HellSign by Ballistic Interactive
Waking one morning with no memory of his identity, our hero quickly discovers a massive occult tattoo splashed across his back. The phone rings, and the stranger on the other end is demanding the services they had previously agreed to. Rather than point out his amnesia, our hero meets up the mystery client to risk life and limb investigating a potentially deadly paranormal disturbance (as one does).
On arrival, the basics of the investigation are laid out. Using a collection of devices and weapons, players must scour the grisly murder scene for clues and evidence. Once enough information has been collected, the details can be cross-checked with the Necronomicon – a giant tome that details the nature of a variety of fiendish phantasms.
Upon completion of the task, the player is introduced to a tavern where the local ghost hunters like to haunt. The regulars here can dole out information, and some will buy occult symbols that the player unearths in his scoping.
The map displays the regular stops, such as the bar, the player’s safe house, and the shop, and it also displays homes in need of investigating. The shop offers up a bunch of equipment and weapons. Given the shoddy quality of the stuff on hand at the beginning of the game, you’ll want to spend some coin here as soon as you can earn it.
As Per Paranormal
HellSign‘s action employs an isometric presentation. Each haunted residence is procedurally generated, though you’re likely to see some room layouts that seem strikingly similar to ones you’ve already picked apart. Once on site, using the Electro Magnetic Field scanner and black light will eventually lead you to the sought-after clues. The EMF will spike when you near an object buzzing with spectral activity, and zeroing in on it will net an arcane symbol.
Similarly, the black light can be used to find blood trails. Follow these to find evidence of what transpired. Once enough evidence has been collected, cross-referencing them with the Necronomicon will reveal what type of spirit has caused the disruption. This dusty old tome contains images and descriptions of every kind of spook known, and offers tips on what kind of equipment to use when hunting them.
Various critters will drop in while you explore, and will continue attacking until they have been sufficiently thwomped. These little buggers pack some serious speed, so getting a bead on them can be tricky. Traps and equipment can bring about a quick end to them, but the cost can be dire in the early hours of the game. HellSign advises dodging to avoid impact, but I never got the hang of rolling while keeping the cross-hairs on my bogie. Needless to say, your bargain basement nail gun probably isn’t going to stand up when the bigger bads start emerging.
Death and Taxes
You’re going to die a lot in the early stages. Each time, a sizable cut of your earnings will evaporate as a death surcharge (stupid post-mortal coil bureaucracy…). This is the part I found the most annoying in the game; these early stages are brutal, and even if you do manage to survive, you’ll likely net a dollar amount in the single digits.
There are bigger baddies to take on, but it’s going to take a slog and a half to get the right kind of equipment to face them. While the procedural generation of home layouts adds some variety, starting an investigation afresh each time you wipe can make for a frustrating experience.
Finally My Turn to Rock the Mic
Full disclosure: many years ago, I was a karaoke host and had shows at a number of suburban bars in the Greater Toronto Area. We all have a past, OK? I’ve made my peace with it.
In this time, I observed a phenomenon that I will call “Rock the Mic” syndrome. On numerous occasions, after imbibing enough liquid courage, a karaoke newcomer would step up to the microphone and immediately sling a barrage of expletives at the crowd. It was a cheap and easy way to get some applause from a drunk and rowdy audience.
This is how the story feels at the time of my writing. While there has been some excellent work creating a somber, brooding, dirge-like feel to the game, it gets lost in the abundant slew of F-bombs, to say nothing of the overkill use of the C-word. I was rocking back and forth singing “C is for Cookie” until I could get my bearings. I get that these are supposed to be big, tough Aussies hanging out in a big, tough Aussie bar, but the “edgy” quality of the dialogue is the written equivalent of a caffeinated eight-year-old with a fart machine.
I was most impressed with the visuals in all aspects of the game. I don’t know why this Australian town has become Satan’s gopher hole. I don’t know why the cast of Mad Max: Fury Road are running around playing Ghostbusters. I don’t really care, either, because the style works.
Overall, it evokes a feeling like stumbling through a waking dream that can become a nightmare simply by kicking open the wrong door. Whether you’re skulking about in the dark with only a flashlight to cut the gloom or watching over your shoulder for the shady characters at the bar, HellSign is a neurotically energetic and oftentimes squeamish affair.
Right now, there is a considerable amount to enjoy, despite some technical drawbacks. The tale already effectively hints at some big questions: Why is this town awash in spectral occurrences? Who keeps rescuing me from death? Is this giant back tat henna (please please oh please)? A slow trickle of answers to any of these is sure to get its hooks into mystery lovers.
Fans of the Paranormal Activity film franchise will have a lot to explore. If they have the tenacity to trudge through the swarms of spiders and centipedes in the early hours of the game, they might get to test their “bustin’” skills on some more daunting enemies.
HellSign is available in Early Access via Steam.
Watch the official trailer for HellSign below: