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Review: High Hell

Guest post - Jade Winterburn

High Hell is a neon-soaked, arcade-action first-person shooter from Terri Vellmann (Heavy Bullets) and Doseone (Enter the Gungeon, Gang Beasts).

There’s something that speaks to me in paintings where you can still see the brush strokes. The roughness to the edges, the instability of the curves: it draws attention to the hand that made them. It’s a reminder that each piece is created by individuals who are as limited in capacity as we are.

High Hell is quite a limited game, but by no means a poor one. The second game by Terri Vellmann published through Devolver, it is very much in their wheelhouse, aesthetically speaking. A steady pulse of EDM (in this case by Doseone) paired nicely with a rhythmic and kinetic gameplay loop defines many of the games they publish, and High Hell is no exception. It pulls from the pseudo-cyberpunk framing of powerful corporations and the hard-hitting direct action of renegades dismantling them. This takes a somewhat absurdist bent, featuring demons and goats and angry dogs and mind-controlled monkeys amongst the roster of enemies. Largely, this serves to follow the philosophy of utilizing minimal framing to service the player’s participation in an engaging gameplay experience.

In spite of its limitations, the gameplay sure is engaging. It is a very simple shooter. It features WASD movement, mouse look, left-click shooting, spacebar jumping and a crouch button I never used. It uses these basic shooter mechanics in the same straightforward way you’d expect a shooter to operate, giving shooter-literate players immediate capacity to engage with the game to the fullest. Small tweaks to an expected formula, such as health-recovery by way of murdering foes, single-shot kills on most enemy types, and an absence of reloading cater to playing the game as a series of aggressive dashes to beat levels. The purposeful movement and lethality of shots evoke a more precision-shooter character familiar to players of (old) Doom and Quake-adjacent games. You might find the default mouse sensitivity is far higher than what permits you to actually play this game competently, and while you’re looking at the setting screen I recommend setting ‘colour-bleed’ to maximum to give this game a bit more visual flair.

The real strength of High Hell is the level design. Whatever you might find lacking in the visual polish is instead invested in surprising interconnected paths through the challenging structures of a handful of disjointed levels that comprise the experience. The trailers and advertising material for the game, which largely display the player kicking apart doors before blasting away everyone in the room, masks the experience of exploring the stages, jumping on top of some barrels and running along to a ladder and emerging behind a room of thugs all aiming at the door they expect you to come barrelling through. Creative use of paths and clever use of windows and other vantage points add an extra element that makes this game much more fulfilling than a straightforward corridor shooter.

The biggest quibble I have with this game is some quite poorly designed boss fights. Namely, the one with the giant robot and the encounter with the big-bad at the end, in stage twenty. The lack of communication with the player on how to deal with the various challenges they are presented really reveals a downside there, where these experiences can quickly become incredibly frustrating if a player fails to pick up on the fairly obscure elements at play. I never quite worked out how to avoid a lot of the final boss’s attacks, and the missile-shots generally approached me from directions that felt highly unnatural for me to be looking at in the situation. In the end, I only beat that boss by hitting all the targets fast enough that the boss wasn’t even able to launch an attack, effectively stun-locking him. As for the robot; I could clearly see what the developers were aiming for – the player having to balance the priorities of not dying and being able to kill the boss by putting themselves in controlled amounts of risk – but the way this is implemented meant it took several attempts to figure out what on earth I was supposed to be doing, and several more to successfully execute the method.

I’d say paired as this game currently is with a copy of the highly regarded Heavy Bullets, Terri Vellmann’s other game published through Devolver, it’s quite a respectable value prospect, despite me being able to finish it in little over an hour. I’m not quite sure I’d want to speedrun this game, but the facility for doing that, and going for a high score, besides the various paths through the levels definitely display how High Hell leans into a reasonable degree of replayability. Otherwise, (unless you happen to feel quite generous) it might be a little high priced for the thought of asking for a refund to not cross your mind as you reach the credits screen. If you already have a copy of Heavy Bullets, I’d recommend waiting for a bundle or picking this game up in one of any of Devolver Digital’s semi-regular sales.

Watch the High Hell trailer here:

Images: Devolver Digital

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