If Doom 2016 taught us anything, it’s that throwback first-person shooting and bass-bumping metal soundtracks pair like cheese and wine. If you want to get a player’s pulse pounding as they barely scrape their way through battle after battle with a horde of otherworldly nightmares, you want beefy drums, screaming guitars, and just enough of that classic ‘80s synth to put them on edge – and maybe even remind them of the genre’s roots.

BPM – the acronym for “Beats Per Minute” – takes this idea and dials in on it with laser focus.

It’s a procedurally generated, rougelite throwback first-person shooter with a killer fantasy metal soundtrack, yes. But it’s also one that demands you play with the music, not just alongside it.

That’s right, BPM is a rhythm-based first-person shooter – maybe the first of its kind. Clearly inspired by such recent experiments in this vein as Crypt of the Necrodancer, BPM limits your actions to the beat of the background music. Every shot, dodge, jump – even each individual step of reloading a weapon – must be in time with the beats pounding in your headset.

As an apprentice drummer who’s celebrated the recent renaissance of throwback shooters, it’s safe to say I was intrigued by BPM’s trailer. It promised all the satisfying combat of a game like Doom, but set to a demanding structure that uniquely tested the player’s abilities beyond simple points and clicks.

So, after developers Awe Interactive were kind enough to provide The Digital Fix with a review code, I jumped at the opportunity. Now, after five hours with the game (and even though I haven’t managed to conquer its grueling campaign) I’m confident I have a grasp on what they’re trying to accomplish – and whether this distinct concept works in practice.

I’m not going to mention the story… because there isn’t much of one. Beyond its framework in Norse mythology, BPM is devoid of any real narrative. Though, that seems to be for the best, as the action is the most compelling feature it boasts.

Instead, I want to start with BPM’s visuals. They’re… solid. They fit the aesthetic and the types of games they’re trying to recall. There are some fairly unique designs in some of the supplementary characters you meet along your journey, though most of the enemies were unsurprising. Subscribing to a uniform colour palette for each zone, its aesthetic is simple enough that you’re never lost or overwhelmed by the visuals – and that’s mostly thanks to some excellent user interface design. Just don’t expect to come across anything all that stunning in your experience.

To speak more directly on the UI, it does a great job of communicating virtually every aspect of the game. It shows where you are on the minimap, the locations of shops, bosses, and special rooms. Your current health, ammo count, and equipped weapons and items are clear. As is the combo counter, which ticks up as your actions stay with the beat of the music – adding a multiplier to your critical hits.

The most important element of this UI is the beat indicator, which visually assists in keeping you on rhythm. While it’s cleverly integrated into the crosshair, the animation is busy, and often makes it tricky to be as precise with your shots as the game demands.

Overall it’s a clean user interface that clearly communicates just about everything you need to know, while still having character and aesthetic cohesion. And that’s an oft-overlooked achievement. Still, I would’ve liked to see it mark certain other game elements on the map – like potions, coins, and items left behind, or the shrines that provide your character with an item or permanent stat boost in exchange for those coins. (Binding of Isaac handles this expertly, as an example.)

On a final note, there’s a certain oversaturated… even “crispy” quality to the game’s graphical style. It can honestly put a strain on the eyes at times. It’s almost as if there’s a filter over the perspective that muddies the visuals and, in my opinion, doesn’t add much to the experience. Think of those “deep-fried” memes you might’ve seen on Reddit, but dialled back a few notches. Again, it’s not overwhelming. But it’s not really welcome, either.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, does strike a chord with me. It’s chiefly in the fantasy metal genre, punctuated by epic guitar licks and thumping bass. Some of the songs from the earlier levels rang in my ears while I wasn’t playing – both for the good reason (they’re catchy) and the bad reason (I died so often, the tracks of the first two stages got too familiar). More on that latter point in a bit.

Now, of course the reason you’re here is to learn if the gameplay works. After all, I don’t think a rhythm-based first-person shooter has ever been done before – at least not with this much polish.

