Before I get started, I think it’s worth noting that I haven’t managed to finish the game just yet. In the rogue-like/rogue-lite tradition, Heavy Bullets is rather difficult. That said, the sections of the game I have managed to work through at the point of writing are absolutely brilliant.
The Devolver Digital-published title, created by developer Terri Vellmann, takes a straightforward first-person rogue-lite formula and subjects it to a low-poly acid trip, resulting in a challenging experience that impresses visually but needs a little something extra to make it as compelling as the roguelike canon.
Among an ever-growing sea of roguelikes and their siblings and cousins, Heavy Bullets features gorgeous aesthetics that stands out as one of its core design principles. Embracing a low poly count and a super high-contrast neon color palette, each run feels like it must have been the product of either a hallucinogenic or the 80s. Abstracting the visual language of shooters here places the game somewhere between the flat hallways of Wolfenstein 3D and the deconstructive graphical style of something like Minecraft, putting an emphasis on pure action and kineticism over everything else. Vellmann seems to take the electric purples and sharp blues to heart, injecting the spare but vibrant feelings into the rest of the gameplay elements.
Creeps really come to life through the use of angular polygons. The monsters are unsettlingly strange and unreal, even a bit scary at times from just how sketched-out they are. Snakeworms camouflage perfectly in brush, emitting a horrifying screech when they jump out for the kill. Piles of rocks sprint out and explode, and the imps that scream and bolt forward from the first floor are always making things tense.
Enemy variety seems like a major issue for repeated runs stuck on the first floor: only imps, snakeworms, and the occasional turret are present, and there’s no boss to close things off. Making it past the level, though, rewards players with a bevy of horrible threats like flying imp-like creatures, the aforementioned boulder bombs, and some horrifying part-spider beasts. Bosses add another level of challenge beyond this, and though they don’t come close to the huge variety of a title like The Binding of Isaac, they are a welcome mix-up to the gameplay which can otherwise get stale at times.
#3 Reloading, One Bullet at a Time
That said, the most notable Heavy Bullets feature, and the most striking gameplay innovation is in the bullets themselves: players must reload each shot individually. While not approaching the simulator-level antics of Receiver or the realistic random jamming and magazine sizes of Red Orchestra, Heavy Bullets makes great use of the ‘R’ key to build tension and keep gameplay fresh.
Most roguelike/lite shooters like Tower of Guns play up infinite ammo as a way of mitigating otherwise impossible challenge, ratcheting up enemy health and difficulty in exchange. Heavy Bullets makes a welcome change by giving both players and enemies very low health, demanding instead that players pick up and reload – one by one – each shiny shell that they fire. This means that every single shot counts, and a misfire can leave a floor nearly impossible to complete.
#2 Persistent Upgrades
Heavy Bullets subscribes to the Rogue Legacy school of roguelike design, including a wide range of items and upgrades that allow players to transfer funds from one run to another. Seeing your immanent death? Purchase a Last Will and your next run will receive a massive inheritance deposit. Raising the stakes, the Will takes up the game’s single item slot, meaning that giving up a run can force players to really go all-in.
Banking kiosks alternate between ammo and item shops, offering up the opportunity to buy Last Wills and life insurance as well as directly depositing money. This makes for a really cool dynamic – do you try to push to another floor or cut your losses and drop all your money in the bank for the next run?
#1 Heavy Bullets feature: Items
As with the majority of roguelikes, Heavy Bullets features some great items to diversify runs and shake up gameplay. There’s a great sense of humor, too – extra life items are shaped like hearts and break in half when they are consumed and high heels increase speed. Overall, the restriction to holding a single item is pretty deleterious to the overall gameplay potential for me, but it does force players to make tough decisions and balances against overpowered item combinations.
That issue is what, in the end, makes Heavy Bullets a game that feels great to play but seems to be missing something to carry it into roguelike stardom. By not embracing item variety and using a stripped down roster of enemies and bosses, the title doesn’t push itself to make the best of its parts. Heavy Bullets’ feature of ingenious reloading mechanics and fantastic art direction make it a game that’s definitely still worth playing. I just don’t know that it will go down as a legend in the genre.