“Don’t mess with me lady, I’ve been drinking with skeletons.”
–Hellboy, Mike Mignola
“The following is a contributor post by the Slipstream Mage.”
When given the chance to review Hellmut – The Badass from Hell, I initially balked. I’m completely inexperienced with ‘Roguelikes’, I’m not as big into fantasy games and dungeon crawlers as I used to be, and if I’m honest there are probably at least half a dozen other mages here at TWRM that are better equipped than me to tackle a game like this. But I reminded myself that branching out as a gamer (and reviewer) is good for personal growth, and maybe I’m just the person for a fresh take on this permadeath, procedurally-generated, dungeon-crawling bullet-fest. I’m also one of the few Xboxers here at TWRM, and while Hellmut has been out on Steam/PC for some time now (originally released late February 2018) and the Switch version came out about a month ago, the Xbox One version is new. All that said, I do enjoy a good twin-stick shooter, and if it’s beset with the trappings of a Roguelike, so be it.
SIDENOTE: For those unfamiliar, a ‘Roguelike’ is a video game typified by procedurally-generated levels (typically dungeon), with death being a permanent state that forces you to start the game completely over. So named from its association with the 1980 computer game Rogue.
Hellmut was developed by Volcani.cc (a Slovakian two-man studio made up of Lukas Sedlak and Ratislav Polenkovic), and produced by Grindstone, a company still so new that they apparently don’t even have a functional website. Turns out Hellmut is both Volcani.cc and Grindstone’s debut title.
Even before you hit ‘start’, the title screen itself telegraphs to you that this game doesn’t take itself too seriously. Within 15 seconds of the opening intro cutscene, that becomes clearly evident. You play as some kind of ambitious occultist/scientist looking to harness the power of eternal life. Through that effort, Beelzebub is summoned via portal, answering the call of Hellmut. But instead of benevolently granting immortality, he immediately unleashes Hell on your lab, sending his minions to wreak havoc. He also deals Hellmut a serious blow, blasting him with hellfire, and leaving him as a disembodied skull and torn spinal column (I was immediately reminded of the villainous head-in-a-jar Herman von Klempt from Hellboy lore) that can hover and fire lasers.
Exit Beelzebub and enter the interdimensional black tentacled mass of bad-deals, the Eye of Ka-Ra. It’s not clear what this Shuma-Gorath/shoggoth knock-off’s motives are, but it seems obvious they’re not just for the benefit of Hellmut alone. He arrives to survey the mess, and seemingly offers a chance to get revenge on Beelzebub. It’s not like you have a choice, so take the resurrection and pick a starting Transformation: a bulky Frankenstein’s Monster-esque hammer-thrower or gun-toting Ratman whose weapon fires rubber-coated, err… rats. It’s all darkly whimsical and offers just enough premise to get you ready to run-and-gun.
But it’s also clear the narrative is not going to be the draw here. Gameplay and aesthetics are what needs to carry the day for Hellmut to stand out and grab gamers’ attentions. So let’s get into the nuts and neck-bolts of this game, and see what works and what doesn’t.
Everything here visually is in the throwback pixelated style of the 16-bit era. It’s well-done, colorful and pleasing to the eye. It’s an intentionally rough but colorful visual style that really does make you feel like you are playing a game from 30 years ago. The title screen and cut-scenes have a ’90s LucasArts adventure game aesthetic to them. The sprite art, explosions, and effects all remind me of the same pixelated stylings of 2014’s Super Time Force, (an outstanding run-and-gun platformer that makes fun use of rewind and character swapping). Nostalgia notwithstanding, there are moments where I feel like I’m looking at the top down levels of Contra III: The Alien Wars, rotating and weaving through enemies and bullets alike. And that’s a good thing.
This is a run-n-gun shooter-style dungeon-crawler with demons around every corner, so it won’t come as a surprise that your weaponry does some gruesome bloody damage. The pixelized effects of blood, bone, slime, and shell-casings hitting the floor look vividly cartoony. It’s impressive to see what so many of these throw-back pixel art games can do with the massive update in processing power that the present provides. In the heat of battle in a crowded room, there are easily 10 enemies on screen at once, complete with dozens of projectiles directed at you, all while these effects are going off without a hint of slowdown. And it’s very satisfying to clear a room and see the results of your carnage remain splattered on the walls, a tribute to the hard-earned loot many rooms provide.
