Metal: Hellsinger Review
Clicking with fury
Many of us have background music on when playing various games. Sometimes, subconsciously, you may try to get into the groove of matching the beats of your favorite tunes with what is happening on screen. Some creative game developers have turned this notion into a mechanic over the past few years, from the action RPGs like Crypt of the NecroDancer, on-rail movement games Thumper, and shooters like BPM: Bullets Per Minute. The latest title to jump on this rhythm train is Metal: Hellsinger.
This first person shooter sees players assume control of a demon/human woman called the Unknown. Following some disagreements with other demons in Hell and the leader Red Judge, she is locked away in the depths, and deprived of her voice. But after some time, the bounds are not able to hold her, so she sets out to cross various realms of Hell to exact her revenge and get her voice back. The narration is mostly provided by a skull named Paz that she picks up at the start of the adventure, voiced by Troy Baker. Considering the action-focused nature of the game, there's a decent amount of narrative exposition here, and even lengthy cutscenes to establish the details of the story. It's still very surface level, but it provides a little more cohesion to your progress.
Metal: Hellsinger is a visceral first person shooter on a trek through Hell, accompanied by heavy metal music. Each level is a series of combat encounters against demons, as you shoot and slice your way to the end-level boss. The shooting and movement feel good – not quite as polished and smooth as Doom, but still well executed. You can also jump/double jump and dash, which is basic but again functional. But at the core of the action is the fact that your shooting and dashes need to be matched up with the beat of the level's song. There's a visual indicator that shows the tempo of the beat, and you need to try and shoot in-sync with that. Realistically though, you are going to stop looking at the visual indicator soon after the start of the level, and instead tap along with the music that you hear. When the action gets intense, it's far too difficult to keep track of the visual indicator, except for the occasional need to re-sync with the beat. This mechanic is fairly novel, but no longer original, as BPM: Bullets Per Minute did it already a few years ago. Getting into a groove can be quite satisfying, however this sort of mechanic may not be for everyone – it would appeal more to fans of music games, but perhaps not fans of traditional shooters. If you don't "get into it", this title is a hard sell.
The Unknown always has a sword and the skull with her, but their damage does not scale – instead you will often rely on the additional weapons that are unlocked as you progress through the levels, and can bring with you into the future ones. You can only bring one such extra weapon into the level, and it does have limited ammo that must be replenished from fallen enemies. These extra weapons include a shotgun, a crossbow, dual pistols, and a couple of others. Not only do they do more damage as your score multiplier increases, they have different timing for how quickly they shoot and reload – which means you can't just be tapping every beat note, and have to adjust your timing. It's fun to play around with each weapon and find the one that works best for you.
The various standalone levels of Hell have a few different visual aesthetics, but are largely open areas with a few elevation changes, aimed to give players a lot of room to maneuver. There aren’t many objects around or environmental detail, again sacrificing form to function so you don't get stuck on anything while strafing around. There are green crystals scattered around that can be broken to get some health restored, and the game also uses the Doom-like takedown mechanic, letting you perform a move on vulnerable enemies to again get some health and ammo. The challenge is that takedowns are only available on-beat as well, which makes for some hectic moments as you mash the button to get that much needed health.
Metal: Hellsinger is not a particularly challenging game on the normal difficulty, but it could use some fine tuning. Enemy spawns are the biggest issue, as each wave only begins when all enemies have been defeated from the previous one. This leads to many moments of chasing down the last enemy, as your multiplier drops and the pace of the combat suffers; in the next moment, you are overwhelmed by foes. Spike damage can be a real issue during the start of a new wave. If you feel comfortable with the shooting to the beat mechanic, it's probably worthwhile to try the harder difficulty setting. If you perish, you can either start over or give up some of your level score to resurrect.
The enemies you'll face are fairly limited in form and function. They fall into either ranged or melee category, and will chase you all over the combat arena. There are a few different sizes of demons and they have a couple of attack options, but for the most part the enemy variety is quite limited. Mildly interesting twists, like the flying enemies that spit acid that slows your movement, are still quite straightforward. The shooting too, while satisfying, is simplistic mechanically, with just one special Ultimate attack per weapon that can help get players some breathing room by doing a massive damage burst. Each level also has a boss at the end, but it's the same enemy with slightly different attacks, which again feels rather dull.
Score chasing is a big part of the game. Each level tabulates your scores with each slain demon, and the more on-beat your shooting, without missing a beat or an enemy target, the higher the score multiplier goes. Your score is the main reason to replay the game, with a leaderboard displayed at the end of each level. The score multiplier is also tied to the music aspect – as it increases, more layers of the song begin to play, with the maximum 16x multiplier finally letting the lyrics kick in. This design actually works well – it's exciting to unravel the song of each level as you play, and it helps prevent repetition, as hearing the vocals of the same chorus over and over would get quite repetitive. But just listening to the guitars, base and drums is more tolerable across the levels, which can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.
Just like the central beat-focused shooting mechanic, another big caveat to enjoying this game is whether or not you are a fan – or can tolerate – heavy metal. The soundtrack here is a no holds barred headbanger, with heavy riffs, double kicks, and plenty of screaming and growling lyrics. The songs were composed by Two Feathers and involve performances by legendary singers from the genre, such as Serj Tankian (System of a Down), Matt Heafy (Trivium), Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy), Randy Blythe (Lamb of God), and more. It's very kick-ass, and definitely an excellent tribute to the genre.
After beating a level, you can return to it and try one of three special battle arenas called Torments, with varying special conditions on how to defeat the enemy waves and/or extend the timer of the arena. Completing these challenge battles unlocks passive boosts called Sigils, which include the typical options – protecting your score streak if you miss or take damage, do more damage when close to death, start the level at a higher multiplier, and so on. Before starting the next level, you can equip up to two Sigils and choose one of the special weapons mentioned earlier, which gives a little more replay value and variety. Still, the levels are linear and the sections between the battle rooms are short; you can use the dash move on-beat through them, to keep your multiplier up between fights.
There are a handful of levels to battle through, but overall the game will only take about 3 hours to complete. There is no exploration or collectibles to find, and no randomization or roguelike mechanics compared to BPM, and so the traditional level-based design may be a tough sell at $30 for how much content you get here. Players who enjoy chasing leaderboard scores will get more value out of this, compared to those who just complete the given content and move on.
The best compliment that can be given to Metal: Hellsinger is that it leaves you wanting more. It's a little late to the party with its on-beat shooting mechanic, as BPM already did that. And it doesn't quite have the silky smooth mechanics and great level design of the recent Doom games. It's also a little thin on content and could certainly use more variety in its combat, enemies, and bosses. But what it does have is a kick-ass soundtrack, well implemented – albeit basic – mechanics, and a whole lot of potential. There are many caveats to consider when deciding if this title is for you – whether you will enjoy the rhythm mechanics, the genre of music, and the price tag. But if the stars align, be they pentagrams or otherwise, there's some good action to be had here.