In some ways Metal: Hellsinger looks like a traditional first-person shooter. At first I try to play it like one, strafing left to right while lining up my shots and keeping an eye out for health packs. It’s not until I start to play it like Guitar Hero with a shotgun that things begin to click into place and I start to understand why director David Goldfarb is so excited about it.
Goldfarb’s designer credits include acclaimed shooters like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Payday 2, but Metal: Hellsinger, despite occupying a similar space, feels quite different. It’s the work of The Outsiders, a Swedish studio he co-founded, and in it you play as The Unknown, a half-human, half-demon, who’s trying to escape Hell and needs to kill tons of demons to do it. Over Skype, Goldfarb told Kotaku part of the inspiration behind it was wanting a game with a metal aesthetic and soundtrack that looked and sounded more aggressive.
A life-long fan of heavy metal who says he’s connected more with its clear binaries and moral clarity as he’s grown older, Goldfarb is clearly excited about the game, saying that while he hopes it hits a nerve with a larger audience it was also driven by his own desire for a metal game that strikes the right balance between grim fantasy and self-parody.
“It can be serious, it can even be funny, but it still needs to not parody itself, and that’s where I’m hoping we land,” Goldfarb says. “That it feels like this is a cool thing and I’m into it, and it has a fucking awesome soundtrack and there’s this crazy Rock Band Doom thing, this fusion of rhythm and FPS, and it’s inside of this metal wrapper that is the best parts of the genre.”
In a pre-alpha demo, I start off on the snow-covered ruins of a castle with only a sword and a skull. I can stab enemies, stun them by bashing into them, or summon lightning from the skull by shaking it to the beat like a tambourine. Pretty soon I find a shotgun and what looks like cross between a bear and a giant sloth. I pull the trigger on the beat and he’s quickly blown away, as are the hordes of other demonic beings trying to rip me apart. As my rhythm combo meter increases so does my score, but also the damage each attack does. The combo meter also controls the music, shifting from ambient electric guitar riffs to a fully arranged metal track complete with the vocals of a man gutturally singing about chaos. I’m the last person you’d expect to see at a death metal concert, but it only took Hellsinger a couple minutes to pull me under its spell.
Goldfarb’s pithy pitch for the game is “Doom plus Guitar Hero,” and after having spent some time with it, that feels accurate. As a shooter it’s about moving fast and killing things even faster, always while pushing forward. As a rhythm game, it’s about keeping a constant pace and getting into the groove without letting your fight or flight shooter instincts override your body’s desire to stick to the unwavering time signature. What I’m less clear on is just how involved the rhythm part of the game will get later on, moving beyond simply keeping time to potentially hitting more complex combinations of button presses to create even more powerful attacks or add extra flourishes to the music. And it’s still so early in development that Goldfarb declines to go into much detail about how all of it will work.
In addition to songs written by artists like Soilwork’s Björn Strid and Arch Enemy’s Alissa White-Gluz, the plan is also to have the game’s story narrated by Troy Baker while Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale voices one of the main characters. The game is currently targeting 2021 for a cross-gen release on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox Series X, PS5, and PC, but it’s also clear that it’s still early in development. The Outsiders announced earlier this year that it was halting development on an earlier project called Darkborn. “But one door closes and another opens,” the studio wrote at the time. We now know that other door leads to Hell. Hopefully Metal: Hellsinger is able to make it out alive.