Review: Pistol Whip

Action movies were mostly broken for a good long time until John Wick came along.  Endless quick-cuts and shaky-cam tried to punch up the chaos of violence but only served to break any sense of continuity, turning sequences that should have been nearly superheroic into a mess of untrackable fakery.  Anyone can perform godlike stunts two seconds at a time, but keep that camera still and the people on screen need to move with style and brutal choreography.  Pistol Whip is a new VR title that cheerfully swipes the style of John Wick and places it firmly in the music genre, turning you into a gun-fu assassin mowing down clusters of pop-up killers to the beat of its killer EDM soundtrack.

There’s no particular plot to move the action forward, other than each level having an action-movie theme like bank heist, sci-fi city, Mexican Day of the Dead, etc.  The start screen is even set on the sidewalk outside a movie theater, just to drive the point home.  Shooting the A-frame sign gets you in the door, where a series of movie posters straight ahead show the songs/levels.  To the left are options, the right is leaderboards, and you’ve got a gun in your hand.  The only thing to do is decide what to shoot.

Assuming that thing is one of the ten movie posters currently available as levels in the game, that means hopping straight to the action.  Pistol Whip is a forward-scrolling shooter like Rez/Panzer Dragoon/Afterburner, except you’re a standard-issue human, feet planted firmly on the ground.  The scenery gently scrolls towards you at a set pace, enemies teleporting into position, and it’s your job to survive their bullets and shoot back.  Bullet avoidance is done by moving your head out of the way, with your body being essentially bulletproof, and seeing as the all that firepower is moving at a reasonable speed this sounds like it should be easy.  There are also pillars to dodge and low doorways to duck under, providing environmental hazards and handy places for poly-goons to hide.  It’s easy to either forget to move or not move enough, or just get caught up in the action and not notice all the cues warning of incoming pain while lining up a shot or getting ready for the next setpiece, but so long as you keep your head out of the line of fire that’s survival taken care of.

Offense, on the other hand, takes a bit more effort to get right.  Like any good shooting gallery the second you see an enemy it’s fair game, except in this case it may be best to wait for the music to cue up the shot.  Each enemy is worth a score from almost nothing up to 200 points, with the good score being awarded the more precisely you fire on the beat.  The focus of Pistol Whip is technically supposed to be survival first, music second, but when the beat is moving it’s almost impossible not to time the actions to the rhythm.  This extends even to reloading, which you can do at any time by aiming the gun at the floor, but once you’ve got a rhythm going it’s hard to break out.  Bam, bam, bambambam, reload, bambambam.  The gun actually has a generous fifteen bullet clip, but being caught empty is a great teacher that any break is a good time for a reload.

Alternately, the pistol whip of the game’s title can come into play.  While enemies spawn all over the place, sometimes they end up either right in the path or at least within arm’s length of it.  Standard enemies go down in one hit, light armored ones in two shots and full-armor in four, but everyone goes down with a single bludgeon from the gun.  While there’s no score bonus for doing this it feels great, gives a free reload and looks utterly badass to boot.

Even with all this, Pistol Whip might end up as little more than a musical shooting gallery if it wasn’t for it’s fantastic sense of style.  The art is a tiny bit Super Hot but mostly it’s own thing, with the walls, floor, props and enemies all made of loosely-fitting plain polygons that pulse to the music.  It gives the game a unique look that meshes perfectly with the music and action, turning what could be just another gun violence game into an endlessly kinetic dance party of guns and bullets.

Most of the time Pistol Whip is working at its best, but there are still some rough edges both inside the levels and out.  The modifier system, for example, lets you play with certain gameplay modes.  In standard play you’ve only got the single gun but one of the modifiers lets you go full dual-wield, complete with a -20% score modifier.  Technically it makes sense because this makes the game a bit easier, but it also means that, if you’re working on a better score rank, the only modifier that will give a score boost is Deadeye’s removal of aim assist.  A score hit for no-fail, no reload and other modifiers make sense because they’re for practice, but dual-wield is not only fun but also gives the off-hand something to do.  Other rough patches include a leaderboard that forgets scores, a song list only ten tracks long and beat detection that frequently feels questionable.  One of the non-modifier options is a metronome that’s supposed to make the controllers pulse to the beat, but if there’s a connection between the two I couldn’t find it.  This is particularly troublesome in songs that sometimes have stretches with little in the way of audio cues (the opening to Dabin x Apashe’s Lilith, for example), leaving you to guess when the game wants you to shoot.  Sometimes I get the full 200 points during the quiet bits, other times it’s 90 or less, and if there’s a difference in the timing I’ve no idea what it could be.

Closing Comments:

Once a level is properly moving, though, none of that seems to matter.  Enemies pop up, the music pumps through the headphones and I get to play as dance-club John Wick.  The point of the game is to feel like techno-fantasy gun action and it succeeds incredibly well at that, with the pumping soundtrack driving the action in a way that’s impossible to resist.  The rhythm and shooting fuse together to the point where you can feel when a shot is off, and that just because it hit doesn’t mean it was good.  Pistol Whip is a music/action VR shooter built from recognizable elements that combine into a unique whole, and when it all comes together as planned it leaves the player feeling like an invincible gun-god dancing through the bullets.