While People Can Fly might be best known for helping Epic Games out with the Gears of War series and possibly for making Bulletstorm, their first cult classic was a little game called Painkiller. A horror shooter with plenty of weapons, gore, and a story that is incredibly cheesy without being aware of it. After my close friend Casper recommended me this title, I expected something in the lines of Splatterhouse meets Max Payne. At the very least, something entertaining.
Go to hell and back!
One stormy night, an average man by the name of Daniel Garner went out driving with his wife, Catherine, to celebrate her birthday. This ride was to be a short one though, due to Daniel taking his eyes off the road as a complete moron and crashes their car into an oncoming truck, killing the couple instantly. Sadly, the tragedies did not stop there. While Catherine got accepted into Heaven, Daniel became trapped in Purgatory where he has to fight for survival every day. Luck finally comes his way, with Daniel’s actions being recognised by an angel known as Samael, who gives him an offer. Lucifer has been organising armies of Hell to go to war against Heaven, and Samael needs Daniel to stop his four generals. If he succeeds, Daniel will reunite with his wife and receive purification.
This is a story that is humorously dark, but never overstays its welcome. It keeps its plot simple, and has cutscenes just for showcasing why Daniel is visiting different locations, be it inside an asylum, through a graveyard or within an ancient castle. Thanks to this, you are given a great variety of areas fitting the horror genre, and the setup offers enough to make you want to see Daniel reunite with his loved one while slaughtering monsters on his way.
Although, similar to an action flick with a minimalistic plot, it needs an enjoyable cast and a personality in its tone. Painkiller has both, but neither on a grand scale. Our hero wears a trench coat and carries whatever gun he can get his hands on while defeating demons in different hellish places. This makes the settings engaging, with cliches being utilised for some good fun. Unfortunately, the characters are not memorable, as none of them have strong personalities or spew dialogues to make them amusing.
Because of this, the creatures you come across are nothing more than tools to move the plot forward or to convey the occasionally random and unimportant twist. Daniel has also nothing to offer besides his appealing design. No quotable lines or quirks; he is just a man fighting out of Hell. This story is like a B action movie where you do not really care about the plot or the cast, just that things blow up. Riveting, but forgettable.
Story Score: 6/10
Painkiller is an arena shooter where each level has you fighting off hordes of enemies in restricted locations until they are all killed and the game lets you move forward to the next battle. This is pretty much the entire concept of this title, as there is little else to do in between. You can find health packs to heal yourself with, ammo, weapons, armour, and even more fiends to take down, but the exploration is kept to a minimum. I suppose this was done in order to focus on the shootouts, which is a good idea for making the adrenaline rush constantly present throughout the campaign.
The gameplay is quite familiar to the old school setup, where you do not have to reload guns, can hold multiple firearms, and need to circle strafe. A big highlight are actually the varied tools to cause chaos with, since they differ heavily from one another and come with secondary shots. For example, the shotgun has a strong spread shot, but also an additional one that freezes opponents. Meanwhile, the stakegun pierces foes with slow shots, but its secondary ammo are bouncing grenades that explode on impact. The selection of weapons is thus varied and intriguing, making them exciting to use.
Unfortunately, some of these firearms require pinpoint accuracy that make them feel like using sniper rifles from the hip. Because of this, the shotgun became my main weapon whenever I could pick it up, as the rest are just a drag to shoot with. Even the rocket launcher requires perfect aim, which is just bizarre. Another thing that perplexes me, is how inconsistent the damage being dealt are. Some enemies splattered on my second shot from a shotgun, while others of the same type would already fall over and die after the first one. This was never enough to make me frustrated or feel ill equipped against the hordes of monsters, but are annoyances that made fights unsatisfying.
However, the biggest problem Painkiller suffers from, is with its enemy designs. There is a decent variety here, such as the monks throwing axes, fire spirits that shoot flames, and skeletons with different elemental staffs, but none change their gimmicks enough to make the shootouts different. Circle strafe and fire with your guns, and you will be fine. This made every battle mechanically dull and repetitive, as the most important difference about the opponents became whether they used melee or ranged attacks, nothing else.
