Upon booting up Hellsign by developer Ballistic Interactive and proceeding to the “new game” screen, I was met with the ability to enter my name, choose my gender (option “coming soon!” promised the creation screen) and pick my class. The classes in Hellsign include stalker, field medic and ninja of all things, and after some perusing of each class’s background blurb, starting gear and equipment specialties, I settled on playing as a stalker. After a loading screen that outstayed its welcome by a few dozen seconds, I witnessed a grisly comic panel cutscene where my character was devoured alive by a horde of supernatural monstrosities, accompanied by the appropriate sloppy, fleshy sound effects of ripping meat.
My stalker character jolted awake from a nightmare, and headed off on yet another job. After meeting with a couple of shady dudes who clued me in on the job’s particulars, I retrieved some gear from my van and headed into the haunted house I was being paid to survey. The job was simple: investigate the house with my EMF detector, follow blood trails using a black light torch, and gather pieces of evidence that the game refers to as “signs.” Once I’d wrapped up that particular bit of investigative tedium the guys out front denied me payment, but promised that I could sell the signs at a local bar.
I headed to said bar, mingled unsuccessfully with the few sketchy patrons I could interact with, and finally sold my meager evidence for a measly $16. The guy who originally sent me on the first job promised more work, but only after I surreptitiously retrieved a puzzle box for him from a local arms dealer who he’d had a falling out with. Initially, this is where the game ground to a screeching halt.
See, I visited said arms dealer and he clearly hated the guy at the bar with a passion. I sniffed around the shelves in his store but for the life of me I couldn’t locate that damned puzzle box, and as a result I couldn’t progress in the game any farther. Annoyed, I waited a couple weeks and lo and behold, one patch later, that puzzle box showed up in the dealer’s inventory. I took it back to the shady dude at the bar and finally was given a lead to more work. With a wrinkled $16 dollars in my pocket (which I had lost and regained a few timed playing Blackjack with another bar patron) I headed out to another haunted house.
My mission this time was to clear the house of critters using my trusty double-barreled, sawn-off shotgun. No paranormal investigation, no scrubbing my nose along walls and floors looking for inane clues as I plodded along at a snail’s pace with my EMF meter waving about. As I explored the house some rather large spiders scurried out of hiding and jumped at me. Hellsign’s somewhat cumbersome isometric perspective and tank controls made it difficult to target the arachnids; I quickly realized I needed to aim down at point-blank range, Resident Evil PS1-style, if I were to have any hope of killing the big bugs.
I took a couple scrapes, bagged a few spiders, and then headed out to the backyard, where I was instantly bum-rushed by something shadowy and ambiguous. The screen went black, I woke up in my shabby safehouse and the game gave me some song and dance about “you’re not allowed to die yet.” I checked the mission select screen. The spider-extermination mission was gone. For my troubles, I’d earned 5 bucks of a potential $350, my consolation prize for biting the dust. I did not have the option of replaying the mission for a higher payout, nor did I honestly want to at that point.
I assumed I just wasn’t very good at Hellsign, but since then I’ve watched a number of streamers who had the same experience as me. It seems that Hellsign wants to have its cake and eat it a number of different ways. It wants to be a paranormal investigation game, which there aren’t many of to be honest, but it doesn’t go about it particularly well if Hellsign’s intention is indeed to be scary. The atmosphere and setting are all great but the awkward perspective, clunky controls and segregation of the investigation gameplay away from the combat gameplay hinder the experience. “Clearing” missions (combat) and investigation missions are clearly delineated on the mission select map. Fatal Frame this game is not.
This is frustrating because the combat has promise, but from what I can tell Hellsign also wants to be unforgiving; a hard-as-nails survival horror action game that comes at you fast and punishes you for screwing up. I don’t often encounter a game that sends you on a combat tutorial, abruptly kills you halfway through, and then takes the tutorial away after you failed it. I believe this is a side effect of the game’s procedurally generated missions; each haunted house is unique, and clues and enemies are never in the same place twice. This sounds fun on paper, but I’ve honestly had my fill of rogue-lites after the past few years and the likes of Strafe, so yet again it’s just another game without unique, lovingly-crafted, memorable levels.
I like the setting, at least. From what I could glean online, Hellsign takes place in a bizarre alternate history Australia where some paranormal catastrophe happened sometime in the mid-70s and ever since the continent has been a hotbed of monsters and poltergeist activity. It’s apparently always night time, always raining and everyone you meet is suspicious and sarcastic. Attitude plays a huge part in the game’s atmosphere. Every character you encounter is a grizzled, wise-cracking merc of some sort uttering rambling Aussie slang, and the game’s copious flavor text drips with edgy cynicism about everything from medkits to leather jackets. It’s the kind of thing I’d scratch out in composition book back in high school when I was feeling rebellious against my mom, with all the accompanying gory sketches, assuming kids in Australia do that too.
For now, Hellsign is the definition of a frustratingly promising Early Access game. It has a ton of functional mechanics—investigation, action, shooting, crafting, a robust class system and accompanying skill trees—but it’s a touch clunky and confusing at the same time and for now it takes considerable mission grinding before you have enough cash and materials to even access half of those mechanics. If Ballistic were going for an obfuscating, mysterious atmosphere like Darkwood well then that’s great, but then again Hellsign’s sense of humor and general setting doesn’t align very well with that aesthetic. More than likely, Hellsign just needs a great deal of balancing and fleshing out. I’m willing to give it another try once it finally releases as a completed project, but for now it’s more tiring than scary.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile