HellSign Early Access Review: Hard-R Supernatural Meets Shadowrun
There's no question about it -- the indie development scene is where you want to go to find the best in horror these days.
Up and coming developer Ballistic Interactive is hoping to draw your attention away from Call Of Cthulhu and news of the impending Layers Of Fear sequel with the early access launch of HellSign, an investigative / action RPG hybrid.
What should you expect from this isometric mashup of gaming styles? Indie darling Distrust sought to provide gamers with a playable version of The Thing, while HellSign seeks to expand that inspiration out into a game version of essentially all horror movie tropes.
From disappearing puzzle boxes to pig masks to poltergeists, you're in for a "monster of the week" romp!
'80s Aesthetic Meets Modern Monster Hunting
Somehow it's always a dark and stormy night in the HellSign universe, with every other house the recent site of a ritualistic murder probably involving cryptids or even more obscure occult monstrosities.
There's a very specific hard boiled '80s synthwave vibe to locations your amnesiac monster scout visits on his quest to decipher the meaning of the sign tattooed on his back.
What you get is essentially a cross between Shadowrun, as you seek out jobs from a fixer, and a hard R-rated Supernatural or Fringe. The term "horrorpunk" really applies here on the aesthetic front.
When you leave the bar behind and head out to investigate the sites of various awful events, the occasional screen scan flickers are a brilliant touch, making the exploration sections feel like an old VHS copy of a movie.
Those little visual touches are matched by absolutely top notch music and sound that evoke the right mood. In terms of overall atmosphere, HellSign absolutely nails it.
The gameplay itself is another matter...
Early Access Jitters
This is an Early Access launch, so obviously as an unfinished game there are some kinks to work out, like the super long load times to start each job.
For the most part the methods to find various clues in haunted houses are intuitive, but sometimes the blood splatters and so on don't seem to lead to any objects that actually yield clues.
There will be times where you'll end up just randomly clicking everything until you figure out what the game wants from you.
The randomized nature of each location also means that sometimes the clues don't really fully make sense or jive with their surroundings. Despite that randomization, HellSign can get pretty repetitive and overly similar quite fast, and that's the main issue that will need to be addressed as development continues.
There's one other nagging issue dragging HellSign down, and that's the ranged combat.
Never mind the AAA titles out there, the combat here can't even compete with other indie action RPGs, and it needs a big overhaul and a lot of polish. The gunplay reminds me of a slightly sped up version of the SNES Shadowrun game, and that's not a good thing.
Learning to time a dodge roll to avoid skittering monsters is critical to survival, but that whole system is marred by the collision detection, as its easy to get stuck on doors and other objects.
I'm not sure if this is a bug or an intentional design, but the giant centipede enemy can move through closed doors for some reason (maybe he's wiggling underneath it?), which is truly obnoxious when the player is already underpowered in every way at the start of the game.
Of course, combat becomes less of an ordeal as you upgrade equipment so you can more easily tackle the lesser threats and move onto bigger beasties for extra money.
Besides better firepower, your investigator can combine skills and clues to gain damage reduction and other benefits over the local supernatural population, but overall the combat is just a mess of jump rolling and frantic firing without much precision in the controls.
It may have interrupted the fast paced flow of kicking down doors and investigating rooms, but I can't help but feel turn based combat would have been a much better route to go here. That design would have worked better with the RPG elements and given more uses for skills.
The Bottom (But Very Early) Line
HellSign may be flawed and in need of polish, but that's exactly what Early Access exists to handle.
Overall you get a solid game here with a mix of finding and deciphering clues, interacting with rough 'n tumble characters, shooting at beasties, and running the hell out of a haunted house before you die and lose 66.6% of your earned loot.
A half dozen hours in and I'm officially intrigued, wanting to learn much more about the nefarious entity that wants our sunglasses-at-night wearing, monster hunting badass to stay alive for reasons unknown. The Early Access version only offers up the first chapter at the moment, so there's plenty more to this story to unravel still.
Its fabulous to see more indie horror coming down the pipe, and I'd easily recommend HellSign as one to earmark and watch during Early Access to see if the finished product manages to become the classic game it could be.
[Note: Writer was grated a copy of the game from the publisher.]