5 of Diamonds: Bullets Per Minute – A good off beat effort

When we talk about games, particularly shooters, we often talk about among other things the “rhythm” of the games. It is not hard to reimagine a gun as a percussion instrument, particularly in the safe world of fantasy. Using weapons as musical instruments in a game lets you make those bangs without any chance of hurting anyone. These isn’t even new: youtube videos matching video guns firing to a beat, or gun syncs, have been around for a while, but there’s a drastically older example in classical music: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with it’s literally bombastic use of cannons. This flows into the gameplay, with both the firing of the weapons and the lower frequency rhythm of reloading and superpowers recharging controlling how the player goes through the game.

Given this, it is curious that, as far as I know, no one’s crossed the shooter over with a different genre – the rhythm game, where the game is controlled by the player matching the beat of the game in a very literal way. Until now.

Similarly to how Crypt of the Necrodancer pulled the adventure game into the beat of a rhythm game, BPM, Bullets Per Minute, adds rhythm mechanics to first person gun slinging and it…for the most part, works. The core part of the game, the way guns will only fire on a beat or half beat, the way your dash ability makes a drumbeat sound when you match the rhythm, that all feels really good. It’s difficult to get used to from other games, and some may find it a bit too forced in; you could remove the rhythm mechanics and have a rather generic FPS, but I do think the extra mechanic fundamentally alters the gameplay enough to make it worth it. While different guns having different firing patterns is hardly unusual, BPM takes it to the next level and have different kinds of weapons not only fire on different beats (for example, the pistols can fire on the half beat, which I struggle to do so I usually switch as soon as I can), but each weapon has a different reload rhythm, with the reloads being far more involved on the player’s part than most games, such as the revolver having you hit reload on the beat/half beat for each bullet you load in. The bosses also have attacks that go on the rhythm; the boss of the first level for instance has an attack that alternates from side to side to do damage, sending you dodging left and right in a wonderful dance. When the rhythm aspects work, they work really well.

Unfortunately, outside the bosses and some of the minibosses, the enemies don’t join you in your dance. Normal enemies don’t attack or move on the beat, at least not in a way that I can notice after quite a lot of runs in the game, which weakens the experience overall, which is really important given how much that experience is what carries the game.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the game; it’s a very small studio and the game is pretty impressive for that, with a surprising amount of material in it. It seems combining two genres wasn’t enough for BPM, as it is also technically a roguelike. Each level is algorithmically created, consisting primarily what you might call encounter rooms, where you are faced with an array of enemies, upon who’s defeat the doors open and a chest appears, along with a second random reward. The goal is to defeat the boss of each level and move onto the next realm of Norse mythology, and you don’t need to defeat all rooms in the map to move on. There’s not that much variety in the rooms – each level will have the same enemies, selection of minibosses and boss across runs. The main difference between runs is what rewards you get, and there’s an impressive amount of stuff to obtain.

There are two shops, a general shop and an armoury. The more you spend there, the more items will be available from them, including at least twelve different guns. Also, really importantly, the shopkeepers are huge dancing birds named after Odin’s ravens. That’s really important, it’s fantastic. If this was a youtube video I’d end it on just a recording of the giant dancing birds. Anyway.

Libraries, which require keys to unlock, let you obtain new abilities to add to your powers, with larger “Ultimate” abilities like healing or summoning an ally taking time to charge while more direct powers like are, like your dash powers, useable on the beat. There are four equipment slots, which also give a wide array of effects that are usually pretty powerful, such as granting infinite ammo or explosive shots or improving your jump. The equipment can be brought from the general store, found in chests (that again sometimes need a key) or sometimes you will find four high level pieces, one for each slot, and you can only choose one (probably the rarest reward). Finally, there’s also six skills you can upgrade as you go, with damage being usually the most useful.

As you go through the game and beat the levels, you unlock new Valkyries to play with, each with a different starting loadout; for example, the first Valkyrie Goll is armed with the weakest pistol and has 100 HP, and beating the second dungeon unlocks Freyr, who starts with the more powerful revolver and 150 shields, which are subtle different from HP in that once lost you cannot restore them with HP items and his total starting health is actually zero.

