You shoot things, and then you shoot things, and then you shoot things, and then you shoot things.
That’s the entire ethos of Painkiller: Hell & Damnation summed up in a simple, clumsy but endearing opening sentence. Because Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is a simple, clumsy but endearing game.
It’s refreshingly simple from start to end. You begin in a cemetery with a Soulcatcher and a shotgun, shooting skeletons as they charge you after clambering out of nearby graves.
This sets the tone early. You can skip the tutorial, the story is little more than a quick explanation as to why you’re in a graveyard and there are no awkward game mechanics to wrestle with. Enemies rush at you and you’re forced into backing off, firing manically at the surging crowd, occasionally daring to sprint forward and past them as you sense the safe space behind you is running out.
It’s telling that the most important control here is the key to run backwards.
Even when new enemies are introduced, they don’t knock Painkiller off its shoot-everything-really-fast-while-running-backwards focus. If you’re up against a shielded knight, you need to shoot at his feet or wait for a wild sword swing before letting rip. Floating axe-wielding creatures sway left and right as they spill towards you, demanding accuracy temporarily replaces mashing-the-trigger in your skillset.
The fast pace of Painkiller: Hell & Damnation means the main skill to survive is quickly learning and adjusting to your surroundings. You need to quickly move around tight arenas cluttered with obstacles to avoid being overwhelmed by enemy numbers, all the while keeping an eye on new threats suddenly appearing from unexpected directions and keeping another eye on your dwindling ammo count.
This makes it sound like your eyes are rolling around in your head independently of each other like a chameleon but it’s surprisingly instinctive, as ultimately you’re trying to survive, and there aren’t any complex game mechanics to get in the way of that. The only real flourish is that you can capture souls with your Soulcatcher weapon, which throws you into an invulnerable demon state when you’ve nabbed 66 of them. It’s a little too fiddly to bother with when there’s so much emphasis on simply surviving, so it’ll mostly be discarded because you’ll rarely find the room in battle to incorporate it.
But then maybe that’s the point. This is Ye Olde FPS Gaming 101, with only Serious Sam helping carry the torch nowadays for this style of shooter. This won’t be news to you if you played Painkiller when it first did the rounds in 2004. This Hell & Damnation edition plucks levels from the original outing and its expansion packs and recreates them with glossy HD, keeping the spirit of the frantic shooter remains intact. Yet while it has a nostalgic kick to it, it also straddles a fine line between relentless and exhausting.
The best moments are the unexpected touches that demand a level of improvisation, when new enemies are dropped on top of you and you have to quickly think on your feet. Conversely, when the set-up is particularly obvious – the huge, empty room sprawled out before you just after you pick up ammo placed right on your path – you end up reluctantly ragging yourself into the arena rather than charging into it.
There are only two things that break up the pattern of fending off tidal waves of enemies. Boss battles are the obvious one, though they’re not the huge change of pace that Painkiller sometimes needs. Bosses are big, slow targets with health bars that you need to constantly chip away at, while their attacks are much harder to avoid than the usual cannon fodder. But initial worry in how you’ll tackle the behemoths subsides as you realise the same tactic that’s served you well elsewhere sees you safely past bosses – you’re still wheeling around the arena in huge strafing circles and you’re still emptying whatever ammo you have left in their direction.
The other change of pace comes from exploration. There are secret areas to uncover, with extra health items, ammo and armour tucked away in the each level. They’re not particularly hard to find if you’re prepared to poke and prod at the corners of each map and on harder difficulties, when the challenge is really cranked up, they’re borderline essential to progress. Yet on default difficulty, Painkiller is relying on you to be motivated enough to seek these items out and explore. In truth, it’s unlikely you’ll bother.
Multiplayer also adheres to FPS games of days gone by. Bunny-hopping is an essential skill, as is memorising where the armour and weapon pick-ups are. It’s crude in a way we haven’t seen in a long, long time – you can almost see the building blocks used to put the maps together – but then the appeal here is that it’s old school, a throwback to the days of Quake III Arena et al.
It’s a distinct style of multiplayer, with the map design good enough and the weapons interesting enough that at the very least you’ll get some enjoyment out of a quick multiplayer blast. Whether it has the balance and the community to sustain it is something that will be answered in the months ahead rather than now.
It’s good to have Painkiller: Hell & Damnation around, if only because the FPS genre offers so much more than military dudebro romps. Health doesn’t recharge, there are no killstreak rewards and there’s no cover to duck behind. It’s a game where you have an endless charge of enemies and a ridiculous array of weapons to take them out with.
This is a game where you shoot things. No more, no less.
Version Tested: PC
6.0 / 10
6.2 / 10
7.2 / 10
7.0 / 10
6.0 / 10
7.0 / 10
It's an old-school FPS blaster that's frantic and relentless, if a little exhausting when taken in large doses