Hellpoint Review – IGNJuly 31, 2020
If you were to create a checklist of what makes a game a Souls-like, meaning it follows in the footsteps of FromSoftware’s massively popular Dark Souls series, you’d get bullet points that look nearly identical to Hellpoint: respawn checkpoints in a labyrinthine world, the loss of all currency on death unless you can retrieve it, slow and methodical combat with light and heavy attacks, as well as challenging encounters punctuated by enormous boss monsters. It’s all here, for better and for worse, but its elaborate sci-fi setting gives it some character of its own and a strong combat system made suffering through the extensive bugs largely worthwhile.
At the very start you’re plopped into a cloned body on a massive space station with zero explanation, left to fend for yourself against demonic entities and godlike beings. That’s the entire plot, basically, which feels like a waste of the potential for this immediately intriguing sci-fi universe. There are some books you can skim over, message terminals to read, and a handful of prompts at control stations here and there to peruse which add some flavor, but the majority of Hellpoint’s storytelling is suggested by its environments and enemies. Much like Dark Souls, it’s a world rich with palpable tension and mystery that lead you to pose questions constantly, even though it seldom gives you answers.’Visually, Hellpoint is quite stunning. When I’d exit a walkway and emerge onto a terrace that overlooks a sea of stars and spiraling colors I’d legitimately just stop and stare for a few minutes. Interiors are similarly stylized with bright, popping colors that contrast the dark and decrepit tone incredibly well. At one moment you could be exploring a nearly pitch-black hallway with enemies lurching at you from around corners and then it’ll feel like you’re walking across the bifrost to Asgard. And yet, despite the dramatic swings in color palettes and lighting, it all feels consistent and cohesive. A lot of love and care clearly went into the world building from a design perspective and it makes me immensely curious to see and learn more – which underscores the lack of a real story, as a side effect.
During my approximately 20-hour playthrough I kept swinging back and forth between adoring the surreal, occultist-inspired atmosphere and getting utterly frustrated at the sheer lack of direction and communication. More so than is typical for this type of game, the station is an absolute labyrinth of interconnected passages and regions that are dizzying to explore and there’s little to no indication of where you should be going. Granted, it’s more or less standard for Souls-likes to not have a map screen, but here that omission makes Hellpoint seem more aimless than usual. Every single boss I fought, essential item I found, or critical path I discovered, was entirely by accident. Finding a random key card that grants access to crucial new zones five hours later is par for the course.
Checkpoints (called Breaches) are scattered everywhere, but you’ve got to use an extremely rare “synchronization” item to open them up for teleportation between one another, so planning out which ones you want to use for fast travel is key. However, it’s basically impossible to do that intelligently without a map for planning. The result is that the fast travel system can’t be relied upon, so I was usually desperately hoping to find a shortcut connecting back to previous regions or just running back through entire zones to retrace my steps.Overall, though, I like the way Breaches work more than campfires in Dark Souls because not only do they heal you, but they do not respawn enemies. (Instead, enemies automatically respawn after a certain amount of time.) Because of that, backtracking was usually not as frustrating as in other Souls-likes since I didn’t have to kill the same enemies over and over as much. Breaches also don’t refill your healing item – instead, you recharge that (and your Energy resource) over time by landing melee attacks. It’s a good balance and incentivizes fighting aggressively if you’re close enough to a Breach to just run back and heal really quickly.
When you do eventually die (and you probably will, a lot) not only do you drop all of your experience points, but a ghost version of your character spawns in the area to start hunting you down. Your ghost will always be equipped with whatever you were using at your time of death, which can often make it extremely fun and challenging to take down. Once I fell down a pit and died after clearing a big room full of enemies using a new axe weapon, so returning to that room with the addition of my ghost to contend with made it even more difficult than before. This isn’t the first time a game has used a “fight your zombie” mechanic, but it’s certainly something in the back of my mind each time I consider trying out new weapons. Ranged weapons are tricky to use well, but in the hands of a tricky AI ghost they can often be tough to deal with.
