Going into E3 this year, Hellraid was one of the games I was most required to write about. That is unfortunately as passionate about as I could force myself to get heading into it, and not just because the title is so generic I had to do a quick Google search to make sure I hadn’t actually played the game before. The little I had seen prior to E3 left me with a very “meh” sort of feeling and the impression I had seen dozens of games just like this before. And after E3 I…well, I still have the impression I’ve seen dozens of games just like this before. But maybe that’s OK. In between the familiar combat and setting, there are glimpses of interesting ideas; things that actually made me excited to get my hands on the game and see what it really had to offer. Hellraid might not be looking to be innovative, but sometimes if a game does enough stuff right it doesn’t really matter if you’ve already seen it before.
Hellraid features three separate game modes, the meatiest of which looks to be the story campaign that features an optional four player cooperative mode. The game puts you in a dark fantasy setting, where you play as one of the last warriors of a cursed king who was forced into an alliance with an old mage. While the cursed king-old mage combo is perhaps not the first pick for teammates you’d make if given the choice, there are few alternatives as these two represent the world’s last hope against the infernal armies of hell. And these armies are growing stronger by the day, claiming those that once fought against it. In the portion we saw, you are wandering around a monastery, which you would think would offer a nice little respite from the stabbing and angry demon monsters. Unfortunately, the abbot in charge of the monastery has gone mad after years researching the nature of evil and has modified the decor to be a bit more hellish and nightmarish for your viewing pleasure.
Success in Hellraid is dependent on the same thing that success in every job is dependent on: bringing the right equipment to the job. You’re not going to last long as a doctor bringing your axe in to work every day, and you’re not going to last long as a demon slayer bringing in your angry eyes and stern words of disapproval. You need weapons, and Hellraid is more than happy to throw them at your feet and sit by in giddy anticipation to see how you use them. The developers are currently promising hundreds of thousands of items that are randomly generated (within a certain set of boundaries so you aren’t picking up the best stuff two minutes into the game) meaning no two quests will unfold exactly the same way. Using the right items will provide a much needed boost to your character, while the wrong ones will lead to what most doctors refer to as “super dead.” Exactly how much variation we will see between items is something we don’t know quite yet, but if they manage to produce some real differences between even some of these things Hellraid looks to be a deeper experience than we had initially been anticipating.
The combat mechanics look like fairly standard fare, with both quick, light attacks that do a minimal amount of damage, and slow, powerful attacks that come with longer animation times and an increased chance of getting stabbed in the face. Equipment and weapons will play a huge role in the fights, so if you throw on a shield you can both use it to block or bash your enemy in their soft bits to make them wobbly. Different weapons all come with their own trajectories, so not every weapon will connect in the same way. Combat is brutal and intense, and it quickly becomes important to not just poke the enemy with whatever sharp object you happen to be carrying, but to avoid their attacks and manage the distance between the two of you as well. You can also use magic, with certain elemental enemies having resistance or weakness to your spells. The game encourages a mixing of fighting styles, going from melee combat to ranged weapons to magic attacks depending on exactly what sort of enemy you are trying to smite.
Defeating enemies will give you weapons or elemental elements or gold, which you can then go and use to buy better gear from the blacksmith. It is pretty much the system used in every RPG ever, but it works well and you deserve some sort of reward for fighting back the invading armies of hell. The developers described Hellraid as a first person hack-and-slash, but everything we saw seemed to put this more in the action RPG category of game. There are some neat little tricks every now and then to try and set Hellraid apart, sure, and we caught a glimpse of some environment influences when we dropped a chandelier on some poor skeleton’s unsuspecting head in a real nice use of interactive scenery. The game also features a brutality you really don’t see in many other similar games in the genre, with enough crunches and squelches in just about every encounter to satisfy even the most diehard fans of onomatopoeia. Still, these little things really didn’t show us anything different than we haven’t already seen numerous times before, and it is still too early to get a really good grasp on just how diverse the combat will look and feel.
The art style is fairly interesting, if perhaps a bit familiar considering what they’ve shown us so far seems to pop up in at least half of all horror games or games with dark, spooky settings. The gothic architecture is immediately recognizable and it should be – the team has recruited an architect to work on their design staff and help them capture the intricacies of their environments perfectly. The backgrounds are beautiful, eerie, and really help establish that sense of unease the game wants you to feel. Enemy design is similarly done, with hordes of skeletons and fiendish creatures just waiting to take that special spot in your nightmares. Once particularly interesting enemy we saw was the Blinded, a former paladin that has been rendered unable to see due to the fact that his king has put an assortment of nails through his helmet and into his skull. He wield a large, double sided axe, a glorious suit of armor, and a terrible HMO and retirement package offered by his insane king. There is a bit of a sense that we’ve seen this before, and despite all of these nice special touches the area we saw and the enemies we faced feel like they could have been straight out of any of a couple dozen different games from the past decade.
There are a lot of things about Hellraid that left me cautiously optimistic about the direction of the game. The fight against the Blinded and the attention to detail on the crumbling monastery made the lore all the more intriguing. What sort of other creepy baddies do they have lying in wait, and will each of them be given such a loving and interesting backstory as poor Ser Holy Head? Glimpses of some of the more complex battles left you relying on dodging, countering and a cohesive plan of attack instead of simple heavy or light attack mashing, and promised unexpected complexity in the gameplay. Still, the nagging sense of staleness was looming over the entire game, and even the positive aspects had me going back in my head trying to figure out just how many times I had seen something similar before. There is a lot of promise here, and a lot of interesting ideas that I am interested to see fleshed out. I just fear the true demons that haunt this game will be a nagging sense of deja vu, something I hope Hellraid can overcome and surpass by the time it is finally ready for release.