HELLNIGHT / Konami + Atlus / Playstation

The first thing I have to say about Hellnight is that I'm not sure what the actual official spelling of the name is supposed to be. The few articles that I've seen on it online tend to refer to it as "Hell Night", but the cover of the game and the title screen run it together into one word, so the latter is what I'm going with until I see something that clarifies otherwise.

The second thing is that it's an obscure cult classic never released in the United States (though, obviously, the PAL territories got an English release of it.) Usually with obscure cult classics, there's some more familiar games in their lineage you can refer to to give them a quick introduction. The main concept of Hellnight hasn't been used in very many games at all, however, owing its major creative debt to the 1982 Sinclair Spectrum title 3D Monster Maze. There's scraps of other games here - as it was released in 1999, Konami apparently let the Atlus team use some of the textures from Silent Hill so there's a bit of the look of the Otherworld about some sections, and it's thematically a bit similar to Clock Tower in that you're being chased about by a nigh-unstoppable killer and have little to nothing to defend yourself with. Only it is done in 3D, and there's no little tricks or traps to stop the killer - all you can do is be very cautious and observant, and when that fails you, run very fast in the other direction. Basically picture Quake, but with no weapons, and no enemies save one that you can't kill and who auto-kills you if he touches you.

Well, almost - Hellnight throws you into the sewers of Tokyo, very soon leading you into an underground civilization known as The Mesh which is built around abandoned emergency fallout shelters from WWII, and along your journey through this place you'll encounter several characters who can become your partner. You begin with Naomi, a young schoolgirl who is the only other seeming survivor of the train crash that got you stuck down here in the first place. Some sort of bizarre monster that escaped from a research lab is the cause of the train crash, and seems to be hunting you, and if he happens to catch hold of you Naomi will take the first blow from his claws and allow you some time to get away at the cost of her life.

There's three other characters that you can pick up in this manner, but they won't join up if you've already got someone with you, and I don't think you can go back for them once you've met them (though some appear multiple times throughout the game.) Naomi is defenseless, but she's mildly psychic, and can "sense" the monster (causing him to appear as a flashing dot on your auto-map) when he's within about 10-15 steps of you. This is just enough, combined with listening for his breathing, roars and heavy footfalls, to get an idea of his position and beat feet in the other direction before he spots you.

The other three characters come armed - when being chased you can push the Square button to fire off a round at the monster and stun him for a few seconds, but you'll have to figure out where he is entirely from his noises (which aren't in Surround Sound and can't be used to place him by location, unfortunately - they just tell you that he's close by *somewhere*.) Unfortunately for you, these characters all have very limited clips of ammunition, ranging from five to thirteen shots, and you don't get any more once they run out. One character also carries the additional baggage of being a serial killer, and he'll sometimes feel like offing NPCs for a thrill, so you'll have to worry about reigning him in without getting him so annoyed he decides to off you instead.

The game thus has perhaps the best anxiety/"jump" factor of any console game ever, as not only are you defenseless, and this thing can outrun you in a long straight stretch, but you frequently have no idea where he is and have no chance of finding out until he's just about right on top of you. The monster starts out looking like some sort of DBZ/Resident Evil castoff, and doesn't have all that menacing of a presence at the beginning, but he continues to "evolve" throughout the game as he kills hapless Mesh residents and eventually becomes something much more speedy, large and disturbing.

The graphics are very basic - the 3D engine reminds me of that of 1996's Tecmo's Deception, but the whole thing manages to work in spite of the shoestring budget thanks to excellent sound work on the monster noises. It also actually has quite a decent story and setting, and while there are plenty of elements of the fantastical here, I found it a whole lot more "buyable" than most horror games -- there's less logical inconsistency and deus-ex-machina stuff, and the monster rarely pulls the ol' Jason Voorhees "magical teleporting trick" that lazy horror writers seem to love to have their creations use.

It also actually gets much more interesting as it goes on, has a satisfying conclusion, and there's quite a bit of replay value in that there are not only multiple endings and new scenes at certain points depending on who your partner is, but the way the game is played changes quite a bit depending on who's with you. Naomi is sort of like "security blanket mode", in that even though she's not armed the ability to "see" the monster ahead of time is more valuable than anything else and really is sort of cheating the system a bit. With the others, it's more difficult and tense, becoming ultimately so when you're all alone and can't even stun the beast. And then using the serial killer as your companion adds a whole new element to the game with his crazy behavior, potentially changing the way you solve some puzzles and work your way through the mazes.

The final thing I have to say about Hellnight/Hell Night/Dark Messiah? Let's hope it gets released on the Playstation Network in the U.S. so gamers here can experience a largely successful horror gaming experiment that they were denied ten years ago. Definitely check this one out via one means or another.

Links :

* Hellnight Walkthrough

Videos :

* Gameplay Video