Rhythm games and rhythm action games are not rare occurrences in the video game world, but something we don’t see all too often is a rhythm first person shooter. There’s probably a number of reasons for this, but as BPM: Bullets Per Minute illustrates in its short campaign, it’s a concept that has some potential – at least if you’re willing to put the effort into enjoying it.

The premise of the game is very simple, there’s no real story to guide you through; you just battle monsters through a series of levels, ultimately defeating the boss at the end of each one. You have a selection of characters that you unlock as you progress, each who have different attributes and starting stats – difference in health, starting weapon, etc. In order to play as a new character you need to start a new run with their own ‘campaign’.

This might sound a little annoying, but the essence of BPM is starting over and attempting to do better the next time. It is a roguelike in this sense, though your character progression isn’t as noticeable as you might hope. Instead you must rely on banking coins to purchase upgrades to stats, new weapons, etc. Buying items from the shopkeepers builds up loyalty and unlocks new items to buy, and this feature is carried over as well.

If you’ve played any sort of randomly generated dungeon rogue-like you might know what to expect from the levels themselves. While holding an aesthetic theme and the same ending bosses, each time you start a run the rooms of the dungeon change position. Sometimes you have a room with chests, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you have a side boss to take on, and sometimes you don’t, and so on and forth. This means that it’s not really possible to predict the enemies you may face, making learning from your mistakes a little difficult – aside from the bosses, which as mentioned are always the same.

The main catch with the combat, and how it justifies calling itself a rhythm game, is that you can only perform actions, attacks and reloads on the beat of the music. This takes some getting used to and initially feels counterintuitive. This is exacerbated by the fact that the shooting doesn’t actually add much to the music as you might be expecting which feels a tad unsatisfying.

When you do get used to it however, the perspective changes and you can start to see what this game was actually going for. While not as audibly pleasing as one might hope, the action is a dance of sorts. Managing your movement and perfectly hitting the beats with your shots and reloads, while also maintaining a good aim is really quite difficult, but greatly satisfying when you consistently pull it off. It’s interesting as my opinion on the game went from initially negative to positive when I had this revelation. The level design seems quite close for this type of game, and initially I found the challenge to be more on the brutal side than I would like. The temptation is to play this like a strafing Doom game, and while not entirely inaccurate, the focus is definitely more on planned movement than twitchy reaction, meaning you are supposed to manage your environment rather than rely on having loads of space to move. I suppose it could be divisive in this respect though.

What makes the combat a little more challenging though is the various weapon and enemy types. There’s not a huge number of either of these, but all have their own styles and pace. Weapons differ by, obviously, what attacks they do, but this also requires you to change your rhythm – getting used to the starting weapon and then picking up a shotgun, for instance, requires you to acclimatise to fewer shots, more button presses for reloading, your range, and so on. The enemies of course also throw things up as you progress to new levels, but bosses have specific attack patterns which you must learn and effectively react to. It keeps you on your toes, always anxious about moving into an undiscovered room.

What does irk a bit with regards to the difficulty, however, is the fact that the whole game can be seen as one continuous run. I was surprised after I finally beat the first level that I then died early into the second, only to be started right back at the beginning of the game again – after all that effort I then had to do this again. You do need to put thought into storing away your coins in the bank (found in chests and dropped off foes) so that you can improve your character stats on your next run and make sure to buy your preferred weapon, however the repetition of playing these earlier levels can be really grating. I wondered why there were so few levels in the game (just 8) and it became clear that this was because in order to complete the game you must play them all back to back without dying. I do find this very frustrating and, frankly, not very satisfying game design, but it is definitely possible – while researching this game further I have seen people finish the full game in under 30 minutes. It’s all about learning the rules, investing in powers (you can unlock abilities such as a fire bolt attack) and maintaining the skill to stay on beat consistently.

Some surface criticisms I would level at the game are that it’s not a particularly good looking title. It is a small development, sure, but there’s a blurry, washed out effect applied to the environments that just looks ugly. There’s an optional mode where you can play the game in a retro aesthetic, and this is virtually unplayable due to how bad it looks.

But a more important criticism, and the main reason this game isn’t hitting a 7 for me is that at the end of it all there isn’t really much to it. Yes, it is at heart a simple game which focusses on making one feature, it’s rhythm based shooting, very proficient – and in general there’s nothing wrong with that – but there’s no story to speak of, therefore no context, and to be blunt there’s nothing particularly interesting about the dungeons and rooms either. There’s nothing exciting to find beyond coins and the occasional upgrade, and there’s nothing visually interesting to see either – especially considering the poor visuals. Compare this to a similar level designed roguelike game such as The Binding of Isaac, this game has at least a simple narrative to urge you on, and the impetus for exploring all the rooms is that you can find something really interesting – BPM doesn’t really have this. This means that it feels like a one stop game; there’s no good reason to replay it despite its short length, and if you’re finding it too difficult there’s not much reason to break a sweat pushing to the end either.

The reward of mastering the combat is the satisfying aspect of it all, and I think the music is decent enough, but once you have it all figured out it can feel a bit shallow. It’s an interesting concept, certainly, and a game I would at least recommend trying out for the gimmick, but I wouldn’t expect to be blown away or to make this your next dungeon run obsession.