stuff like Beat Saber and Guitar Hero work so well. It’s easy to get lulled into the flow of the action in Bullets Per Minute as you become better and better at it. Clearing out an entire room without making a single mistake is deeply satisfying.
Something I’m less impressed with is Bullets Per Minutes visuals. Owing to being a very small studio, the developers have been very open about their usage of premade assets in their game’s creation. In particular, there’s a hell of a lot taken from Paragon, the assets to Epic made free for Unreal 4 developers. Since Epic released Paragon’s models with the intention of them being used, I don’t have an issue with this. However, I do think that the developers could have polished up other areas of the game, such as the reload animation for the revolver. Right now, you flip open the revolver and the bullets are still chambered. Your character slots in smaller bullets, pushing them into the bullets that are already there. It looks terrible and low effort. Likewise, the enemies are all free assets taken from stores, so nothing fits together in an entirely convincing way.
The biggest contribution the developers made to the artstyle was to give each of Bullets Per Minute’s worlds a singular colour. It’s a brave move, and one that doesn’t pay off. The singular colours honestly become an eyesore, and things blend into the background too easily, such as an enemy projectile. The initial world is red, so once you reach the next one (yellow) it’s a relief, but for some reason they decided to make the third world red again, but even MORE red. By jumping into the options menu you can fiddle with sliders to decrease the saturation of each world’s colour, with 0% turning everything into grey-scale. I found that about 50% was a decent balance, and that’s the level all these screenshots were taken at.
I’m not a fan of this single colour approach. And honestly, it feels like it was done to help hide the fact that everything is cobbled together from premade stuff. Perhaps I’m completely wrong, though, and the developers genuinely thought it would be a visually arresting style.
The underlying structure of the game is that of a rogue-like. By this I mean when you fire up the game you pick out a character from a roster of five and head into a randomly generated series of rooms. Each room will be filled with a variety of uninspiring enemy designs powered by basic A.I. You kill them, and move to the next room and so on until eventually you face off against a boss. Beat him/her/it and you advance to the next world.
Along the way you get to hoover up coins that can be spent at a blacksmith to pick up new weapons or at a shop to buy items, health potions and more. But there are also chests that might spit out coins or upgrades. And you might stumble across shrines that accept coins in return for a stat boost, or keys to unlock chests or the door to the library, where you can find a news ability. Owing to the luck involved in all this you naturally have to accept that sometimes the roll of the dice will make things a lot harder. Of course, sometimes you’ll get a run where everything just seems to go right. Luck can actually be too much of a deciding factor: my first successful run came not due to skill, but because I lucked into the mini-gun and the infinite-ammo equipment. With this combination, I could literally hold down the mouse button and annihilate everything with ease. Quite a few of my successful runs went like this, with pure luck being more important than how good I was at the actual game. It’s a tricky balance with rogue-likes, and I don’t think Bullets Per Minute quite nails it.
Unfortunately, there are some other misteps with the rogue-like elements that don’t sit well. Personally I like rogue-likes where even a failed run gives you something, that way even an evening of nothing but defeat makes you feel like you achieved something. Bullets Per Minute doesn’t really have this. If you progress far enough you might unlock a new character. Or you might luck into a bank where you can store coins for a future run. Or if you manage to buy something from the blacksmith or shop you’ll increase your loyalty rating to them a little, which means more choices. But aside from that, nothing carries over. An hour spent dying feels like time wasted. And that makes the thought of playing back through the limited selection of content again daunting.
And it doesn’t help that Bullets Per Minute wants you to stop playing and give up during the first 5-10 hours. I already pointed out that there’s quite the learning curve. Now, imagine that learning curve combined with very basic enemies, square rooms and the red filter. As much as you’re going to be dying, you’re going to be going through the same tedious rooms and fighting the same unimaginative enemies again and again while idly wondering if this constantly red filter is what Doomguy sees all the time.
That brings me back to the music. At first the gruff rock sounds good, and it certainly suits the gameplay. But it does become grating, too. There’s one song for each world, so you’re going to be listening to each one again and again. And while individually they’re rock-solid, albeit very simple, songs, when taken as a whole they sound too similar. That’s mostly because the developers weren’t willing to play around with the rhythm. Each song has the same 4/4 timing. From a both a gameplay perspective and an audio perspective it would have been much more interesting to have variations of the timing. By swapping the beats per minute (BPM – Beats Per Minute – Bullets Per Minute. Geddit?) and thus altering how weapons and abilities get used, the gameplay could have so much more variety.
And variety really is a key point. There’s not a low of raw content in Bullets Per Minute. One awesome thing about Roguelikes tends to be a sense of discovery as you get further and further in. But in BPM, you can beat the game in about 30-60 minutes, and during that time you’ll see a lot of what it has to offer you. It needs more enemies and more environments and more music.
I love the core concept of Bullets Per Minute, and I admire the developers for trying to bring it to life. But…it doesn’t quite work as well as it could have, or should have. It’s like they had this awesome idea, and then glued, taped and nailed a rough game around it. It has flashes of brilliance. Moments where it all comes together and your timing is perfect and your foot is tapping. Those moments are rarer than they need to be. Between them you deal with lack of musical variety, the aggressive colouring and the rogue-like structure that doesn’t quite work. It needs more fleshing out. But I think for some people it’s going to really click with them, and for around £15 you’re getting something different and interesting. Maybe that’s enough.