I’ll start as I always do with a review of something Early Access on Steam, I realise a review of a game that itself acknowledges it isn’t finished could be construed as a bit harsh, but my feeling is that if you can take money from a customer then you’re in a position to be critiqued. HellSign tests me with this logic because at its absolute base concept I’m in love with it, but with its current iteration I can’t help but walk away from it more frustrated than anything.
HellSign wears its inspiration like a badge of honour. Everything about HellSign is clearly motivated by a love of the ‘Monster of the Week’ style TV shows; programmes like Supernatural, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dr Who and X-Files all thrive on this concept, a programme where there may be big arcs tying stories together but in essence it’s a group of people discovering something grizzly or scary and deducing what’s causing it and how to stop it; the next episode, it’s something new. HellSign uses this base concept to a beautiful level to justify its one shot levels and mission based investigation system.
From an isometric view you control your created character through various iterations of the same house (Early Access), and must use your abilities as a Scout to find clues as to what has caused a disturbance. This generally means walking into a building with your flashlight and kicking down doors whilst holding either an EMF reader, a microphone or a black light. Each has its own feedback to indicate the proximity to a clue. For the EMF reader this is a little gauge in the bottom corner of the screen that spikes when your cursor is close to a ‘Sign’, be it a painting, a chair or some debris left on the floor from a fight. The black light requires you to find a decimated corpse and follow runic symbols that trail away from it to an item to be interacted with. Finally the microphone, this is easily the most interesting, a wave form appears in the bottom corner again and as you scroll over objects within the house you’ll start to hear hellish screams or demonic talking all leading you closer and closer. On the most part this system works well, each gadget has it’s use cases but currently the spiking range is about as useful as a banana in an avalanche. You’ll enter a house and pull out your EMF reader and walk around and it’ll jump from 0 to 20, but that just feels like you’re in the same building as a sign which is a given anyway as this is a game. Thankfully one of the patches seems to have reigned this in slightly but I still find myself just walking around the edges of rooms until I get a clear indicator that I’m even in the ball park of near by. There are skills that can be unlocked upon levelling up that increases range but this just means that you’re given an even wider area of confusion.
To complicate things more on these scouting missions you’ll be met by various critters that take the form of either incredibly easy to deal with spiders that just leap at you or the incredibly difficult to deal with centipede. I’ve been lurking in the forums to see if this is a common issue on Steam but from what I can gather there’s a lot of people taking the incredibly toxic Dark Souls approach of ‘Git Gud’. The developers Ballistic have made some adjustments with things like making it so the centipede can’t do a hairpin turn to meet you at the end of a dodge roll but it still feels unbalanced to a frustrating degree. Something that in recent patches that’s popped up more and more is characters you meet telling you to leave a scouting mission when you’re part way done, sell any clues you’ve found to your Fixer and then buy better gear to last longer. This does make sense and once you start playing this way you’ll make it further and further each run, but even with this play style the early game is going to be enough to put off a lot of players who don’t have an affinity to this ‘monster of the week’ genre.
The story of HellSign revolves around your character being an amnesiac with a ‘Hellsign’, a tattoo/brand, from another plane that intrinsically ties you to the supernatural world. There’s a main plot run of missions you can work your way through and they drip feed the story nicely giving some background and justification for your created character. The character creator is bare bones currently featuring just three pictures to choose from to define your look and a name field, neither are mentioned or referenced in game however and whatever you choose you’ll have the same model in game. The only real reason to consider your character creation is the various classes to choose from like Drifter, Field Medic, Mercenary and Detective. The majority just give you different perks that save you some skill points in game and changes your starting weapons. Having tried a few different classes now I can safely say the class with the Shotgun made my early game a lot easier as the damage output and spread of fire made critters ever so slightly manageable.
The biggest issue I have with the game in its current form is the absolutely atrocious writing. I started a new game to check and I can confirm that it takes 10 words from starting before someone says the word ‘Cunt’. In itself I have no issue with swearing, in fact I think it is a perfectly valid way of emphasising a sentence or being a punchline to a joke but there’s something about the way it’s thrown around in HellSign that makes me uneasy, whether it’s because swearing in mainstream games is still relatively new (perspectively speaking) I’m not sure. I guess it’s also down to the expectation of a hero and allies, in films and TV it’s not often a good guy drops the C Bomb – more often than not it’s the creepy villain. A couple of scenes in you’ll find yourself having one homosexual hand job joke, one homosexual blow job joke, you’ll be near enough forced to hit on the only female NPC in the game and everything about it all just makes me feel skeezy. The writing can be fixed, it can be made to feel more natural and there’s an element of me that realises how hypocritical of me this all is as in my day to day life I make inappropriate jokes, I swear like a sailor and I can be immature, but that’s not how I write and it’s not what I expect to see from a game like this. It all feels a little too close to Postal or the much admonished Hatred from a few years ago, both of which did their best to be ‘edgy’ but came across as weak. As a first draft the writing of the game is ‘fine’ but these ‘jokes’ and the overall quality of the writing really takes away from what could be a fascinating story that ties together a near open world of missions.
HellSign has real potential and that’s honestly the best thing you can say about an Early Access game, it’s something that I will play with each patch released, it’s something I want to get better at and it’s something I want to see get better. This could be a huge success and it’s genuinely fascinating to know that all this has been produced by a team of two. Down the line I have wishlist items for this game, I’d love to see co-op; following the great ‘monster of the week’ style shows a pair of brothers a la Supernatural or a small ‘scooby team’ like Buffy trying to take down the big bad poltergeist would be great fun. Difficulty settings and a slightly improved difficulty curve would also make the world of difference. There’s nothing wrong with HellSign that a patch can’t fix, the core game is a blast and I stand by the ‘monster of the week’ genre as a great thing for TV and want it to thrive in games, I just really hope HellSign is the one to pull it together and make it a reality.