My favorite virtual reality games to date are the ones that find the middle ground between giving you full control over movement and having you stand in place. Pistol Whip deserves comparison to virtual reality highlights like Beat Saber and Astro Bot: Rescue Mission thanks to a similar approach to camera management that moves everything around you in order to let you focus on where it excels: the shooting and the intense, driving soundtrack.
Pistol Whip takes the familiar but largely forgotten genre of the arcade on-rails shooter best known for Time Crisis and House of the Dead, places you in a strange, pulsating environment, and couples it with score incentives to fire your bullets on a rhythm. You won’t find a story conceit for why you’re steadily floating along a series of abstract, predetermined paths where bad guys want to shoot you, and that’s just fine. The look of the world and thumping soundtrack are enough to keep me engaged and firing at enemies, and making their low-detail forms collapse into a pile of pixels is rewarding every single time.
Pistol Whip Screenshots
It is a rhythm game, but your only incentive to keep the beat going is your score. I enjoyed playing it like a high-speed shooter, ignoring the rhythm and immediately taking out every enemy as they appeared in front, above, or below me just as much as I enjoyed my runs where I made sure my bullets synced with the music.
Even when you’re not actively shooting you’re being shot at, but Pistol Whip does a good job not blindsiding you with stray bullets. Incoming projectiles are fairly slow-moving, so you have plenty of time to get your head out of the way (and knock it into a nearby bookshelf, but I can only blame myself for that). Not only are they well-highlighted, but on-screen prompts let you know when they’re coming from out of your field of view. All the good design in the world, though, doesn’t change the fact that dodging bullets and obstacles requires a lot of head movement, which is not my favorite thing to do in VR. Whipping your head out of the way occasionally to dodge a bullet can be exciting, but I would have liked to do it less, which is especially impossible on the harder difficulties. By contrast, there’s a fair amount of things flying at your face in Superhot VR, but there you have the option to block bullets with your gun instead of dodging.
The overall art style can best be described as a colorful fever dream with human-like shadows. You only face three types of enemies, but I was impressed with the simple design of their body armor that indicates how many shots are required to take down each type. I quickly learned to distinguish between the guys that take one, two, or four shots, and felt awesome in those moments where I counted off my bullets perfectly amongst a large group of foes. I attribute that to the well-executed art direction.
Developer Cloudhead Games is promising more in the future, but right now only 10 levels are available. That’s a small number, exacerbated by the fact that they all look a little similar, but each has high replayability and a distinct soundtrack. I had the most fun playing the standard way on varying difficulties, but modifiers do help mix things up. The auto-aim feature (which is enabled by default), for example, is super helpful and makes me feel like an incredible, infallible marksman (which is a great feeling, it turns out), but you can turn that off to force yourself to be more precise with your shots. I like having the option to approach levels differently, especially when it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get through every level. The option to customize your gun’s color, patterns, sound is also a nice bonus, but I would have liked to see more off-the-wall options for added personalization, like strange gun shapes, or the option to make my gun sound completely different and not like a gun at all.
I am still sore as I write this review from all the squatting to dodge bullets on the harder difficulties. The normal and easy settings tended to be the most enjoyable way to play, but one of Pistol Whip’s strengths (like most rhythm games) is the reward of mastering a level after many attempts on hard. That’s certainly the case here, and I appreciated those moments when I was struggling, a clear on-screen indicator let me know exactly how much of the level I had left. It helped me push forward when the going was tough and identify exactly how long I had to go in order to make it the triumphant end.