We’ve all played games that sneaked up on us and offered up far more of a challenge than we ever expected. To that end, no game in recent memory has driven me to my wits’ end quite as aggressively as BPM: Bullets Per Minute, a “rhythm-action FPS rogue-like” which, at least for a time, kept me coming back for more.
Despite a cursory glance suggesting BPM to be a giddily trashy, laid-back hybrid of Guitar Hero and Doom, it often feels like it shares more of its DNA with Dark Souls, defined by a level of difficulty which punishes carelessness and rewards considered decision-making. Yet in this case, you’ll also need to make said decisions while never standing still and keeping a beat.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet played BPM to completion, due to just how maddening a challenge I have found it. It is a frantic-yet-painstaking rhythm-shooter which will test the mettle of gamers of all persuasions, and I dare say this may ultimately work against it where wider adoption is concerned.
In the vein of both rhythm and FPS games, BPM has virtually no plot to speak of, casting players as a Valkyrie and hurling them into Asgard for a face-melting dungeon rush which will require them to plow through seven bosses in the pursuit of an elusive ending.
Each of the game’s compartmentalised levels are in fact procedurally generated, forcing players to explore a randomised series of rooms which can contain fleets of enemies, weapons, power-ups, and, yes, a dreaded boss – all allocated on a whim.
Combat requires players to keep step with an on-screen pacemaker, firing bullets in time with the axe-grinding metal musical score, and the same goes for reloading, too. It’s an incredibly enticing setup, and more involved than I imagine most players were probably expecting, as maintaining pace while keeping the hefty crowd of enemies under control is no easy feat. In one of the game’s more inventive flourishes, different weapons also have different reload patterns, creating a certain risk-reward factor.
Mercifully, at least, you can alter the “rhythm window” in the game’s options, and there’s also an auto-rhythm mode, which basically takes most thought out of the equation. While not the method of play recommended by the devs themselves, it is a solid shout for those craving a slightly more forgiving time.
Per the rogue-like formula, BPM is tough, and even on Easy difficulty, players won’t last more than a few hits before dying – even less so when taking on a boss. It took me almost half-an-hour just to make it through the very first boss encounter successfully, and bolstering the game’s unforgiving difficulty is the fact that there are no checkpoints as players make their way through the journey.
To be clear, if you’re killed by any enemy at any point in the game, you’re thrown all the way back to the very first level, requiring you to battle your way through everything all over again. If, like me, you were hoping checkpoints might be placed after boss fights, you’re well out of luck – an artistic decision sure to aggravate as many as it excites.
It’s a design choice which frustrates a little more due to the fact that players aren’t quickly thrown back into play; even while playing on an SSD, dying resulted in a 10-second(ish) reload. For a game like this, a speedy re-do is absolutely paramount, and after dying dozens of times in a row, even that relatively brief wait becomes deeply irritating. This ultimately compounds the feeling that BPM is employing an enforced difficulty to compensate for a lack of actual content.
To call BPM a boss rush game would be a bit of a misnomer, given that there are enormous benefits in stopping to explore every room and hoovering up coins and keys which can help you amass an increasingly impressive outfit of guns and supernatural power-ups.
Amusingly, the nebulous RNG aspect can also work wildly in your favour; after failing to defeat the first boss numerous times in a row, I received a power-up which not only netted me infinite ammo, but shrunk the baddie down to a more manageable size.
Yet I can’t deny that the in-built repetition did grate on me after just a few short hours, and though BPM may well win itself a cult of fans, I think such a rigidly punishing structure works counter to its fun factor. This is exacerbated by the fact that the inevitable, continuous failure in the early going will see you listening to the same opening level music over and over again to the point that you’ll likely become totally sick of it.
The same is also true of the locales, which despite including a number of randomised alterations – such as icy floors, limited light, low-gravity, and a greater population of enemies – didn’t veer too far away from the same plain dungeon-y level design, at least as far as I’ve made it so far. And so, picking up keys, exploring the rooms, and almost definitely dying can only sustain interest for so long.
As much as it might not vibe with Awe Interactive’s design philosophy for the game, I found myself desperately craving a suite of accessibility features; a tutorial mode, checkpoints, the ability to hold onto more weapons and power-ups after dying, or perhaps as a compromise, an in-game save room which players would have to fight their way to.
But this is the team’s vision, and while I often found it too unwieldy for its own good, it’s easy to see how it will probably click with those who like their games bollocks-tough and can weather the repetition inherent in the premise.
All in all, as an experience I can’t rubbish it, especially for a game created by an incredibly small team. The music mostly slaps for fans of the genre, even if the unrelentingly over-saturated visuals quickly become garishly unsightly.
The sheer uniqueness of the premise and a shockingly challenging execution will at least make the game stand out among other entries into the various genres it pulls from. A bewildering mix of fun and frustrating, BPM’s neat hook belies the fact it’s a hardcore rhythm-FPS-rogue-like sure to infuriate and entertain in near-equal measure.
+ A fun fusion of multiple genres.
+ Slick, intuitive gunplay.
+ Pounding rock soundtrack.
– Becomes repetitious rather quickly.
– Disappointing lack of accessibility features.
– Generic visuals.
Reviewed on PC (also due on consoles in 2021).
A review copy was provided by the publisher.