Reviewed on PC
I’ve got a lot of history with the land of paranormal investigation. Not personal history – I don’t even believe in ghosts as much as I want to – but more of an entertainment history. I like Ghostbusters like every other sane person on the planet; I watched seven seasons of Supernatural which, yes, is two seasons too many; and I watch all the garbage-tier one-hundred-percent-fake ghost hunter shows I can get my hands on.
That’s why HellSign seemed so interesting to me. As a character RPG that focused intimately on the slow, methodical house searching seen in shows like Ghost Hunters, it has a chance to be scarier than any made-for-TV fake. In this world everything is real; poltergeists, critters, and spirits do exist and just knowing that makes every claustrophobic hallway in the game’s many abandoned houses feel that much more ominous. That’s what makes it so much more disappointing, too.
It starts off promisingly enough. HellSign immediately introduces you to its world through a brief, good-looking comic book opening. It’s not necessarily what I would call an info dump as any information conveyed through the one-page comic won’t be touched upon further until later in the game’s story, but it sets a certain tone. It’s a bit edgy, a little bit spooky, but mostly just a bit cool.
After this brief bit of exposition, you’re slapped into a dark, rainy clearing with nothing but your flashlight at hand. The gushing of wind, the pitter-patter of rain and the moody ambiance set the scene extraordinarily well and I would go as far as to say that a decent pair of headphones are a necessity. You move a little down the area’s only trodden path and spot two men. The first says nothing, the second calls you a “c*@t”. Charming – very Aussie.
A brief conversation and a trip back to your van later and you’re ready to get down to the meat and potatoes of this paranormal investigation game – um, well, investigating the paranormal. Equipping your EMF (electromagnetic frequency) scanner, you begin to wander around the decrepit building. The device’s low whirr starts to climb as you get closer to your target; as you hone in on your target the whirr morphs into a high whiny screech. It’s rather unsettling.
Missions are procedurally generated, and your tutorial mission could be entirely different from mine. In the case of my mission, my EMF scanner led me to a decapitated body in the corner of a room. Swapping out my EMF scanner for my blacklight, I searched the room for traces of blood that led me to a cursed doll outside the house. After digging up a few more clues I was ready to figure out the case.
The signs that I collected proved one thing: there was definitely a poltergeist in this house. From the way the man was killed to the types of cracks in the wall there was no doubt we were dealing with an angry spirit. Thankfully, being part of the story, I was told to hoof it up out of there. Even if the spirit was dormant, the thick atmosphere and knowledge that something was indeed there with me made me not very excited to stick around. HellSign truly succeeds in making everything seem terrifying.
With such a strong opening, I thought that I would find myself invested and immersed in this game and its world—I was wrong. Not only does HellSign suffer from poor dialogue and storytelling, but outside of its investigation segments, the gameplay proceeds to fall flat on its face.
Every location you scout starts in the same way. After arming yourself up with gadgets, traps, and weapons, you start to explore the grungiest houses in the city. (This city has a lot of ruined buildings). It goes well enough for a while; the initial exploration period never fails to send chills down my spine. Sometimes, the dormant spirits within the structure sometimes catch wind of your presence and decide that the only reasonable method of scaring you off is to launch a bookcase at you from the other side of the room.
HellSign’s main problem comes in the form of its combat system. Throughout most of the early game, you’ll be exclusively facing off against critters. These massive insects scuttle around on the floor, moving under walls and (in true early access form) right through walls. Their high speed and buggy (pun not intended) nature means that attacking these pesky pesterers gives you a long lesson in frustration.
It’s hard, unbelievably so, and not necessarily fair. With larger foes, this is a non-issue although they do tend to be more of a damage sponge than the smaller enemies. With large crowds of smaller, low-damage enemies, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and chipped at until you become deceased. It does become easier; as you unlock higher grade weapons and start facing larger foes you’ll begin to find your groove in the rather clunky combat system, but early game content can feel rough.
It would help if you had the means to plan out your combat encounters more. While you can sometimes hear the soft scuttling of these foes, you’re still forced to investigate some of these rooms to proceed. Sometimes, missions revolve around clearing out a house purely through combat. It’s another game that suffers from the double-edged sword of procedural generation; while the building blocks to create a fantastic experience are almost in place it is more than obvious that some of these environments would have benefited from a more hands-on approach. That’s not even counting the few levels that were rendered incompletable due to progression being hidden behind doors I couldn’t open.
I’m confident that in the coming years, HellSign can be turned into a great game. The foundations are already here; when everything works it shines with a sense of dread that even the biggest horror games fail to replicate. It needs work, that much is for sure, but I would also say it is well worth a look.