Wednesday, 6 June 2012


Post-Launch Review
Painkiller: Black Edition
Developer: People Can Fly 
Released: April 2004

Sorry for the lack of screenshots - Steam's screenshot feature didn't work with Painkiller for some reason.


Painkiller is an FPS where you play Daniel Garner, who died with his wife in a car accident, and now works for Heaven as a hitman. He's not allowed to see his wife until his work is done, and now only Hell's four generals stand in his way - but he has to stop them before they take control of Purgatory and all souls within.

At Launch

Painkiller received an 82% metascore, with critics loving the sheer visual variety and exciting gameplay. However, there was substantial criticism of the gameplay's simplicity. It ended up with a respectable pile of awards.

Post Launch

No updates that I can find, but plenty of expansions/spinoffs were released: Battle out of Hell, Overdose, Resurrection, Redemption, and Recurring Evil. Black Edition contains the original Painkiller and the first expansion, Battle out of Hell.

The Good

Painkiller feels very old-school. There's a time delay between shots for every weapon, but you don't have to load clips or anything. There's no crouch or sprint or cover or any fancy stuff, just you against the horde. It's pretty intense to know that the demons will stop coming eventually, but not knowing exactly when, and meanwhile trying to survive against dozens of attackers coming from all angles. It's intense and fun.

Core Concept and Setting
You're Heaven's hitman who's not allowed to see his wife until he gets the job done. It suggests some deeper morality than the simple "Heaven = good, Hell = evil" (which is reinforced when you meet a friendly demon). The game is essentially set in purgatory, where new souls go to await sorting or to do penance for sins. The forces of Hell have realized that by taking over purgatory, they would gain control over every soul that enters the afterlife, and so are staging an invasion. Cool concept!

The variety in the settings and enemy models is stunning. Each level takes place in a completely different area, and each is visually distinct. There are tons of areas: an abandoned asylum, a cemetery, underground tombs and ruins, an opera house, an icy mountain bridge and fortress, and much more. Each area comes with its own unique demon models that fit the area. You fight zombies, ninjas, crazy guys, golems, witches - all kinds of things.
The cutscenes show their age with overfast and jerky character animation, but the environments and lighting tend to be quite good.

Some of the weapons don't really make sense. Why does the wooden-stake railgun have contact grenades as a secondary fire? Why does the shotgun's secondary freeze enemies? On the other hand, WHO CARES, they're awesome! Your default weapon, the painkiller, has a spinning saw blade melee attack. As a secondary fire, you shoot a projectile which deals some damage on impact, or attaches to the environment. While attached, as long as you keep your crosshair on the projectile, you generate a laser beam that burns anything crossing it. And you can fire the blade by hitting secondary fire while spinning, and it cuts down anything in its path. Also, you have a gun that shoots shuriken and lightning, and your rocket launcher is also a chaingun.

Black Tarot
By completing a specific objective that differs every mission, you unlock either a gold or silver tarot card. Gold cards, of which you can use 3 at once, offer a bonus you can use once per level for a short period. Silver cards - you can have 2 of these equipped at once - give you a bonus that lasts as long as the card is equipped. The cards offer a neat mix-and-match that can slightly alter your gameplay. As an example, my gold cards doubled my fire rate, halved incoming damage, and extended the gold card effect duration by 10 seconds; while my silver cards allowed me to use the gold cards twice and kept souls on the ground longer.

The Neutral

The game saves at checkpoints and whenever you clear a level. The checkpoints are spaced kind of unevenly: sometimes you'll fight four skeletons in a hallway and hit a checkpoint, while other times you'll fight a seemingly endless horde across a three-floor mausoleum.
Each checkpoint restores your health to 100 if you're below that amount (if you're higher you keep what you've got). The healing seems a bit odd. It almost makes parts of the game seem too easy. You can occasionally find health pickups, and each soul gives you one hit point, so I'm not entirely sure why your health is reset every time you finish a fight.

 Battle Out Of Hell
It's more Painkiller. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on how you feel about the original.

The Bad

Gameplay is fun, but there's not much to it. You kill all the bad guys in the room, advance to the next room, and repeat... over and over and over and over. Functionally there's very little enemy variety: there's the melee guys, the ranged guys, and the melee+ranged guys. Sometimes they'll jump at you, and some are faster or slower, but everything has about the same health, deals the same damage, and uses the same tactics. It gets very repetitive and boring in long stretches.

The ambient music could be really good, but I'll never know, since Painkiller opts to blast generic, repetitive heavy metal at me whenever there's a fight, which is almost all the time. There are actually several different tracks, but they sound pretty similar to a non-metal fan, and when they're played almost continuously, the feeling of badassery is replaced with eye-rolling.

Gameplay/Story Disconnect
Play and plot are kept entirely separate from each other. You get one cutscene between each chapter, and that's all the story you get. Even worse, it's not clear how, or even if, each level connects to the next, so the basic plot point of "kill Hell's generals" works out to "blast your way through hundreds of enemies in disconnected environments until we let you fight the boss". There's not a single shred of dialogue or story during play, and the game gives no explanation as to why you fight through an opera house, a frozen bridge in the mountains, and an insane asylum to reach the swamp boss.
Even on a small scale things feel disconnected. Every time you enter a room or area, you're locked in until you've killed everything, and when you have, the game saves and you get all your hit points back. Even though each level is completely cohesive with itself artistically, in terms of gameplay, it feels very much like a series of rooms instead of an environment.

Occasionally the game will hang for a few seconds. Not sure why, but it's irritating to have the game lock up and eat my hit points without letting me do a thing about it.

Lack of Communication
Sometimes there's important information that you need to know, but the game doesn't bother to tell you. As an example: the second boss battle against a water elemental in a swamp. Shooting at the beast, you quickly realize that your weapons deal no damage. But wait, there are these glowing bubbles of swamp gas, and when I shoot them, they explode! Okay, that deals some damage, excellent. After the boss's health is reduced  by a little more than a quarter, things change: it starts making different attacks. The number of bubbles is reduced, and exploding them deals no damage to the boss. That's odd. Well, shooting them causes bubbles to fly into the air, and blowing them up close enough to the boss deals some damage, but they're not predictable and pass by him all too rarely. After dying a few times and getting frustrated, I checked a walkthrough only to find out that at this stage, the boss now takes damage from weapons.
The game never told me this. There was zero indication that his vulnerabilities had changed. Basically, the game tells me that the boss is invulnerable to weapon fire, and then makes him vulnerable without ever giving you so much as a flicker or texture change to let me know. Come on, at least give me something. I'm not sure if or how I was expected to figure that out on my own.

"True" Ending
When you select your difficulty at the start of a new game, it tells you that Trauma difficulty (the highest) is "the true story of Painkiller". To unlock that difficulty, you need to collect every one of the tarot cards. THEN you can clear the game on the highest difficulty to see the "true" ending... which is awful. It's a minute and a half of silhouettes and flashbacks that could've just been summarized to "Daniel gets to see his wife again in heaven! Woo!"
It's a good thing I watched it on YouTube instead of actually playing through Trauma mode, since I would've been very upset.

The Verdict

Recommendation: skip it.
Unless you're a fan of old games and want to play a slightly updated Doom reskin, Painkiller doesn't offer much to the modern gamer. I had to fight to make it through the game, constantly coming up with excuses to quit and do something else. To put it simply, it's not a bad game, but there's a reason FPS games aren't made like this anymore.

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