I don’t recall when was the last time I had to give up on a review due to the sheer difficulty of a game. But after the first couple hours in BPM: Bullets Per Minute where I barely made any meaningful progress beyond the first boss, by far the easiest one, this first-person rhythm-based rogue-lite was close to inaugurating the shameful bin of unreviewable games. After all, it would not have been an accurate description of it had I only seen the first two areas. But I decided to push on, turning up the heat and grinding hard, which made me get to a point where… I get it. I understand the game and have beaten it multiple times by now, even on Hard difficulty, and even after I am done with this review I intend to further step it up. Because this game deserves the time and attention, and you’ll soon discover why in XboxEra’s BPM: Bullets Per Minute review.
Time to dance
While games deserve to express themselves on their terms, I still enjoy comparing a game to a series of titles to better frame the discussion for those not familiar with how a game plays and feels. BPM: Bullets Per Minute, for example, could be summed as Doom Eternal-Esque first-person arena battles in a roguelike structure, with the addition of rhythm-based attacks akin to the known indie Crypt of the Necrodancer. Players have to traverse a series of procedurally generated arenas, beating a variety of increasingly tough monsters in this odd mixture of real-time and turn-based action with increasingly effective equipment and a permadeath system – simple enough to explain, but mighty difficult to play.
Only one of the ten playable characters is initially available: her name is Göll, and is the optimal starting point as she has balanced statistics and abilities from the start, allowing players to get used to the game’s rules without any meaningful stepback. Opting for the Easy difficulty, which should be a no-brainer for the first dozens of runs, players start with 100 health, equaling more or less 4-hits taken as most attacks take exactly 25HP away. The levels are interconnected cube-shaped rooms, but inside them, there may be stairs, poles, platforms, and such, which skilled players can use to their advantage to block enemy projectiles.
Missed a beat
The Doom Eternal comparison definitely fits the flow of the combat, as the pace is fast and players can alternate double jumps and dashes both on the ground and mid-air for better traversal. There’s one key difference, however: the rhythm-based shooting. Whereas players can move freely at any moment, weapons and abilities can only be turned out at the correct beats of the banging metal soundtrack that accompanies every level. Hitting a lot of consecutive notes not only gives higher scores via combos and multipliers, but most importantly it allows the players to be effective. Attempting to shoot out of sync is simply not possible, the weapon will not fire, but fast and precise players can even fire mid-beat with the correct timing, increasing their offensive potential.
Ironically enough, while this is one of the title’s selling points, it’s one of the weaker elements of the game. It is interesting in the first matches and areas, but it doesn’t take long before arenas will have a dozen or more enemies at the same time. It’s difficult enough to dodge them and their attacks, but having to also listen to the music and try to hit the right moment to attack is simply overwhelming at times, even after several hours of playing with said ruleset. Fortunately, the game has a generous helper that can be turned in the menu, that sort of adjusts the note to our firing to make sure we never actually miss. Granted, a certain pace is needed, as the time between one shot and the other needs to be at least the same, so a good rhythm remains key to staying effective. Yet, I’ve found the game more enjoyable while still mighty challenging with this mode on, as I didn’t feel the game became better by limiting the shooting only to certain frames.
If this were Guitar Hero, this would be a Dragonforce song
Make no mistake, the game remains incredibly challenging as is. Without getting upgrades, most characters go down in 2 to 4 hits, with only limited chances of healing across the arenas. Fortunately, general loot in the game comes in many shapes and sizes, populating nearly every room of the randomly generated dungeons. Enemies usually leave coins after their demise, chests appear when an area is cleared, hidden power-ups can be accessed when additional traversal abilities are unlocked such as infinite jumps, but even new weapons can be discovered or bought, either in the arenas themselves or in the shops and gunsmiths that also appear in most dungeons. Coins are what allow these shops to go on, and as we spend throughout the various matches ended either with a death or a final boss demise, the shops become better and better in terms of options offered. There are even banks where players can store or withdraw coins, allowing effectively to put aside cash for later matches or immediately being able to buy OP weapons by cashing in on prior results.
There are even chests that only open up with keys: these also can be found in dungeons or bought in shops. These also allow getting through otherwise closed doors, such as the one to the library which always holds an equippable ability, or one that allows players to descend through the undergrounds after the first stage, effectively circumventing the first boss to explore an optional path. The game has a habit of putting players in a position of spending coins or even keys, but the results are often not known. What skill lies behind the library door is never known beforehand; likewise, there are shrines spread across the dungeons that offer a random skill or statistic upgrade after spending a certain amount of currency. Sometimes, chests can even contain enemies, while certain shrines can only be activated after sacrificing a certain amount of health. Improving one’s chances of survival always comes with a cost, and players need to take calculated risks to figure out whether losing some health or a lot of keys can be worth it for a potentially game-changing ability or loot.
