The first-person shooter genre kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting the frenetic arcade feel of the ‘90s in favor of slower combat and realistic settings. Many developers seem to have realized this mistake, with franchises like Doom seeking to bring back the energy of the old games while still holding on to the lessons learned over the past 20-30 years of game development.
Then there are games like Hellbound, which have decided they rather liked both the baby and the bathwater and are doing their best to unapologetically recreate both.
Hellbound bills itself as “A ‘90s FPS 20 Years Later,” and besides its very-much-updated graphics, it fits that description to a T. It’s a game where power-ups float and spin on the ground, enemy projectiles move slowly and can be dodged by strafing, and level maps require a bit of exploration to figure out where you’re going.
Set it all to a heavy metal track and soak it in more blood than gets donated to the Red Cross in a year, and you’ve got a general idea of what you’re getting into. The ‘90s were not a subtle time, and this is not a subtle game.
The game’s Steam page lists a few classic shooters as its inspiration, including Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, and Blood. But the demo’s clearest influence is the original Doom, with the playable level being a nightmarish hellscape infested by angry demons tossing fireballs in your direction.
The combat is satisfyingly punchy, and players will have to rely on quick reflexes and a lot of running circle-strafing to make it out alive. However, the Doom influence extends to its weapon selection, which seems content to play it safe. The combat arsenal includes a basic rifle that glows, a shotgun that also glows, a glowing minigun, and a big heavy stick.
The stick also glows.
Glowing is an aesthetic theme throughout the entire demo, adding a lot of color to a level that might otherwise seem like a bunch of nondescript caves and corridors. Everywhere you look, there’s smoldering lava, bioluminescent plants, and planets floating in the sky that are literally on fire. All this light shines off of suspiciously reflective surfaces that look like they’ve been covered in a thin layer of Crisco.
Hellbound does a great job of showcasing the style of gameplay that came before it, though not everything about its retro style holds up in this day and age. I don’t think anyone actually misses switch-hunting and keycard-finding puzzles, and its reliance on enemies that spawn out of nowhere to attack you feels more cheap than challenging.
Combine that with a lack of checkpoints, and you might find yourself frustrated with the demo long before you reach its end. The game prides itself on being hard, and it certainly fulfills that expectation. But you can only start the same level from the beginning so many times before you start longing for the absent quicksave function to simply cheese your way through the onslaught. It doesn’t help that the enemies are mostly made up of hordes of the same beefy guys holding either glowing clubs or glowing rifles. A little variety would go a long way in making the challenge feel more rewarding.
Those quibbles aside, ‘90s shooters were popular back in the day for a reason, and Hellbound manages to have recreated those reasons. It’s also recreated all the reasons that the genre moved on from there in the first place.