By Nathan Grayson on December 1st, 2012 at 2:30 pm.
Hell Yeah! isn’t really the sort of title you’d expect to see attached to something subdued and contemplative, and sure enough, Arkedo’s action-heavy Metroidvania is about as ridiculous, random, and fourth-wall-shattering as they come. But as the likes of Hamlet and Pee-Wee Herman have taught us, there’s an art to madness. It can be brilliantly amusing and useful, sure, but if it’s a crutch for something that’s fundamentally broken, well, you’ve just got a loud mess instead of quiet one. So, where does Hell Yeah! land on that spectrum? Here’s wot I think.
I’ve just died for the first time in Hell Yeah, Arkedo’s completely unhinged Metroidvania-ish platformer about an evil bunny nightmare prince who’s been blackmailed with adorable ducky pictures. I’ve probably been playing for 30 minutes or so by this point, so I don’t mind all that much. And anyway, I’ve had a nice time along my way through, erm, hell – largely thanks to some spot-on jokes at the expense of videogame tutorials and the like – so I’m in good spirits. And let’s be honest here: my death was my fault. If I’d been paying attention instead of gawking at all manner of gorgeously hand-drawn gears, gizmos, and robo-hands, I wouldn’t have ended up a gristly rabbit shiskebab in a pit of insta-death spikes. So then, back to my previous checkpoint, another hop, skip, and jump, and… done. Made it through. Piece of cake. Carrot cake. Because rabbits and stuff.
OK, now I’m getting a little bit annoyed. What was initially one of my favorite Hell Yeah features is starting to wear out its welcome. See, in addition to regular, easily squashed, shot, or saw-blade-drilled baddies, there are also big ones with names and lives and encyclopedia entries and maybe – just maybe (but probably not) – Ash’s precious blackmail pics. They’re not quite bosses, but they definitely take more than just a quick bullet to the brain or rocket to the everything to bring down. Here’s the twist, though: once you’ve depleted their health meters, you have to finish them off. Via a minigame. Yeah, you can probably already see where this might go horribly, horribly wrong. Admittedly, the resulting fatalities make Mortal Kombat look like a weak-stomached pacifist at a hug convention, but getting there often made me want to actually tear somebody’s head off.
In this particular case, the minigame screen displayed a bee, and it told to me to hold the space bar to collect honey. I did that and immediately failed, resulting in tremendous damage to my health, eventual death, and an unceremonious boot back to my last checkpoint. Then I have to walk all the way back to this particular enemy – with any damage I’d suffered at the time of the checkpoint still dangling limply on my health meter, twisting and bouncing on single sinewy thread – blast through all its health again, and then try again to figure out what exactly the game wants me to do. Naturally, I fail again. Eventually, I figure out that I’m supposed to hold space until the bee turns around – kind of like a honey stealing stealth game – but that part was never explained in the slightest. Of course, then I get to watch an animation of Ash sicking a screen-filling swarm of a billion bees on the loathsome hell creature – leaving naught in their wake but a gruesomely bloated welt sack. It’s satisfying, definitely, but not nearly satisfying enough.
Oh good god. So at this point, I’m a fair way into Hell Yeah, and I’ve got multiple worlds, a few boss fights, and several trillion annoying minigames under my belt. With that, of course, comes the spoils of Ash’s reckless, incredibly irresponsible one-bunny war: guns, hats, special abilities like an all-destroying head-on charge attack, and more guns. So, like any good Metroidvania, Hell Yeah of course takes them all away.
Yes, in an attempt to force me out of my comfort zone, Hell Yeah’s decided it’d be a good idea to strip me of everything I’ve worked so hard to earn. All I have to my name is my trusty giant-wobbly-costume-afro/headphones combo. There’s a story justification for the sudden (and thankfully temporary) change of pace, but it’s flimsy and dumb. Just like my afro. I mean, I get what the developers are trying to do; while previous areas focused on action and gore-drowned destruction, this one’s meant to ease off the gas and force me to puzzle past a number of big bads. Problem is, in conjunction with the systems Hell Yeah was built upon, it just doesn’t work. At best, the puzzles are simply uninteresting (think: simple block pushing). At worst, they’re fucking infuriating and riddled with time-obliterating trial-and-error.
