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Review: Painkiller: Hell and Damnation

REVIEWS - VIDEOGAME REVIEWS

Imagine Doom on acid, whilst snorting rainbow candy, and you're almost there...

Review: Painkiller: Hell and Damnation...

Disclaimer: There is a solid chance, thanks to Steam's constant updating (not to mention the indisputable fact that Steam is simply the human name for a nighmarish labyrinth of blood-filled tubes and downloadable hats from an eternal dimension of meat and howling), that my save file corrupted during the review process. Of course, for a consummate professional, this isn't a problem - it's simply a case of restarting the game from the beginning, relaxing into a £7,000 GameXtreme Hyperthrone and ordering a trusty manservant to fetch another roasted swan neck and towering pile of cocaine, all served from a golden platter hand-polished by the Queen herself. Gor Bless'er.

Unfortunately, given that I am gaming journalism's equivalent of a Dickensian urchin whose daily activities run to nicking handkerchiefs and avoiding Australia, I am in a position where I must review the experience which the game presented to me. Any gaps in my knowledge will be papered over with wild conjecture in bold italics, though I'm pretty sure that will all be very subtle and close to the actual experience of the game itself.

Nostalgic beauty

A beautiful clip from Painkiller: Hell & Damnation...

Painkiller: Hell & Damnation takes the highly-praised 2004 FPS Painkiller, stuffs it into a smarter suit and shinier shoes, bluffs its way charmingly through questions about whether it's a remake, reboot or sequel and then ends up in a grubby dive bar in the ropey end of town, singing at the top of its lungs and glowering at cold-eyed permadrunks with names like Savage Bobby and Nightmare Steve.

For those not familiar, Painkiller was a game which sneered at the fetishistic, military dryness of contemporary first person shooters, choosing to take its thematic and artistic styles from the belly tattoos of an overweight and wheezing Hell's Angel, rather than the suspiciously wipe-clean pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. The guns were eye-popping, the plot ridiculous and the enemies looked like what you'd get if a bison were bitten by a radioactive druid.

Painkiller: H&D* is no different. If you're after slavishly-reproduced Slovakian pistols and gleaming American murdercocks, this is not the game for you. Rather, the game offers the sort of arsenal that would make a 14 year old goth go weak at the knees. Moments after the intro, the player is handed a rifle that apparently fires railway sleepers – honking great bits of wood fly forth, pinning twitching mooks to the wall, prizes on offer at a carnival run by Hieronymus Bosch and made of beef. This is soon joined by a melee weapon resembling the unholy offspring of a Harley-Davidson and a circular saw, while towards the end of the game the player is treated to a gun which is actually a mobile telephone whose single button connects you to all the people who you have ever wronged, initiating an apology-based quick time event.

Plot...what for?

Clowns and a chainsaw gun. A perfect combo?

The plot makes about as much sense as the armoury. There is a gravelly-voiced cinematic involving a car crash, some bunk about an angry dude in a leather jacket and an instruction to harvest the souls of the dead, possibly thanks to Satan’s gambling debt. I genuinely have no idea. It may make more sense for those who have played the original Painkiller, but I strongly suspect that it won’t make a blind bit of difference. Much like a soggy bit of cardboard being used to funnel fois gras into the mouth of a leering businessman, the story of Painkiller: Hell and Damnation is merely a flimsy conduit to the delicious, buttery gameplay.

The tutorial presents the game as a smashing-crates-in-a-cathedral simulator, but before long Painkiller: Hell and Damnation reveals itself to be the bastard child of Heretic and Serious Sam. Skull-faced knights tear at you by the dozen before bursting apart like bags of old steak; gnarled witches freeze in place and shatter like glass; and surprisingly agile skeletons collapse into piles of useless calcium.

This is not a game of tactics and hiding.

Instead, this is a game of floating armour pickups, switch puzzles, hidden collectables and battles against colossal bosses that loom over the landscape (with the exception of the final boss, that involves a protracted and complicated reading comprehension exercise, followed by a 15-minute ddr-inspired minigame), all set to a ridiculous thrash metal soundtrack.Another fun feature is the Tarot card system which functions as an in-game modifier, allowing the player to temporarily reduce enemy speed, buff player HP, and so on. There is also the table tennis minigame which appears halfway through the second playthrough and gives you the power of flight, though this does feel rather out of place.

There’s even something approaching a 21st century version of the Stim-Pack from Doom: collect enough enemy souls and the screen will wash red with blood. The player’s speed increases, weapons are nowhere to be seen and the game becomes a gothic version of Whack-A-Mole, with the player bouncing from badguy to badguy, popping them like balloons full of offal and jam with a single tap of the mouse.

It’s beautiful, but is unfortunately also the source of one of Painkiller’s biggest failings. The souls take so long to drop from the enemy bodies that they can be easily forgotten in the frantic charge to stay alive and not get cornered by a brigade of slathering hellbeasts. Unlocking this blisteringly visceral gameplay mode through patient waiting feels wholly out of place with the frantic nature of the rest of the game. Having the souls appear immediately would have avoided this completely and made for a much more organic experience, rather than having every gunfight end with a circuit around the arena as you wait for your vanquished foes to degrade, or just ignoring the souls altogether in order to proceed.

At its best, Painkiller: Hell and Damnation feels like getting hopped up on Pepsi and Rainbow Drops sometime in 1995 and viewing a glorious world of promise and violence through a fuzzy CRT window. It’s a short and sweet palette-cleanser, like a sorbet of blood and teeth following three mandatory courses of repetitive, grey CoD and chips.

*Is that a clever 'HD' gag? I genuinely cannot tell.

4 stars


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