HellSign has taken an idea that works perfectly for games, though as of yet very few have attempted it. It nabs the Monster-of-the-Week format from countless TV shows – Buffy, The X-Files, Supernatural – and plonks it directly onto your PC.
You’re a supernatural investigator. You get reports of supernatural activity in an area. You go there, find clues that point to exactly what’s going on, fend off minor dangers in the area, and hopefully (with a lot of preparation, skill, and firepower) deal with whatever big supernatural threat is present. Short of Slayer Shock, I can’t think of many games that’ve tried shifting this television format into gaming.
This is why I really, really want HellSign to work, and for Early Access to result in fixes for the issues I have with it. Because when it works? It’s glorious. Creepy, atmospheric, clever, and original. When it doesn’t work, it’s at best tedious and at worst massively irritating.
Answering The Call
Some of this is basic Early Access stuff which I can forgive, and it’ll almost certainly be fixed over the coming months. Progression, for instance: right now, there’s a huge amount of grinding. But then, there’s only one real location – haunted houses – and going through them over and over again to build up money and reputation is understandably a little repetitious.
There are presently three types of mission: Scouting, Sweeping, and Hunting. Scouting has you investigating a haunted area, using investigative tools (UV lights, parabolic microphones, EMF scanners) to find evidence of hauntings, and use these to deduce what sort of creatures are lurking within. They’re also the safest, featuring very few enemies.
Sweeping missions feature none of the above, merely asking you to cleanse the area of all enemies. More (and nastier) enemies make these quite a bit riskier. Finally, Hunting missions are the headline ones: places with an active haunting, full of nasties and a boss-level foe that must be uncovered and dealt with.
On The Hunt
Hunting missions are where HellSign really shines. They’re lethally dangerous for an unprepared hunter, and they require you to really make use of all the extra bits and pieces you can purchase. As you uncover clues in these areas, you’ll learn more about what you’re facing and what its weaknesses are, and thus you’ll figure out whether you need to set up UV lights to weaken it, or propane tanks for massive explosive trauma. Will silver bullets be effective, or incendiary rounds? And while you’re figuring this out, you can expect tentacles to slither out from the ground or doors to grow mouths.
Without the investigative trappings, HellSign is an isometric shooter with an emphasis on dodging, and some RPG leanings. Each completed mission (or objective, at least – there’s no penalty for fleeing a mission halfway through, and it’s usually preferable to death) offers up financial rewards. Cash can be spent on upgrading your weapons and armor, which are more “shotguns and leather jackets” than “flaming swords and plate mail”, and on more esoteric supplies like bait, traps, schematics, and information. Experience also comes into play: leveling up offers skill points that can be shunted into four extensive trees.
This is where the current grind comes in. To take on the Hunting missions, you need to be very well-geared. To become very well-geared, you need a lot of money and experience, and this means doing the Scouting and Sweeping missions over and over again. A lot.
Research, Remove, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
This won’t be an issue once more mission types and locations are in, but for now, it means there’s a lot of tedium. There’s spookiness aplenty in having poltergeists fling closets at you, or having spiders and centipedes burst out of the ground, or running like hell when a Ghoul turns up and you’re far too under-equipped to deal with it. But this gets old pretty quickly, as wonderfully atmospheric as it is to sneak about a corpse-strewn manor while scanning the blood trails with a UV light. Again: the Hunting missions break this up with new scares and new threats, but they’re rarities that take a while to reach, let alone survive.
That’ll be fixed, I’m sure. So too will the other Early Access issues: animation quirks, minor bugs, and the usual presentation stuff.
The other problem I have is rather more dominant and something I’m less sure will be fixed, and that’s the writing. Good grief, the writing is terrible. The major cutscenes surrounding plot missions are displayed as full comic book pages, which is quite nice, but the characters and incidental dialogue are… well…
Less Gritty, More Sh…
The very first character I met – the tutorial character, no less – referred to me as “cunt”, and then while I was investigating a spooky house for signs of a haunting, I’d occasionally pop outside to find him discussing sex with a pair of twins with his fellow hunter. That particular swearword is exceptionally common: pretty much every character you meet will use it at least once. While it kinda fits with the Australian setting of the game, it absolutely murders any sense of atmosphere or tension. Buffy had Buffyspeak. The X-Files had cynicism, dry humor, and attempts at rationalism. HellSign has deeply unlikeable people calling you one of the more offensive words in the English language.
And before you ask, no: the game was not setting him up to be a character you hate so you feel some joy when he dies. As far as I can tell, he’s still alive.
You might think I’m making this out to be a bigger deal than it is, and hell, to some extent you might be right. I’m looking at it from the point of view of someone who writes words for a living, after all. But Monster-of-the-Week stuff tends to live or die on its internal mythology and how it connects its disparate episodes via likable characters. And while HellSign‘s devs might be going for “gritty”, it comes across as absurdly out-of-place. At absolute best.
Back To Hell, Again And Again
Still, there’s something that keeps drawing me back to it. After a half-dozen hours, I’m done with scouring endless houses for ghost recordings and shooting spiders. I’m now a skilled enough hunter that I can take down a ghoul without breaking a sweat, but I do want to dive back in and maybe buy that new shotgun I was eyeing. And then maybe go into one of the really high-threat Hunting missions and earn a bit more cash. And I’m quite curious about how a few bits of equipment function.
But for now, I think I’ll wait for content updates. I’ve had my fill of spooky houses for the time being, and until there are more threats, more locations, and better progression, I think HellSign has shown me all the worthy signs.
One to watch, for sure. If HellSign is pulled off effectively, it’s likely to be a really entertaining action-RPG that’ll sate your desire to be a Buffy or a Winchester. Just don’t expect to get more than a few hours of entertainment out of it at this moment, and pray the dialogue gets rewritten.