There’s a fundamental mismatch at the heart of Super Bullet Break. On one hand, it’s a roguelike, a genre defined by impermanence; on the other, it’s a (microtransaction-less) gacha game, a genre defined by permanence. In a roguelike, the transient nature of everything you pick up, and the situations that emerge as a result, are the point. Gacha games are all about collecting, continuously powering up your characters, and the connections forged with your favourites through that loop (They’re also, too often, about extracting inordinate amounts of money from people precisely because of that connection and permanence, but I digress.) Super Bullet Break, for all its charm and curious ideas, tries to be both, and ends up not really succeeding at either.
In the simplest terms, Super Bullet Break is a deckbuilding roguelike set within a handful of different game worlds. A strange virus is causing all these games to misbehave—and their characters to become self-aware in the process—and so you’re tasked with going in and trying to get to the bottom of the issue. By, naturally, collecting these self-aware characters (called “bullets”, but functionally, they’re cards in a card-based game) and fighting your way to the end of each map in turn-based encounters.
The gacha component comes in how you collect new bullets: some drop as rewards at the end of regular encounters, but others come through mechanics that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a bit of time collecting heroes in something like Arknights or Fate/Grand Order: random pulls from a special vending machine, as special rewards for in-game events, or through period prize draws. The difference is that here, you’ll never need—or have the option to, even if you wanted—to spend real money or deal with “live service game” nonsense. It’s all done with in-game currency amassed over the course of a run, and with events that are randomised occurrences throughout the map rather than a real-time thing.
The other difference is that, well, it’s a roguelike, so… at the end of each run, win or lose, you lose everything you’ve collected. This is where that incompatibility I mentioned starts to rear its head. Super Bullet Break’s bullets are wonderfully designed, overflowing with personality, often cute, often sexy, the sort of quintessential gacha designs that should be easy to connect with. But you never really get much chance to, because they’re gone almost as soon as you’ve collected them. Sure, you’ll find your favourites that you hope to pull again in future runs, whether for their effects, designs, or both, but they’re always something borrowed, temporarily. There’s no real aspect of collection, of the permanence that makes the grind (or spending) that makes a gacha seem worthwhile.
To optimise or collect?
In fact, the card battle mechanism discourages actually engaging with the gacha aspect at all. As a rule of thumb in any deck-building game, you generally want your deck to be as small as possible, to increase your chances of getting something good when you draw a new card. You also want cards that work well together, with good synergy throughout the deck, and ideally, a bit of versatility within that. What you don’t want is cards that don’t fit the plan, that just take up space and offer limited use because you don’t have anything else that works well with them.
This is especially true of Super Bullet Break, which has a lot of card effects that, while very inventive and potentially very powerful, are also extremely prescriptive: they have one, maybe two specific use cases, and little versatility beyond those. Take “combo”, as an example, an effect common on cards from the rhythm game-themed level: each time you play such a card, you’ll increase a combo counter, and each time it reaches a multiple of 10, you deal a big splash of damage to a random enemy. If you have a lot of cards with that effect, the cumulative effect can be huge; if you only have one or two, they’re going to be wildly inefficient on their own, while also bringing no extra value to the other cards in your deck. There’s not a lot of room for creative application of those effects, either—you either have the cards that work together, or you don’t.
The result is a game where success comes down to trying to build a small deck with high synergy, with as little dead weight as possible. The gacha mechanics? Dead weight, mostly. Even rare, powerful bullets are of limited value if they don’t fit well with the rest of your deck (and you can’t easily remove bullets, either). Luck is always going to play a big role, but the safer, more effective path is usually to avoid the gacha stuff entirely and instead opt for rewards from regular battles. They’re more likely to be useful (because they’re generally part of the same in-game “set”, designed around the same strategy, while the gachas pull from all sets), and if you get a bad draw, you can just decline to pick up anything. “Gacha roguelike” sounds like an interesting concept, but there are too many conflicting pieces that Super Bullet Break fails to reconcile.
A wealth of potential
That’s a shame, because in so many other ways, it’s full of potential and wonderful ideas. The narrative framing is a whole lot of fun: each level is a parody of a classic game genre, from retro RPG to dating sim to rhythm game, with playful, vibrant character designs to match. The game itself doesn’t change, but the cards from each world have a unique gimmick that riff on those other genres: the combo effect I mentioned before comes from the rhythm game world; cards from the dating sim world have an effect that have a fun play on affection points; there’s a shoot-’em-up world with drones as a key effect.
But what stands out most is the battle system: a brilliant mash-up of turn-based RPG and card battle resource management. Turn-based systems with variable amounts of delay after a turn aren’t unusual, but Super Bullet Break puts a neat spin on that by tying the cost of using cards to that turn structure. A timeline shows you how many “steps” (for want of a better word) until each foe’s next turn, and each card you play consumes a certain number of those steps. Low-cost cards might only take two or three steps, meaning you can use a whole bunch before your enemy’s turn, while high-cost cards typically unleash a huge cannon at the expense of limiting the chance to take other actions. And because everything you do before the next enemy attack is considered a single turn, cards with effects that last one turn—of which there are a lot—can be extremely powerful when used smartly.
From that base, Super Bullet Break opens the door to a welcome degree of strategic play, especially if you can get the right pieces to build a strong deck. Each enemy’s next action is always shown, so you can plan your counter accordingly, stacking up defence for their big hitting attacks, mitigating their efforts to buff themselves, or finding the safe moments to lay the groundwork for your own assault. A good strategy is crucial, too, because a moment’s carelessness can easily see you backed into a corner that’s impossible to escape from, if not just wiped out in a single turn.
Being a roguelike, luck does still play a big role, too—it’s not unusual to find your progress thwarted through nothing but a string of bad draws. It’s a system that would probably be better suited to something less random and non-permanent, where you can really focus on fine-tuning your deck and strategy. Or, at least, a roguelike that’s a bit less erratic in its balance. Bad luck aside, it’s a stellar combat system: seemingly simple, easy to make sense of, but with plenty of depth once you start exploring its nuances.
A note on performance
I played Super Bullet Break on an Alienware m15 R7 laptop (RTX 3060 and 12th Gen Core i7-12700H) which is, frankly, overkill. This game should run fine on just about anything – the minimum specs are a GT 640 and Core i3-3225. It’s worth noting that there are no graphics settings of any sort, not even to adjust resolution or toggle fullscreen (though ALT+Enter works for the latter). It looks good as it is, so it’s not a big deal, but worth noting if you plan to play on a high-res display.
And that’s why I’m so torn. In so many ways, Super Bullet Break is a remarkable game, a blend of different ideas and inspirations with a few strokes of innovative genius thrown in. The non-exploitative twist on gacha games, complete with all the wonderful characters and gorgeous artwork that makes those free-to-play games as popular (and lucrative) as they are. But there’s a fundamental incompatibility between the pseudo-gacha and the roguelike aspects that means neither really gets to show its true colours, and turns what should be a wonderful game into a needlessly restrictive and onerous one.