Review: Painkiller: Black Edition
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It used to be that you didn’t need much of an excuse to go out and shoot monsters. Wolfenstein pitted you against Nazis (and we all know what to do with Nazis), Doom’s tale could fit on three splash screens, and even Quake left its story in the jewelcase manual. Painkiller doesn’t have much of an excuse itself but it tries really, really hard for some reason, and the result is a mostly mindless shooter with some unexpected depth. That’s not meant as an insult, either, because we’re talking about what might be the pinnacle of mindless shooting here.
You play Daniel, a gravelly early-00s badass who pancakes his car into another before you even get his backstory. He ends up in limbo while his ladyfriend gets to roll on to heaven, and he’s offered a deal to join her by a pale, waxen mop of a man. All Daniel has to do is kill the four generals of hell and he gets a free ticket through the pearly gates. Of course, there’s more than a few demons between him and his targets, and it’s going to take a boatload of shotgun shells and wooden stakes to get the job done. And that’s not even accounting for the other twists added to the story between chapters.
Don’t trouble yourself too much with the plot just yet, let’s go back to the shells and stakes. Painkiller plays out over almost 30 levels full of monsters eager to de-limb your torso, exotic locations like prisons and opera houses and ancient chapels floating in a serene void. This is limbo, after all, and it can look like sun-drenched Venice but with gimp zombies if it wants. All you have to do is get to the end of these levels, and that just means blasting your way through a few hundred rampaging hellcritters apiece. It’s an arena shooter at its core, where tripping a checkpoint seals that path behind you and starts spawning Serious Sam-ish waves of demon samurai and cannibal clowns to overrun you.
They won’t, of course, because you’re armed with one of the more creative and versatile arsenals in FPS history. And it’s only five weapons! Your default is a melee staff that turns into a person-sized weed whacker, or launches its tip to one-shot weaker enemies or cast a damaging energy beam between you and it. The shotgun requires no reloading and the alt-fire releases a freezing wave. The stake launcher launches forearm-sized stakes that do more damage the further they travel, or drops heavy grenades because why not? A combination minigun/rocket launcher and lightning gun that shoots shurikens rounds out your armaments, giving you an assortment of vicious weapons to splatter, skewer, or scorch your foes.
As much fun as launching tent poles into armored skeletons on the steps of a cathedral sounds, it can threaten to get stale after a few hours. The grand levels with their soaring architecture are still mainly just rooms for enemies to gang up on you in, with few actual gimmicks to break them up. Most foes are simple mixes of melee and projectile attackers as well, meaning battles don’t take much more than aggressive circle-strafing and decent aim. The real joy here is in the details, in how enemies spiral off towards the horizon from shotguns blasts, how they crumple against walls on the ends of stakes, and how they splatter everywhere when pounded with explosives. The ragdoll physics are turned up to 11 here and it’s just as hilarious as you’re hoping.
There are a few mechanics at least that try to spice up the slaughter. Levels hide plenty of secrets, some requiring extensive searching or acrobatic feats to find. Gold is your reward for most of these discoveries, which is used to equip cards that give new active and passive abilities. Cards are earned by completing a level with an optional objective, one that usually presses you to play in a way you wouldn’t normally. Enemies also drop souls which heal you a tiny bit and turn you into an immortal demon briefly when you have enough. It isn’t much, and pales in comparison to modern unlock and customization schemes, but try not to worry too much about that when you’re shredding ninjas with an automatic shuriken launcher.
The game spans five acts of 4-6 levels each, with a boss capping each act. They vary in quality, with the first being far and away the most interesting and impressive, the last being exceptionally creative (the whole final level is pretty amazing), and the rest being pretty forgettable. It’s also worth mentioning that the difficulty not only changes balancing within levels but also how the acts flow together, with the highest difficulty ending on some unique levels and a totally different finale. There’s enough to explore and master here to make it worth some repetitive combat, and honestly the weapons are so good that it’s almost a blessing you get to use them so much. Painkiller hasn’t aged gracefully but it was never a graceful game, instead giving us all the blood and action we could want from a hellish shooter.