The various monsters and demons you encounter all look visually distinct from one another, if only by color in a few cases. This is critical as all enemies have unique attacks that will dictate how you want to approach dispatching them. Their design ranges from skeleton demon knights to killer blade-spinning snails to fly-spawning swamp hags. Similarly, the Transformations Hellmut can make use of (as Ka-Ra grants more along the way) all have interesting designs and unique appearances. The bosses are larger and even more elaborate in their design, receiving their own intro screen. And like the levels themselves, bosses also appear to be procedurally generated. Their appearance and attack modes are seemingly based on a dice-roll, pairing appearance with a limited number of adjectives (hungry, parasitic, observant, etc) and an enemy type (butcher, sorcerer, astrologer, etc), which further adds to the visual variety.
Unlike the game’s enemies, the levels I’ve seen are not particularly interesting to look at. Drab is the word that comes to mind while traversing the Castle and Sewer level hallways, as the color palette is largely restricted to dark grays and browns, with the occasional pool of dark blue water. Get to the Caves and you get a few blue walls mixed in. While the levels are procedurally generated, it feels like the color palette available for walls and floors is limited, with some differences in items scattered in corners (crates, mushrooms, crystals). But visually, there isn’t a ton of variety. And in some cases, there are even some rooms with large pillars or blocks that are difficult enough to see that you think you are in void space until you butt into one. This is to your peril on some occasions when you are attempting to back away from some demon with a major damage melee attack. It’s frustrating to have to strain your eyes to see these obstacles, especially since they can potentially make or break your game.
Long story short, the game’s visuals are very solid for the style they are going for, carried by the strength of the sprite art of the enemies and Hellmut’s various Transformations. And while the levels themselves are the lowlight, their dull backdrop does provide a strong contrast to highlight the brightly colored sprites moving around in them.
Where the sprite art stands out graphically, aurally the game doesn’t feel quite as distinct. None of the music left a strong indelible mark in my memory. The score is original, competent, slightly whimsical, but unmemorable. It does set the mood appropriately with foreboding horn strains and deep drumbeats, and has sort of a Danny Elfman influence to it, channeling highlights from the soundtracks of Beetlejuice and Batman. I did enjoy the feature available in the audio settings that allowed you to swap out the full orchestral version of the in-game music to that of a stripped down ‘Old School’ setting, which doesn’t go full chiptune but offers a somewhat less layered version of the soundtrack.
Non-descript music gives way to relatively generic sound effects. Grunts, groans, and howls from your enemies as they leap towards you or are torn asunder under your weapons are all somewhat generic, if not effective at conveying the action. Your weapons are probably the best sound effects in the game, a nice mix of ballistic fire armaments, rocket launchers, and grenades to go with the more non-traditional supernatural/sci-fi demonfire flamethrower and slime blaster. All have their own unique sound that rings out during use. I’m especially fond of the rapid-fire sounds of ‘Des and Troy’ (yup, a Thor Ragnarök call back), as shell casings litter the floor. Cutscene and brief in-game dialog is represented by various growls/barks (Beelzebub), squawks (Hellmut), and deep guttural utterances (Ka-Ra). It’s all fine, but again, nothing stands out enough to have a hook that would have you imitating a voice or line to your perplexed kids or friends.
Hellmut is not an easy game, but picking it up and playing it is. The traditional twin-stick move/aim control scheme is simplistic and easy to master in this era of dual analog stick controllers. You’ll dive right in and be strafing and snap-firing in no time. The primary weapon is on the right trigger (naturally), with a secondary attack on the left. The nuances to this simple control set up come from accessing more player Transformations and the unique weapons and secondary attacks that go with them. Acquiring and handling these additional Transformations are where the game both shines and stumbles.
You start out as either a bounce-shot firing Rat-King or the hammer-tossing corpulent Stitchmonster. Zero out your hit points along the way, and you’ll revert back to Hellmut’s von Klempt form – a relatively weak (though not completely ineffectual) floating skull. Lose your life in this more modest form, and it’s game over in the most formal sense. There are no continues. There is no save file or checkpoint to revert to. Done is done. Permadeath is named so for a reason.
