Not quite the welcoming underworld
It’s been almost 30 years since the pinnacle of first-person shooters manifested itself. Loud guns, profanity, and buckets of blood defined the era as we fought against demons, pigmen carrying shotguns and sunglasses, and dozens of other sprites. The genre was fast and relentless. Depending on the difficulty of choice, a couple of shots were enough to take you down as you traversed labyrinthic maps looking for coloured keys. Hellbound is a callback to all of this, but its insistence to remain as faithful as possible also brings back several issues that the industry has long since moved away from.
Developed by Saibot Studios, the Argentinian minds behind the horror series Doorways, this first-person shooter is as raw and unsubtle as many of these games were back then. The protagonist is a sack of exaggerated muscles that wants nothing else but to kill demons. There is a bit of introductory lore during load screens, but these snippets don’t even try to get in the way of the action.
You have your weapons and a Doom-like status bar to track your health, ammo, and armour, and not much else. A couple of seconds after you first set foot on the underworld enemies commence their attack, and this continues for the next 3 hours until you finish the campaign. Don’t expect loadouts, infinite ammo, double jumping, or the ever-popular grappling hook here. It is as simple and straightforward as it gets, with only a handful of weapons that you’re probably already familiar with thanks to dozens of other shooters.
Needs more firepower
They all offer a secondary fire, but it either translates to aiming through the reticle or frankly disappointing attacks. The only exception was the shotgun, which always felt satisfying enough to use, with a secondary fire that uses three bullets for a more powerful attack to honour its name. Enemies are a bit on the same line. While they tend to up a good fight, they feel uninspired. There’s your evolving grunt that starts using the same weapons as you unlock them, a skinny demon that throws fireballs, and a faster beast that jumps as soon as its close enough to give you a bite. Only one boss awaits you in the campaign, but the sequence feels rushed, and the brief ending afterwards equally matches this sentiment.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy my time with Hellbound. These small additions added enough variety to keep on going, and as enemies started to come in larger numbers, encounters demanded more attention. Level design, in particular, was always engaging, and backtracking to pick up keys never felt like a chore. Despite the lack of a map, I never got lost either, even if some interactive structures needed to open doors weren’t as clearly signalised as I would have prefered.
My biggest concerns come from the overall tone of the game. The recent rise of throwback shooters is rich and interesting to witness because it brings back the fundamentals that made the genre so popular in the 90s, while also understanding (in most cases) that some aspects are better left in the past.
Actually, it’s not that cool
Booting up Hellbound greets you with a warning message that says the game can prove to be “too difficult” for some people, while the easiest difficulty is called “noob”. The protagonist is often cursing, but not in the funny or memorable Duke Nukem way. Rather, the very few lines of dialogue paired with the loading screen blurbs read as if they had been written in the 90s, without any of the grace that made it stand out back then, as absurd and often problematic as it were. Hearing “my job is to kill motherfuckers” and reading “there’s an orgy of violence coming” put me off completely, and it only gets worse from there. It’s childish at best, and for me, it clearly defines the overall experience.
It’s a game born from the idea of recalling a golden era, changing very few bits along the way, and ignoring what games like Dusk, Project Warlock, and many others understood from the get-go. As it stands, Hellbound aims to appeal to a very select audience, and decides to warn everyone else that the experience might not be a fit to them, regardless of the many conversations the industry has had in the past decades.
If you still decide to play it, then you’ll be facing a fun enough campaign that can last you a Friday night, along with a Survival mode and leaderboards in case you’re keen to repeat either. The often severe frame drops and occasional bugs that led me to restart a level aren’t that big of an issue, and they can be always be fixed after launch. But the specific tone around the game, and the message it leaves as it neglects to listen to the learned lessons in the past few years from similar experiences in the indie sphere, can’t be solved with a patch.
[Reviewed on PC]