First-person shooters tend to lack a certain playfulness. All too often featuring hulking tough-guy archetypes, color palettes that stretch only from light gray to dark brown, and gravitas layered atop gravitas, they can get tiring after a while. One gets the sense that most of the aesthetic and design decisions are being made by a braintrust of 15-year-old boys who have had too much Red Bull.
But “Heavy Bullets” is a departure from the norm, and that’s among the reasons I really enjoy it. It is now in late development by Terri Vellmann and will be published by Devolver Digital for Windows, Mac, and Linux. (You can get “early access” on Steam for $10, which means you can play the game in its current form and receive the finished product when it’s released.)
In “Heavy Bullets,” you’re inside a colorful computer world, and you have to get down to Level 8 to reset a mainframe — or something. There are about three lines of story set-up, total, because this game is much more about the action, which consists of avoiding all sorts of digital baddies, traps like brutal turrets, and other obstacles that are very good at killing you. Along the way you find vending machines that allow you to deposit money to be carried over to your next playthrough, to buy weapons and life-saving items, and so on. The banking mechanic adds an interesting aspect of resource management — when I was close to death, I repeatedly found myself seeking out a bank so I could unload my money to save it for the next go-round. The game rewards a bit of thought, even if the action tends to be frantic. And since you have to physically retrieve your bullets after you shoot them — at which point they can be reused — there’s none of the running in with guns blazing so common to the genre.
“Heavy Bullets” is a roguelike. The term is fluid, but the genre generally entails: levels with randomized layouts that are different every playthrough (check); death almost always meaning you have to start at the beginning (check); and an unforgiving degree of difficulty (definite check). Despite their difficulty, roguelikes usually have a satisfying learning curve. Every time through you tend to pick up some new countermeasure against your enemies, figure out what one more item does, and so on. And that was certainly my experience: I didn’t mind dying because I was always eager to jump back in and apply my hard-won knowledge of the game world.
And it is one delightfully drugged-out game world, graphically speaking. It’s halfway between Willy Wonka’s factory and “Tron,” if that makes any sense. The closest visual comparison to another game I could come up with was “Darwinia,” a strategy game from 2005 that was also set in a digital world. The settings consist of a technicolor blur of magenta and cyan walls and floors and plants. The creatures have low polygon counts, intentionally robbing them of detail but adding a level of abstract terror. The aesthetic works because it marries danger and playfulness — after you destroy an enemy, the coins it leaves behind bounce cheerfully, clinking against the ground so you can better see them, and your bullets do the same.
The audio — lots of chiptunes and bleep-bloop sound effects — is very well-executed too, which is no surprise given that the guy behind it is Doseone (Adam Drucker), a well-known and well-regarded underground rapper and producer. The style of weirdness he’s embraced in groups like Subtle and cLOUDDEAD is a very good match for the dread-playful feel of “Heavy Bullets.”
All in all, “Heavy Bullets” simply works well, and it’s a refreshing, bizarre spin on a genre that could use this sort of makeover more often.