Gun Jam PC Review
Ever since I was a wee young boy I have always enjoyed rhythm games. Some of my all-time favourites are Gitaroo Man, Bust-a-Groove, Rhythm Heaven and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan /Elite Beat Agents. There is something of a hypnotic trace when getting fully involved with a rhythm game. More so after learning the music, getting good with the songs and the mechanics, and then smashing a high rating on the hard difficulties, especially when interacting with the music is performed through refreshing and engaging gameplay ideas. I also very much love shooters, which seems like a good time to like both, as there is this thing currently with blending first-person shooters with rhythm-based gameplay. We have already seen BPM: Bullets Per Minute and last year’s heavy metal banger, Metal: Hellsinger, but now Gun Jam is here to also join the party by bringing some new music genres to the shooter rhythm blend.
There is no story to Gun Jam. There is no introduction either, which felt so bizarre in this current age of video games. In fact, there is nought that explains anything. No tutorial, no “How to Play” on the options screen, it is literally just click start, pick a song, pick a stage, and off you go. The songs do not even preview the music, so on the first play of a song you are going in head-on without any teased audio about how its beat could be. Only the song’s BPM sitting under the title on the song selection screen gives an idea if it’s a fast or slow tune.
Fundamentally, Gun Jam has all the promising signs of a fun rhythm game mixed with shooter gameplay. The loop is based on two types of modes, arena and checkpoint. In the release build of the game, there are three arenas that are rated easy, normal and hard, and one checkpoint level, which is rated as normal. As for the player, each arena is given a different character, which basically translates to having a different overdrive ability. These become active when a metre is filled, either by successfully hitting beats or collecting blue orbs, then pressing the activate button. Overdrive can perform actions, such as quad damage (does what it says on the tin), berserk, which enables an automatic homing kick to the enemy within a certain distance, which is such an amazing way to clear a group of enemies, and lastly, bullet time, which slows down everything for a short period of time. Apart from the visual look of the character’s weapons and their health count, their overdrive is the only variation between them.
The rhythm element involves the symbols scrolling up the middle of the screen in a single file. These can either be clicks or holds, the latter represented with empty symbols after a filled symbol to inform that the button should be held down. Each colour of the beat translates to a weapon, so the weapon selection is down to how the game’s beat marker has been set up. Weapons featured are a shotgun, rocket launcher, railgun and plasma rifle. While there is no control over what weapon is appearing, you can see the next upcoming beats, which helps set up the weapon’s usefulness. The shotgun is great for up and close, while the rocket launcher works no matter the distance. I also found the speed of the plasma rifle was brilliant for taking down a bunch of the weaker enemies, while the rail gun hits enemies with slowdown, giving breathing time to go in for a melee attack or dash away to look for a heart to gain health back. Both moves require their respective buttons to be pressed to the beat. The only action that does not need a beat to perform is jumping.
All the described above are Gun Jam’s full mechanics. Which leaves the two game types, arena and checkpoint. Even though the arena throws you into a closed area with spawning enemies, it should be noted that this mode is about surviving rather than killing. After a couple of rounds and understanding this, it all clicked into place, and I was having much more fun. The arena has enemies spawning over a set time, so while you could ideally just keep dashing away to survive the length of the song, the enemies will eventually become overwhelming and dodging will become near impossible without taking some damage. The arena becomes a mixture of clearing enemies but making sure to pull away from dangerous situations for a rest while restoring health. This is where the dash becomes vital in getting away from the bombs and bullets whizzing past. The arena difficulties come down to their structure, enemy types and health. The song itself does not change its beat pattern, so that will always remain the same button count and weapon order. What this means is that players spend more time dashing around with the easy arena, as hitting the beats is still how the points are scored and not the number of enemies you kill.
The single checkpoint level is more interesting in its concept, as it takes the arena idea but joins them together with a checkpoint system, with each area having enemies that must be defeated before the timer runs out. Each area cleared will extend the time a little and open the door to the next section. It is a huge shame that there is only one of these stage designs, as it is probably the more exciting variation of the gameplay. At least it should have had three to match with the three themes for the arenas and the three characters, but only one of the heroes, Tap, is available for the checkpoint stage.
Content is Gun Jam’s biggest downfall. 10 songs and 4 stages are quite a limited amount for a rhythm game. I am not sure why the developers released it with this current content, because the game feels like it could have had a bit more time in the oven and cooked itself to a more ideal release rather than coming out early and still being raw. The demo had different stages, which I noticed has caused an uproar on Steam reviews, as these are not included in the full game. The developers have noted that this is due to the beat maps needing to be reworked to make sure they work with imported music. This does mean new content will be coming for free. Just as this review goes live, two new checkpoints are being tested and should be published in the release build soon, which is great news. The more levels and variety in Gun Jam, the better it will evolve, as its current state feels unfinished. There is not even a way to see a scoreboard, so the only chance the player knows a high score has been beaten is when it flashes up at the end of a completed song; such bizarre and straightforward features missing from Gun Jam’s core design is a shame.
Any good rhythm game has a brilliant soundtrack, and that is one thing the developers have not disappointed with. This is a fantastic soundtrack that covers EDM, Trap Hop and Metal. It does make me wonder why they could not bring more, as the quality on offer is great. The game is reasonably priced at £16.99, so I hope that maybe in the future they will bring a secondary soundtrack pack as downloadable content. I find myself getting jiggy with the music in my chair while playing. This was to the point I have gone and purchased the soundtrack on Steam because I’m still nodding to the tunes in my car and trying to decipher what the singer is saying about “decaffeinated, sugar free, vanilla flavour, alcohol…”. Adding custom songs is easy enough. Create a music folder within the game’s install location and then drop the MP3s you wish to add to the game. This will then make Gun Jam scan the file and implement a beat track for the song. Faster songs seem to work better than slower ones, but there is a beat mapper modifier coming that will allow users to adjust the mappings for more accurate beat representation. Adding custom songs is certainly a neat addition to keep the life of the game going, but levels are the key element that needs to be built on to give Gun Jam the second wind it deserves.
It is hard to ignore Gun Jam’s lack of content in its current state, as it feels like the game should be in Early Access now rather than fully released. There are elements that clearly should be featured, tutorials, and ways to look at high scores, that are criminally missing that hurt the overall presentation, while the limited stages and song count hurt the general package. That said, what is here shows the foundations of the game’s mechanics and quality. Gun Jam feels like the game is a few updates away from being a good rhythm-based shooter hybrid because what is here is fun to play. The soundtrack is top-notch, an absolutely great set of head-banging tunes. Even despite that unfinished feeling, rhythm fans will most likely enjoy and appreciate what is available and what the developers are moulding. With the team at Jaw Drop Games having heard the feedback from players and promising to support the game with content in the future, which I hope they stick with in the long run, Gun Jam should be able to eventually join the list of good rhythm games that its promising beginnings seem to exhibit.