Gaming theorists and high-level players aren’t always closely aligned, but when it comes to the concept of ‘flow’ they are speaking from the same page. Whilst not always easy to define, and often incredibly subjective, the idea of moments in gaming where everything just fits together to produce an enjoyable and successful performance is very much the holy grail of the medium.
BPM: Bullets Per Minute takes the ideas of flow and the often rhythmic nature of gaming and combines them into a fascinating take on the FPS – one where every shot, reload and dodge needs to match the beat of the thumping electronic metal soundtrack.
BPM has a distinctive look and makes effective use of some eye-catching post-processing effects. The result is a deliberately over-saturated assault on the retina that draws you into the hectic adrenaline rush of gunplay and fits brilliantly with the soundtrack. This saturation is configurable in the settings and turning it off results in an uncannily understated monochrome that gives everything a really different feel – the developer’s coining #HaveSomeGray on social media for a reason. Other than that, everything is clear and stark, with the obvious focus being on speed rather than detail. Later levels offer up alternative colour palettes, but I was left seeing red for the entirety of my time with the game.
The audio in BPM is perhaps more important than the graphics given the rhythmic gameplay. Levels are played out to the screeching guitar of some really catchy tunes, but there is a relative lack of variety in the soundtrack as it tries to keep the game’s tempo up. That being said, the marriage of game and music is really skilfully handled and the tunes fit the gunplay incredibly well. Sound effects are meaty, with an assortment of guns blasting at appropriately high decibels.
The core gameplay loop of BPM sees you working through procedurally generated levels, gathering coins and keys to unlock abilities before facing a boss and moving forwards. While individual progress is lost upon death, stores open up more options as you progress through a loyalty system, and banks allow you to save coins for a future run. This is standard roguelite stuff, and that is usually fine, but here meant that there was a major dependence on RNG. Power-ups like regenerating health or infinite ammo are so useful that they can make an overpowering difference to your run, whilst fighting through to the boss only to discover that they are a tiny version that is extremely difficult to aim at can wreck your attempt all too easily.
You begin with only one choice of character and their starting weapon – an 8-shot pistol – with other characters unlocked as you finish each set of levels. The second is equipped with a revolver that’s more powerful but requires individual reloads for each bullet. With reloading and shooting both being linked to matching the beat, there is a real risk and reward approach to the different weapons. Regardless of your character choice, there are sometimes blacksmith rooms that offer up different guns in exchange for coins. My most successful run came with the revolver and an infinite ammo power-up that meant I could rip through enemies with little downside.
So far, so good, as everything works technically and conceptually with BPM but there is one huge caveat to bear in mind: This game is hard. I don’t just mean hard as in challenging and rewarding, but hard on a level that I have rarely encountered in many years of gaming. I don’t consider myself an elite gamer or anything like that, but I struggled with BPM to the point of frustration. Part of this may be down to not gelling with the rhythmic gameplay but even with that side of the game turned off (the options allow you to play the game as a straight FPS roguelite) I never got beyond the third stage. This meant that I didn’t really experience much of what the game has to offer, and was restricted to the searing red saturation and first two tunes in the soundtrack until I lost count of the number of runs.
Part of the difficulty comes in part from needing to adjust to the rhythm, as it is easy to find yourself missing the beat and so not being able to shoot or being stuck mid-reload due to not nailing the timing, but the real issue is the ridiculous damage levels of enemies. The first level features a mixture of bats, spiders, worms, and more humanoid enemies. The standard enemies take 25 of your 100 hit points off with each hit, so it is easy to have a run ruined before you even get started. Oddly some more powerful looking enemies seemed to do less damage, so I’m not sure if something went wrong there.
I’m not calling for the game to be a walkover, but a more lenient opening would enable players to get the feel of things and work through the levels in a more satisfying manner. As things stand, there is just too much of a reliance on RNG to even put together a mediocre run, let alone make substantial progress.