Combat in Hellpoint is its strongest aspect, but not for the reasons I expected. Moment-to-moment gameplay felt floaty and a bit wonky at first, like the awkward jump mechanic that makes timing leaps across death pits difficult to control – especially compared to the weighty precision of Dark Souls. Even so, Hellpoint’s fluidity eventually grew on me. Dodging is extremely powerful here and happens super quickly, letting you immediately evade attacks and reposition. The biggest annoyance is that getting behind enemies is extremely difficult unless they’re lunging forward since they seem to use the same lock-on targeting you do.
A huge part of what makes combat so satisfying is the progression system. Not only do you upgrade weapons at terminals to improve their overall stats and apply mods, but using the same weapon for a few hours will start to unlock special abilities. For example, one of my swords expands in length to do more damage, while my hand axe emits an ethereal glow that doubles as a thrown projectile. There’s a lot of weapon variety, from trusted one-handed melee items and shields to massive hunks of metal and spears, all the way to railguns. Yes, guns – it takes a while to find ranged weapons worth using and to get your stats high enough to fire them well, but they can be very powerful and change the pace of fights enormously. They all use your Energy meter for every shot – even the thrown weapons – so they likely won’t ever be your primary method of attack (since you need melee attacks to recharge Energy) but they’re useful for softening up a target before moving in for the kill.
There aren’t a ton of enemy types so there’s lots of repetition throughout, but the enemies that do exist are all vastly different. Fighting a hovering alien creature that looks like a giant, enraged beta fish that can shoot lasers is extremely different from going up against a cross-shield-bearing holy knight that can summon laser spikes from the ground to impale you. There’s some quality creativity here, just not quite enough quantity to feel like you’re constantly stumbling across new things. By the end I was just fighting weaker, smaller versions of full-on bosses I’d fought earlier. While I do intend to complete the 10 hours of additional post-game content and extra bosses for a full, true ending, if there are new enemies there I’ll be annoyed they were held back when they might’ve made the main campaign more diverse.
A high level of difficulty is a big draw for Souls-like games but Hellpoint isn’t very consistent in that regard. Naturally, the first few zones are extremely deadly and challenging, in part because you’re still learning how combat works, but once things clicked I found the difficulty curve to be choppy and inconsistent, without a steady increase in difficulty. Some of the later boss fights I was able to handle on the first try after dying nearly a dozen times on some of the earlier ones. On the other hand, some non-boss enemies presented a real struggle even at late-game stages due to how frequently you face them and how relentless they can be in their attacks. It’s almost as if Hellpoint could sense my comfort and complacency so it’d come for me extra hard when I least expected it. I relish those fights, but they didn’t feel logically placed.Co-op works just like it does in Dark Souls, in that you place messages seeking help in the environment where other players can answer, though here those messages are indecipherable symbols and shapes, making them basically useless. You’re also subject to invasions by PvP attackers, or you can directly join a friend’s game using a unique code (or in local co-op). It’s fine, but there isn’t an understandable reason why these sorts of games can’t just have more stable and functional co-op that isn’t convoluted.
The biggest things getting in Hellpoint’s way as it attempts to fully establish itself are the gratuitous bugs and performance issues that make it feel like it’s struggling to deliver a fully-functioning game. At one point when another player joined my session to assist, my framerate tanked into single digits and it felt like I was playing a slideshow. At another, I fell through the floor and everything was invisible other than floating weapons representing me and the enemies. And another time one of my menus was stuck on-screen and wouldn’t close, preventing me from attacking or even quitting out – I had to alt+F4 just to restart from the last Breach I visited. Not to mention the abhorrent texture pop-ins happening right in front of your face, unignorably interfering with the otherwise beautiful scenery. For a real laugh you can also turn off blood in the settings which inexplicably also removes sound effects ridding combat of any visceral impact. But then thrown weapons still would trigger blood splatter, so what even is the (Hell)point?
Beyond that, some of Hellpoint’s more interesting features are never really introduced or used in interesting ways. For example, one big idea that is woefully under-explained is the black hole the space station orbits. As it turns out, depending on its position relative to the station (as indicated by the clock-like thing in the top left corner of the screen) different things can happen. For example, sometimes it will cause more or more powerful enemies to spawn, and so on. It would’ve been nice to have some introduction to that concept so I could’ve planned around it, but at the same time the events weren’t a big enough deal that I needed to be aware of it to succeed.