Bullet♥︎ exploded into into my life from seemingly nowhere and consumed my soul for nearly 3 weeks. I was drawn in by the promise of fast paced shoot-em-up (SHMUP) action and a gorgeous anime aesthetic. What I got instead was a compelling puzzle game where the player manipulates sliding discs to match patterns while learning how to best use each heroine’s abilities to defeat the multitude of bosses.

Adelheid, one of the eight playable heroines

Bullet♥︎ is a game that offers numerous play modes. You can play the head-to-head mode, which is designed for multiple players to battle to the death; the score attack mode that lets players see how long they can survive when their neighbours aren’t trying to kill them; or you can explore the co-op/solo option, the boss battle mode. Bullet♥︎ is designed so that players learn the head-to-head mode rules first, as that forms the foundation for the rest of the play styles. Bullet♥︎’s head-to-head mode begins with a real-time 3 minute timer dictating when a round ends. During each round players put a certain number of discs (called bullets) into their own bags and start the timer. As soon as the timer starts ticking, they’re free to furiously pull bullets out of their bags, one at a time, and place them on their board (players’ boards are referred to as their ‘sight’) according to the colour and number depicted on the bullet.

Each bullet colour has its own lane, and the number on the disc tells you how many spaces down your board the bullet must be placed, skipping over any spots that already have a bullet occupying them. Players can be as quick or slow as they want when pulling bullets out of their bag, and can spend energy freely to use their heroine’s skills to manipulate the bullets that are already in their sight. The goal is to utilize pattern cards to remove bullets from their board and send them off to an opponent. However, if the timer runs out and they still have bullets remaining in their bag, the bullets must be drawn and placed in the sight with no opportunity to manipulate or clear them. If a bullet ever hits the bottom row of the sight, the player loses 1 hit point, and if they run out of hit points, they’re out of the game.

Three of Mariel’s patterns. Each character has up to 10 different patterns.

At the end of a round, every bullet players have managed to clear from their sights gets put into the bag of the player to their left. As as the rounds proceed, more and more bullets get added to everyone’s bag from the supply. The game continues until there is only one player left standing. While this is supposed to feel like a victory, proving your superiority over your friends, in reality it feels like the winner is just the person who was able to tread water the longest. The head-to-head mode helped me to learn the fundamental rules of Bullet♥︎, but I’ve spend the vast majority of my time with this game in the solo or co-op mode, the boss battle!

The Intensity track adds bullets to every players bag at the start of each round

Every character in Bullet♥︎ has a boss mode that presents you with a wildly different challenge to overcome. The boss battle mode plays very similarly to the head-to-head mode, except all of the bullets coming into your bag are dictated by the current level of the boss, and how far you’ve broken down their shields. As you continue to send bullets and break the boss’ shields, the number of bullets that will get added to your bag each turn usually increases.

In addition to the multitude of bullets that you have to deal with, the boss has a pattern of their own that you must match in the end of the round, or suffer their penalty. In the case of Adelheid, your bullets are turned upside-down, which can make them difficult to use in your patterns. If you happen to break one of Adelheid’s shields while you have face-down bullets, the face-down bullets will automatically hit you.

Adelheid, how could you turn against us? We trusted you!

Each character and boss is wildly asymmetric in nature, to a degree that I didn’t think was possible when I first learned the Bullet♥︎ system. Playing different characters can feel like an entirely different game because the ways they interact with their boards is so diverse. To compound on that, every boss presents you with a fully different challenge, which drastically increases the replayability. Some bosses are a cakewalk to defeat when using a specific character, but feel completely insurmountable when using the other characters. It’s incredibly fun to explore each of the characters and change your strategies depending how they play off each of the bosses.

Mariel became my go-to heroine. Once I learned how to effectively use her abilities she became a boss killing machine!

The boss battle mode does away with the real time aspect. This allows you to slow down and puzzle out exactly how you want to approach each wave of bullets as they enter your sight. I understand why you wouldn’t want to use a timer during this mode, considering the additional cognitive load of running the AI and ensuring that you’re not going to trigger an effect that will deal 4 damage to you in a single move. However, it does remove the action-packed, fasted paced nature the game promised to emulate.

I love Bullet♥︎, and whole-heartedly recommend playing it. I’ll be the first to admit my biases; I love the anime asthetic, I’m an avid gamer (even if SHMUPs aren’t my genre of choice), and I love puzzle games. Bullet♥︎ checks each one of those boxes. The publisher, Level 99 Games, has also released a soundtrack of 3 minute long character themes that you can listen to via Spotify while you play the game, which is a wonderful addition to the experience.

Each heroine is also a boss to fight against

One of the major downsides of me playing Bullet♥︎ 40+ times over the last month is that when I return to in-person gaming and I introduce my friends to this game, I’m sure I’ll wipe the floor with them. There isn’t anything to assist new players against veterans, other than making the veteran use a character they’re unfamiliar with, but who knows if even that will be enough slow me down. I did have some success when introducing this game to a new player by playing 3 co-op rounds of the boss battle mode first, and then moving into the head-to-head battle. This way the other player has SOME familiarity with the system. Still, it’s hard to close the gulf separating our experience levels when I have dozens of plays under my belt.

The entirety of my experience with this game has been via Tabletop Simulator, which also gave me access to Bullet🍊, a 4 character expansion to the game, based off Orange_Juice games (SoraFlying Red Barrel, SUGURI, and QP Shooting – Dangerous!!). This expansion adds even more asymmetric heroines and bosses to face off against, further expanding the matrix of play options available, and offering even more different ways to interact with this system.

While it does feel weird to recommend a physical product while having never put my own hands on it, the digital implementation allowed me to fall in love with the challenge presented within the box. As soon as this game lands in my FLGS, I know I’ll be picking it up.

3 – That Which Points was a tough nut to crack. Oh my elation when I finally knocked her ass to the curb

All above images of Bullet♥︎ are screenshots of the Tabletop Simulator mod.