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Monday, August 3, 2020

Review: Hellpoint (Sony PlayStation 4)

Review by Matt S.

It's easy to understand the appeal of Dark Souls, both as a game to play and a creative target for developers. Dark Souls is densely creative, intricate, beautiful and compelling, and largely liberates developers of the need to tell nice, neat linear stories. Because of the "grind" involved in replaying sections, and the generally slow pacing encouraging exploration, these games can drip-feed their narrative in an atmospheric, non-linear manner, dragging players through the sheer sense of mystery and suspense. Meanwhile, the level design in these games is truly labyrinthine, intricate and a form of artistry unto itself. At least, all of this is true when it's done well. When these things turn out like Hellpoint, though, the demands on the player's time are simply untenable.

The team at Cradle Games had the right idea, and it's difficult to fault the concept of Hellpoint; you play as a shell-like being that wakes up on the middle of a massive space station that's locked up in orbit with a black hole. Every bit of that sentence is ideal material for a "Souls-like", but it's the nihilistic presence of the black hole - one of greatest esoteric horrors to the human mind - that really seals things. There's no narrative in those early moments, but there's plenty of context; it just makes sense that everything on the space station has turned violent and unthinking. The occasional gravitational shaking tells you everything you need to know - everything is doomed and you've been thrust deeply into it.

This also introduces the most interesting and creative feature of Hellpoint, and it's almost a reason to give the game a go despite the many issues that we'll get to shortly. The space station is locked into an orbit, and at certain points of time in this dark, cruel "year", the space station becomes particularly dangerous, with powerful monsters showing up in the most mundane places, and survival becomes that much more difficult. None of this is explained, so you can imagine my shock the first time I turned a corner that I had been around a dozen times previously to smack into a hulking monstrosity that I knew instantly I had no chance against. Once you do understand how that clock feature works it becomes part of the rhythm of the game, and it is executed just right to give the action a rhythmic, tidal ebb and flow.

Unfortunately, the really neat set-up is squandered in execution. The biggest issue with Hellpoint is that the setting becomes dull in the moment-to-moment. The ability for the developers to offer the distinctive, expansive regions that we see in the likes of the Souls series, Nioh and others are restricted and constructed because the game takes place on a space station, and yes, the developers do try and push this via the "hell" theme. In fact, the developers have done everything they can to stretch the scale and variety of what you might expect to find given this game's setting, but even after all that it just doesn't have the same rich heritage that makes moving through each new area a reward into itself.

It doesn't help that the developers haven't really understood the way the genre does labyrinths. Hellpoint does have a similar structure to other games in the "genre" whereby you will be able to open locked doors from the other side after exploration to give yourself a "shortcut" the next time you need to make a run, but these shortcuts tend to be oddly placed in such a way that you're still left with too much mundane ground to re-traverse (and enemies to fight) in order to get to the bit that you're stuck at. The placement of the game's equivalent to bonfires - the spots where you rest, level-up, and restart on a death - are not placed where veterans of this kind of game would expect to find them. These placement issues are subtle, but do lend the game an amateurish sheen that suggests that the developers launched just a little too soon.

That impression is backed up by the gameplay itself, which is far too loose and unrefined for the kind of precision a Souls-like needs. The framerates are inconsistent, for a start, and while this is an issue that never bothers me with more cerebral or slower-paced games, for this particular experience being a few frames out in responding to an attack can be fatal. Compounding this issue is a dodge button that is not as responsive as I'd like it to be, and with certain enemies (particularly the bosses) the hitboxes and feedback loop is all over the place, and there were times that I'd get hit and killed despite being quite sure that I'd been following the visual and audio cues properly. Those boss battles don't have the soaring creativity and intensity as some of the better examples of the genre (and indeed Hellpoint has a real issue with making bosses common enemies down the track which leads to the enemy gallery feeling far too constrained), but a bigger issue is that they can also be some of the most frustrating to deal with. For the Souls-like, unsatisfying and unrewarding boss battles is perhaps the most grievous sin of all to commit.

There's a long litany of smaller issues that I could also mention; the AI tends to be dull and uninspired, to the point of being easy to exploit, and that undermines the quality of the action. Online functionality seems to be broken, or at the very least unstable, and while this game does feature split-screen multiplayer (a good feature, to be sure), that mode can also be cumbersome, and on smaller TVs, the benefits of split-screen are offset by it becoming much more difficult to see things. The game can also seem almost too non-linear at times, which might sound like a good thing except that if you look at every other example of the genre, they're always good about appearing open while subtly leading players through in a particular direction. These are all minor and in themselves wouldn't compromise the overall experience, but brought together, they leave Hellpoint feeling unrefined and this is the one genre where a lack of refinement is ruinous to the experience.

I can appreciate why a developer would want to try its hand at a Souls-like. It's a hugely popular genre that doesn't have that many entries at this point in time, and there's a veritable goldmine of unique settings and concepts to explore. A horror-themed Souls on an abandoned space station, circling a black hole, is appealing on every level. Unfortunately, this genre is also incredibly demanding, technically and creatively, and while I admire the ambition of Cradle Games, with Hellpoint they've shot for the stars but well missed the mark.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic was provided a copy of this game for review.

Review: Hellpoint (Sony PlayStation 4)
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