HellSign Early Access Preview

Jank and repetition plague HellSign's monster hunts as it steps into Early Access.

By Woozie, Posted 11 Nov 2018

In the eight-or-so hours playing supernatural investigator in HellSign, I found myself often running with my proverbial tail between my legs, leaving contracts only partly finished. When I ended up scraping together enough cash to buy a better pistol I felt a surge of confidence. Kicking open the doors to one of its many dilapidated houses, I made short work of the supernatural crawlers that had previously put me to shame, courtesy of the new hardware. My momentum didn’t last long, however, ending when I disturbed a ghoul from its daily wall-hanging session. Three janky pounces and many bullets wasted later, the unholy tattoo on my back resurrects me at my safehouse, which I’m getting quite sick of. HellSign doesn’t take long before it throws you into monster-infested houses as a Hunter eager to make money, but it’s also not much longer until you realize that its first Early Access iteration doesn’t come together all that smoothly.

It all starts with character creation, where you can choose between a decent offering of backgrounds ranging from star-throwing ninjas to drifters with not much to their name. Depending on what you favor, you get different starting gear and proficiencies that do visibly translate into actual gameplay. My detective started his journey decked out with all three gadgets useful for investigation – an EMF scanner, blacklight cathode and a parabolic microphone – but could initially only use handguns. Switching to the breacher, I found myself able to wield SMGs from the get go, but having to save money in order to get myself a microphone to record audio clues. These restrictions can later be lifted as you gain experience, which lets you put points into HellSign’s various skill trees. A somewhat-clunkily pieced together tutorial sequence shows you both the ropes and the low-effort writing that’s behind the game’s few characters. HellSign barely manages to put together a story – you’ve a HellSign on your back, the origins of which you have to discover –and its writing leaves a lot to be desired.

HellSign, Early Access, Preview, PC

Things start off with Scouting jobs which involve exploring house after house, looking for clues to help with figuring out which supernatural creature’s made its home there. The tools mentioned earlier come in handy here. The EMF scanner begins emitting sound when in close proximity to an object of interest. The blacklight cathode lights up trails not visible to the naked eye, although figuring out which of the many objects found on said trail actually hide clues can sometimes feel very random. Lastly, the parabolic microphone picks up remnants in audio form. You’re given free hand to exploring HellSign’s infinite supply of haunted houses and they all come with an appropriately creepy atmosphere that didn’t wane as I played more of it.  The clues you discover can be sold back at the bar – which acts as a meeting place of sorts for those in the business – in exchange for much needed cash used to upgrade gear at the gun shop. Should you manage to piece them together, determining what type of monster haunts the place also nets you a contract bonus. This is done by opening up your journal and matching clues with a certain border color to the correct slots on the page. Then, you’re required to identify the proper type of clue from a list, using a legend on the right. It’s a neat little nod to how hunters often read lore prior to battling foes, but its implementation in HellSign feels a tad too simplistic.

Sweeping missions are more straightforward, in the sense that you only have to kill stuff. It’s also where more dangerous enemies pop up. Then, Hunting missions mix elements from both, while adding the possibility of summoning and battling a bigger baddie. Sadly, all my attempts at these ended up in either being instantly eaten or torn to pieces by demonic hands coming out of the ground. That’s because HellSign’s Hunting missions mark a significant difficulty spike that makes it impossible to even attempt them when they first become available, leaving you with the sole option of grinding away at the other two mission types until you get enough money to fully upgrade your arsenal.

HellSign, Early Access, Preview, PC

The unfortunate part is that even when completed, they only reward meagre amounts of cash, meaning that you’ll have to run them far too many times to even get one piece of equipment upgraded; and there are quite a few of them. Then there’s the fact that Scouting and Sweeping mission are pretty much identical. House layouts may change slightly, but you’re going through the same narrow hallways and smaller or larger rooms. You’re always picking up the same clues and always battling the same handful of monsters amid furniture pulled from a very small pool of assets, adding unwanted repetition on top of the required grind. You’ll also most likely not always complete missions, which further reduce the amount of money that you can obtain. It’s quite a vicious cycle that doesn’t make for very engaging or enjoyable repeated runs.

HellSign’s combat is another source of frustration, especially given how you’ll have to deal with it from the very start. Isometric in nature, it requires an amount of precision that I had trouble getting consistently, despite always making use of the game’s so-called “precision mode”. Smaller critters move around at relatively fast pace, making aiming a pain. It’s difficult to tell when your shots are about to land, miss or hit objects in the way. Dodging plays a large role in staying alive, but the exact moment when you’re about to get attacked is not easy to predict, both due to placeholder animations and a visual filter that, while helping maintain a spooky atmosphere, also makes tracking some of the foes rather difficult. The cramped environments amp up the frustration of dodging, shooting, reloading and switching equipment further, resulting in enough situations where I just had to run all the way outside or risk getting stunlocked by the several foes I was up against while attempting to reload my gun.

HellSign, Early Access, Preview, PC

Even if this wasn’t the case, combat itself wouldn’t be much more interesting, as enemies tend to stick to a very limited pool of attacks. Spiders, whether small or large, jump at you. Ghouls pounce, after which they chill out on the wall for a few seconds, only to come around for another pounce, while tentacles sprouting out of corpses throw spikes. Given the slow pace at which you upgrade items, and the unreliable dodging and shooting, earning the amounts of money required to push forward soon becomes a chore, and in a game where that’s what you’ll find yourself doing for the most part, it’s a fairly glaring issue. I learned early on that preparation would be vital in HellSign. Running out of ammo, or health packs mid-mission, pretty much forces you to give the contract up and run back to your van. Later on, various gadgets, such as UV lights or traps which you can rig to the house’s power panel, come in handy when dealing with tougher monsters. Sadly, although I was quite looking forward to using them, the massive grind and general jank stopped me from mustering enough patience to push through that far.

I’m on board with HellSign’s proposed fantasy, just like I’m a fan of how it nails its spooky atmosphere. But there’s plenty of things suggesting that it might have jumped out of the ritual circle a bit too soon. It desperately needs more variety, its combat is a pain to deal with and an overall balancing of both difficulty and item costs should be on the list of priorities. With the amount of missions I ended up leaving unfinished and a lack of any worthwhile narrative or notable characters, stagnation sets in fairly early. There’s also not much of that Monster of the Week theme that HellSign is going for yet, as it just feels like a loose collection of identical missions. It’s hard to recommend jumping in right away, but given how HellSign is one of few games attempting this theme, I’ll be keeping an eye on its progress through Early Access.

Bogdan Robert, NoobFeed
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General Information

HellSign

/100

Platform(s): PC
Publisher(s): Ballistic Interactive
Developer(s): Ballistic Interactive
Genres: Role-playing Game
Themes: Supernatural
Release Date: 2018-07-11 (Early Access)

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