My love for the horror genre will never outweigh my desire for more developers to take risks in the type of experiences they create. While I enjoy exploring haunted houses and zombie shooters as much as the next fan, there’s an argument to be made regarding a current lack of innovation in horror games. Developer Ballistic Interactive is looking to change that with HellSign, an action RPG with paranormal investigation elements.
Currently in Steam Early Access, HellSign’s defining characteristic is its emphasis on making the player feel like a paranormal investigator. You play as a demon hunter, a hired gun accepting contracts, exploring and clearing haunted houses of demons. You’ll pick one of ten classes and earn XP from completing contracts to unlock new abilities along the way. Think X-Files meets Ghost Hunters, as much of the player’s time is spent uncovering hidden clue signs that reveal the nature of the demon residing in the haunted house.
There ’s little hand-holding in HellSign, and it’s better for it. Signs are naked to the human eye, and the player must rely entirely on their ghost hunting equipment to track them down. Certain signs can only be found with specific tech, such as the EMF (Electromagnetic Field Detector) reader which gives feedback when approaching a clue, a parabolic microphone that picks up spirit’s whispers, and a black light that reveals blood trails and footprints. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Condemned: Criminal Origins’ paranormal investigation gameplay that has the player searching for clues in a similar, but inferior vein. Condemned’s CSI segments were far too restrictive and controlled, whereas HellSign gives the player their tools and sends them on their way. This freedom is what ultimately helps immerse the player in their role as a paranormal investigator.
Once the signs are discovered, they can either be sold for quick cash or used in conjunction with the demon encyclopedia, the Cryptonomicon. Flipping through pages of the Cryptonomicon and analyzing the various signs you’ve collected furthers the player’s immersion, despite its relative simplicity. Analyzing signs allows the player to deduct what type of demon is occupying the house, revealing their weaknesses and allowing them to summon it. Exploiting these weaknesses is the only way to overcome the more difficult boss demons which are still brutally difficult. While you may be able to go guns blazing into some houses, which are filled with smaller critters such as spiders, giant centipedes, and the occasional ghoul, boss fights require intense preparation.
But this preparation is nothing without the firepower and wherewithal to back it up, and this is where HellSign’s fantastic concept becomes marred by its clunky controls and combat mechanics. Shooting can be downright frustrating at times due to the aim reticule’s minuscule size and the nimble hyper nature with which smaller enemies maneuver environments. The guns available in the early hour of the game also do next to no damage, resulting in pissing through ammo to kill just a few enemies. And these are just the smaller critters. Do not even consider facing tougher enemies unless you have more premium firearms which come at an incredibly high cost. Considering how little cash most contracts pay, the player must resort to grinding missions over and over if they wish to be able to afford gear allowing them to survive even the tamest fights. At the moment, the lack of mission variety and amount of grinding dozens of haunted houses becomes tedious after a few hours. I’m hopeful that this will be addressed down the road with future updates.
Making combat even more difficult is the current state of the dodge ability. I found that no matter how early I timed my dodges, a majority of enemies still hit me about 90% of the time. This resulted in my running from them to put distance between us before holding my ground, avoiding dodging altogether. Again, I’m hopeful that while these mechanics are still in their infancy that they will be tweaked and refined during HellSign’s stay in Early Access.
Speaking of Early Access, HellSign runs surprisingly well, and I never encountered any performance issues. The only bug/glitch I encountered was being able to detect signs through walls, which can make navigating the halls of the house a tad obnoxious. Nothing like exploring a room for a few minutes only to realize you were scanning something residing in the adjacent room. A minor annoyance but it stood out.
HellSign’s premise is incredibly promising and offers the potential to scratch that paranormal investigation itch that so few horror games fully deliver on. And at $15, the price of entry is low enough that those with even an inkling of interest can check it out without enduring buyers remorse. At the moment, my issues with it stem from a lack of variety and tweaks to combat that aren’t uncommon with Early Access titles. Despite these concerns, HellSign’s foundation is a strong one and, given time, could flourish into a great action RPG.