FFPSs and heavy metal go hand in hand like AC/DC concerts and audiologist appointments. Their relationship dates back to 1993’s Doom, for which songwriter Bobby Prince borrowed heavily from the music of Alice in Chains and Pantera. But never have they been as closely intertwined as in Metal: Hellsinger, where the music dictates the pace with which you must kill demonic enemies.
Hellsinger, the debut game from Swedish studio The Outsiders, has you assume control of a winged demon as it attempts a fiery escape from the deepest circle of hell. Known simply as The Unknown, your fiendish avatar is uniquely attuned to the natural rhythm of the cosmos, able to draw power from it while battling the slaves of Hell’s overseer, an unbranded version of the devil known as the Red Judge.
In practical terms, this means that attacking enemies to the beat of the game’s soundtrack deals more damage than attacking without a beat. Aided by an animated crosshair that provides visual cues synced to music, repeatedly pairing bullets and hits with beats increases your damage. At the highest level, you can take down even the biggest and baddest enemies with a few well-timed shots.
Hellsinger’s weapons aren’t just nice to handle; each complements the game’s rhythmic gunplay. His shotgun fires on every alternate heartbeat, while his twin revolvers can fire on 12 successive heartbeats before he needs to reload. It’s not just shooting that’s governed by sound, either. A well-timed second tap of the reload key can ready his weapons faster, while he can even dodge at a 4/4 signature, helping to maintain his attack multiplier in the process.
All this clever design would be for naught if you were throwing enemies at Black Lace’s Agadoo. Fortunately, Hellsinger’s thunderous metal soundtrack is the highlight of the game. Each level has its own song composed by the Two Feathers game music team, with vocals performed by prominent metal artists like System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Trivium’s Matt Heafy. Cleverly, the instruments in each song are layered onto the music, depending on how well you’re playing. At the start of a level, you only get the raw beat. But as you metronomically take out enemies, the game repeats the bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and then the soaring, roaring vocals.
At his best, Hellsinger is hypnotic. In the heat of the action, all the different components come together. You stop seeing the on-screen prompts and, to some extent, the screen itself, letting your actions be guided solely by the music. It may seem strange that something so fierce could induce a zen state, but this will come as no surprise to metal fans or shooters. Shooter games have always been very rhythmic games, all about the flow and speed of fire. Hellsinger just externalizes those underlying beats.
As a synthesis of audio and action, Hellsinger is a bit of wickedly seductive dark magic. However, it is more of an EP than an LP. The game is light, not only in length, but also in its weapon list and variety of enemies, which could do with two or three more ideas to round things out. The story also struggles to add meat to the skeletal premise of escaping eternal damnation, the rambling narrative finding an impressive number of ways to say the same thing.
One last problem: the game’s visuals don’t match the quality of its audio, which is surprising considering director David Goldfarb originally pitched the game to publisher Funcom as “A metal album cover comes to life”. But his final depiction of Hell is surprisingly muted, painted mostly in browns and greys, without the wild colors and playful character of, say, Iron Maiden’s album art.
Somewhere out there is a bigger, more vivid version of Metal: Hellsinger that could really rock you with big FPS. However, while Hellsinger’s art isn’t quite good enough to grace the black cotton T-shirts of an avid metal fan, its music certainly wouldn’t feel out of place in your record collection, and the way Hellsinger weaves this soundtrack into an action experience from hell. makes for a completely enjoyable twist on the shooting convention.