If you’re interested in Bullet♥︎, as I was, get prepared for a lifetime of copying and pasting. That ♥︎ is an actual part of the game name, you see, resplendent on the box lid with a lot of brightly coloured anime women. These would normally be warning lights, but publisher Level 99 has a superb track record, and people I trust tell me Bullet♥︎ continues it, so we’re going in nevertheless.
Inside there are many cardboard tokens to punch out and put into a drawstring bag, very reminiscent of Quacks of Quedlinburg. There’s also a one-sheet quickstart that the much thicker rulebook suggests is lying to me, so I decide to start with the rules. At first, despite finding there’s a lot of fluff at the end of the rules, I’m left with only a vague notion of what’s going on. After an attempted play, it dawns on me that the game's core is indeed really easy: the rules just explain it in laborious detail.
So here’s how it works. You choose one of the anime women, who comes with a special power, a unique ability sheet, and a “sight” which is basically just a grid on which to place tokens. Then you draw tokens one at a time and place them on your sight. The token colour indicates which column it goes in, and the number indicates how many rows down it moves, skipping over any existing tokens it encounters. If one reaches the bottom you lose a life. Lose all your lives and you’re out.
Of course, alone that would just be lotto. So this is where your abilities come in. Each costs a certain amount of action points from a limited pool. Most of them let you move bullets around on your sight. Left, right and down are common, some of the characters let you move up, too. Each character has their own deck of pattern cards and if you can match some of the bullets in your sight to a pattern on a card, you can remove them.
So easy! Except as soon as I sit down to play the solo mode, I learn that it’s anything but. I’m scared off by a lot of the special powers that look like too much work, allowing me to swap around colours and numbers, so I go for a straightforward one that just gets an extra pattern per turn and dive in. The first few bullets are fine, of course, sitting in my sight like harmless rows of ducks on the wall. But even though the rules warn me to watch out for sudden 4-value bullets, it still comes as a shock to draw one in an already-populated column and have it fall and knock off my first heart.
Guessing that it’s about time to take this seriously, I start using my abilities to weave bullets around. Trying to get the best pattern fits with the minimal number of rules is tough work. Trying to do so to prioritise star bullets, that give you extra actions when removed, is a nightmare. It’s not long before bright colours and numbers are dancing before my eyes in a hideous pattern of death. Blinking, to my horror, I find they’re all still there.
Like a lot of Level 99 games, Bullet♥︎ is all about escalation. At the end of each turn a track ticks up, indicating you’ll have an extra bullet to draw next round. Solo, you have to also draw an extra bullet next turn for each one you remove, trying to survive as long as possible. Even by turn two, I’m enthralled. And it’s amazing how much the demands of this dynamic puzzle of weaving bullets feels like tracing a path up the death maze of a real bullet hell shooter.
I last three turns before succumbing. After which I discover that the multiplayer mode piles the pressure on even more. Here, everyone plays simultaneously, making it fast. Here, everyone’s on the same three minute timer per turn, making it faster and stressful. Here, escalation means that bullets you clear get put into your neighbours bag for next turn, making it stressful and very personal.
After two turns of this, I’ve broken out in a sweat. The endless tyranny of the timer adds to that video game sense that you’re only one mistake away from death. It’s amazing how much this entirely cerebral puzzle re-creates the pressure cooker of a faced-paced shooter. The player next to me seems to be clearing inordinate amounts of bullets which makes me angrier and more desperate with each passing turn. I want to switch seats, just for a break.
As it turns out, they’re playing a rule wrong, and there’s no one to correct them during the simultaneous play. Everyone's focused solely on their own board. After each round, the first player to finish gets to pick from a selection of extra special powers. They add to the already bewildering smorgaborard of options to consider as the timer ticks down. Most of these are one-shot, like removing a bullet of your choice from your sight, but my neighbour has been using theirs every turn.
So of course we have to try again and the fact we now know it's more even-handed weirdly seems to up the ante. There’s no excuses now but how fast you can flick through spatial puzzles in your head. As I feared, under pressure, almost all of us keep forgetting our special character power. It’s hard enough dealing with patterns as they are, without remembering that I can use an action to flip one face-down and treat it as a wildcard.
And mid game, as the relentless pace picks up, I find myself torn. One the one hand, it’s amazing how Bullet♥︎ can build so much pressure in so little time from so few rules. On the other hand, it feels like hard work. This is not the pleasurable curve of excitement as a tabletop fight builds to a crescendo. This is punishingly hard, headache inducing, a sweaty challenge to be overcome only with your own brainpower and little in the way of randomness as a crutch.
Much like a bullet hell shooter, in fact. Except most players will master those with muscle memory. Bullet♥︎ makes my middle-aged mind feel like it’s well short of the challenge.
Later, by way of a comedown, we try the co-operative version. In this, cleared bullets get transferred to a boss, shooting away their health in stages which get harder as each is passed. They also have their own deck of patterns, which each player must match at the end of each turn or take a horrible forfeit like moving all their bullets down a level. In some ways, it proves my favourite way to play. The game is difficult and dynamic enough that everyone has to pitch in trying to work out the best moves each turn. We still fail, but fail with fun.
It also takes off the pressure of the timer, replacing it with the gentler pressure of wanting to do your best for the team. It feels sweeter, but it also feels like turning on the cheat mode. Bullet♥︎ is a unique game with a unique take, the ability to make a mental puzzle feel like a slick-stick shoot ‘em up, and it’s best enjoyed from that angle. Only time will tell if it's got the grips to make me want to master it on full blast.