Review copy provided by developer
So here’s the thing about Early Access. You can have the best concept in the world, the best roadmap in the world, and all the right parts for a great game, but it has to be fun now. Developers going the Early Access route are essentially selling an incomplete game with the promise that it will become complete eventually, so it’s very strongly recommended that they put the best parts of the game forward first. Nobody wants to buy something that’s not fun now but might be fun at some nebulous point in the future, and that’s where I’m finding HellSign. All the parts are here, there’s loads of promise, but it doesn’t make a very satisfying experience yet and I don’t think you should buy in until it does.
Nobody told me Australia was such a hotbed of violent paranormal activity, but based on what I know of the critters living there I should have assumed as much of the dead. A cottage industry of scouts and hunters has sprung up to combat the wave of ghouls and ghosts agitating Aussies, and you just happen to be a very special one. You’ve been marked with a HellSign, a particularly invasive tattoo that heralds great and terrible things for your future, and seems to have wiped your memory of the past. Pulling jobs for the local hunters and working your way up the paranormal ladder sounds like a good way to figure out what the hell is going on with your sign, but it’s going to be a long and expensive road to get there.
HellSign plays out in discrete, randomly-generated missions that appear on an ever-changing map of the city. Prior to runs you can visit the bar for plot missions, gambling, and fencing supernatural gewgaws, the gun shop for all kinds of gear to keep you alive and your foes not alive, and your safe house to customize your loadout and skills. Missions can have several different objectives but they all boil down to creeping through trashed houses looking for clues or trouble, and making off with whatever you find without dying. Saving up cash will get you gear needed to take on tougher missions, and plot missions will open up new general missions to attempt and new gear to buy before you attempt them.
The missions themselves are where the game shows most of its promise, because they’re an excellent mix of creepy, engaging, and challenging. Early missions will have you searching for signs (basically paranormal paraphernalia) using different devices, each with its own gimmick. The EMF detector and directional mic are both hot-or-cold searches using the mouse in different ways, while the blacklight lets you follow trails of blood or ectoplasm to hidden stashes. The signs you find are used in your encyclopedia of spooky stuff to determine what is haunting the house, by matching signs to different types and doing some basic detective work. The searching will take some getting used to but after the first hour you should have little trouble homing in on signs, though the game will still get you sometimes with paranormal surges that freak our your devices (and probably you, too).
The other aspect of missions is combat, and as long as you’re equipped to deal with monsters it’s quite fun. Entering certain rooms will cause giant insects or tentacles or worse things to pop out and accost you, usually by zig-zagging around before lunging at your face. Combat on your end is tense and methodical because you need to aim carefully, dodge-roll before getting hit, and make every shot count because reloads can run long in this game. You’ll want to upgrade your gear as quickly as possible to give you more health to work with and damage to cap monsters with, but that means saving up loads of money by doing fairly easy jobs over and over again.
And that brings us to the anchor around HellSign’s neck. There are something like ten tiers of missions based on difficulty, and you’re going to be stuck on one tier for hours while you farm up the cash to get the best gear you can. This is because there are HUGE spikes in difficulty between tiers, even between the second and third ones. You’ll go from capping giant bugs in one to three hits to filling ghouls with entire crates of bullets and dying in two hits. Worse than that is how higher tiers of gear have to be unlocked by plot missions, but those plot missions force you into fighting those murderous creatures first which means you have to fully deck yourself out in the current best gear to even have a chance. In a few hours of play I managed to get most of the best-in-slot gear for tier three missions, and while I can take out ghouls in three shots I can’t really afford to get hit hardly at all. It’s a rude awakening after spending so much time earning cash and running the same missions over and over, only to be rebuffed by the missions I’ve spent all that time and effort preparing for.
Balance is HellSign’s giant glowing weak point, and not just in terms of difficulty. Missions pay out sad fractions of the cash you need for better gear, even taking into account selling your signs on the side. The disparity only gets worse as you work up through the tiers, with you busting your cursed ass for hundreds of bucks towards upgrades that cost several thousands. I hate how the term “grind” in gaming has been reduced to “thing I don’t like” but the grind is real here, forcing you to spend hours playing essentially the same mission over and over and over for incremental improvements. The core gameplay of HellSign is compelling but it’s not varied enough for how many times you have to repeat it just to get anywhere.
The game has other rough edges, like how signs don’t really match up with where you find them or what you use them for, or how incredibly juvenile the dialog is (even when you factor in the Aussie setting). None of those aspects are dealbreakers, but the grind most definitely is. Too many Early Access games have come and gone that put their best foot forward and provided a balanced, enthralling experience right out the gate, and HellSign very much does not manage that. The gameplay shows a huge amount of promise, and if everything gets smoothed out to a more reasonable progression I expect to change this to a hearty recommendation someday. But for now you’re much better off waiting and seeing, because otherwise you’re going to be waiting hours just to see a new gun or pair of shoes here.