Devolver Digital is a.. unique publisher. They have a certain aesthetic, similar to Japanese game director Suda51 (who recently appeared in their madness-inducing, satirical E3 conference). That is to say a handful of the titles they have published – Hotline Miami, Strafe, and Downwell to name a few – recall a type of nostalgia from a time that never existed. They’re violent, visceral, and stylish. High Hell is absolutely no exception. From the creators of Heavy Bullets and Enter the Gungeon (Terry Vellmann and Doseone, respectively), High Hell is a game about shooting everything that moves, burning cash, and rescuing animals. Needless to say, it has a style all its own.
When I first launched the game, a smile immediately crossed my face. I knew exactly what I was getting into from the moment I saw its obnoxiously-pink and color-separated title screen and heard the pounding music buzzing warmly from my headset. The graphics and colors spoke to me instantly, but I cannot say they’re for everyone. The main contenders here are grey, black, white, and a pink I can only describe as dirty neon. The character models look like they’re made from a bunch of balloons glued together and painted, which is just as hilarious as it sounds – especially when they ragdoll from rooftops after being blasted by your gun.
Each mission, which you’ll be shuffled to via an always-hilarious interactive loading screen, opens with a Tony Hawk-esque tour of the main mission and any side objectives along the way. Death comes swiftly in High Hell, and although you gain health from defeating enemies you can only take about two hits before you’re toast. If DOOM‘s game design philosophy was “push-forward gameplay,” High Hell‘s is smash-forward gameplay. You can’t simply open doors, instead kicking them violently to pieces with your hilariously swift low-polygon foot. It adds a feeling of unstoppable momentum when you’re kicking into rooms and picking everyone off with what is essentially an overpowered rail-gun.
In fact, there is only one gun in High Hell. There lies its focus: it’s a game about killing things from any distance as fast as possible. At the end of each level there is a score tally and timer, making it a speedrunner’s dream come true. When you inevitably fall, a quick button press resets the level instantly for you to try again. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of wanting to try for a better time or a higher score, because the only thing stopping you is one click of the keyboard. The core gameplay loop is fantastic, although the side objectives are generally just memorizing and finding key items within the level.
While on the subject of gameplay, the feel of the gunplay is lacking something in a way that’s hard to describe. Sure, your super-charged railgun shakes the screen and fires a beam of white-hot light at enemies, but there’s no gore or dismemberment. In a game about violence against mobsters, one published by Devolver no less, I expected to paint the walls with the entrails of my enemies. It’s a shame then that the violence promoted by High Hell through everything up to its soundtrack is so (literally) gutless.
Speaking of the soundtrack, I was absolutely blown away by the textures used in the synths here. It’s got a familiar punchiness and energy found in most of the tracks in the Hotline Miami series, one that High Hell will have a hard time not being compared to. Even when frustration threatened to creep in the music pushed me along as I retried several levels into the tens of times, keeping me focused and motivated as it pumped along to the action.
High Hell‘s gameplay is so fluid and fun it’s hard to find many gripes in its core mechanics. I think it could’ve benefited from some post-game incentive for score-hunting, however. Downwell, for instance, had the player unlocking graphical skins and gameplay styles for achieving higher scores. On the flipside, High Hell truly shines in its simplicity. Here is a game that could’ve easily been reduced to a randomly-generated rogue-lite formula, and it would’ve suffered dearly for it. While the gunplay is fantastic, so too are the level design and enemy placements, and without them the package as a whole wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.
High Hell is a tight game. There isn’t a lot of fluff here, in fact there isn’t a whole lot of anything. The story is abstracted from the fact that you’re killing henchmen of an evil corporation and burning their drug money. The entire campaign is about an hour long, but clearly meant to be replayed and score-hunted. That’s not necessarily a knock against the game, though, because arcade-style shooters certainly have their place in today’s gaming market. For what it’s worth I found the entirety of the campaign enough to justify my time with High Hell, because there truly isn’t a dull moment here. It’s twitch-shooter goodness distilled down to its very essence, and I think more titles could benefit from this kind of confident presentation.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided to us by Devolver Digital.
High Hell is, above all else, a confident game. There isn't anything standing in the way of blasting baddies off rooftops and crashing breakneck through every door in sight, all in acid-soaked neon pink style.