(Guitar) Riff and Snare (Drum) until it is done!
Have you ever found yourself playing to the rhythm of combat in a first-person shooter, launching sporadic bursts of gunfire at your enemies, followed by a reload and then more gunfire? In many games, you tend to fall into the orchestration of a game’s combat, sometimes aided by the soundtrack to tell you how sad or epic the moment is, making the gameplay almost like a dance between you and your CPU foes. BPM: Bullets Per Minute capitalises on this idea and brings the high intensity arcade gunplay of Quake or DOOM, and the ethos of Crypt of the Necrodancer together with a splattering of a heavy metal veneer.
In BPM: Bullets Per Minute you play as a Valkyrie! A battle maiden from Norse mythology that selects the worthy to go to Valhalla. Here, however, your Valkyries have been tasked with clearing monsters from the nine norse realms - something I only gathered after a few runs through Asgard and a few other locations. Being a Valkyrie, you are fast, agile and as in most roguelikes, a bit squishy. You have a jump, a double-jump, and a dash alongside your holy arsenal to survive the demon infested worlds you’re gunning through.
For this review, I played as the first Valkyrie available, Göll, sort of an all rounder from what I’ve gathered. She has decent speed and her pistol has 8 rounds, meaning you can clear some of the easier rooms relatively quickly. Even in easier difficulties though, most enemies will take roughly a quarter of your health off you per hit. The night hordes are fast and violent, and they don’t move to the rhythm which makes each encounter more intense. There were many times where I’d accidentally corner myself - and as frustrating as that sounds, I still enjoyed seeing myself doing better than the last run. Sadly, so far I have yet to unlock any of the other playable characters, only having completed the “Practice mode” without dying.
This game is metal, and cool as hell. From the menu we’re greeted with a metal riff that encapsulates this game perfectly. The menu isn’t particularly info heavy, there’s a New Game / Continue option, challenges and settings, all to the backdrop of a handgun toting Valkyrie screaming.
Motion controls are supported, something I found intensely helpful after my first death in the frenetic, mob filled rooms of various procedurally generated dungeons. This was not my only death in my time playing, While I initially used a Pro-Controller in docked mode, I quickly learned that unlike other Nintendo Switch shooters, there’s no button to reset the motion tracking if the accuracy takes a hit. I will say this put me off it, as it's a bit cumbersome, especially if you like to move around. The only workaround I found without using the right analogue stick was to head to the pause menu, turn motion off and then back on. I can only hope that this will be patched in a future update. I also tried playing with Joy-Cons, and the motion works way better with them. Dual-wielding (with wrist straps on for safety) really was my preferred way to play. The left Joy-Con was able to rest, and my right Joy-Con was like a laser pointer of death to all my enemies It feels more responsive than using traditional controllers, and is way easier on your wrists.
This challenge in this game is as hard as its soundtrack, even on the easier difficulties it took a few runs to synchronise with the haunting riffs that blast out while you shoot at hell worms and hell birds and hell… anything!
You have to shoot to the beat, and even reload to the beat, or your gun will jam, and that’s one less beat of damage on whichever hellish creature is bearing down on you. The gunplay is really snappy and responsive, and you need to be too! The more shots, reloads and dodges you make to the game’s gnarly soundtrack, the greater the score multiplier you’ll receive. Maybe it’s my teenage years spent on Guitar Hero that made me like seeing big numbers while hearing loud music, but it egged me on to try and get more big numbers. More dead demons, and more rooms cleared than my last run. There is an Auto Rhythm mode too though, if you’re looking for a slightly easier time, but for some it may lessen the otherwise rockin’ and rock solid experience. When I first picked up the rhythm I began to feel like a lesser god effortlessly blasting away the night hordes and the demonic bosses that infested the dungeons before me, before immediately suffering a humbling death at one of the myriad mobs’ hands… or wings, or teeth.
The game’s dungeon layout is akin to Roguelike royalty: Binding Of Isaac, with almost every floor having a shop, a locked chest room and a boss room. Similar to BOI, we also collect coins or keys from the rooms we’ve cleared, and in some rooms, if you’re lucky, there are statues with an offering dish in there, where you can trade coins for a power-up or save them in hope you’ll run into a blacksmith for a valuable gun. Luckily in BPM there’s a bank which saves your collected coin between runs if you come across it, and a Library that you can unlock to get a special new ability.
Each run you’re able to obtain a regalia of a helm, gloves, boots and a shield, all of which have unique abilities from stat increases to explosive bullets. Your valkyries have different attributes outside of their health, which can be raised by blessings or your gear. The most important part of your arsenal however is your weaponry, which is made up of three distinct parts, a gun / spells, your sub-skill and your ultimate. The guns in BPM are all unique. The pistol is a standard all-rounder weapon. The Revolver, which my character lovingly patted when I purchased it, trades the need to manually reload for extra range and power. The shotgun, who’s raw power is greeted with an air-guitar that hits like two trucks had a baby and that baby was gunpowder, definitely makes me relive the SuperShotgun days of Classic Doom. There are likely a lot more weapons to uncover. I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of just how much is available here.
BPM is really fun despite how often you’ll be dying. There’s a certain mastery about it much like the old arcade shooters that came before it. The biggest difficulty I found is in the lack of permanent progression outside of the shops. Maybe that’s because in my time playing it and attempting over 30 runs I’ve yet to beat the game, either way it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. That said, most of my deaths have been down to a stray worm after I’ve tried to dodge a fireball, just to be eaten by a grub. It’s a game that keeps you on your toes and I love that. Each enemy archetype has their own health and unique abilities. Insects tend to be fast and attack you by ramming you, bats fly around spitting fire and there are some enemies that are just glowing animal skulls that chase you and explode on death. I dislike them all, and you should execute them with extreme prejudice.