The other issue these foes suffer from, are their terrible AIs. All of the enemies are simply idiots that rush toward you and attack with anything they got, making them easy to predict and exploit for some quick kills. This could have been mitigated if their variety was used consistently to provide different fiends to take on at ones, but this is not the case. Most fights will only put you up against two different types of opponents with multiple copies of each charging at you, which only makes the combat more bland.
It does not exactly help that the levels are uninteresting either. None of them change up enough to be engaging, with their structures being either grand and empty areas or straightforward hallways. In fact, it was not until the opera house where I finally got some form of challenge by fighting three enemy types simultaneously in a huge location filled with chairs, before the game became easy again. This is also another problem this title has: uneven difficulty. There is never a good evolution of challenge to test your reaction or aiming capabilities, just stuff being thrown at you at an inconsistent rate.
The developers tried to add in some more flavour to the combat, but with little to no success. One of these attempts revolve around the tarot cards. You can equip upwards to three passive and two active ones to provide you with enhancements, such as being able to deal more damage. These are a rudimentary inclusion, as they are never needed and you only acquire them by doing tasks, such as killing all the monsters or collecting a certain amount of gold within a stage. To add in an irritating design to this, you are not even told how to get this cards until after you have beaten the same stage you unlock them in.
Oddly enough as well, you have to pay gold for equipping cards or changing them up, which is a confusing setup that adds nothing to the gameplay. Then we have the demon mode that activates automatically when you have collected 66 souls of fallen foes. When this happens, you will be able to kill enemies by clicking on them and become invincible for a short time. This is a nice idea, as it gives another reason to collect these trinkets than just for regaining HP, but I got demon mode 90% of the time at the end of fights, making me waste them. The ability to activate this power manually, would have been welcomed.
Then we have issues that really aggravate me. One actually has to do with the engine this game uses: Havok 2.0. It surely is exhilarating to see bodies fly around, but also makes destructible environments or defeated fiends a chore to navigate through since you can easily become stuck in them. In an arena shooter, that is the last thing you want to happen to you. This can even affect the foes themselves in the most hilarious ways, making this clearly an unintentional drawback that can lead to frustrating moments. At least you can bunny hop anywhere.
However, the worst offenders are the awful boss fights. You will be encountering huge monsters in ginormous arenas and the same tactic applies here as in the rest of the game: circle strafe and shoot until you are told to stop. Sadly, Painkiller is at its bottom here thanks to the Havok physics causing more issues from destroyed constructions, with the bosses being able to kill you in one hit and having enormous health bars. All of this makes these shootouts into despicable chores to get through.
This title is pretty bad overall, but there are commendable parts to it. I do like that you are able to save whenever you want to, with checkpoints automatically saving the game and healing you. The latter is only for the normal difficulty and beneath, but this will be touched more upon later in this review. Then we have the nice compass that always direct you to where the last enemies are and where to go next. Lastly, it is just fun to be on the run with circle strafing and shooting monsters, as they hit hard and the weapons to use are creative. Unfortunately, you will be on autopilot due to this project’s poor designs and become as brain dead as the opponents you are fighting against. Quantity of fiends does not make them more challenging. It just makes for a repetitive playthrough.
Gameplay Score: 2/10
If there is anything Painkiller knows how to do right, it is how to make its visuals thrilling. Going for a gorehouse motif, this game takes you to plenty of locations, such as within tall churches, through abandoned military bases, inside claustrophobic mines, and to sketchy docks just to name a few. All are used as clear tributes to the horror genre with diverse and unique looks, making every single place feel uncomfortable, dark, and nostalgic.
Each area contains a believable structure as well, with the Havok 2.0 physics surprisingly enhancing the immersion even further. Despite how it ruins the gameplay, it also gives the huge amount of carnage a clear weight to them, be it seeing limbs scattered around, buildings being destroyed or fired ammunition flying towards the foes. It is always amazing to witness the weapons’ effects on the hordes of enemies, making this title a visual trip to behold.
