Getting bored of modern military shooters of late? Well Nordic Games and The Farm 51 might have just the nostalgic ticket you’re after! Dismissing modern concepts such as regenerating health, cover systems and even reloading, this could be a short sharp shock to the more recently matured gamers who’ve perhaps not had the pleasure of encountering a VCR.
Following the previous exploits of our anti-hero Daniel and his everlasting quest to be reunited with his beloved Catherine, we join him, of all places, in the cemetery where it all began. A deathly apparition; a subsequent contract later, we’re off to harvest a bountiful 7000 souls for the privilege of being rekindled. Unfortunately, like others of it’s kind, the storyline pretty much starts and ends right there. Characterisation is a tad on the lacking side, what with the majority of your interactions resorting to a gruff grunt after being slapped by a skeleton. Inevitably, this creates an awkward, non-existent relationship with the protagonist that is hard to come back from.
Reminiscent, in style, of the old Quake games, players spawn into an arena of miscellaneous description, be it a graveyard, castle or other such similar location and do battle ‘till death. Progression is cordoned off until you meet your soul quota via the seemingly endless spawns of enemies; until then it’s circle strafe time. Bunny hopping, the forgotten pastime of yore returns and is in fact encouraged, seeing as nippier movement is rewarded for consecutive bounding. It’s a good job too as there’s no sprint function to speak of, which, combined with the largely useless objective compass often navigating you in the opposite direction, makes getting around quick a necessity.
Variation is variable in Painkiller. Maps, although all unique, scream cliché throughout; it’s not as though they push the boundaries of current hardware in terms of texture fidelity either. A level theme is pasted throughout with no outstanding direction or feeling of progression for the player. Enemy design is much of the same affair, though there are plenty of skins, the basic premise remains the same, some rely on melee, others are ranged, all are dispatched via running around in a circle holding the fire button down. Everything rushes blindly towards you, funnelling through choke points, oblivious to any buckshot knockback effects you might have been expecting. I would honestly have expected the army of the underworld to have developed more advanced tactics than ‘run in a straight line towards certain death’, yeah you’ll be fine, I’ve seen this tactic before somewhere, I’m pretty sure it went well back then…
The sinewy meat of the game relies upon the demonic hand cannons available, which are by far the game’s most impressionable highlight. Melee ‘guns’ that can absorb remains and spit back a controlling agent lending you a bony hand to fight on your side for a while before exploding gratuitously is always undeniably satisfying. Secondary fire modes such as this often have unexpected results that can delight with surprise, yet infuriatingly, the game gives no hint nor indication of what they might do. A concern if, perhaps like me, you tend to save up the rarer ammo in case something large and intimidating comes to say hello whilst you’re sat there praying a flag with the word bang printed on it doesn’t come out the end.
Much like the ethos of the era, Hell & Damnation is reluctant to help you out, you do things their way, or you don’t at all. With mechanics lacking some commonplace functions such as reloading, sprinting, or aiming down sights, button remapping would be useful. There are three buttons assigned to jump alone for example. Another bizarre design choice involves the demonic transformation after collecting a certain amount of souls. Not only do they restore a small amount health upon pickup, therefore enticing you to collect them, but they will also turn you into a one hit wonder killing machine for a brief period. The transformation is entirely dependant upon the number picked up and will active and indeed wasted if you’ve cleared the room beforehand, leaving a rather anti-climactic taste.
Not an overly long game on a per-run basis, the length instead, is assured in replayability. Complete specific, level dependant challenges and you’re rewarded with tarot cards, much akin to perks, these grant extra health and other such bonuses. The multiplayer could swing a few people, both competitive and cooperative experiences are on offer but still feel lacking in comparison to the top runners.
Ultimately, Painkiller lives in a time where it’s not going to be appreciated by everyone. A decade earlier; it could have been something special but unfortunately times change and ideas evolve and stick. I respect the decision to go forth and reimagine a classic genre in it’s roots, yet I feel it hasn’t quite dipped into the ‘must have’ retro category just yet.
Reviewed on PS3, also available on Xbox 36 and PC.