When Painkiller originally came out nearly 8 years ago, it was remarkable for a few reasons. First, it was one of the first FPS games to incorporate a physics engine for destructible items in a game (Half Life 2 came out a few months later). It was also the game that put Polish developer People Can Fly on the map. Since then, People Can Fly has made large contributions to the Gears of War series and was eventually acquired by Epic Games in 2007.
If you missed the original Painkiller, the game is centered around Daniel Garner, a man who is killed in a car accident while taking his wife Catherine out for her birthday dinner. Daniel didn’t live the good life and finds himself trapped in purgatory while his wife’s is granted access into Heaven. Death appears and strikes a deal with Daniel to re-unite him with his wife in exchange for 7,000 souls. Given no other option, Daniel accepts the deal and starts collecting souls so that he can spend time with his wife without any care regarding the consequences of his actions.
It is worth noting that the dialog and storytelling in the game is atrocious, almost to the point of absurdity. I get that we need to have some motivations for the character and story progression but all it really does is create breaks between killing wave after wave of bad guys. Of course, I’ve been spoiled by Borderlands 2 recently and that clouds my view a bit. On the other hand, it does help a bit that Daniel Garner is voiced by Jon St. John who you may recognize as the voice of Duke Nukem.
Much like the Serious Sam remake earlier this year, Painkiller: Hell and Damnation is a return to old school style of run and gun FPS games. There’s no reloading, no cover, and no fancy regenerating health. What makes this game interesting is how the weapons impact game play. In Serious Sam you are constantly back peddling against the hordes of monsters thrown at you but in Painkiller, you are running at them and circling them to take advantage of the fact that weapons reward aggression.
The best example is the Painkiller weapon itself which is a set of spinning blades on a stick requiring the player to just press the left mouse button and run through hordes of enemies. It’s extremely satisfying and if you want to mix it up, the alternate fire launches a small probe which you can use to knock down enemies individually. If you align it right it creates a laser which allows you to take out large groups of enemies at once. If you get bored in the game you can actually use the alt fire of the weapon to juggle enemies, which is kind of fun in a sick way.
The rest of the arsenal at your disposal is what you would expect if the Insomniac guys went on a meth and bourbon bender. Sure there’s a shotgun but the alternate fire freezes people. There’s also a rocket launcher/chain gun combination, a stake gun/grenade launcher combo, and my personal favorite, the Soul Catcher or as I called it the Soül Cätcher. Why Soül Cätcher? Because a gun the combines the ability to throw circular saws with a mechanism that sucks the souls out of people needs to have at least two umlauts in the title because it is that freaking metal!
The other area that Painkiller really excels in is the inhabitants of the world. You’ve got everything from monks to skeletons and even creepy marionette like orphans. There’s such a great variety and they are so unique that I never really got bored with them. The boss encounters are fairly epic as most of the boss monsters are of the seven to eight story tall variety. The boss fights aren’t particularity difficult and are sometimes on the tedious side of things but they do break it up quite a bit and they are always interesting.
For the most part, Painkiller:Hell and Damnation is a straight forward shooter but it does have one unique gameplay element that sets it apart. You can collect the souls of fallen foes for health. After you collect 66 souls you turn into a demon, allowing you to kill everything with one shot. The trick is that as soon as you collect that 66th soul you change so this requires some level of attention so that you don’t switch at the end of a battle. The other trick is that souls spawn a few seconds after the enemy dies and only hang around for a few seconds, so you have to time things correctly.
The game does show its age in a couple of critical ways as things like weapon-switching animations are gone and there’s no HUD element that indicates when you are near death. Back in 2004, screen resolutions were low enough that you could get away with having your health and armor tucked away in the corner but when the game is cranked up to 1920 X 1080 that information is tucked out of sight. That said, there is something refreshing with how stripped down the game is. There’s not even a sprint command. If you want to move faster you have to repeatedly press the space bar forcing Daniel to bunny hop across the maps.
Level design is a bit of a mixed bag. The early levels of the game are more cohesive from a story point of view but somewhat cluttered in how you progress through them. Later levels are better designed but don’t really tie into the plot that well. I’m still trying to figure out how you go from a spooky orphanage to a haunted theme park and then to a Coliseum without much of an explanation to why or how you got there.
If you want to get everything out of the game you’ll have to play through the levels multiple times as each level contains tarot cards which are earned by completing certain tasks in the level. These tasks include such things as collecting every hidden treasure or killing a certain amount of enemies with a specific weapon. The Tarot cards allow you to modify the level (much like the skulls in the Halo games) by doubling the damage you down or slowing enemies down by a certain amount. In addition to the Tarot cards each level also has an optimal time to pass through which gives you further incentive to replay the levels.
After you finish the single player portion of the game there are some nice multiplayer modes for you to try out. You can even play the single player portion of the game with a friend via the included co-op mode. Again it’s an old school romp but it is fun to play for the most part.
Painkiller: Hell and Damnation is a solid return to the days of the old school shooter but I do wish they had done a bit more to spruce things up. Sure there’s a lot of solid action there but the overall experience is uneven and disjointed. The multiplayer adds some meat to the experience but I would have a hard time recommending people spend $20 on this game versus the Serious Sam remake or even something like Torchlight II.