The gaming nostalgia cycle is a funny old thing. First, the genre becomes popular. Eventually, its popularity wanes as developers try new things and move away from genre conventions. Players begin to pine for the simpler days, then developers begin to create games more like the ones they loved as kids or teenagers. Ironically, it becomes the case that there are more retro nostalgia revival games than there were original examples of the genre. This is something that's happened to the 90s retro FPS games recently. Games like Doom Eternal, Dusk, and Ion Fury attempt to revive the good old days of fast-paced simplicity. To this list comes Hellbound, which bills itself as "a 90s FPS, 30 years later". That's a lofty promise to make, but it's not like Hellbound doesn't have modern examples of how to do it right to draw on.
Hellbound Wastes No Time
Like the great 90s FPS titles that came before it, Hellbound wastes no time in its setup. You are Hellgore and you are angry. An army of demons has descended and killed everyone Hellgore knew and loved, so now it's time for vengeance. As the Steam page for Hellbound rightly says, if you're looking for a deep story, you've come to the wrong place. Hellbound is refreshingly simple. It doesn't have any of the needless text screeds or backstory that Doom Eternal indulges in. It's just you, some guns, some demons, and figuring out a way to make those two things interact.
Hellgore himself is likable enough, but there's something slightly off about his performance. It's meant to echo the dry, "witty" one-liners of protagonists like Caleb from Blood: Fresh Supply or Duke Nukem. Voice actor Artie Widgery doesn't quite pull it off, though. He sounds more like a concerned father reading out unsavory texts his son has received at school than a vengeful demon slayer. Hellbound is going for a sort of gleeful 90s-style "badass" tone, but the excessive swearing can come across as a touch desperate. A gentleman is someone who could play the bagpipes but doesn't. The same philosophy extends to swearing. It's not cool when it's this frequent.
Hellbound's Core Gameplay Is A Hellishly Good Time
Thankfully, you'll be too busy gleefully shotgunning demons in the face to care about Hellgore's shortcomings. To put it simply, the core gameplay loop of Hellbound is excellent. Developer Saibot Studios clearly understands what makes 90s shooters so cathartic and satisfying. For a game like this to work, the guns have to feel almost illegally good. There needs to be a kick delivered by a size 30 boot with every shotgun blast, and every rocket fired should feel like a hundred atomic bombs. This is something Hellbound pulls off with aplomb.
Hellbound takes its visual and auditory cues from Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal, but it doesn't really resemble those games. The complexity is much lower here, and that's no bad thing. There are no weapon upgrades in Hellbound, no skill trees, and no hidden ability collectibles. Hellbound is content to execute its ideas well instead of innovating. Each level of the campaign gives you a semi-open environment to explore, and while you won't find more than armor, health, or weapons as secrets, it still feels great to stumble across something hidden. The levels are effectively just environments to facilitate the core gameplay, but when that gameplay is this fulfilling, that's no bad thing.
There's Just Not Enough Of Hellbound
Unfortunately, Hellbound's excellent core gameplay is majorly hamstrung by one issue: there's just not enough of it. Emulating 90s shooters is all well and good, but 90s shooters usually came with fairly lengthy campaigns spanning multiple episodes. By contrast, Hellbound's is pathetically short, spanning 7 levels and less than 2 hours of gameplay overall. You can replay levels and look for secrets or try to improve your time, of course, but that doesn't excuse Hellbound's shocking brevity. As I drew near the end of Hellbound's campaign, I thought to myself "oh, good, I'm near the end of the first world". Little did I know the game was almost over.
There is a survival mode that tries to bolster Hellbound's meager showing, but it feels at odds with the core gameplay. First-person shooters like this should be power fantasies. Putting absurdly overpowered weaponry in the player's hands and tasking them with slaying the armies of Hell does not gel well with survival. On the one hand, Hellgore feels like an unstoppable warrior; on the other, like he's scrambling to escape insurmountable hordes of demons. The survival mode is fine in terms of enabling the core gameplay, but it doesn't feature the sense of momentum and progress that this type of game really needs. As such, you're left with a 2-hour campaign that is nominally replayable, but shallow and all too brief.
Exploration In Hellbound Is Fun But Flawed
Exploring Hellbound's 7 levels does manage to engage, despite the campaign's brevity. The maps are satisfyingly open-ended and full of secrets, with lots of opportunities to leap over level geometry and facilitate natural-feeling exploration. There's a pleasing sense of momentum in each level; switches open doors for just long enough for you to scrabble through them, so you'll need to be on your toes as you move. The open-ended level design also helps to make encounters feel fair, too. Encounters are thoughtfully designed around open space, giving you plenty of opportunities to outmaneuver and outpace your enemies.
Hellbound does bring across one of the biggest bugbears of 90s FPS games, though: key hunting. Doors and devices in Hellbound's levels sometimes need red, green, or yellow keys to operate. These keys can be found by exploring the level thoroughly. That's fine, but the architecture and visual style of Hellbound's levels is quite samey. This leads to key hunts often taking a long time as you navigate labyrinthine and confusing level design. At one point, Hellgore makes a joke about hunting for keys, wondering why he can't just blow up a door instead. I found myself wondering the same thing numerous times across Hellbound's campaign.
Hellbound Is Brimming With Potential
It's a shame Hellbound is so brief and insubstantial, because what is here is massively encouraging. Saibot Studios knows its way around a shooter, and its love of Doom, Quake, and every other 90s shooter is etched on its tattered sleeve here. If the gameplay wasn't fun, Hellbound wouldn't feel like it ended just as it was getting started. Sadly, it's hard to recommend it in its current state. In order to justify Hellbound's existence, Saibot needs to add at least another world of campaign levels and perhaps a challenge mode or some kind of supplementary story mode. As it is, Hellbound is simply not enough game.
Saibot's game feels more like a proof-of-concept than an actual title. 90s FPS games weren't just great because of their core loops. They also innovated on their mechanics as levels went on, introducing new weapons and new ways to fight old enemies. Hellbound's enemy variety is paltry, just like its weapon variety and campaign length. I counted eight enemy types, and that's being generous; five of those are simply "demon that uses one of Hellgore's weapons". In the end, Hellbound's campaign is short, but it starts to become repetitive towards its end due to the sheer lack of enemy variety.
Hellbound | Final Thoughts
Hellbound manages to successfully enter the pantheon of retro FPS greats by its core gameplay loop alone. The shooting is a devilishly good time, and it never gets tiring separating a demon's top half from its bottom half with the triple shotgun. Unfortunately, the fun is over before it begins, and dedicated shooter fans will be left wondering where Hellbound went and when it was supposed to actually start. A handful of campaign levels and a small number of survival maps simply isn't enough, no matter how brutally excellent the core gunplay is.
TechRaptor reviewed Hellbound on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the publisher.
- Core Gunplay Feels Great
- Nails 90s Shooter Atmosphere
- Beautiful, Colorful Visuals
- Not Enough Content
- Very Little Enemy Variety
- Confusing Level Design