Like I said, there is a lot going on here, and this brings us to one of the first issues I had playing the game; it does a very bad job of explaining itself. While there are hints on the loading screen, there is just a lot of things to use and get used to in the game and without something like a codex it can just feel as if you don’t know what’s happening. It doesn’t help that many of the upgrades don’t say what they actually do, just give a word like “Cleave” or “Solar Flare”, some of which you can work out from in game actions and some which I still have no clue what is going on.

Speaking of a codex, the game could really use one. There’s plenty of weapons and enemy types that it could really benefit from it, but most importantly the codex could go someway to explaining what certain modifiers actually mean in terms of game mechanics.

Then again, perhaps they chose not to include one not just because it is a large amount of additional work for a small team, but because they wanted to make the game harder and require you to figure it out for yourself. And yes, the game is bloody hard even on the easy setting. Part of it is just how damage works; you start with 100 HP as the base character, but even the most basic enemies will do 25HP, meaning you have effectively only 4 hits before dying. Later characters start with even less HP, although they do have bonuses like extra starting stats and better weapons to make up for it. Even the smallest enemies like the worms in the first levels can kill you, and in fact the smaller ones tend to be the most deadly since it can be hard to see them coming. This brutal health requirement only gets worse when against bosses who have attacks that can basically instan-kill you if you’re not coming in with plenty of health, although one bone the game throws your way is warnings placed in the beat counter across the centre of the screen letting you know when to dodge the biggest attacks and which way. Also, while I wouldn’t call health exactly common, you can pick up tinctures along the way and buy health potions and max HP increases from the dancing bird shopkeeper on each floor.

Another factor of difficulty is from the reload/fire to the beat mechanic. As much as I enjoy them, they are slower than most game’s reload/fire mechanics, and unlike most you can not only miss your shot in spatial terms (not hitting the enemy) but in temporal terms as well (missing the beat to fire). As the enemies are not bound to attacking on the beat like yourself, this can leave you open for valuable beats that can end a run. This means that you need to be constantly on the move, since the rooms tend to be fairly small and filled with enemies that can easily surround you or pin you in with projectiles. You start with a pretty decent dodge, although you can’t do it at the same time as firing or reloading, adding another factor to the game’s action economy.

I haven’t really talked about the aesthetics of the game yet, which are actually pretty important! The soundtrack is a fairly standard mix of rock themes that you will hear a lot if you do multiple runs, but I haven’t really found it grating on me over time, and more importantly, it has a strong beat that matches the one you fire on, so it’s really useful for keeping track. I’ve noticed that playing the game with the sound off, as I might do with other games while watching a video, makes it notably harder, which does indeed make sense. It’s a functional soundtrack, both aesthetically and how it interacts with the game’s core mechanics.

Visually, the game has a very peculilar style. Each pair of levels has a different theme colour, starting with orange in the first level and moving through yellow, black and black and red as you go on. And when I say it’s a colour theme, I mean everything in the level is tinted in that colour, from the enemies to the walls and the floor. The game is also weirdly fuzzy, with details abstracted out and blended into the colour, and uses a blocky lighting engine that often has you seeing just a block colour of light to represent say, a window. It’s not a bad aesthetic, and it doesn’t hinder the game play, but it is definitely unusual. Which I think can sum up most of the game – it’s an unusual game with an unusual art style and a really strong core mechanic which is just a bit too smothered in other mechanics for my liking. It’s currently $20 on steam and that’s a fair amount for what it is, possibly on the pricy side, but if you see it in a sale I definitely recommend giving it a look.

(Oh, I dropped hints about this, but you’re playing as various valkeries, including male ones, and you are supposed to be fighting through various locations in Norse mythology. Honestly this doesn’t come up much other than in the boss names, the shopkeeper birds being named Huigin and Muninn after Odin’s ravens, and some of the upgrades. The architecture and music doesn’t really shout norse to me, and the base enemies include things like scorpion ladies so…again, this is where a codex might be handy to establish this stuff better than the game itself does. Still, like so many things here, the solid core gameplay mechanics are enough for me to let it off.)

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