Platform: PC (£6.99)
Developer: Terri Vellmann
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Don't let the garish screenshots fool you. Heavy Bullets is one of the most elegant games released in years.
These days, shooters are obsessed with being the biggest. They crave the most features. The most polygons. The most connected worlds, the biggest DLC libraries, the most modes, the most maps, the shiniest companion apps, the biggest franchise potential, the widest audience. And they bloat themselves into huge shambling monstrosities in the process.
In comparison, Heavy Bullets is an E-Type Jaguar parked on Southend seafront or Kate Middleton's dress at a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. A strong and simple idea, executed as stylishly and solidly as possible, designed with as few moving parts and extraneous details as possible to obtain the required result. Throughout a procedurally-generated dungeon, you'll blast a menagerie of virtual beasties while jealously hoarding your limited resources, blending the permadeath progression and exploration of of a Roguelike with the nervy twitch reflexes of an old-school shooter.
As such, Heavy Bullets is the very definition of a game that perfectly achieves what it sets out to do - no more, no less.
The premise, as expected, is simple. You assume the role of an unnamed hacker tasked with resetting a malfunctioning mainframe by entering the virtual world and finding the off button. Unfortunately, the mainframe in question is a hunting simulator and the inmates now rule the asylum. Armed only with a revolver chambered for six rounds, you'll explore the randomly-generated floors in an effort to delve to the bottom level. Think of the traditional structure of a top-down Rogue-lite, only with turn-based tactics swapped out for the nervous first-person shooting of Wolfenstein 3D.
It's as basic as you could hope for. Open a door and you'll likely discover a handful of angular monsters, turrets, fliers or hidden skulking parasites, who'll then either charge your position, stand back and blast you or bushwhack you if you stray too close. Your job is to shoot them before they ravage your tiny health bar and send you back to the start. The shooting mechanics are simple and slippery, fast-paced and beautifully responsive, relying heavily on your ability to shoot straight, true and most importantly fast. Many enemies and hazards require you to hit tiny targets under pressure, circle-strafing like a loon or popping out of cover to deliver one of your six bullets exactly where it needs to go. There's no fat, just rock-solid action.
The emphasis being firmly on "six" bullets, though, because your chunky revolver can only hold half a dozen. As such you'll need to aim precisely under intense stress, making sure every shot counts, but your plump projectiles aren't destroyed when fired. Rather, they'll bounce around the environments and can be picked back up; whether after clearing out a room or under desperate pressure during a shootout. Powerups are also available, such as rockets, bombs and potions, but they're scarce and temporary, forcing you to decide whether to blow or hoard them on a second-by-second basis.
A simple twist, but a truly effective one that makes every engagement a tense and hectic showdown. I usually found myself waiting for the last possible second before squeezing off a shot at point-blank range so as not to risk misplacing one of my precious bullets. Deaths are frequent and the difficulty is punishing, but you'll jump straight back in for another run.
Coins also present a deadly economy to indulge in, since every downed enemy explodes in a shower of currency. You can spend your winnings via vending machines spaced throughout the levels, both on items, health, extra bullets and other helpful accoutrements, whereas more thrifty players can save up for future runs. Banking terminals allow you to persistently invest money and store items between attempts, giving yourself a nest egg when you need it most, while money-saving life insurance and even wills are on offer if you're willing to sacrifice short-term survivability for long-term profit. It's not an intrusive system, but it does provide a more tactical element that compliments the moment-to-moment action nicely.
Heavy Bullets' presentation is superb. It embraces the raw and glitchy aesthetic of old-school personal computing with its simple angular geometry and violently hot electric Speccy-inspired colour palette, and is therefore an absolute joy to behold. Vellmann clearly took great delight in using as few polygons as possible to achieve something beautiful, and it's a refreshing change of pace. The sound design really steals the show, though, due to a fantastic retro-inspired soundtrack and unique sound effects for monsters and powerups. After an hour, you can hear the telltale stinger of a hidden snake or a bouncing coin you failed to snag, rewarding you for listening as closely and intently as possible.
So it pains me that the next paragraph is going to read like an insult. I don't intend it as one, but there's no other way to phrase it. Know that it only comes from a good place when I say that...
Heavy Bullets is perfect as far as it goes.
The problem is twofold. First of all, the procedural map generation suffers from a familiar foible, in that each level lacks the feeling of curation and pacing that you'd get from a painstakingly designed experience. Maps often feel like messy agglomerations of very similar rooms, which comes with the territory, but the intensity can plateau after several runs due to a paucity of big set pieces or more carefully constructed moments.
More crucially, though, Heavy Bullets lacks one of the key Roguelike components that separates the great from the Great with a capital 'G.' Surprise. Sure, the map layouts and monster locations change, but you'll still broadly encounter the same enemies on each floor and plough through similar big square rooms and corridors, only in a different order. There's a real compulsion from becoming more efficient and more skilled each time, with a view to finally besting floor eight, but truly exceptional examples of the genre also keep you playing by constantly surprising you with unpredictable and new things even on early floors, stopping tedium from setting in.
But at the end of the day, that's okay. We can only review the game we've got, not the game we want, and more importantly Heavy Bullets counteracts my criticisms with the rock-solid quality of its retro-tough action, jump scares, and the constant variation of powerups. It delivers several hours of mechanically perfect shooting and enjoyable recursion at an appropriate price. If you like the idea and dig the retro aesthetic, definitely pick up this elegant breath of fresh air.
- Tough, slippery and responsive shooting...
- ...with enjoyable nervy exploration and permadeath progression
- Outstanding art and sound design makes a little go a long way
- Elegant, pure and deeply refreshing for £6.99
- Lacks genuine surprise after you've encountered each enemy and item
- More monster and visual variety within each floor would have been appreciated
- Procedural generation can lead to messy floor layouts
The Short Version: Heavy Bullets is a devastatingly elegant fusion of slippery twitch shooting, procedural exploration and gradual progression without an ounce of unnecessary fat. The rock-solid experience can plateau after a few hours of dying and delving, but you'll definitely get your money's worth first.
If you like your shooters tough, your visuals hot and your nerves shredded, you can buy with confidence.