Wednesday, 12 December 2018 09:00

HellSign Early Access Review

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Sign of the Times

HellSign, developed and published by indie newcomer Ballistic Entertainment, is a horror action RPG set in Australia where you investigate haunted houses and attempt to banish the spirits haunting them. Mostly, this is done via high-caliber rounds after analyzing just what you’re up against, as each supernatural nasty has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. You figure these out by searching the house for pertinent clues as to the species and subtypes of each main baddie. While the fights themselves are largely dependent on the main species of ghost you’re fighting, the path to being able to actually take on one of these phantasms is long enough to justify the price tag.

Busting Makes Me Feel Good

Mechanically, HellSign plays like an episode of Ghost Hunters capped off with the more action-oriented parts of Supernatural. There are three types of missions you can currently accept: Scout, Sweep, and Hunt. You’ll start with Scout missions while you develop your reputation. These see you enter a dormant haunt site and utilize an EMF scanner and parabolic mic to find signs and deduce what kind of ghost is haunting there. You do this by pairing clue signs and evidence signs and comparing the former to your journal to come up with the answer. If you get it right, you get more money on top of the money you get for selling your signs. These matching mini-games aren’t too difficult, so failure is unlikely. The true test is combat, which is the highlight of the Sweep missions. You’ll fight groups of smaller enemies, earning a monetary bonus for each monster killed. There are no signs to acquire and sell in Sweep missions, but they reward roughly as well as Scout missions with a little more risk if you’re more into combat than investigation.

The main sell is the Hunt missions. A combination of the Scout and Sweep missions, Hunts are the toughest and most lucrative missions you can undertake. Signs grabbed from a Hunt are easily an order of magnitude more valuable than the signs grabbed from Scout missions. When Hunts are first made available, grabbing one sign and getting out with your hide intact is challenge enough. Fortunately, each sign will be enough to provide a substantial upgrade to your survivability in the field. Soon enough, you’ll be ready to take on the final challenge the HellSign has to offer — actually vanquishing the ghosts. The three different types of ghosts are Banshees, Kelpies, and Shadows, each with their own tactics and weaknesses. These are further divided into subtypes that have weaknesses to different attachments for both gun and armor. You’ll need to leverage all the advantages you can muster to survive these brutal fights.

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Artistically, the game nails the presentation of moody haunted houses à la ghost-hunting shows and found-footage horror films. What would normally just be a simple game of “hot and cold” gains an added edge when you know that hiding in the next room could be something that can easily kill you. The sound design is also well executed. The ambient music in the field is subdued and spooky to facilitate hearing the audio cues from your investigative devices. The audio shifts during combat, which can be helpful, as enemies frequently dart off the screen to regroup and attack. Overall, the mission music is unobtrusive and fits the atmosphere well.

These things only hold true for being in the field, though. The bar, where you’ll be spending a good deal of time in-game getting jobs and selling signs between missions, has a very 90s butt-rock song blaring in the background that is louder than pretty much anything else in the game. This also goes for the overworld art style as well. Cutscenes are still comic book panels with text overtop them, drawn in a style that would make Rob Liefeld cock an eyebrow. That isn’t to say they’re bad — just very, very stylized. The other hand-drawn images in the game do not follow this art style, making it rather jarring when you come across the second one after getting used to the pseudo-realistic aesthetic that the rest of the game is in. HellSign overall just feels very 90s with a sort of post-cyberpunk aesthetic without all the high technology. The first NPC you meet looks like he would feel right at home with the Halloweeners from Shadowrun.

Totally Radical

To be fair, this pseudo-90s aesthetic makes sense because, canonically, portals to hell opened sometime in the 90s. While HellSign doesn’t go out of its way to say this, I would argue that not much cultural progress can be made when you’re more concerned about giant spiders roaming the countryside. As it stands, the story is that you are an occult scout that’s been having demonic nightmares and has an acute case of amnesia. While you don’t remember the scene you’re having nightmares about, you also don’t remember how you got the giant tattoo on your back. Wanting answers and finding none, you dive deep into the occult hunting scene of Australia to see if you can scare up any leads. The story is barebones but serviceable for an Early Access title. It’s not particularly well written but doesn’t serve to detract from the solid core gameplay loop.


The Verdict: Good

Although incomplete, HellSign offers an interesting experience for a relatively cheap price. I personally will be watching its development with interest. With the promise of more enemies and more content on top of some already solid design choices, I anticipate the full release late next year will be something to keep an eye out for.

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John Gerritzen

John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.