Hellbound is not subtle. Billed as a love letter to the golden age of FPS games, this is a totally unabashed 90s throwback, complete with lightning-fast combat, over the top weapons, and an almost total disregard for modern ideas of narrative and storytelling. The clearest influence is obviously Doom, for many the granddaddy of the genre (yes, there were earlier examples but Doom’s influence outdoes chronology), and the Argentinian developers, Sailbot Studios, must expect that their game will be compared with both the original game and it’s more recent high-res reboots. So, the question remains, is this a heavenly slice of nostalgia, or an infernal rehash of long-surpassed design and mechanics? Come with me to Hell and I’ll tell you more.
The comparisons to Doom are obvious and ooze from every pore of Hellbound. Everything from the setting and colour palette to the level design and mixture of shooting and key collecting is present and correct, so much so that it could be argued that Hellbound has a real issue in trying to establish any kind of identity outside of being a tribute.
This is even more apparent given the success of Doom and Doom Eternal as we are a long way past the barren years of po-faced military shooters dominating the scene. Hellbound’s main claim to individuality is the presence of Hellgore who, despite the accidental rhyming name, is not the environmentalist nightmare of many right-wing Americans, but instead a pretty blatant Hellboy clone. Described as a huge badass and a tortured soul, Hellgore is resurrected by humanity to take revenge on the creatures of Hell for their massacre of his people. Hellbound is certainly not going to win any rewards for originality or story-telling but nor does it need to if the action and gunplay is good enough.
Hellgore’s personality is intended to drive a large part of the game’s storyline and progress, and Sailbot Studios have ensured that he is voice-acted in an appropriately gruff and macho fashion by the prolific Artie Widgery. Widgery does a capable job in channelling both Doomguy and Hellboy but is hamstrung by the (deliberately) dumb dialogue. Peppered with profanities and lacking any kind of nuance, Hellgore comes across as the kind of annoying jock who you love to hate in countless movies.
Fortunately the lack of any character development in dialogue interaction means that this doesn’t ruin the experience but the repetition of simplistic swearing phrases does mean that their welcome is overstayed. This is exacerbated by the game design’s focus on excessive difficulty, meaning that you’ll be hearing the same ‘dialogue’ multiple times.
Graphically, Hellbound is pretty smooth and runs well on my aging Geforce 1050Ti. There are a good range of graphical options too, so ensuring that the rapid combat is represented in the smoothest way for your system should be foolproof. These details – although they should be expected – do illustrate the love that the developers have for their source material, and are a far cry from the limited options in many console orientated titles.
Aesthetically, Hellbound is not just influenced by Doom, it looks and feels like a modern take on the original graphics. Whereas the recent Doom games emphasised the industrialised nature of their game-worlds, Hellbound is all about deserts, pits of fire and mysterious crypts. Whether there is room for development is a matter of conjecture though, as the game only contains one set of levels.
Whilst each of the guns available pack a decent punch and have two firing actions as befits their generic origins, again these are limited. By the end of my three hour campaign playthrough I had unlocked pistol, shotgun, chaingun, and rocket launcher, alongside a melee weapon. This is real lowest common denominator stuff and feels like an Early Access range. The lack of anything more original or esoteric may be a deliberate choice but just contributes to the overall feeling of a game that doesn’t really have any ideas of its own. Gunplay owes a debt to both Doom and the Serious Sam series, as there are numerous combat arenas where hordes of enemies charge at you from all directions, sections that feel more like they belong in the free survival mode than the paid for campaign.
The game opens with a warning that it may be too hard for players due to its 90s influences and certainly lives up to this initially. That difficulty is largely brought about through a huge lack of balance between health and enemy damage. Combined with the swarming hordes of enemies in some sections and you have a frustrating experience more in keeping with the survival mode mentioned above.
This is most apparent several levels in when you first face a kind of skinless hound demon. These can take almost all of your health away in one pounce on the default difficulty. This often results in trial and error gameplay as you learn through dying where the enemies will spawn from. And spawn they do, with clear and obvious trigger points and placing. Whilst authentic, the effect here is ridiculously dated, especially when combined with the almost complete lack of any obvious AI. Some aspects of the genre are best left in the past, but Hellbound rehashes both the good and the bad.