Call me old fashioned, but every time a game releases as free-to-play I get a little pang of shock, especially when it’s as celebrated in pre-release coverage as Kiloo Games’ Bullet Time (Out Now, Free). I always ask myself: “Why aren’t they charging for this — did the game end up really buggy, or with no depth whatsoever? Is it chock-full of necessary In-App Purchases?” If you had the same reaction, then I’m happy I can put you at ease; Bullet Time isn’t free for those reasons. It seems Kiloo really is trying out the “pay what you want” approach with this one: you feel so bad about getting a quality product for free that you want to toss the developer a buck or two for their effort.

One thing not to expect from Bullet Time is much of a story. The minute-long opener informs us that John Irish has come home to a ransacked dwelling and a missing family, and that a band of marauding mutants are responsible. When he breaks out his twin revolvers, all that’s left to find out is whether the bad guys lose. From that point on, Bullet Time is a clean-cut Dual-Stick Shooter, albeit with enough experience points and equipment screens to classify it as a shooter/Action RPG mashup.

It’s also true that Bullet Time is a game that grows on you gradually, not one that sucks you right in from the start. Chalk it up to the central Dual-Stick Shooter mechanics — once you’ve mastered the art of circling around enemies and adjusting your angle of fire to match (no automatic lock-on here), little else remains to be learned. It’s also worth noting that Bullet Time lacks a targeting system to help the player aim. This isn’t so noticeable when John’s rapid-fire weapons pelt enemies with tracer bullets, but the absence is felt when he’s equipped with heavy hitters that are much slower to reload. At least the player enjoys an infinite ammo supply, so wasted rockets aren’t that great a concern.

Where Bullet Time springs back and makes itself a thoroughly entertaining title are its level and enemy design. John picks his way through impressively circuitous forests, junkyards, and other mutant dens, all packed with unsavory hiding places for creatures that enjoy setting up an ambush. The player’s first time through a level is a real trial by fire: you have to keep your eyes peeled for swinging doors and forks in the road, from whence tons of minions might spill the moment John has his back turned. Chances of surviving a pincer attack are pretty slim no matter how you slice it, so much of the fun lies in tricking enemies out of their hiding places and vanquishing them in more manageable groups on the next try. A checkpoint system saves the player from having to repeat a successful strategy ad nauseam.

John’s list of enemies grows impressively long. Rather than retire obsolete enemy types, Bullet Time has an interesting way of rearranging them into formations with new ones: easily dispatched grunts become a nightmare to deal with once they’re backed up by spell-flinging mutant mages. If things seem too quiet, chances are there’s some nameless creature burrowing toward John’s ankles or a swarm of giant bees ready to bear down on him from a roadside forest. The player gets to take two weapons into battle, and switching off between them with a weapon change button quickly becomes essential. Fast but weak enemies are best dispatched with John’s trademark revolver or a machine gun; if a giant ogre blocks the way, it’s time to break out the rocket launcher.

Rounding out Bullet Time’s interface is the “Boost” hotlink button, which the player can call on for med kits and temporary bonuses to movement speed, defense, and other stats. These can be replenished with in-game currency on the fly, but sadly the player has to dump out of the current level to acquire or equip new weapons, armors, and accessories. On the bright side, the checkpoint system maintains the player’s progress, so it’s not a total wash if you conquer a segment only to find that your favorite flamethrower isn’t nearly as useful on the next lineup of enemies.

What’s most surprising, and perhaps most well done given Bullet Time’s price model, is the ratio of In-App Purchases in the equipment shop. The very best arms and armor are redeemed only for silver dropped by foes in-game, and lower tiers contain a fair mixture of IAPs and items bought with silver. If you have a thing for crossbows, for example, you’ll find a low-tier and a top-tier one redeemable for in-game currency, but a middle-tier crossbow might be redeemable only with crystals, Bullet Time’s IAP currency. Meanwhile, a middle-tier shotgun is available for silver, encouraging the player to try something new mid-game. Crystals are also awarded in small amounts when John levels up, so the player will be able to splurge on an item or two that would otherwise constitute an IAP. That’s a very good deal all things considered! I will say that the mathematics of Bullet Time’s IAP can be seriously eye-popping — if you see someone mowing down enemies with a big Gatling gun in Multiplayer mode, you’re probably looking at the game’s number one worldwide fan, because that Gatling gun might have cost the equivalent of $25 USD! Holy smokes!

Speaking of Multiplayer, Bullet Time sports a basic arena system where three players – matched via Game Center, randomly or from the player’s friend list – hold out as long as possible against infinite waves of enemies. The player goes in with whatever equipment is currently slapped on John for purposes of the campaign mode, and given the number of enemies that pour into the Multiplayer arena, it’s most useful as a way of grinding for loads of silver.

Bullet Time’s interface is perfectly implemented, and very rarely do I have the pleasure of saying this about games that use virtual joysticks! The control points may look rather small, but I never had a problem grabbing them and they enjoy a vast range of motion for being locked a comfortable distance from the touchscreen edges. For being set in a post-apocalyptic world, Bullet Time came out very beautiful aside from rare model clipping where object solidity appears undefined. Atmospheric rock music sets the tone, although the soundtrack lacks range; sometimes I found myself returning to the equipment menu and its haunting choral track just to give my ears a break from the usual metal guitar riffs.

I did note one stability issue on the iPod Touch 4: Bullet Time presently crashes when the player opts to return to the main menu rather than resume from the latest checkpoint after a Game Over. Backing out of the campaign worked normally for me otherwise, however.

iFanzine Verdict: Heaps of design care pumped into Bullet Time’s levels and enemies take it from a repetitive run-and-gun game to one that would have stood out even if players had to pay for it. Its shortcomings would have been harder-hitting at a premium price tier, but as things stand there’s no reason to hesitate giving it a download if you’re a Dual-Stick Shooter fan. Action RPG fans should also find Bullet Time appealing as long as story isn’t a big concern.