The game is set up in the following pattern: Level – Eye of Ka-Ra Challenge – Level – Eye of Ka-Ra Challenge – Boss Fight. Then rinse repeat until you get to Beelzebub himself. The twist here is the Eye of Ka-Ra Challenges. These are optional in the sense that you don’t ever have to take them on, but virtually mandatory if you want to progress much further into the game. Why? Because each of Ka-Ra’s challenges, if successfully completed, will result in a new Transformation/character you can access. The trick is, you need to accumulate enough soulstones just to appease Ka-Ra enough to have him let you tackle his challenge.
The Challenges to acquire these Transformations are simple runs through a small cave where you must dispatch a certain number of enemies under the time limit. Letting one of your Transformations perish means the loss of its use going forward, unless you receive a resurrection stone (more on that later).
So initially, your goal is simply to start racking up these blue and red crystals. Blue soulstones are for use in the here and now, but red soulstones are the only item you can accumulate and carry forward into future playthroughs (and they become quite helpful on longer runs).
Transformations are essentially an extra-life in your back pocket, but with different primary and secondary attacks (along with varying durability and hit points). Among others, there’s Ragnar, the twin-auto rifle-wielding Viking deathknight, the Orc-Fairy with his triple shot firing pet cat, and some kind of slime monster stuffed into a space suit, complete with slime arm cannon. You can swap between all available Transformations as often as you like, to manage hit points between them and/or use situationally. Each Transformation has its own unique secondary attack as well, and most are very useful in a pinch, but can’t be spammed due to a momentary cooldown (just a few seconds).
Your progress is largely predicated on successfully managing a handful of these Transformations and using them effectively through levels and boss fights. Along the way, you’ll also gain gold and a variety of extra weapons with finite ammo. The gold has its value in that it is the only means for purchasing the super critical med kits (most reliable way to restore precious hit points), along with other weapons, armor, and speed mods. All purchases are made through a portal store (no doubt set up by Ka-Ra’s minions) appearing at one location per level. Essentially each aspect of inventory and Transformation management is controlled by your writhing, monocular, tentacled benefactor. Good deal for him, not so much for you.
So, as Ka-Ra milks you for gold and soulstones along the way, you struggle to twin-stick your way through dank hallway after dank hallway, keeping your self alive however you can. It’s a decent treadmill, and the levels and challenges are never so long or drawn out that they get boring or tedious. And when you reach a boss, the fight is fun and fair, with a good amount of loot delivering upon victory.
So where’s the aforementioned gameplay stumble? Well, it comes in two forms of keeping your Transformations viable for use. First, while medkits are available, you can only purchase two per level and can only hold up to three at a time (that’s a total of 150 HP that can be restored). Each Transformation character ranges from 100 to 250 HP total. And you can easily loose the bulk of your HP almost instantaneously. Just a few attacks from the right enemy will put you down if you get cornered (or back into one of those low-vis pillars). You can purchase a resurrection crystal at the shop (for a rather steep price in soulstones) or get one from Ka-Ra directly if you complete a Challenge, but only if you need one (as you can’t stockpile them).
Death of one character wouldn’t be a huge issue, but for the fact that once your current Transformation goes down, you automatically revert to your Hellmut floating skull form, the weakest of all available. So even if you have several other useful Transformations available, if you don’t react quickly to switch to another form or move to a safer location, you’ll be down for the count (even with the moment of invincibility allowed when your floaty skull appears). This would be tolerable, if you could pause to make a switch in the in-game selection wheel. But you can’t. And the control set up to the make the change on the fly is bit awkward. I died more than a few times, with another full health Transformation to switch to, because I was stymied by the controls in a tight spot where I couldn’t make the change quick enough. I get that the game developers perhaps didn’t want to make it too easy to swap characters and spam secondary attacks as you cycle through, for fear of players short-cutting cooldowns, but it’s frustrating to feel like progress is occasionally being held back when unexpectedly pinned under a demon knight’s sword against a pillar I couldn’t see, with an inability to switch characters quickly enough to survive and create some space.
The treadmill of loot and Transformation acquisition is compelling enough to keep me going, but it frustrates when progress is penalized by a real-time method for swapping characters. I’ve no doubt my ability to improve my dexterity on this maneuver will improve over time, but it is unfortunate that this frustrating issue may dissuade other players from pushing though it much more quickly than it does me. Perhaps the PC version makes my gripe go away in a single hotkey assigned to each specific Transformation. With a game that controls as well as it does in all other aspects, it’s a shame this little detail causes me heartburn. I feel like a Badass from Hell right up until I need to change into a different Badass.
