I hate the phrase “it is what it is.” I get that the characteristics of people, places, things, and ideas are generally unchanging and that it’s useless to dwell on them, so I don’t need it summed up for me in what amounts to “because I said so” for adults.
Having said that, “it is what it is” keeps popping into my head whenever I try to judge Painkiller: Hell & Damnation. You see, it knows what it is and it embraces it. It is what it is because that’s its one purpose, and Painkiller doesn’t give a crap what you think about that. It sets the bar low, then succeeds in clearing it – but just barely.
Everything about it is objectively below average. The graphics would have looked dated 7 years ago, the cut-scenes are drab, awkwardly written, and woodenly animated and acted, the enemy AI consists of two simple behaviors (line up and run at the player or stand back and shoot), the music is generic heavy metal guitar riffing, and the buttons on the controller are woefully underused (Why do three different buttons make my character jump?).
It does have one redeeming quality, however, and that keeps me from rating it far lower than I would have had to otherwise: it’s actually kind of fun to play. Because of the utter lack of any modern refinements, you’re left with a pure gameplay experience. It doesn’t try enough to fail so the combat is smooth, exciting, and fast-paced. It’s enough to make you forget your problems for a few hours. It’s the tequila shots of the videogame world minus the next day’s walk of shame and visit to the local clinic for a Cipro booster.
The combat initially struck me as excruciatingly boring, and, honestly, a little beneath my refined gaming palate. However as I moved through its 12 levels, and the weapons at my disposal became more numerous and more ludicrous, I realized that there was something approaching a second layer to the action. Each weapon comes with a primary and secondary fire mode and combining them often led to unexpected carnage. For example, mid-way through the game you gain a mechanical repeating weapon that fires some sort of flechette or ninja star and whose secondary fire mode is an arc of electricity. They seem unrelated at first until you realize that electrocuting one enemy then spraying the rest with the metal flechettes will cause the electricity to arc to those enemies as well. It was fun experimenting with these fire modes and combination attacks, especially as the number of enemies that clumped together, practically begging to be gibbed, increased to insane levels.
The one big issue with the combat stems from the previously mentioned “lack of any modern refinements.” The “refinement” in particular that I’m talking about is the “weapon wheel.” Gone are the days of having to cycle through your list of weapons until you find the right one and hoping you don’t overshoot it in the heat of combat. In every modern FPS I can think of where the player has access to more than two guns at any given time, you can select any weapon in your arsenal by holding one button and executing a simply thumb-flick. In Painkiller: H&D, however, you’re stuck with either using the right bumper to cycle through your guns in one direction only, or left and right on the d-pad to cycle forward and backward. The lack of a weapon wheel means quickly swapping between two weapons that aren’t next to each other is too difficult.
One other issue I had with the game was the prevalence of both coin-bearing objects and secret areas. Painkiller H&D is a game mainly concerned with shooting monsters forever, but instead of simply doing this, it wants to compel the player to hunt through every nook and cranny of every level for ammo, “holy items,” and coins. The coins are used to purchase and activate tarot cards in each level. Tarot cards are unlocked by achieving certain goals like finding all the secret areas or holy items, or some other arbitrary goal like gibbing 100 enemies. These tarot cards offer either passive or active bonuses to (among other things) damage or defense. They can also slow down time or increase loot pickups. And since they cost money, you have to collect money and that means busting containers. It’s tedious and feels more at home in a modern shooter rather than such an unabashedly retro one. If you’re playing the game, it’s to shoot monsters not scrounge for coins like Booker DeWitt or some orphan in a Dickensian nightmare.
There’s not a lot else to say about Painkiller: H&D. There are standard multiplayer modes and an unlockable difficulty, but it’s not a game that’s going to stand up to close scrutiny so the less said about it the better. I will say this, though: it grew on me and managed to flash away the day’s troubles and there will always be a place in my game library for that.
Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is what it is. So what is it? It’s a low-budget game that would have received the same poor marks at the dawn of this generation as it does at its dusk. The simplistic action can be fun, however, so play it at your own risk.
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