Pistol Whip wants to teach you the way of the gun in the same way that Rock Band wanted to teach you the way of the guitar.
And that’s a very specific goal, because Rock Band didn’t teach you anything about actually playing the guitar. Instead it let you mimic the motions of playing, while giving you a sense of what it feels like to shred your way through a solo.
Pistol Whip pulls off the same trick: It won’t actually teach you anything about aiming or firing a gun, but it allows you emulate famous pop culture killers like John Wick while pretending to be a preternaturally talented assassin yourself. It’s interested in selling the fantasy, not any practical application of a real-world ability.
Pistol Whip is designed as a kind of psychedelic version of Superhot, filled with pulsing lights, bright colors, and simplistic but evocative environments and character models that are all synced to the beat of the music. Your own body is represented by one — or two, if you decide to dual wield — floating guns. Who you are doesn’t matter in this game, you’re not a character. You’re you, in other words. And the game sees you as the angel of death. I never knew I needed a game that made me feel like John Wick after dropping a tab of particularly strong acid, but here we are.
Learning to shoot, while also dancing
Pistol Whip is a rhythm VR game currently out on Steam and the Oculus store, with support for both tethered Oculus headsets and the stand-alone Oculus Quest. I played it on the Oculus Quest, because the extra freedom was more than worth the visual downgrade necessary to cram the game onto the portable headset.
Each scene has you moving down a corridor, gun in hand, as enemies step out of the shadows or warp in to try to take you down. Your job is to shoot them before they shoot you, and that job is made very simple due to the generous auto-aiming that’s turned on by default.
I understood how to play within five minutes. Within 10 I was trying new things, moving in a way that felt like the game was choreographing an action scene in real time. Pistol Whip is fun right off the bat, but after a few rounds I started to understand how to anticipate the likely places enemies would be, to put some rounds in that direction even before I saw them, and how to duck and weave to avoid bullets while always returning fire.
If I had to step out of the way of a column that blocked my view, I knew that an enemy would likely be waiting on the other side, and I’d be swinging my gun at him even before I finished the move, turning a dodge into a multi-step attack that destroyed the attacker before they could even raise their gun.
It felt amazing, and it’s made even better by how well the action syncs up to the beat of the music. My arms and legs were tired and I was out of breath after just a few songs, but I desperately wanted to keep playing. Pistol Whip isn’t just a stylish rhythm/murder game, it’s also a damned good workout.
The $24.99 game (with crossbuy on the Oculus platform, so one purchase gets you a copy on both the Quest and tethered headsets) comes with 10 scenes, each one synced to its own song. The developer says that more are on the way, in a combination of free and for-pay DLC. Those 10 songs play very differently across the three difficulty levels, and Pistol Whip comes with a few clever modifiers that help to completely change how you play through each scene.
If you choose to turn on dual wielding you’ll get an extra gun, but it comes at a reduction of your final score. Or you can turn off the auto-aim assist if you want a more “realistic” version of the game in which your reflexes and aim become much more important. This gives you a bump to your score. You can also play without death if you want to see an entire scene if you keep getting killed, you can turn on infinite ammo, or turn off ammo completely, forcing you to survive only by dodging bullets and doing your best Neo impersonation.
And I can’t stress enough that while Pistol Whip made me feel cool while I was playing, I knew I looked like a buffoon in real life, making it an ideal game to play with friends as you pass around the headset and take turns feeling like a badass while putting on a show for those waiting for their turn.
Leaderboards also give you a good way to judge how well you’re progressing, compared to the rest of the community that’s playing. To put it simply: Pistol Whip has a solid amount of levels that begin to feel almost infinite as I realize how much each option changes the core game and makes it either more approachable, or much more difficult. Or some combination of both.
Pistol Whip is one of the most intense, immediately gratifying action experiences of 2019, in VR or out, with a skill ceiling that’s much higher than it first appears. If you want to feel like an unstoppable badass, if you want to be handed a gun while also being tricked into dancing, or if you just want to do some squats to strengthen your legs and tone your butt without feeling like it’s leg day, Pistol Whip will get you there.
Pistol Whip is now available on Steam and Oculus, with a PSVR version coming in the future. The game was reviewed on an Oculus Quest using a “retail” copy provided by Cloudhead Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.