Painkiller, Polish developer People Can Fly’s debut, didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it was first released in 2004 but it gained an immediate cult following largely as a result of Yahtzee Croshaw’s legendary 2007 video review. While that game’s creators moved on to Epic and developed Bulletstorm, new Painkiller games have continued to pop up over the years. To be honest though, none of them ever really lived up to the promise of the original; leaving behind a series of expansions whose reception has ranged from ‘mediocre’ to ‘bloody awful’.
The latest developer to have a go is The Farm 51, who have gone back to the primary source material with Painkiller: Hell and Damnation (AKA: Painkiller: HD). I’ll admit one thing right off the top: I really enjoyed the original game with its cathartic thrill and old-school attitude. I went into this game expecting to revisit the over-the-top violence of the man-on-demon variety that I experienced in the original, and that’s exactly what I got.
Unfortunately, that’s all I got.
The premise of the Painkiller series is pretty basic: You play as Daniel Garner who, after dying with his wife in a car accident, finds himself stuck in Limbo. He is given the chance by Death (yes – Death) to be reunited with his wife, but he needs to kill and soul-harvest demons as a form of payment: Killing for God, essentially. The gameplay is nowhere near as complicated. It’s very much in the vein of arena-based shooters like Serious Sam: Essentially you enter an area, kill every enemy, go to a new area, and repeat.
Painkiller: HD is a game that commits itself to doing only one thing, but doing it really, really well. That thing is combat – and this game delivers, up to a point. The weapons are unique and they each have a tangible feel to them, which makes shooting a distinctive and enjoyable feeling. Painkiller: HD provides a combination of weapons from the original and Battle out of Hell. It also adds a particularly cool one: The Soulcatcher. Its primary function is as a circular saw launcher. It truly presents its value however as a secondary weapon which enables you to drain the souls from enemies. Once fully charged, you can use it to possess nearby monsters and set them loose as your temporary minions. It’s definitely a cool weapon and goes a long way towards evening the odds in some of the more intense battles.
It’s in Survival Mode where you are forced to scramble to deal with dozens of enemies that this game shines. You need to think and move fast to have a chance at surviving, and for the most part this stays intact. The problem with this game is that it feels less like a defiant throwback than something that has let the world pass it by. The game certainly looks nicer than the original, but not to the degree of something like Black Mesa. Furthermore, large chunks of the original campaign have been removed, with parts of Battle Out Of Hell thrown in. Because of this, along with the fact that the levels have not been altered in any way besides the graphical facelift, the game feels like less of a remake than a ‘clip show’ of moments from Painkiller and Battle out of Hell. Not that there is any real reason to follow the game’s mediocre cutscenes or voice acting, but any pretense of a coherent story is cast aside by the cut and paste sequence of events.
All that could be forgiven by the fact that Painkiller: HD now has multiplayer modes, which boast the usual cavalcade of modes such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, etc. I’m not usually a big fan of multiplayer, but I was looking forward to checking it out. Unfortunately, there were no servers available so I couldn’t play any of the modes. I was able to run around the maps by myself, but there was no real way for me to actually engage in it. For a game whose apparent reason for existing was that it was adding multiplayer modes, it’s more than a little perplexing as to why it wouldn’t be available for review.
Look, I can understand the appeal of playing something that is gloriously old-school; something that doesn’t feel like it needs to shoehorn a bunch of plot points/dialogue trees/Quick Time Events for the sake of keeping up with current trends. I’d be lying if I said Painkiller: HD didn’t at least partly scratch an itch for a type of game where I can turn my brain off, hold the left mouse button down, and take a vacation in Kill City. It is fun to do that…for a short while. Priced at $20, this game is a relatively low-risk investment, but frankly it feels a bit like that friend who starts every conversation with “Remember that time we…” In the end, there’s really nothing this game offers that can’t be found in the eight-year-old original. It may well be worth it for Multiplayer (assuming it works okay but I don’t know that for a fact), but beyond the slightly upgraded visuals there’s really not a whole lot here to recommend to anyone beyond the kinds of fans who buy anything with the Painkiller name attached.
[+Cathartic fun] [+Weapons feel great] [-Inessential for anyone who's played the original] [-Campaign was cut in half] [-Multiplayer not available for review]