When action-adventure game Hell Is Us was first announced a couple of months ago, we thought it had Annihilation vibes and appreciated the team's attempts to invoke Annihilation... and its vibes. Developers Rogue Factor didn't provide many other details, besides a few buzz words: "semi-open world", "true adventure", "third person".
So, I sat down with the game's creative director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête in the hopes he could shed some light on the aforementioned vibes, perhaps even turning them from ethereal gusts of Annihilation-ness to concrete info on just how the game aims to be a "true adventure". Lo and behold, I think it worked!
When you think "open world", you might see Assassin's Creed: Odyssey's sprawling Greece composed of many regions and islands, all pocked with map markers that guide you from one quest to another. You might think of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, where you spot something, anything, and it's possible to scramble up it like a little mountain goat. Hell Is Us is going for a "semi-open world", which isn't like either of these two. Instead, it sounds like it's opting for a more inter-connected approach where you move in-between zones.
"It's semi-open, a bit like Metro Exodus, where you get into these zones that can be fairly open right? With varying sizes, some can be quite small and some are much bigger", he says. "But they're contained. So, it's not like you see a mountain in the back and you're going to traipse through the mountain. It's never been our intention to make an open world."
And much like Metro Exodus, you'll rely on a vehicle to whisk you in-between these zones as you progress through the game. Jacques-Belletête tells me that you'll "travel with an APC (armoured personnel carrier)", select destinations from a map, "then it loads and you get there".
"We're going back old school, like really old school. I'm talking like, even more than Elden Ring."
Jacques-Belletête is clearly passionate about going "old school" when it comes to adventuring. He speaks in length about RPGs and open world games steering players from objective marker to objective marker, to the point where none of the discoveries are your own. "The environment is absolutely in consequence, you can just squint your eyes, make sure that you always see the objective marker, and you'll make it" he says. "Even the level design to some degree just becomes aesthetics, you know? So, we're getting rid of all of this".
"We're going back old school, like really old school. I'm talking like, even more than Elden Ring, because Elden Ring has to have a map, you can still put objective beacons down, markers, and stuff like that. There's none of that [in Hell Is Us]", Jacques-Belletête explains. He wants the game to mimic real life, in a way, "before cell phone and GPS", where you have to listen to conversations and pay attention to your surroundings. He mentions a quest giver directing you to a man's house that has like "500 bird houses" around it, with these being key pieces of info to steer you in the right direction.
When I ask whether they're worried that there's not enough direction, Jacques-Belletête says "Yeah, that's our main worry!", with a big laugh. While he doesn't expand on exactly how they've worked to help a player who's not paid attention or has gotten hopelessly lost in their quest (me), he delves into this idea of "player plattering", a term they use on the production floor.
"So, player plattering is making sure that all these elements either in the world or what NPCs tell you are understandable enough if you pay attention" he says. Instead of walls of text, the game is going to keep dialogue to a minimum, as what people say are designed as prompts to move you forwards. Not to mention the usual notes, cassettes, computers logs, and even things like ancient pottery expanding on the game's civil war theme.
I see what the game's going for here, I just worry that minimal dialogue may be too minimal. I don't want to wring audio logs and collectibles for interesting stories, I want to hear them directly from the people living it! I just hope they manage to weave characterful interactions into the prompts, is all.
As for what else you'll be getting up to in this semi-open world, it's fighting wispy mannequin creatures. The trailers and screenshots show the protagonist wielding a massive sword, accompanied by a little drone. They both play a part, but it's definitely not a Soulslike combat loop where if you die you lose all your stuff, and it's certainly not Soulsy in action either. It's more classic action, with light and heavy attacks, where you'll have the chance to "develop your skills".
"The little hook we have is the drone, and also that the entities you fight: one enemy is almost always two enemies," he says. "So, there's a big, weird, freaking artsy painterly monster... and it's attached by an umbilical cord by more humanoid creature, and they fight together in unison - they each have their role. So, if you don't use the drone" he pauses, "You'll need to".
Finally, Jacques-Belletête compares the game to BioShock in its approach to combat and exploration. Saying that "you're shooting, you’re upgrading your guns, you're upgrading your guy, you're discovering cool environments, but it's still trying to tell you something quite deep and interesting. And I think that's what we're trying to do".
Colour me intrigued and hopeful that Hell Is Us materialises as an action game that pushes exploration in a slightly different direction. The game is due out sometime next year, so for the time being you can keep an eye on it over on Steam. I know I'm keen to see and hear more on how they'll make exploration old school, yet approachable for everyone.