It’s the equipments and skills that can turn the match on its head. Whichever character you choose, whatever weapon you buy, chances are you can easily get outgunned by increasingly complicated waves of enemies, some even boasting near unavoidable attacks or shields that only allow for short margins of time and space to land a hit. Upgrades and new abilities are key to move on, and these come in many shapes and sizes. The aforementioned traversal upgrades like infinite jumps, explosions around that damages enemies every time we jump, all the way to more classic power-ups like decreased reload times, or even double damage or infinite ammo. Even the skills to manually activate can range from fairly weak attacks, all the way to complete teleporting abilities or healing.
This is where luck and dungeon generation comes into play the most, because frankly, some combinations are just practically essential, if not downright too strong. One of my most successful runs allowed me to place explosive shrapnels on all of my uzi hits, combined with an armor that nearly nullified all damage taken and skills to easily heal myself after a handful of hits landed, with even an ability that would drastically reduce the prices of all items in shops, making it ridiculously easy to just buy everything at all times. With this build, I would tear any difficult boss apart in less than 5 seconds, well before they even had the chance to land a hit. What happens if you only find less effective skills and loot? The game remains insanely difficult, and frankly, most challenges were not feasible for me this way – and, to cite a game with a similar gameplay loop, I managed to finish Doom Eternal on Nightmare. But unlike id Software’s masterpieces, there’s usually no easy ways to replenish health and shields, and 3-4 hits end with death. Thus, BPM: Bullets Per Minute can easily become overwhelming.
The final guitar solo
Fortunately, finding a good build that allows the player to reach the end credits (which usually takes about 45 minutes) is not where the game ends. A total of 10 playable characters with distinct playstyles and statistics can be unlocked via specific challenges, such as beating the game on Hard with a specific person or spending a certain amount of coins at the gunsmith across all runs. Completing the game with the various characters and difficulties also unlocks special challenges, such as fixed seed dungeon runs, a Full Auto mode where every weapon has automatic fire modes, all the way to a retro-game inspired pixelated looks, and so on. Even trials for the default mode can be activated from the starting dungeon, such as a speedrun timer or double the amount of enemies. So if by any chance the player is starting to find the game a tad too easy after dozens of wins, there are always ways to make things more complex.
The characters we use, too, can be upgraded in between runs. There are no traditional RPG-Esque improvements between runs akin to Rogue Legacy, but completing certain challenges and runs unlocks certain permanent skills and ultimates that new runs with said characters will always feature from that point on. And while the dungeons feel mostly the same on new runs, there’s a lot of rare modifiers such as low gravity, darkness, ice pavements and so on that can drastically alter the experience, forcing players to keep staying on their toes even when they’ve finally found a good build to push on. Replayability is therefore key, and with all the different characters, abilities, loots, and dungeon modifiers, it’s hard to ever end up with two identical builds and runs. I already finished the game multiple times at the time of this writing, and yet, I still have several optional challenges that I’m still slowly working towards.
Technically, the game has a clean look. The colour palette almost feels off at first, with a high contrast that gives everything a vibrant look that doesn’t always seem right. Models and textures are kept simple, with the game performance benefiting of this choice even on base Xbox One, let alone on Series X – the game does not feature X|S Enhancements, however. The most worrying aspect have been a handful of crashes, though most occurred in menus. I nearly had a heart attack when the game crashed on the penultimate dungeon, but fortunately, the game autosaves at the start of each area, in case something goes wrong or players want to load an incomplete run. Naturally, these saves are wiped when players die, which should avoid abuse.
Given the rhythm-based shooting, it should be no surprise that the soundtrack is quite effective. Repetitive, yet powerful and pleasant instrumental heavy metal beats accompany the player’s every run, with variations on the music appearing when entering a shop or a gunsmith too. These songs aren’t too complex, but it only takes a few minutes of each melody’s looping to get it stuck in your head, in my case seeing me hum some of them long after I turned off the game. It may not have the crunch or impact of Mick Gordon’s astonishing soundtrack for Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal, but I’ve found the beats pleasant enough even after dozens of runs on the same level.
BPM: Bullets Per Minute is one of the most exhilarating shooter experiences I’ve had recently, thanks to fast gameplay, varied gunfights, and a high skill ceiling to aim for via the many runs the players will inevitably go through. Ironically enough, the rhythm-based shooting is perhaps the title’s least fun key mechanic, but it can almost entirely be turned off, which shockingly made the game better. As with other roguelites, luck plays a big part, as certain dungeons and item generations are almost impossible to beat, with others being almost too easy to blast through. But that’s part of the magic: it’s worth suffering through even a dozen unfavourable situations for that one run where every piece of the puzzle falls into place because when it does, BPM: Bullets Per Minute offers stellar gameplay that I intend to come back to for quite some time.