“Rhythm FPS roguelike” is not a series of words I thought I’d see strung together to describe a video game. But the year 2020 is committed to surprising the hell out of me, sometimes for ill (mostly for ill nowadays) but sometimes for good. BPM:Bullets Per Minute is one of those good surprises.
Out now on Steam, BPM:Bullets Per Minute, or simply BPM, is a rhythm game akin to Crypt of the Necrodancer in which you reload and shoot your gun on the beat to damage enemies. You pilot a Valkyrie through different realms (which in this game is a sprawling, labyrinthine monastery) killing bugs, bats, demons, and more. It’s a bit more forgiving than Necrodancer’s map grids, so you can circle strafe and use abilities (off a cooldown of course) to your heart’s delight without worrying about the rhythm. Successive shots on beat increase your damage multiplier up to 4x, while being off-beat results in a misfire that I like to imagine is a jammed gun or your avatar being so frustrated with your inability to keep time that they refuse to fire, disgusted by your lack of rhythm.
Players start with a powerless Valkyrie and a simple pistol. As you traverse through the levels clearing rooms you can potentially earn new weapons, health potions, money, and equipment. Like all roguelikes, death resets your progress to the beginning, forfeiting all perks you may have acquired. This is all made more complex by different modifiers: for example, you won’t always get the same type of level when you load in. Sometimes you’ll get one where the floor is coated in ice that causes you and enemies to slip and slide all over the place and, as I found out, into bottomless pits. There’s an Infested variation where rooms are populated with an extra amount of skittering spiderlings that wreak havoc. My least favourite is the Glass version, where both you and your enemies take and deal double damage.
There is a good chance you will suck at this game at the start. Those projectile-firing baby bats were my particular bane during my first 50 attempts. I asked the developer David Jones of Awe Interactive if he had any tips, and he offered some good advice for noobs.
“My biggest tip would be to strafe like there’s no tomorrow,” he said via email. “The game is based around Quake’s gameplay. So basically while you’re playing, hold down walk left pretty much ALL the time. Enemies fire at your last location (generally) so if you’re moving to a new location they’ll miss you everytime.”
The world of BPM is a sparsely appointed landscape of red and orange that can be grating on the eyes. You can find statues amongst the monochromatic maps at which to offer coins in exchange for power-ups to your stats — precision, damage, health, speed, and luck to name a few. You also earn keys to unlock chests and doors. Keys are rare, while chests are fairly common, often yielding nothing or worse, a surprise enemy to fight.
The heavy metal soundtrack that dictates your every move is pleasant enough to listen to on repeat, which is good because you’ll be hearing the same song a lot if you haven’t nailed down the shooty shooty part. My favourite musical flourish in the game comes at the end of a boss fight. As the boss stands waiting for you to deliver the killing blow, the shots you fire to finish it off are in time with the end of the song. It makes you feel like you’re the star of a band getting your own solo grand finale.
If some of the sprites look familiar to you, don’t adjust your eyes. They are old Paragon assets that have been for sale on the Unreal Engine Marketplace store since that game went defunct. David Jones explained the choice:
Our decision to use assets from the Unreal store was based on our desire to make the game as a whole as ambitious as we could. In all, the game has over 40 items, 15 guns, and around 50 unique enemies – all of which on a technical level requires a lot of animation behaviour and logic. All of this would have been impossible to achieve for a team of our size (two full time developers) without relying on the Unreal ecosystem. As such, we decided to find appropriate characters and designed our game to work around them. It’s something that enabled our vision to be broad and exciting.
Some of my favourite parts of the game are hidden in the small details. You’re in control of a mostly faceless and voiceless avatar with no overarching story. You don’t know why you are where you are, and you’ve been given no greater purpose than to kill everything that moves. Despite the barebones environment, there is a quirky personality to the game. I loved that, when picking up a new revolver, my Valkyrie Goll gives the gun a little pat as if to say “aww look at the widdle gun I’m going to muw-der all the things with. It’s so cute!”
I especially love Munin and Hugin, the huge metal heccin’ good doggo blacksmith and the gigantic bird shopkeep, though both, I am sad to report, cannot be pet. They dance in their little rooms to music that’s lighter and more fun than the dark metal beats you hear outside, and they reward you with more goods the more you buy from them. There are also cute little fox people who run the bank (a nice touch to preserve your gold through death), but they aren’t as charming as Munin and Hugin.
I missed the whole “roguelike” boom that seemed to crop up a few years ago, but rhythm games are my jam (heh). I still have my Guitar Hero disc despite not having the plastic guitar anymore. I’d also attack and dethrone god for a new Elite Beat Agents game. Lately, I feel like a lot (but not all, please don’t come for me osu! fans) of new rhythm games have shifted away from being played at home towards big, flashy, and prohibitively expensive cabinets. Think Taiko Drum Master or Pump it Up — games you can only experience at arcades or your local anime convention’s game room.
So while the roguelike and FPS parts of BPM didn’t appeal to me personally, the rhythm part did so much that it overrode any hesitation I felt about the first two. It takes a while to get into a good rhythm (sorry!) of shooting and reloading, but you will get better. I feel like a goddess when I can clear a room without getting hit (take that, you damn baby bats), and it’s even more fun when you make up your own syncopated rhythms to kill enemies to — like I’m creating my own music of death.