The monsters are sweet parodies of familiar ones and used cleverly. Be it skeletons with equipment from medieval times wandering outside a church or electrocuted patients within a haunted asylum, all have clear designs that fit the vibes this project is going for, whether that is uncomfortably grotesque or humorous like a Halloween decoration. While Painkiller can go between terrifying and cute designs in a manner of seconds, it clearly focuses on having fun with its horror settings. Combine this with gorgeous lighting and impressive textures, and this is an exciting journey to see through.
Unfortunately, the cutscenes are not on a solid level. The character models are stiff and unnatural, and despite the less use of colours with filters being a clear reference to old movie formats, these scenes sadly do not look even adequate and are a big contrast to the spectacular places you venture through in-game. Similarly also goes for the bosses, as they have generic and unpolished designs that make them underwhelming. At the very least, seeing them destroy everything in their paths is entertaining.
Shooting with the different firearms is always exhilarating and satisfying, due to them having varied animations and sound effects that are mesmerising. The action is never stopping thanks to how many ways you can deal damage, with the screams from the opponents being creepy and diverse. As for the voice acting, it is overall impressive! Featuring talents like Cam Clark, Vanessa Marshall, Jim Ward, and even Jim Cummings, all do what they can to give each of their characters a strong presence. I just wish they had more interesting things to say.
Then we have the soundtrack which consists of metal with fierce riffs, harsh basses, and outstanding compositions to make every battle incredible. Even if they can have some repetitive aspects to them, these melodies still contain plenty of varied notes and lovely effects that show just what kind of powerhouse you are in every shootout, despite the amount of enemies you have to go up against. Fun metal with fantastic rhythm to get your heart pumping is always lovely for a gorehouse title.
Presentation Score: 9/10
By the end of each stage, you will be ranked on how long it took you to finish it, the amount of fiends killed, and secrets found. This is a nice way to make you go back and do better, and even if the mechanics are still troublesome, the levels are short enough to work within this setup. There is also a multiplayer mode, but I have no idea why it was such a huge part of the CPL for two seasons, as it is lacking with only different takes on deathmatch and capture the flag to offer. There are some decent concepts included, like a mode where you only have rocket launchers and can only damage other players when they are airborne, but they function more as quick gags than anything substantial. The bloody small crosshair also hurts the multiplayer, as it makes every fight arbitrarily difficult.
Speaking of, what is somewhat bizarre is how the difficulty is handled. Slumber does not feature tarot cards and you are overpowered with regenerative health, daydream is similar without the latter, and insomnia is the normal mode that contains the cards and one extra level. Nightmare difficulty makes it so checkpoints do not replenish your health, has stronger enemies, and adds another stage. Finally, there is trauma which includes a third level, even less ammo to find, deadlier foes, and offers you the true ending. This makes for a massive change in challenge, to the point that it might be worth considering an attempt on repeated playthroughs. However, though the challenge is better, the game is the same with all of the mentioned issues to encounter.
Then we have the five expansions, but to save some time: four of them are just bad and unfinished. The GOG version only comes with Battle out of Hell, which is the one developed by the same team behind Painkiller and the best out of the bunch. It is creative with its setting and provides an entertaining story, but that is about it. It is a neat extra if you are in for killing more demons, but that is about it. Honestly, the most fun I had was tinkering with the cheats, which can make you play God or create hilarious effects such as having the bodies stay and not disappear. There is only a few selection and more visual ones would have been welcoming, but what is here is serviceable.
Extra Score: 5/10
Style over substance is not an uncommon phrase, but while this perfectly describes Painkiller, it will not be enough to please the general audience. It is thrilling and engaging thanks to its brutal horror presentation and creative weapons, but it becomes monotone and tedious due to its unpolished gameplay. A solid guilty pleasure in my eyes that I do understand why it puts a smile on someone’s face. Including mine own on some occasions.