If you’re one of the very online malcontents that’s constantly droning on about difficulty in games, eyes up – this one’s for you. Metal: Hellsinger, when played properly, is a tricky game with a steep learning curve, and it has no qualms about throwing you into the mosh pit and knocking you down until you can barely get back up. Even the first level will embarrass you deeply if you’ve got no sense of timing and rhythm. To succeed in Hell, you need to keep time.
This is nothing new, of course: BPM: Bullets Per Minute, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Cadence of Hyrule, and Before the Echo have been popularisiing the genre somewhat over the last few years – giving those of us who like to bob our heads and nod in time to indiscriminate video game murder plenty to chew on. But few games do it all as well as Metal: Hellsinger.
Even if you don’t like metal, there’s value here. As a game, there’s a sense of flow you can easily activate listening to the blast beats of 4/4 and pulling off your slick maneuvers, empowering you and making you really feel like an indestructible master of war. Even better, if you keep your multiplier high by doing everything in time with the beat and going off-time, you ‘earn’ the vocal tracks with some high-profile industry names.
Dodge, shoot, jump, shoot, dodge, shoot, jump, reload. Bang. You kill some sort of twister hierophant, and your multiplier rockets up to 16x. Suddenly, as well as that ever-playing beat and the layers of fuzzy guitar you earned by getting up to the 8x multiplier, you hear System of a Down’s Serj Tankian join the din – singing some staccato nonsense over the top of it all, cheering you on with his specific brand of octave-wide warbling.
The entire premise of this game is that you’re the eponymous Hellsinger, whose voice has been stolen by one of the judges of Hell. Armed with a skull that talks with a deep Texas accent, for some reason, you ascend through the circles of Hell to reclaim your voice and fulfill an ancient prophecy. As stories about the damned in Hell go, it’s bog-standard, filled with tropes, and paper-thin window dressing for the real point of the game: killing shit in time to music.
That’s not a criticism: the seven major levels – each with their own dedicated tracks – that you play through all have their own quirks: whether it’s enemies in specific formations, combat puzzles you need to overcome, or a cookie-cutter boss at the end of the level. If you’ve played (nu)Doom or similar harcore shooters, you know what to expect here: you’ve got pistols, shotguns, some wild crossbow thing, and even a skull you can grab to keep time when you’ve slaughtered all the available enemies. Soften up a target enough, and you can finish them off with an execution that will restore your life. Like I say, it’s all very Doom.
The innovations come in how the game forces you to keep time; shooting off-beat will do less damage (practically zero damage at higher levels), and taking damage will reset all the perks and boons you accrue as you slice and dice through Hell. The onus is on you, then, to learn to be mobile, to wield your weapons in time, and to nab perfect reloads by doing everything on beat. Tap your foot, fan the triggers of your pad, nod your head, finish off an enemy. Rinse, repeat, and earn the vocals for the track you’re on – when it all comes together, it’s a very rare kind of FPS catnip that’s reminiscent of even Doom 2016 at its best.
There are problems with Metal: Hellsinger, though. I can forgive the skinny content offering or the lack of meaningful gameplay beyond the seven core levels, but when user experience issues start to permeate your actual enjoyment of the game, things get frustrating. You’re given the option to set your visual and aural sync rates at the beginning of the game, but I (and other people I’ve spoken to that are reviewing this game) have had problems with desync and calibration.
Sometimes, cocking your shotgun perfectly on-time and reloading it to the beat will cause you to lose out on your chain, simply because the ever-present rhythm reticle at the center of the screen is off, for some reason. I even played the game to a metronome (yes, I became that irritated by this) and noticed that playing to the white ticks sometimes cost me my streak. So you need to try and defocus on that and listen to the music instead – hey, at least it’s largely excellent!
Metal: Hellsinger is a good time, if not a short time. Hard as nails, rewarding as they come, and fuelled by some of the best names in heavy music, The Outsider and Funcom have made a game that’s worth every second of your time it takes up – even if that’s only about the length of one of the more epic prog albums out there. A knowing and fun take on the rhythm shooter genre, plagued with some calibration and UI issues, this romp through Hell is as satisfying as it is frustrating – and not even hearing the dulcet tones and throaty growls of Trivium’s Matt Heafy can offset that.