Hellsign Early Access preview - A diamond in the rough

Published: 09:10, 11 December 2018
Ballistic Interactive
Picture of the investigator character from HellSign

Hellsign has recently popped up on Steam Early Access and the game is looking really solid but suffers from a few issues. Nothing is game breaking and it definitely deserves attention as it could become a classic once it fully launches.

Ballistic Interactive are a team of two developers working on a passion project that eventually ended up being Hellsign. I played the game for over 20 hours so far, despite the developers stating that the Chapter 1 would contain about 10 to 12 hours of gameplay.

Hellsign will immediately greet players with a bit of comic book-style lore. Right after the comic panel fades to black, players are thrown into a character creation screen, which is pretty barebones at the moment. Bear in mind that the game is in Early Access and still in active development, so this is to be expected.

For example, there will be a female character option further down the road, which is currently on the character creation screen, but can't be chosen as it simply states "coming soon".

Players can't choose any element of their in-game appearance, but there is currently no confirmation whether Ballistic intended it to be this way in the full release, or if it's simply work in progress. One thing you can change is the character portrait and there are currently three different faces to pick.

Ballistic Interactive Screenshot from HellSign character creation HellSign - Character creation

The other part of character creation is choosing your skills and starting gear. Sadly, there is currently no option to do it on your own, and you are presented with a few preset classes.

There are presets like Detective, where you get a Parabolic Mic that will help you gather more clues, or Mercenary that will forego the investigative tool in order to get more firepower at the start. None of these classes lock you into anything. You can build your character into whatever you like afterward, since you will be able to pick most of the perks from leveling up, but definitely not all of them.

The character level is capped at 17 for the first chapter, meaning that more powerful perks are currently unavailable, but can still be previewed. 

Overall, character creation feels like it's about halfway done, and since this is an isometric game, appearance changes are likely not that much of a priority in early stages of development.

Ballistic Interactive Picture of a skill tree in HellSign by Ballistic Interactive HellSign - One of the skill trees

Hellsign offers an interesting premise. Ballistic decided to tell the story through branching dialogue, as well as comic book panels instead of cutscenes that would cost a small fortune. The comic book panel storytelling works rather well, just like it did in Max Payne, even though it has a bit of a different art style.

The branching dialogue is still incomplete and therefore feels somewhat linear, with no real consequences for different choices. This department suffers from grammatical errors as well, and definitely needs polishing.

The story could use a bit more refinement in order to make it properly gripping, but Ballistic nailed the mystery part. It does still use some cliche plot crutches, like an amnesiac protagonist for example.

Ballistic Interactive Picture of a dialogue in HellSign HellSign - Writing and grammar could use some love

Hellsign is a paranormal horror investigation RPG and I'm glad to that see Ballistic delivers the horror part.

Players will arrive at haunted houses in their van, which also holds backup gear. Arriving at the scene offers an eerie feeling.

Once you stumble upon enemies, they will produce creepy sounds as they move, attack and even spawn. Especially when they spawn. Investigating the aforementioned houses is creepy in its own way, as the investigation instruments produce high-pitch noises or play sounds of dead people.

The really creepy parts aren't in the first few missions though, but once a player progresses enough, they will have a new mission type that is filled to the brim with creepy stuff - TVs doing paranormal things, getting sucked into odd dimensions, nearby growling and the good old-fashioned jump scares.

Jump scares are well executed, as they managed to send shivers down my spine repeatedly. They could either be traps with ominous sounds, or actual ethereal beings pursuing or event taunting you.

I initially found Hellsign to be quite challenging, but the going got easier the more I understood it. It's worth keeping in mind that this was intended and getting to grips with the game's systems was enjoyable in its own right.

Since Hellsign is an isometric title, aiming at small and quick enemies can be troublesome, as they retreat behind walls and doors immediately after attacking. Getting used to shooting moving targets feels rewarding and plowing through hordes of enemies that were earlier hard to kill in pairs is a delight.

Speaking of satisfying moments, it will take time to get used to the dodging system in Hellsign. Enemies do not telegraph their moves as much as in Dark Souls and those that do can still hit you, as it's not only important when you dodge, but also which direction in a tight corridor you choose. Once you master dodging though, it will feel satisfying each time you pull it off.

Learning about enemy weaknesses and behaviour will help, especially when it comes to boss creatures.

Pacing can feel slightly slow at times, since I had to do several missions over and over again in order to scrap up enough money to get the next piece of gear. On the other hand, the tense atmosphere obfuscated the grinding rather well.

What made Hellsign feel stale at times are the environments, as there don't seem to be too many assets yet. Ballistic already put this on their task list, as multi-floor buildings are among the planned features.

Ballistic Interactive Picture of the cryptonomicon from HellSign HellSign - Is that a highlighter? What's it got to do with ghosts and monsters? Well... here goes the next review chapter.

Investigation won't be what some players might expect. You are not required to solve the mysteries through some sort of detective puzzle.

Instead, the game does this automatically, but players are tasked with collecting clues while employing the necessary tools. It still feels cryptic enough, but picking up a rope or a note does not relay any important information to the player, as you simply slot them into the Cryptonomicon, which proceeds to tell you what kind of creature you're up against.

This is where preparation begins. Preparation will not be a thing until later in Chapter 1, since only boss creatures require planning. Other critters can prompt you to bring better armour or Night Vision goggles, but that's it.

Preparing for the bosses is a highlight on its own. You learn about the creature from gathered clues, and discover hints on its behaviour and weaknesses. Since the creatures' attributes are randomised each time, players will need to make good use of a highlighter feature in order to note what kind of gear they want to bring to the fight.

Ballistic Interactive Picture of a gun shop menu in HellSign HellSign - There are many weapons to choose from, and then there are armour, gadgets, accessories, weapon attachments, traps, grenades, investigation tools and medical equipment

Surprisingly, for an Early Access release, it's actually quite stable. There was a single notable performance dip. I was fighting a boss creature that happened to have many abilities with visual effects, outside of a house, in a storm, with night vision goggles on. The sheer amount of effects layered on top of each other could be the culprit.

In the age where fully priced AAA titles eat up their own client, crash left and right, and come with glaring issues even on their full release, Hellsign's stability is a welcome sight, despite being developed by just two people.

If you are in good jumpscare-proof health, give HellSign a shot, even in its current unfinished state. I had 25 hours of joy with it so far and I'm definitely replaying with different builds in order to discover any quirks it may still be hiding.

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