Rhythm games have come a long way from their arcade origins of dance pads or the fake plastic instruments in Harmonix’s heyday. The latest evolution has been fusing rhythm mechanics with other genres, which we’ve seen work successfully in VR with the likes of Beat Saber and Pistol Whip.
It was only a matter of time before someone would come up with the ingenious idea of bringing the fast responsive action of a first-person shooter with the toe-tapping precision of a rhythm game. In fact, three such games were announced almost within the same breath as one another. BPM: Bullets Per Minute is the first out the gate, and it proves that the rhythm-FPS is more than a quick gimmick.
However, developer Awe Interactive has another trick up its sleeve as BPM is actually a hybrid of three genres, the third being the random hardcore permadeath structure of a roguelike, sharing some similarity with rhythmic dungeon crawler Crypt Of The Necrodancer (or its Zelda spin-off Cadence Of Hyrule).
From the initial set-up, it has the familiar demonic trappings of a Doom/Quake clone as you navigate small arena-sized rooms that resemble underground crypts and netherworld caverns with Norse names like Asgard and Vanaheim. But then the electronic and metal as hell music kicks in and here’s where the magic lies.
The goal is to clear each room of enemies before you can progress but you need to do this while keeping to the beat, which can include jumping and dodging, but it specifically counts for when firing your shots and reloading. Miss the beat and it’ll be like having your weapon jammed at the worst possible moment. Fortunately, the music for each level and boss is so damn catchy that it’s easy to follow, while your crosshair also has a constant thumping metronome. And did I mention the music is metal as hell? You’re guaranteed to at least nod – if not bang – your head to it.
For those who struggle with rhythm, you can still enjoy the game by choosing the auto-rhythm setting. I would actually recommend this to begin with as having to keep to the beat while also balancing the FPS demands of navigating 3D space and accuracy might just be one too many plates to keep track of. You’ll lose out on the score multiplier bonus (it maxes out at 4x and resets if you get hit or an action misses the beat) but frankly, that only matters if you can reach the end.
Beating BPM definitely takes some time to get going. Even playing on Easy mode with auto-rhythm, this game is brutally hard. This is because it’s structured like a roguelike where each area layout is randomly generated, as are resources and rewards, while permadeath means you’ll have to start all over again – unless you’re lucky to pick up a rare item that gives you one more try.
After triumphing over vicious marauders in Doom, I find it almost comical how often I’d meet my swift demise in BPM at the hands of a baby bat, or the most devious acid-spewing flies that are both small – therefore harder to hit – and swarm in numbers. But then Doom also has the comfort of checkpoints and ways of regaining health.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is definitely trickier than a traditional FPS. Your starting pistol lacks power and range, while it also takes two beats to fully reload. There’s also the fact that the slightest enemy attack can take 25HP, meaning you’re dead in four hits.
But as with many roguelikes, there is a range of options to steadily improve your build, from boosts to your six possible stats, including damage, range and precision. There are also item shops fronted by a big benevolent bird where you can sometimes acquire a shield or increase your max HP, provided you’ve got the coin.
There’s also a range of weapons to unlock in each run, sometimes found in chests or bought at a high price from a shop. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, namely more firepower but more steps to reload, some even requiring you to reload each individual clip. A powerful gun really can make a huge difference – a rocket launcher with a damage multiplier can make mincemeat of a boss from across the room in seconds compared to a standard pistol.
That variation also applies to the structure of each area, which changes for every run, and sometimes throws in random modifiers to keep you on your toes, like zero-gravity or icy slippery floors. You might even find yourself lucky and have the boss room literally in front of you – even the boss comes in modified versions that might make things tougher or easier.
That does mean that your run can just come down to luck. Some runs I’ve explored almost the entire layout of the first level and come away with barely any improved resources by the time I reach the boss room, another time I pick up a delicious new weapon only for an annoying enemy to put me in the grave.
But then during my best run, my build got so ridiculously overpowered with health regeneration, rockets and multiple damage multipliers that the final area became something of a cakewalk. If that victory had instilled confidence, it was then also immediately dashed on a following attempt when I hit the wall against the second annoying boss while lacking resources.
You do just have to go with the flow depending how your hand is dealt. Yet given how it’s possible to finish a run in 30-45 minutes, it also doesn’t hurt too much to have to start over. Especially while you’re still gradually learning enemy patterns even when something random gets thrown into the equation.
As enjoyable as the rhythmic slaying gets once you have a handle on it, BPM’s longevity ultimately comes from its unpredictability, coupled with progress that also rewards you with new characters, different starting loadouts as well as challenges like a Boss Rush or Auto-fire Mode to mix things up.
Time will tell how BPM’s content stacks up to the insane levels of the genre’s hallmarks like Spelunky or upcoming underworld hack-and-slasher Hades, but there’s plenty of twists and variations to ensure you’ll rarely experience the same run twice. Also, have I said that it sounds metal as hell?
‘BPM: Bullets Per Minute’ will be released on September 15 for PC. A console version of the game is scheduled for 2021.
A diabolical three-way marriage between rhythm-action, first-person shooter and roguelike, BPM: Bullets Per Minute is brutally tough, unpredictable, but a hell of a good time and gets more rewarding as you get attuned to its beats. Like any good record, one listen isn’t enough, and it bangs in more ways than one.
- Fusing FPS with rhythm action is a genius idea that works
- Banging metal soundtrack with an easy beat to follow
- No run is the same, with lots of unpredictable variations
- A variety of challenges and characters to unlock
- A bit too brutally difficult to begin with
- As with other roguelikes, a good run can be down to pure luck