A question for you: What should one do when one is reviewing a game, but it's far, far too hard for one to get anywhere in? I'm asking for a friend. A friend who's reviewing the early access for To Hell With Hell (THWH), a pixelly bullet hell roguelite that's tough as really bloody tough nails.
My friend, see, he's not terrible at games! He's just perhaps not the world's best when it comes to super-difficult bullet frenzies that rely not just on quick reflexes, but the ability to manage three different systems in his head while attempting to perform said reflexes. There's only so much I can... I mean, he can handle at once.
My friend was all, "Hey, Alice Bell! Can I review To Hell With Hell please?!" See, he'd gotten a review code for it, read that it was designed to be crazy difficult, but blitzed the first couple of levels and felt super-good about it! Or that's what he told me when he spoke to me about it earlier, in the room where there was only me and him and no one else saw him come in because they were all super-busy.
So anyway, my friend - let's call him... (Shit... shit...) Ron Lawker? Yeah, Ron, see, he thought he had a handle on it, and just plopped his name next to the review, then left the game for a few days because it wasn't coming out until the next week. And then, he told me, when he got around to playing it, it turned out the first couple of levels were really all he could do. So like I said, what advice do you have for him?
OK, look, this is going to come as a surprise, but I was lying. It's not a friend. It's me. I'm sorry I tricked you so effectively. I need to come clean. I suck at To Hell With Hell. But the good news is, I'm really enjoying sucking at it!
It is by a long, long stretch not the most original of concepts, but it does everything it does really well, and puts in a bunch of different gimmicks that do well enough to feel welcome. So the smartest thing to do, for want of any depth of insight to offer you, is list them!
- Masks: There's a cute and interesting conceit in THWH whereby you pick up and wear different masks. Each comes with some unique special abilities, metered by 'rage', gained through killing, that let you perhaps unleash a powerful homing blast, or launch a fireball, or execute a sick roll, or dash, or go invisible, and so on. As you progress you can gain the ability to carry multiple masks, and then switch between them as the moment demands.
- Weapons: You begin able to carry two, which sounds fairly standard, but this is a game where ammo can run out fast, and finding ammo boxes is tough, and new weapons even tougher. Especially when you have to decide if you want to drop your excellent crossbow that fires bolts through multiple enemies in favour of a sawn-off shotgun that sprays big damage a short distance. Again, you can gain the ability to carry more, but it remains a fraught economy of grabbing.
- Health: This is very intriguing. Rather than giving you an ever-growing pool that you constantly increase through improvements, the actual total amount of your health is one of the most fragile and vulnerable elements of the game. Enemies don't just hurt you, they permanently reduce your life pool until you're scraping around on a maximum of 16 or something, where even half a hit is going to kill you instantly. There are ways to pick it up again, but they're not easy, and it really puts a superb emphasis on how important it is to dodge that enemy fire.
- Saves: You have five of them. You get to use each once, and they can only be used between levels. Every time you die you return to your last save, whether that was at the beginning of the current level, or many, many before. Not knowing how many levels make up the game, and certainly not knowing how crazy hard it's going to eventually get, you have to decide how and when to spend a save, and gamble so much if you keep deciding not to use one to see if you can clear yet another level.
Clearly this last part, while I think one of the game's best features, isn't something that's personally troubled me. I've got saves to spare, simply because I'm too rubbish at this game to get to a point where I'd need all five. And of course...
OH MY GOD I DID IT! I CLEARED LEVEL 3!
And was immediately slaughtered by a tiny boss.
I do, even from my position of ineptitude, have some criticisms of THWH. Firstly, while I like the mask system, it doesn't quite work. Getting a new mask means receiving new abilities, but the game doesn't ever really feel suited to testing them out. It's all so frantic and desperate that if anything, it's a risk to see if this particular attack is going to slow you down or worse, so it's often easier just to stick with the regular weapons.
Another significant annoyance is that walls slow you down. The straight-on top-down view already means it can sometimes be tricky to tell if you're safely hidden behind a wall, or still in the line of fire, so it's extra annoying that for some reason walking too close to a wall means you go at about half-speed. That's the sort of thing I'd love to see immediately changed, as it offers nothing, and is too often a killer - not least because most of the time the angle means you weren't aware you were anywhere near it.
Mostly, however, I'm having such a good time being so astoundingly terrible at To Hell With Hell. I'd love to be a better person, and find out what happens many levels in, and thus provide you with a much better variety of screenshots and a far more useful review. But I am me. You have to accept me as the simple, beautiful creature I am. No games hack is supposed to admit to being bad at a game - instead they're supposed to say, "I finished this game in under 3 hours," when they obviously didn't, and then complain about the framerates or something. I will not let them change me! I am weak! I am unnervingly delightful!
To Hell With Hell is out in early access now on Windows via Steam