The answer is a mixed bag. When BPM’s combat works, it feels incredible. Timing out your shots, counting out how many you have to fire before you need to reload – and all matched to the beat… the word satisfying doesn’t do it justice. It takes some time to get used to having to shoot on the beat, and not just firing at will even in desperate situations. But after a few runs, it becomes natural. The combat is also fast and frenetic. You’re constantly on the move, avoiding projectiles and charging melee attacks from enemies – all of whom also attack to the beat of the music. And when you’re able to effectively utilize double jumps and air dashes, it can be incredibly satisfying to unload on an enemy as you fling across each arena.

But there are also some strange qualities of BPM’s combat that will undoubtedly throw off classic shooter fans. The main thing I noticed, and didn’t stop noticing, is that weapons have a specific range. That doesn’t mean bullets deal less damage or become less accurate at range – it means they won’t hit your target, period. This can be pretty annoying to deal with when you’re in a tricky spot or on the move, especially for the tiny airborne enemies who can deal their own heavy damage with no apparent range restrictions. The starting pistol, in particular, has a range that feels unfair in the early innings. This limited-range quality is prevalent in 2D roguelite shooters, so I understand why it’s here. And you can expand your weapon’s range with upgrades (though these aren’t guaranteed). Overall though, the first-person perspective makes it far trickier to determine your effective range in the heat of battle. And the default range feels a bit too short to not feel frustrating for those familiar with first-person shooters. 

As I mentioned at the outset, BPM is a procedurally generated roguelite shooter. In each run you’re clearing rooms of varying enemy groups, collecting coins to spend on upgrades or bank for future runs, and finding armor and weapons that influence gameplay. These range from a crown that steals health on each successful hit, to an auto-aim gauntlet that enlarges the crosshair and guarantees a hit for any enemy within the box, to something as simple as boots that boost your movement speed. There’s a good variety of weapons, too. You start each run with a pistol, but you’ll soon find various shotguns, SMGs, revolvers, grenade launchers, and miniguns – all with their own unique shot properties and reload timing.

Certain elements enjoy a persistent upgrade path, as well. As you buy items at shops and equipment at armories, you add points to a kind of “rewards program” that gradually expands the offerings (though these upgrades came far too slowly in my opinion). There’s also a bank that occasionally appears, allowing you to save unused coins for future runs.

As with any roguelite, you can and will have bad runs where your abilities don’t sync up and you get squashed by the first boss. And there are other runs where you’re met with upgrade serendipity and steamroll everything, floor after floor. That’s just the nature of the genre.

But the quirks of BPM’s rhythm-based gunplay often accentuate the frustrations of the bad runs. When a death feels more like the game’s fault not just because of bad drops, but because of the core gameplay, it becomes harder to get excited about that next run. 

Overall this is a difficult game, even on “Easy.” Most of my runs ended on the first and second floor, because the abilities or gear I acquired simply weren’t suited to inflict enough damage on the bosses in enough time to avoid death. And the starting character can only take four hits before going down.

When I did find the right synthesis of upgrades and weapons, it often felt cheap… Like one notable pairing of a minigun and infinite ammo. With that combination, the rhythm aspect of the shooting was basically gone. I was left to mow through enemies, room after room, until enough projectiles whittled me down.

But that wasn’t always the case. My best run was a pairing of an incredibly satisfying pump-action shotgun, explosive rounds, and a number of flat damage upgrades combined with a damage multiplier based on my combo meter. I was a glass cannon – even though each enemy went down in one hit, I had to pay attention to enemy projectiles, which eventually took me out.

BPM has a lot to offer fans of shooters and roguelites alike. With multiple playable characters boasting different starting weapons and properties, a hard mode I wasn’t brave enough to touch, and unique challenge missions that fundamentally alter the experience (one recalls Crypt of the Necrodancer more directly, tying movement itself to the beat), you’re getting your money’s worth from this title – if the core gameplay and roguelite loop satisfy you.


Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
BPM | The Digital Fix