Irid Novo was meant to be the pinnacle of human achievement, where the best of us could reach out to the universe and share our knowledge and in turn learn from the cosmos. Instead; a catastrophic event creates deep space havoc in Tiny Build & Cradle Games‘ “Soulsborne” inspired Action RPG Hellpoint.
Awakening from a bio pod in the depths of the aforementioned space station; in a scene almost reminiscent of Neo’s release back into the real world in the Wackowski Sisters modern epic “The Matrix”; its immediately clear all is not well on Irid Novo. The poorly lit, eerily quiet, cold metal architecture almost screams “Danger” as you progress slowly forward through the first enclosed and fairly claustrophobic corridor to your first objective; led by the scant directives offered at your activation moments earlier.
Clearly inspired by the Dark Souls formula, Hellpoint is one of a number of action RPGs released recently trying to differentiate from the crowd (Mortal Shell being another – check out Matt’s Review). There’s a lot of easy substitution in the premise. From the combat system, the mechanics of collecting materials, Hellpoint’s version of souls (Axioms) to the method of upgrading your arsenal; it follows the formula invented and popularised by Mizayaki’s Dark Souls Series.
The reverse difficulty curve exists here in all its glory with very little tweaks but isn’t quite as unforgiving as it’s inspiration. Enemies can dismantle you in a few hits and there’s a big ugly monstrosity of a boss enemy at the end of each area but after a while the grind becomes second nature to the player and you essentially out level the opposing force if you invest your levels wisely.
Hellpoint isn’t quite as unforgiving off the bat. Encountering the first enemy; with my skills honed by a recent Sekiro run; I patiently waited for them to attack. Trying to judge the responsiveness of the controls and my ability to slip back into the genre, the creature lunged and I pressed the wrong button (the sprint button is auto mapped to where the block button is … (excuses!)). But I didn’t die. Instead I kind of just stood there face to face with my attacker awkwardly; wondering why for a moment before smiting them down with the righteous justice of my broken pipe.
“So it’s similar to Dark Souls and I like Dark Souls” I hear you saying; and it’s probably what led you to this review. What’s different though? Why spend your hard earned moolah on this and not something else.
Hellpoint builds its standout features around its premise and the facility you explore sits on the outer edge of the accretion disc of a black hole. Similar to the plot of the 1997 Cult Space Horror Event Horizon, at some point in the recent past, the Irid Novo facility was part of a “Merge” event. It’s never truly explained what this actually means but it’s fundamentally changed every form of life on the station for the worse. Given the station’s orbit around the disc; you also pass through it periodically in each cycle; creating a hell infused zone where hordes of enemies spawn in a confined space and which you cannot leave until all of them are vanquished.
This is both good and bad depending where you are in your progress. At the start of the game it can be certain death if the bottleneck it creates blocks access to your only route to advance. Later toward the endgame it’s an annoyance given most spawned enemies are fairly standard cannon fodder. You can avoid them all together with good timing and some luck but those looking for all the hidden secrets Hellpoint has to offer will actively hunt them down for the unique rewards offered by completing each one.
Hellpoint tries to balance its difficulty level with alterations to its healing methods. Rather than regenerate all of your healing stock at a checkpoint (or after death) you only get the default two. Upgrades increase your ability to hold more but never the base number regenerated. More charges can be earned through defeating enemies though by filling a gauge which once complete increases the count by one.
This changes the dynamic of death in the game. A death at a boss isn’t a careful sprint back to the last location as it may have been before, players may have entered that fight with five health potions and now only have two. Do you farm locally to increase your stock or do you risk it with two ? Or in a Soulsborne first, do you lower the difficulty… Potentially a choice to attract more players or maybe a flinch reaction to industry pressure to add an easy mode.
Whilst the choices and customisation expected by fans of the genre in terms of speciality, damage or armour is still available there were some points within Hellpoint where I felt forced to spend upgrade points in a specific discipline to make the progression much easier. Starting with a pure strength build it became clear very quickly that a “dirty” dexterity build would likely have yielded better damage options and that eventually I needed points in another statistic to equip a space suit. By this point I needed eight points for the EVA suit and I was already late game and the grind for those points was a pretty monotonous drag. Could I have progressed without them? Yes I could, but would it have ruined both the pacing of the game and the enjoyment.
Hitboxes and collision detection challenges also present themselves fairly regularly, too regularly for most Soulsborne fans. Battles of attrition with bosses and alpha enemies alike can be won or lost on that final gambled hit. It’s what drives forward players in the face of adversity — the thrill of the battle. When those hits don’t count you begin to feel cheated and the fun stops fairly rapidly. This also manifests in clipping through geometry and more than a few times I ended up half way through the stairs whilst unable to escape, dodge or attack.
There’s enough differentiation in the formula to keep genre fans occupied but quality issues may put players off repeat playthroughs despite the customisation options available to them. Hellpoint’s unique facets just aren’t enough to recommend it over it’s competition but for those looking for something to tide them over until the next iteration in From Software’s line of self punishment simulators, you could do worse.