Bartlow's Dread Machine is 1920s Bullet Hell Done Right

Bartlow's Dread Machine lets players dive into the virtual version of an eye-catching, 1920s pub machine.

August 7, 2020

Bartlow’s Dread Machine from Beep Games and Tribetoy boasts an intriguing premise. Basically, someone found an old pub game from the 1920s that takes the idea of bullet hell dual-stick shooters and puts in a physical world. Your character and their enemies can only move along tracks as you try to shoot each other to oblivion. It’s a really neat concept that, in my early time with the game, is realized with very satisfying gameplay. You star as a secret service agent who finds out that President Roosevelt has been kidnapped by Anachro-Satanists. Look, I don’t know if that’s a real thing and frankly, I’m scared to look it up. However, it definitely sounds cool. Is there anything more you can ask for?

The game takes you all over the USA and beyond as you attempt to free Teddy; standing in your way are all kinds of horrors employed by the Anachro-Satanists. It’s a nutso premise that lets the game kind of go all over the place with the levels it puts in front of you. With the game currently in early access, you can only play the first half of the six-part campaign. That said, if what I’ve played so far is any indication, this is going to be one wild romp.

While the story is undoubtedly a fun set-up, it’s the gameplay that made me an instant fan of Bartlow’s Dread Machine. The best way to describe it is undoubtedly a bullet hell shooter, though that feels like it’s doing the game a disservice.

“While the story is undoubtedly a fun set-up, it’s the gameplay that made me an instant fan of Bartlow’s Dread Machine.”

As mentioned above, you can’t just go wherever you want as you move through levels. Your character is a physical piece in an old-timey game: that means you’re confined to tracks. Think of it like you’re a fast-moving model train with guns. Your enemies are also mostly stuck on the same tracks, so careful quick-thinking and planning is key to staying out of harm’s way.

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You do have a few tricks to help keep the baddies off you in Bartlow’s Dread Machine. Most notably, you can spin to knock away bullets. It’s a helpful technique, but for my liking, they don’t let you spin enough. Sometimes you get into puzzle rooms that are meant to overwhelm you with numbers. If you could spam the spin, you’d be able to make quick work of them; when you can’t, you’ll end up dying. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it was the one gameplay issue that continually bugged me.

All of the moment-to-moment gameplay is thrilling; however, the team smartly changes up what you’re doing just often enough to keep things fresh. You’ll switch from basic bullet hell to top-down combat to auto-scrolling levels. Heck, at one point you even hop in a car as you mosey across the Wild West. Fingers crossed that at some point you’ll get to ride Roosevelt’s moose. I’ve only played two of the chapters thus far, but I’m hopeful that the developers can keep up the cadence of new scenarios throughout.

In particular, I’m curious to see how they build upon the early boss battles. Thus far, they haven’t been overly difficult. I mean, don’t get me wrong; they absolutely murdered me. But once you figure out each boss’ gimmick, it never feels impossible on normal difficulty. I should note here that the game has several difficulty levels. So for you masochists out there, feel free to up that difficulty through the roof. I, a pansy, will stay on normal.

“If you’re in the market for a dual-stick bullet hell shooter, Bartlow’s Dread Machine is something you need to take a look at.”

There’s also a seemingly expansive upgrade system. I haven’t delved too deep into it just yet, but some of the guns look absolutely devastating. Plus, any game that lets me dress up as a fancy ‘20s-era gentleman automatically has my attention. There are also unlockable characters for those of you out there who want to play as the zombie versions of famous historical figures.

I’d be remiss to not quickly talk about how well Bartlow’s Dread Machine nails the art style. You’ll see gears turning in the background, and bullet holes will tatter your clothes to reveal the wireframe below. It’s not the most beautiful game out there, but I really dig its style.

If you’re in the market for a dual-stick bullet hell shooter, Bartlow’s Dread Machine is something you need to take a look at. Personally I have only played in single-player, but it’s important to note that it supports co-op play. Yet another box tick in the game’s favor.

Bartlow’s Dread Machine is currently in early access on PC via Steam and comes to Xbox One at launch. Speaking of, the game is out sometime in September. If you’d like to see the game in action, I played around 30 minutes of it and you’ll be able to find that soon on DualShockers’ YouTube channel, so stay tuned for it. Check it out if you want to see me cower in fear at whatever those shrimp-like enemies are.

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