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Hellbound review: Sam Stone meets Quake Guy

Hellbound review: Sam Stone meets Quake Guy

By Denis Marasan ☆ 07/Aug/2020

Hellbound by Saibot Studios sees itself as a Classic First-Person Shooter (FPS) and gently warns the player: “This game is being made like it was the ’90-s, some people may find it too difficult”. An action game focused on speed, gore, guns, and metal music. Inspired by the 90s’ classics with modern visuals and audio! But how well does it capture the essence of those games of old in reality? Let’s have a look!

Visual appearance and music

Speaking of those modern visuals and audio, Hellbound is made on the Unreal engine, though the game aesthetics is… well, recherché. But since the visual appearance is grossly subjective, I will not rest upon it, just watch the game trailer and screenshots and decide for yourself.

Metal music rocks, creating the right mood. Though when playing Hellbound in Campaign mode I always felt like there’s only one looped track in the game, which isn’t true. The problem is that the music is unvaried and since it’s not dynamic, it feels kind of repetitive. The first FPS I played featuring dynamic music was Unreal in 1998. Dynamic music permits reinforcing action by smoothly transiting back and forth between intense and subtler tracks depending on the game situation. In Hellbound, those heavy and aggressive tracks become unnoticeable shortly, because regardless of the game situation the music plays like you’re in the middle of a gunfight.

On the other hand, the music IS dynamic in Survival mode. The transition is quite noticeable: there’s one track in the main menu, the other at the loading screen, a subtler track before each wave of enemies, and an intense track during the battle. That’s how it should be done throughout the game for the right game feel.

 

Level design and game flow

And the problem is not really in music. The problem is largely associated with level design. The game is intended to be a never-ceasing action, but it doesn’t lead you by hand from one epic moment to the other SEAMLESSLY unless you’re replaying the map you already know. Want to experience the game the way it was intended by the developer? Replay each map multiple times so you have a seamless experience without wandering around looking for the right turn or door. That’s where Hellbound really shines. Here, you don’t need dynamic music, because your experience transforms into a seamless sequence of gunfights.

As for the first playthrough, the game feels mediocre at best. For many reasons e.g. Doom 2016 copes with creating satisfactory initial impressions much better. But replaying the maps repeatedly, I finally experienced the flow.

Don’t get me wrong, the maps aren’t that bad. E.g. Dead Forest is a beautiful corridor map with a flawless level design and visually pleasing appearance. Except for maybe the “press the button and run to the door” puzzle that balances between being hardcore and punishing. But how to make a map (any map) better for the first playthrough? E.g. by spawning those minor health and shield bonuses along the optimal path, so that the player could naturally choose the right path. This may improve the game flow for the first playthrough. Another example is from Doom 2016, where the developers used green lights to mark the optimal path. Not very elegant, but effective.

Unless the developers will add a feature like this, the right way to experience the game is to complete a map on the Noob level for examination and then replay the map on higher difficulty levels to experience a perfect game flow. Since the Campaign mode comprises 7 not-too-large maps and could be completed in less than 2 hours, consider it a method of extending the game’s life.

 
Do you know Hellbound started from a standalone Survival mode? It’s basically the extermination of seemingly endless waves of mindless enemies, attacking the player on various arenas. Great stuff given that it’s free!
 

Running and gunning

I really liked how the character moves and shoots. He’s gliding above the ground fast and smooth with no camera shaking. Not very realistic, but since Hellbound mimics classic FPS games from 90-s, I find it’s perfectly OK.

Note that there’s an “Always run” option in settings that you may enable. Otherwise, you must press SHIFT to run for longer jumps and get to the doors and elevators activated by switches. Too bad the latter stuff feels punishing instead of hardcore and is definitely not a part of the “classic FPS from 90-s” fantasy. I wonder why the developers added this. The more so the difference between walking and running is barely noticeable. I’ve no idea why the developers kept both, confusing the audience.

As for guns, there’re some issues. First, speaking of good old days, weapons used to appear in the lower part of the screen centrally. Not to the right or left like in Hellbound. The first time I remember noticing that the weapon is on the side was Unreal. But since this approach makes the player feel like he’s holding a weapon in his hand, adding a touch of realism to the game, it’s great.

