The first time I ever listened to Swedish hardcore band Refused’s seminal 1998 album, The Shape of Punk To Come, my brain leaked out of my ears. It is a major reason why extreme music sounded like it did in the 2000s, the connective tissue between generations of hardcore and metal. In a similar vein, The Outsiders’ Metal: Hellsinger tries to connect high-octane first-person shooting and rhythm gameplay with metal.
Rhythm FPSes are a relatively new phenomenon that might best be described as an unholy union between Doom and Crypt of the NecroDancer. Only a handful of games even currently exist in this nascent genre, and it’s not hard to see some striking similarities between them. What makes Metal: Hellsinger stand apart is the quality of its soundtrack and its slower, more deliberate gameplay.
Every song is written and performed by Two Feathers, an accomplished musician duo and game music production house whose previous work features in Battlefield 4 and Warhammer: Vermintide 2. The tunes are rock-solid and easily identifiable as metal, so if you were worried that the game might not be brütal enough, put your fears to bed. The pièce de résistance here, however, is the guest vocals.
Each track, which represents a different circle of Hell and its associated Torments, features a different acclaimed metal vocalist. So, for example, you might be traveling through the snowy mountain wasteland of Voke and hear the growls and snarls of Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne; another level, Acheron, is overwhelmed by the voice of Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe. Other guests include Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén, Tatiana Shmayluk from Jinjer, Matt Heafy from Trivium, and the lead vocalist of System of a Down, Serj Tankian.
The diverse spectrum of metal screamers on this soundtrack leads to the whole affair taking on a kind of chameleonesque aspect. The album does mostly manage to maintain its own identity, however, even when it's taking on the shape of the music its guest vocalists are known for. It’s an interesting sampler, and by far the most unique video game soundtrack out this year. But how does the music mesh with the gameplay?
Players will detect the Doom's DNA in Metal: Hellsinger almost immediately: paths that lead to big arenas where you have to kill everything in order to move on; elite enemies that require more than just shooting to take down; waves of cannon fodder that provide health and a boost to your ever-present Fury meter.
Beat 'em up
The rhythm gameplay becomes a factor here as well, as you have to shoot to the beat in order to maintain your combos and keep your Fury up as high as possible. Trying to go too fast will leave you stumbling, while going too slow will result in you getting murdered by some random enemy. Instead, the game focuses on deliberateness, taking the 'rip and tear' mindset from Doom seriously, and brutally dominating any lesser demon who gets in your way.
After each battle through another circle of Hell, players will get a chance to test their skills and earn new power-granting sigils in Torments, single boss rush arenas where you fight waves of enemies according to specific conditions, like you can’t heal but as you get hurt you get stronger. These Torments are not only fun, but useful, and completing all of them will make you extremely OP in the endgame.
If only the story was as laser-sharp. You play an aggrieved lost soul—the Unknown—on a warpath of vengeance through the nine circles of Hell armed with a sword, a talking skull, and an infernal arsenal of demonic weaponry and powerful ultimate moves. Throughout your crusade, you'll face aspects of the Red Judge, the Devil herself, as she tries to stop you from tearing apart Hell.
In theory, this works great as the narrative backdrop between murder-fests. In practice, the story quickly gets bogged down in its own mythology. It’s also trying very hard not to simply rehash Christian eschatology—for example, God is called 'the All' here, the Red Judge has a working agreement with Heaven, and the whole game revolves around a prophecy where a being called 'the Hellsinger' will destroy both Heaven and Hell, throwing the rest of the universe into chaos. It’s a promising setup but told in a very unnecessarily convoluted fashion. It's abundantly clear, for instance, that you're the Hellsinger, but the game seems to go out of its way to pretend otherwise until the very last second.
There are two voiced roles in Metal: Hellsinger: Paz the Skull (Troy Baker), and the Red Judge (Jennifer Hale); the Unknown/Hellsinger ironically doesn’t get a voice in this game, letting her guns—and Paz—do all the talking. And boy howdy does Paz do a lot of talking. He narrates the whole game as though he was telling it to you over cheap whiskeys at a dingy metal bar on the bad side of town, but mostly he ends up sounding like he should be narrating a 2007 Built Ford Tough commercial. Meanwhile, Jennifer Hale puts in a great performance as the Red Judge, but a lot of her lines’ campy dramatics get masked by the vocal effects they put on her. It's a sour note in an otherwise perfectly brutal melody.
Is Metal: Hellsinger the shape of rhythm FPSes to come? Well… no. It’s a perfectly fine game with lots of replay value, some neat ideas, a good soundtrack and a goofy story. The game aspires to greatness, and even if it doesn’t get there, I’d play its sequel if The Outsiders ever made one.