First-person shooters and heavy metal go together like AC/DC concerts and audiologist appointments. Their relationship stretches back to 1993’s Doom, for which composer Bobby Prince borrowed heavily from the music of Alice in Chains and Pantera. But they’ve never been so closely intertwined as in Metal: Hellsinger, where the music dictates the rhythm by which you must slay demonic enemies.
The debut game from Swedish studio The Outsiders, Hellsinger has you assuming control of a winged demoness as she attempts a scorching jailbreak from the deepest circle of hell. Referred to simply as The Unknown, your fiendish avatar is uniquely attuned to the natural rhythm of the cosmos, able to draw power from it as she battles the thralls of hell’s overseer, an off-brand version of the devil known as the Red Judge.
In practical terms, this means that attacking foes on the beat of the game’s soundtrack deals more damage than attacking out of rhythm. Aided by an animated crosshair that provides visual cues synchronised with the music, repeatedly matching bullets and blows with beats boosts your damage. At the highest level, you can fell even the biggest, meanest enemies with a few, well-timed shots.
Hellsinger’s weapons are not only enjoyable to wield; each complements the game’s rhythmic gunplay. Your shotgun fires on every alternate beat, while your twin revolvers can fire on 12 successive beats before you need to reload. It isn’t merely shooting that’s governed by sound, either. A timely second tap of the reload key can ready your weapons faster, while even dodging can be done to a 4/4 signature, helping sustain your attack multiplier in the process.
All this smart design would be for naught if you were blasting enemies to Black Lace’s Agadoo. Fortunately, Hellsinger’s thunderous metal soundtrack is the highlight of the game. Each level has its own song composed by specialist gaming music outfit Two Feathers, with vocals performed by leading metal artists such as System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Trivium’s Matt Heafy. Ingeniously, the instruments in each song are layered into the music, depending on how well you’re playing. At the outset of a level, you get only the raw beat. But as you pick off enemies metronomically, the game loops in the bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar and then the soaring, roaring vocals.
At its best, Hellsinger is hypnotic. In the heat of the action, all the different components fold together. You stop seeing the on-screen prompts, and to a certain extent the screen itself, letting your actions be guided purely by the music. It may seem odd that something so ferocious could induce a zen-like state, but this will come as no surprise to fans of either metal or shooters. Shooters have always been highly rhythmic games, all about flow and fire-rate. Hellsinger simply externalises those underlying rhythms.
As a synthesis of audio and action, Hellsinger is a wickedly seductive bit of dark magic. It is more of an EP than an LP, however. The game is slight, not merely in length, but in its weapon roster and array of enemies, which could both do with two or three more ideas to round things out. The story, too, struggles to add meat to the skeleton premise of escaping from eternal damnation, the rambling narration finding an impressive number of ways to say the same thing.
One last issue: the game’s visuals don’t match the quality of its audio, which is surprising considering director, David Goldfarb, originally pitched the game to publisher Funcom as “a metal album cover come to life”. But its ultimate depiction of hell is surprisingly muted, painted primarily in browns and greys, lacking the wild colours and playful character of, say, the album art of Iron Maiden.
Somewhere out there is a bigger, more vivid version of Metal: Hellsinger that could truly rock it with the FPS greats. Yet while Hellsinger’s art isn’t good enough to grace the black cotton T-shirts of an avid metal fan, its music certainly wouldn’t feel out of place in their record collection – and the way Hellsinger weaves this soundtrack into an infernal action experience makes it a thoroughly enjoyable twist on shooter convention.