High Hell review: a shooter with strong style and tempo but light on substance

The Pitch

High Hell describes itself as a “vibrant remix of the classic first-person shooter” and it definitely nails that premise from the first impression. It’s a level-based first person shooter in the most pure of mold of DOOM. You’re a gun-wielding ruffian airdropped onto a rooftop full of criminals and given a license to kill and a zany soundtrack.

There’s only the loosest of stories being told here: you’re a guy with a gun. Those are the bad guys. Go get’ em. High Hell doesn’t really have much of a lot going on when it comes to narrative. However, it’s certainly got a sense of humor. Sure, you might start off facing off against the stock-standard, familiar and generic suited goon. However, it isn’t before long before the game throws itself into an endless cycle of trying to find a new over-the-top for itself. From there, it doesn’t take long for the mind-controlled monkeys to come out to play.

Again, things aren’t too complicated here. Each of the game’s 18 levels involving finding or or destroy a thing, killing every enemy in your way, then jump off the edge of level to parachute to safety. The game constantly juggles up the verbs or nouns but, basically, that’s the voxelized gist of it.

Not My Tempo

There are lots of single words you could throw out to describe the difficulty and flow of the core gameplay loop in High Hell. However, for me,the difficulty of this game is best understood in relation to a scene from the award-winning film Whiplash. Specifically, it reminded me of the scene where J.K. Simmons condescendingly reminds Miles Tellers’ character that he’s “not quite” on the right tempo.

This might seem like an unusual touchstone to pull out. However, behind all the wacky enemies and bright colors, High Hell really is about that climb from repetition to perfection in much the same way as Damien Chazelle's film is. Each time you die, you have to reset the level wholesale.

Eventually, through trial and error, you overcome this. You make it to the top of the mountain. You’re on High Heel’s tempo - and it feels magnificent. Levels zip past you, time compresses and your twitch-aiming skills take precedence. You mow down scores of enemies with dauntless, mechanical efficiency. It's contagiously energetic to the point of invigoration.

That is until you make a mistake. Then, another. Before long, you’re down and out.

“Not quite my tempo.”

Rinse, repeat. Stop and start. Find that tempo.

The problem, is that, aside from that tempo - there’s no a whole lot going on in High Hell. You only really have the one gun - a Quake-style railgun - that takes enemies out in a single shot. Doing so gives you a little more health - which you’ll need. Each downed foe gives you a little bit more room to breath and until you’re on the right tempo, enemies will constantly chip away at your health.

All The Way To The Top

High Hell does go out of its way to throw interesting and off-the-wall enemies at you. Unfortunately, speed and accuracy always prevail as the only way to overcome them. There’s no advanced movement or cover mechanics to speak of. It’s all comes down to shooting them before they shoot you - which is to say it comes down to trial and error. Once you know where enemies spawn, the challenge quickly dissipates.

Between finding that tempo, High Hell gets even weirder with its interactive, intermission-style loading screens. Between each level lies a short but strange vignette that invites you to click - and see what happens. Like everything in High Hell, this definitely do have a novel charm to them. Unfortunately, it’s all very surface-level.

High Hell is bright, colorful and stylish in all the ways that you’d expect from something in the Devolver Digital catalog. However, it’s all style. Little substance. Even if it is priced accordingly, it’s a little too disposable.

That said, if the idea of tackling a retro shooter like this one hits the right notes, you’ll probably relish the challenge of finding the right tempo.

High Hell is available now on Steam.

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Fergus Halliday
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