Roguelikes are not new by any stretch and Hellmut does nothing to turn the genre on its head. Instead it pulls together a number of elements from other successful games and makes its own way. And though this game has been compared directly to the well-liked Enter the Gungeon (which admittedly, I’ve never played), it still appears to have a distinct flavor. This comes from the Transformations and unique pixel-art mostly, but also the slightly comical hell-death-demons-and-tentaclemonsters backdrop. You can sense the love of a wide-variety of geeky source materials that influenced Volcani.cc enough to put them in the game, and it’s appreciated. All of it gives Hellmut its own personality and style, even if the game as a whole isn’t a new approach.
Although I’m without roguelike experience, I’m no stranger to permadeath games. The need to tread carefully at all times to keep your progress rolling forward is evident after your first run. Hellmut challenges you to manage your resources and Transformations, in between skirmishes with a wide variety of enemies. Given the procedural generation nature of each level, it is impossible to predict what enemies will appear in what rooms, and some combinations of opponents can be downright daunting (especially when you have one group that presses you while another can teleport behind you). It keeps the game fresh and doesn’t allow you to breathe easy very often. The boss arenas are large and allow for plenty of the necessary room to maneuver. This is critical as their attacks are varied and you’ll be running and strafing the entire time.
It’s a solid challenge just to try and keep your health high enough to survive that upcoming boss fight. I felt pressed to play carefully and survive each room I encountered as the difficulty ramps. Yes, bumping up the number of health packs you can buy or reducing the cost of the resurrection crystals might make this game a bit more accessible, but it would come at the expense of maintaining a default healthy challenge the game provides. I like the balance that Hellmut strikes. The only knock here comes with the difficulty in switching Transformations quickly in-game. Permadeath is a much tougher pill to swallow when it comes from something outside the natural challenge of the game itself.
For a roguelike, this game doesn’t feel overly daunting to dig into. The silly dark humor and throwback graphics provide a pleasing veneer to a deeper challenge. The twin-stick controls are precise and easy to pick up and play. And once you figure things out, you’ll find that you make just enough progress (or at least the perceived potential of progress) to keep you hitting that restart button after each death. No question this game is accessible to all but gamers who may simply dislike the twin-stick controls. Even the gore (cartoony as it is) can be turned off if it offends. And it certainly didn’t feel intimidating to try my hand at this Roguelike, even for a neophyte like me.
A properly challenging game gets its hooks into you by not feeding you too much success, but just enough to keep you coming back time and time again. For the most part, Hellmut achieves this enough to keep me pushing forward, despite the periodic frustration of dying due to the issues I’ve previously laid out. Procedural level generation and enemy placement prevent pattern memorization, and the enemy variety and bosses are good enough to make me want to see more. The loot train is not super deep, but there are enough items out there that I still want to find or buy to try them out.
And then there’s the Space Invaders-style arcade game in the store you can spend time on and rack up a bit of extra gold or soulstones. A nice little bonus that provides a useful in-game rewards. There are just enough carrots on sticks to keep you wanting to play that ‘one more round’ before bed.
How long Hellmut retains player attention though, is probably dependent on how willing they are to die and die and die again, making only minor progress on each iteration. That ‘die early, die often’ style game is not a good fit for some.
My Personal Score: 7/10
I enjoy playing Hellmut and will continue plugging away at it for some time after this review. I want to beat Beelzebub and see if I can’t improve my ability to change characters more effectively in the heat of battle. The game has enough enjoyable components to get its hooks in me, even if they aren’t buried deeply (yet?). Being a sucker for 16-bit style graphics and pixel art doesn’t hurt either.
I’d call my first foray into a roguelike a success, and I’ll look to play more in the future. Volcani.cc’s rookie debut has delivered a nice game that should entertain newcomers to this genre. It comes through in the pixel art, character designs, and many of the gameplay elements that developers Sedlak and Polenkovic both care about their work. There is a sense of passion that is intangibly present in the feel of game, and I most certainly will be looking forward to checking out whatever Volcani.cc releases next.
Hellmut: The Badass from Hell was released on May 31, 2019 on Xbox One, and is also available digitally on Switch and Steam. I’d like to thank Volcani.cc for supplying a copy of their game for this review.
Aggregate Score: 6.5
The Slipstream Mage has been a gamer for over 35 years and got his start begging for quarters from his parents at a hotel pool game room. Racing games are in his blood and shmups are etched onto his soul. Find him @JTorto40 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review