Visually, the creatures are easily readable and once you’ve killed, or been killed by a few of them, it’s easy enough to learn how to deal with them. They really pop against the less visually intense backgrounds which almost look like something from a really early arcade cabinet. Each level has its own colour and decorative theme. I spent most of my time in Asgard, or its frozen version. A relatively mute palette with a main colour and various shades of itself, little gold accents portray the lights from candles and bookshelves, sconces and pillars decorate the outskirts of the labyrinthian halls you fill with gunfire. It is a shame that the textures on the Switch version of BPM are of a lower quality than that of its original PC release, but the game doesn’t suffer too much from it. The devs built this game so well that even though the lighting and background textures are a bit muddier, everything is still clear with what it is.
The guns and valkyrie models are a little less stand-out and blurry than on the PC or other more powerful console ports, but it’s a worthy sacrifice for being able to play it on Switch and on the go. I really appreciate the backgrounds taking a second seat to the enemies as it really increases the reading of the room, unfortunately though it does mean that some of the offering altars do get muted out but they’re given a flashing sheen to alert you of their presence. The main stand-outs for me though is the way the valkyrie’s hand really pops out from the background, just like the guns she’s holding. They’re a bit brighter than the rest of the screen, but not to a garish extent, more just enough that you know what you’re rockin’ to kill the creatures flinging themselves at you.
Speaking of rocking, we can’t keep dancing around the fact that the soundtrack is great. There’s no lyrics to the score, and it sounds like something Mick Gordon would bless us with. It’s a really nice accompaniment to the slaughter we’re exacting in the Nine Realms. Each realm has its own music and it equally sounds like metal but has an almost electronic undertone that brings a classic Quake vibe to the gunplay. Though I mainly heard the one riff for Asgard in my time with the game, it never got tiresome, more like it engrained itself in my head and my hands started surrendering themselves to the rhythm, I became a slave to the metal just as my Valkyrie enslaved herself to her duty. It has a really nice drum beat and works in 4/4 timing.
Sadly, playing this game docked causes the music to become far too LOUD. Even with my TV on volume 6, I could hear it in my kitchen two rooms over. There is an option to lower the volume, but I didn’t dare touch it in case it threw off my timing. It probably wouldn’t, but I was nervous and also wanted to enjoy the cool work that the game’s two composers, Sam Houghton and Joe Collinson made for their first game. They did a really good job here and ‘d love to see what they come up with next. I’ve already downloaded it on my Spotify even if its spoiled the metal to come in the later levels should I survive that long.
Let’s talk about the sound design. From the gunshots to the sounds of the spells you're slinging, to the reload sounds, it’s all super satisfying and clean. I love the little grunts and squelches the enemies make as you push them off their mortal coil, and their attacks really blend into the music making it somehow even more metal. I almost expected Powerwulf or Sabaton to join in with biblical chanting or while I cleared out the halls of Asgard.
The second part of BPM: Bullets Per Minute is in the form of challenge runs. These run from the silly Supertime where the entire game moves to the rhythm, including your movement. It quite literally mirrors Crypt of the NecroDancer here. The other challenge I’d unlocked: Retro Run is set in Hard difficulty, and applies a pixel filter to the game, granting you full speed. It’s hard as nails, slightly harder to see and looks like you’re playing Classic Doom with the contrast on low. It’s ridiculous and I love it.
Definitely fun, but also harder than the base game and probably better for players once they’ve honed their skills.
Performance wise, I think the devs really nailed it with this game, and the port plays really well in docked mode with a stable framerate, and no noticeable slow-down or smearing even in the busier rooms. I think this can largely be attributed to the approach to design this game had. Admittedly, the stark contrast does limit the switch in terms of it’s visual fidelity, but the somewhat simple designs really help the switch process everything on the screen and it’s a really solid experience nonetheless.
The enemies often have slight outlines to help you distinguish them and the various upgrades and alars have visual indicators to point them out to you. It’s not the cleanest presentation, but it’s not unbearable. I didn’t experience any crashing whatsoever. The load times are relatively quick, with rooms only taking a few seconds to populate, and the level generation algorithm takes less than a minute to load per zone. It’s a perfect game to pick up and play quickly.
In Tabletop or Handheld mode, BPM: Bullets Per Minute runs with a sharper view, and the smaller screen helps the visuals look more crisp. I did notice the game running a little faster, and the motion controls are about as snappy as when you’re playing docked with Joy-Cons. I will note that the twin-stick movement is slightly better here, but that may be due to the smaller FOV on the handheld version. While it doesn’t run at the same spec as the original PC version, the Switch’s handheld mode is still a really good experience and I honestly can’t complain about it all that much. The only downside to this port is that the visuals are a little weaker than the other versions, but this has been offset by the item indicators. The game may look better on the Nintendo Switch OLED version due to the upgraded visuals, exclusively in undocked/ handheld play.
Overall, BPM: Bullets Per Minute performs well on Nintendo Switch. It provides a challenge, is extremely addictive and, most importantly, is fun! While I can’t say that it’s a perfect port, it's up there with the greats. The only downside is that due to the slightly lower quality contrast and textures in this version of the game, it looks a little archaic in the visuals department. This was clearly done to boost performance in other areas of the game, so If you can look past that, the game is a frantic, fun experience that kept me going back to it after each death. If you’re looking to fill something with lead on a long trip, or you even fancy some Norse power-tripping, it’s worth a shot or two or maybe the whole magazine. KILL THEM ALL!
Where to Buy
Written by Luke Young
Edited by Mark McAllister, Jen Griffiths and Paul L. Russell
Graphic by Paul L. Russell