The game says “All weapons have a secondary action” and in most cases, that’s aiming. I don’t think aiming is a part of the fantasy the developers are trying to create. And since I don’t remember aiming as a secondary action from good old days, it adds some modern FPS feel to the game. I have noticed no difference in accuracy or anything when aiming. So why the developers added aiming to the game remains a mystery to me. Thank goodness they didn’t follow the other trend by adding the reload!

But guess what: there’s a triple-barrel shotgun that has an alternative fire mode instead. It fires one shell in primary mode and three shells with longer reload in alternative mode! Shotgun and Rocket Launcher are the only guns with alternative fire instead of aiming. All or none guns should have an alternative fire. Making two guns out of five with an alternative fire is not only inconsistent, but it confuses the player. Speaking of myself, at first I thought the secondary action reduces the dispersion because of better aim, permitting me to deal more damage at longer distances. Because the alternative fire was more efficient at longer distances than primary fire. And only after I noticed I’m spending one shell in primary mode and three shells in alternative mode, I could use the shotgun to its full potential.

The triple barrel shotgun is also hugely overpowered. It’s capable of killing any enemy in an alternative mode with a single shot from medium distance (since the dispersion is so low). But it’s not the most overpowered weapon in the game. At least the shotgun has a disadvantage due to its high reload. Mini-gun is a different beast. It just melts enemies while having no drawbacks!

 

Monsters and AI

What else to say: the game needs enemies that can withstand a mighty blow! Those easy kills make all your achievements feel insignificant. I remember epic battles with those jumping Fiends in Quake, whereas those jumping monsters with scary claws in Hellbound are… well, disposable.

Speaking of AI, it’s simplistic, feeling very close to Serious Sam in places. Most enemies just flock after your character, being an easy target for rockets and easy to trap near exploding plants scattered here and there. And since all weapons feature slow-flying projectiles and enemies can’t lead you when shooting, you can just strafe to one side to dodge while keeping the enemies in the cross-hair while dealing damage. As stupid as it may sound I found it fun both in Survival and Campaign modes because it reinforces the power fantasy, period.

Enemies are mainly grunts armed by the same weapons as the protagonist. And since there’re 5 weapons, there’re 5 grunts. Apart from the latter, there’re tall monsters casting fireballs from a distance and pink jumping monsters with enormous claws dealing a vast amount of damage. And a boss. That’s basically it. Not too much.

 

To save or not to save?

Let’s face the truth, the autosave option is crap. You can’t just play the game by counting on autosave. Just look at Doom 2016 or Eternal, that’s how the game experience should be designed in terms of autosave. It permits the player to experience the game without interrupting the game flow for saving.

Another problem is manual save, cos you just can’t overwrite or even delete saved games. What should I do with all those many saves I don’t need? And how should I delete them? By browsing folders with my Explorer? This is nonsense! And guess what: there’s no quicksave option in Hellbound!

All the above isn’t just absurd, but saving the game manually from the menu by leaving the game interrupts the game flow and spoils the entire experience since the game is a “speed, gore, guns, and metal music” fantasy. Even a quicksave option is a minor spoiler because pressing the quicksave key distracts the player. But since Hellbound tries to mimic classic FPS, it’s allowable. Anyway, the game needs a decent autosave system. The current autosave system is one of the most damaging things in Hellbound, ruining the entire experience during the first playthrough in particular.

 

Final verdict

In a few words, Hellbound is where Quake meets Serious Sam. A linear corridor shooter with open arenas and seemingly endless waves of mindless enemies trying to capture the essence of 90-s. Some level design flaws and punishing mechanics result in suboptimal game flow during the first playthrough. The balance is rather strange: the enemies are very dangerous but are easily one-shotted from a shotgun or rapidly killed from a mini-gun. Apart from a Campaign mode, there’s a Survival mode that extends the game life. Regrettably the game has no multiplayer support, though cooperative play in Survival mode seems most attractive.

PROs:

CONs:

  • Debatable visual appearance, poor bestiary
  • Short Campaign mode (under 2 hours)
  • Hard to achieve game flow at first playthrough
  • Punishing mechanics and flawed level design (“press the switch and run to the door far off”, skill-dependant jumping, lava traps on the floor during the boss battle, etc.)
  • No multiplayer