Like most who saw the early preview of Pistol Whip on Upload VR’s E3 show, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting to get my hands on it. A few things were clear from that first video: first of all, developer Cloudhead Games had polished Pistol Whip like a piece of fine silver. Secondly, it was a shooter set to music, with its own unique style and cool. Now I just described it is a shooter set to music. Some might call it a rhythm shooter, and they would be right, but only if you want it to be. With Pistol Whip, Cloudhead Games damn near created a new genre.
Before I get into that, I have to delve deeper into the aforementioned game’s style and sense of cool. There probably isn’t a single review of this game that won’t mention John Wick. It may be a lazy comparison, but the more I play it, the more it becomes impossible to ignore. The moment you boot up the game, the movie themes are everywhere. You literally start the game standing outside of a movie theatre. Each of the game’s ten levels are referred to as “scenes” and are displayed as movie posters. Once you pick your scene, the music kicks in and you and your gun start moving through the level. The trippy, impressionistic art style might not be for everyone, and despite bearing some resemblance to Super Hot, it fits the game to an absolute T.
You are “on rails” here, but it’s not what you think. In this case, it feels less like House of the Dead or Rush of Blood, and more like Guitar Hero or Beat Saber, even if at first you don’t realize it. The bad guys will come out of buildings and around corners at multiple levels and you can shoot them or pistol whip them in any manner in which you see fit. You can shoot them as soon as they appear, effectively treating the music as mere background noise, or you can shoot them to the beat of the music, which is the reason we’re all here, people!
Despite being able to play the game in both of these two styles, I don’t believe playing this game as a straight shooter (see what I did there?) will hold a lasting appeal. Mastering the game as a rhythm shooter is where Pistol Whip really shines and sets itself apart. Despite making the game harder in the short term, I simply cannot play this game without shooting on the beat. This means I let the bad guys shoot first a lot of the time, forcing me to bob and weave to avoid the incoming bullets. Thankfully, my Super Hot addiction provided decent training for this. As I said, this style makes the game harder, but some of the music – in my opinion – isn’t good enough to treat as simple background music. Like every good rhythm game, Pistol Whip is full of songs I would never listen to on my own, but make me feel way cooler than I am when I’m blasting away those polygons.
Speaking of the music, there are only ten “scenes” here, which means only ten tracks. Like all of the new rhythm games, it is all a bunch of EDM. I just reviewed Synth Riders which debuted with over 30 tracks, so launching with only ten seems light. But one difference here is that Pistol Whip is much harder. In Synth Riders, which I really enjoyed, I was instantly good at it. There are so many songs in that game, I still haven’t spent much time in the fifth and final difficulty. Pistol Whip goes in the opposite direction. There are only three difficulties, but even the ‘easy’ difficulty offers some resistance upfront. After hours and hours with the game, I still haven’t finished all ten levels on normal. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that I don’t particularly enjoy each of the ten songs/levels, but mostly it’s because the game is hard.
Despite an impressive difficulty curve, the game sports a very simple core. As mentioned, it’s on rails and there are only three types of enemies. The standard baddies can be dispatched with one shot, another, sporting body armor, takes two shots to kill. The final enemy wears both the bulletproof vest and a helmet. This bad boy is gonna take four shots to take down. These guys usually (but not always) stand right in the middle. This makes it easy to bait them into firing at you, allowing you to dodge their shots, and then pistol-whipping them into next week. Or you can simply fire four quick rounds into their head. Both get the job done. If you get shot, you lose your armor and the next hit will kill you. It ratchets up the tension when you know the next hit ends the round, but thankfully, if you blast enough enemies, your armor returns. An effective pistol whip also restores your armor. Besides dodging bullets, you’ll also need to dodge the occasional post or wall, sometimes forcing you to dance back and forth. These rhythm games love to trick me into dancing.
One negative I did notice is the occasional glitch where my gun would disappear. This happened curiously when I was sharing video, but that may have been just a coincidence. Also, the actual pistol-whipping could be frustrating. If you let the bad guy get too close, sometimes the pistol-whipping wouldn’t register, leaving you vulnerable at point-blank range. Not ideal, but not a deal-breaker either.
The default game setting utilizes an aim assist that allows you to pick off the bad guys with a Jason Bourne-like efficiency. It’s a very forgiving assist, but your total points for each kill will greatly suffer if you make the assist work too hard. The max number of points for each regular kill is 200, but to hit that number you need to be both accurate and kill to the beat. Most of the time, which beat you choose is totally up to you. This is unusual freedom in a music rhythm game and definitely took some getting used to. Although, in certain sequences, when the music begins to surge and the bad guys all emerge at just the right time, it’s clear what Cloud Head Games was really gunning for here, and it’s special. These moments of flow are masterfull and unlike any in the genre, whatever this genre may be.
In addition to being fairly difficult to master at three different difficulties, there is also a load of modifiers to spice up the gameplay and keep you coming back. The most obvious is dead aim, which turns off the aim assist entirely. Prepare to be humbled if you try this mode. My favorite modifier is dual wield which allows you to carry two pistols into battle. This one doesn’t really make it easier, aside from having more bullets between reloads, but it does allow for more freestyling. It’s a fun mode to show off to friends but it does come with a point penalty. There is also a no-fail mode, a no-bullet mode (to brush up on your dodging and pistol-whipping skills) and loads of others.
Whichever mode you choose, prepare to feel the pain the next day. Pistol Whip is an extremely physical game. I felt it in my core and back muscles, while others felt it mostly in their legs. Either way, warm-up, stretch and thank me later. All of this is to say, despite only ten songs and ten levels, there is plenty to keep you busy. Also, as is the norm these days, Cloudhead Games has promised there are some free (and some pay) DLC coming, and why wouldn’t there be? Pistol Whip is an unquestioned success, and currently, the best reason to play your Quest right now.
In the end, Pistol Whip is undoubtedly a rhythm game, it just doesn’t hold your hand. Instead, it grabs your hand, sticks a gun in it, then slaps you on the ass and sends you into a war. In this game, you don’t fail because you missed the beat, you fail because the beat shot you in the head.
Overall - Fantastic - 8/10
Pistol Whip isn’t as assessable or instantly satisfying as a game like Beat Saber, but it’s every bit as good. Like any good action rhythm game, they are fun to play, but none of them make you feel cooler than Pistol Whip. It’s going to need some new songs soon, and a little music diversity would be nice, but the core game is something everyone should try.
- Fun but difficult gameplay
- Enough polish to make you dizzy
- Hard to achieve but awesome flow state
- Only ten tracks at launch
- Not much music diversity
- Actual pistol-whipping can be finicky
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using Oculus Quest.
Also available on:
Oculus Rift, Windows Mixed Reality, HTC Vive, Vive Index
November 7th, 2019 (All supported platforms.)