Developer / Publisher – Cloudhead Games
Price – US $24.99 / EU €20.99 / UK £19.49
Release Date – November 7th, 2019
Input – 2 x Tracked Motion Controllers
Play Area – Standing, Roomscale
Store – Steam
Reviewed on – Valve Index
Is Pistol Whip a rhythm game? Or is it a first-person shooter? One of the truly exciting things about the current VR scene is that new gaming genres are still being discovered and I think we have one on our hands here. Pistol Whip, developed by VR industry veterans Cloudhead Studios (known mainly for their Gallery series), provides a new and unique take on the VR rhythm game, one that combines satisfying, John Wick style gunplay with rhythm game principals to create a bombastic and electrifying VR game that will quite literally leave you gasping for breath. It’s an absolute success and one of the best games to release this year.
The first thing that will strike you with Pistol Whip is how intuitive and easy it is to just pick up and play. A short and elegantly constructed training scene will get you quickly up to speed with the core gameplay. Essentially, you move automatically through a vibrant, impressionistic fever dream level, shooting enemies while physically dodging their retaliatory fire. Brilliantly, you can shoot enemies in time to the music to score more points and they often appear in formations that allow you to pick them off in tune to a particular bass line drop or distinctive moment in the music. You will also have to dodge pieces of the environment and if an enemy gets too close you have to ‘pistol whip’ them away. Even at its most basic level its incredibly satisfying to just pick off enemies as they appear, but as you learn how to play the game well and start to properly time your shots with the music, the sense of flow and immersion is breath-taking. Dodging past consecutive pillars and then rushing into a room before picking off 6 enemies that are dotted all over that room, while perfectly in time to the thumping dub-step music, is a gun-kata rush like nothing else. The first time I managed to get through a scene while nailing the timing of my gunplay with the banging soundtrack I had to take the headset off and have a rest for 5 minutes as my heart was racing and I just felt so wired. I’m genuinely trying to remember the last time I had such a rush in real life!
Getting through a scene is not easy though. I was pretty surprised upon first playing Pistol Whip at how difficult it is. Even on the easy setting it can be tricky to get to the end of the scene and normal will take most people multiple attempts to get through. This is mainly due to the fact that you can die in two shots if you’re not careful. One shot to your head (you can only be hit in the head) will remove your armour and you then have to score a certain amount of points to repair it. The system works well because once you lose your armour you know it’s a one-shot death, which ratchets up the tension even more. It is an undeniably tough system though as you will often be weaving between many bullets and so it can be easy to get hit twice in quick succession, which can be frustrating if you’re on a good score. It’s a tough but fair system though; at no point did I feel like any of my deaths were anything but my own fault.
There are currently 10 scenes in Pistol Whip, each of which has its own unique track, accompanying level design and aesthetic. I really like how each track has a visual design that riffs on the lyrics or theme of the track. Too many rhythm games just have generic backgrounds and so it’s nice to play scenes that feel so tailored to the music. It does though present a slight concern about whether the modding scene will be able to put together custom tracks for Pistol Whip given the complexity of the level design. One of the key reasons Beat Saber became such a phenomenon was due to the modding scene and so hopefully this won’t be an issue. Given that Pistol Whip currently only has 10 scenes to play through, it’s certainly going to need some more content relatively soon.
Saying that though, each scene can be played on easy, normal and hard and there are a whole range of modifiers that significantly alter the gameplay. The two main ones being Deadeye and dual wielding. Deadeye turns off the aim assistance and provides a 20% points increase. It fundamentally changes the gameplay in a way that can initially feel incredibly humbling. Suddenly that illusion of being John Wick is shattered as you realise that those quick shots almost in the periphery of your vision that you were landing with no problem on default settings are now flying very (very!) wide of the mark. You have to you really learn the levels in deadeye and I think it does strip away quite a bit of the fun and power trip fantasy. Put in the time though and it is possible to get through the levels and it’s certainly very satisfying when you do. Dual wielding is more a fun, novelty mode and really lets you live out those gun-katana fantasies. Your points scoring takes a big multiplier hit in this mode but it’s a great for when you want to show off the game to friends.
The visuals and audio are both first class and you can really see the pedigree of Cloudheads studios in the clarity and performance of the game. The impressionistic look of the levels is an acquired taste, but I think it suits the ambience of the game perfectly and is just real enough to feel incredibly immersive while also preserving a certain artistry to the look and feel. There is also a high level of detail in each level that can only really be appreciated when you’re in VR – 2D screenshots don’t do this game justice. Audio wise, all the sound effects are great and the pulsating, base heavy music is highly suitable for this gun-katana type fantasy. The tracks do lack a bit of variety though and so it would be good to see some different genres covered in DLC. Presentation wise, I also want to point out what a great job the developers have done with the basic home screen and menu set ups. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in VR and embeds you in the fantasy right from the very first second you boot up the game.
As you can probably tell, I’m a huge fan of Pistol Whip. Of course, it iterates on existing VR games (namely Superhot and Beat Saber), but it is genuinely bringing something new to the table by combining shooting mechanics and rhythm game principals in such a polished package. The thrill of timing your shoots with the thumping soundtrack while spinning around to pick off enemies provides a rush few other games can compete with. The deep, and easy to understand scoring system, together with modifiers that really mix things up, results in a game that has endless replay-ability. It could certainly do with a few more tracks and a bit more musical variety but be in no doubt that this is one of the best VR games of the year.
What would I pay? £19.95 is slightly more than a typical VR rhythm game price but in this case it’s fully justified. Each of the 10 tracks has been hand crafted to provide the best experience possible and the difficulty levels and modifiers provide plenty of replay value. Furthermore, this is quite simply some of the most fun you can have in headset at the moment and it is a supremely polished product.