The worst part is when I’m forced to flee from a slowly target-acquiring turret gun while also positioning myself such that it blows up my obstacles for me. As per always, my bunny prince heart is nearly flatlining thanks to an awful checkpoint, so there’s no room for error. The path to – insert drawn-out sigh here – push a box onto the turret operator’s head, however, is long and rife with obnoxious perils. Moreover, it’s clearly designed to punish those who don’t known precisely how to proceed. Leap too far in one direction, and… spikes! Miss a jump by the narrowest of margins? Oh, no worries, this monster placed nonsensically in an incredibly specific corner will break your fall. Sorry, did I say “your fall”? I meant “you”. So I repeat this segment again and again and again and again until I lose count.
It’s here, too, that I really notice how lousy and imprecise Hell Yeah’s keyboard controls are. Jumping and movement feel oddly disconnected and slippery – which is a rather glaring flaw in a game about perfectly timed dashing and leaping. I plug in an Xbox controller, and things definitely feel a fair deal more responsive. Even then, though, I’m millions of miles away from the sublime shores of, say, DustForce or Super Meat Boy, where my character feels like a perfectly calibrated puppet, dancing from strings linked directly to my brain.
By sheer force of will, I eventually make it through, but gosh, I’m angry. That seems to happen a lot with this game. I just lose it.
I’m past the point where I scream obscenities at the screen and – if no one’s looking – toss up all manner of unpleasant hand gestures. I’m past it. I don’t even care anymore. I’m about half-way through Hell Yeah, and I’m taking on a gigantic, multi-stage boss who has a penchant for rendering me completely immobile and bashing my bunny bones until they look like a very troubled child’s sidewalk chalk drawing. I can somewhat consistently make it to the boss’ final stage, but then he polishes my beaten, bloodied form off in short order and sends me hurtling back to the beginning. So, of course, I have to battle through the bits I’ve already proven I can beat countless times, because seriously, who still designs games like this? Who? And why? This isn’t difficulty. Real difficulty is interesting. Real difficulty makes me think. Real difficulty is well-designed, tough-but-fair levels. This is just padding. You’re forcing thick slabs of meaningless fat down my throat, and I want to throw it all back up.
I eventually win. I’m not even sure how. The result is literally a nuclear explosion. Earlier in the game, that would’ve made me laugh. I know this because that’s how every boss goes down. But the zany, oftentimes very clever humor isn’t enough anymore. I’m just tired.
These firetruck-to-the-face red “try again” screens? They give me time to think. In most games, there’s a question mark at the end of it. “Try again?” But, given my experience of Hell Yeah, the lack thereof is oddly fitting. For me, it’s this bizarrely somber statement of inevitably. Try again. That is what I will do, because I must. Again and again and again.
Moreover, I’ll try again and again and again to like Hell Yeah. Because its arsenal is vast, its world is gorgeous, its humor hits more often than it misses, and The Island – a place where you essentially subject all major monsters you’ve killed to forced labor in order to earn items, upgrades, and the like – is a legitimately brilliant and interesting (though woefully under-important) game mechanic. If there’s one thing Hell Yeah’s not lacking, it’s personality. The game’s incredibly confident in what it is, even if that thing isn’t particularly good.
But it’s just not very fun. It doesn’t feel good, insta-death abounds, and – as far as Metroidvanias go – its world is horribly underutilized. There’s no reason to explore, after all, when the only rewards are cosmetic and a compass guides the way to all major objectives. And when it comes right down to it, levels – while incredibly nice-looking – aren’t particularly well-designed anyway. There are bright spots in the moment-to-moment action-platforming drudgery – juicy bits of real substance and inventiveness – but they’re sandwiched between so many layers of tedium.
So I find myself staring at my umpteen-bajillionth “try again” screen. At this point, I’m very close to the end of the game. I’ve killed most of the hundred or so major monsters, I’ve witnessed all manner of totally mad fatality screens, I’ve trekked across both the world and the limits of human imagination to die horribly in their finest spike pits. And finally, it dawns on me why it’s probably a good thing that there’s no question mark after Hell Yeah’s “try again.”
Because I would’ve had a very, very, very hard time not replying, “Hell no.”