At the time of writing, a new independently developed game called “Helltaker” is all over social media, with all sorts of people sharing screenshots and fanart.
With that in mind, I decided to give it a look for myself. Turns out it’s a free download for PC, available via Steam. As such, there’s absolutely no risk involved in trying it out at the very least — and if you like it, you have a cool thing to add to your library; if, on the other hand, it’s not for you, you haven’t lost anything.
What did I think? Hmm, mixed feelings if I’m perfectly honest; let’s explore all that a little further, then.
Helltaker describes itself as “a short game about sharply dressed demon girls”. And this much is certainly accurate. It is indeed short — the whole thing can be completed in well under an hour, though there is a “secret” ending to discover — and it does indeed feature demon girls who are snappy dressers.
One thing to note at this point: despite the large quantity of exceedingly not-safe-for-work fanart this game has spawned, the game itself is not sexually explicit at all — it’s not even particularly fanservicey, for that matter. The developers themselves describe it as “suggestive clothing and poses” and that “it’s all tame” on the store page, so if you were hoping for anything hot and steamy… go look at the fanart instead.
So what actually is Helltaker? Well, the setup is that you’re a Johnny Bravo impersonator who has woken up one day with a desire for a harem full of demon girls, so you’ve descended into Hell itself in order to pursue your dreams.
What follows is a series of Sokoban-esque sliding block puzzles punctuated by very brief dialogue sequences in which the wrong choice will kill you and require you to repeat the level, while the correct choice will allow you to advance through what I guess we can call the “story”, but is actually just a string of character encounters loosely based around various underworld-related mythologies and Judaeo-Christian definitions of sin and the afterlife.
The characters themselves are the highlight here; they’re all drawn in a very distinctive style and make use of an immensely stylish limited palette of black, white and red. It’s not hard to see why they’ve been so popular among the fanart community; they’re relatively simple but highly expressive characters that, given their nature as supernatural demon girls, can quite reasonably be placed in pretty much any situation you’d care to imagine.
Your interactions with each of the girls at the end of each level are extremely quick and barely give you an opportunity to get to know any of the characters beyond which fairly obvious trope they represent. That said, once a character is “recruited” into our hero’s harem, they can be called upon for “advice” in each level; they never actually offer any real advice and instead tend to spend most of their time bickering among themselves, but these sequences are quite entertaining and give us a slightly better idea of what makes each of these girls tick.
In something of a subversion of anime-style “harem” tropes, you get the impression that the girls are very much in charge, and are mostly coming along because they think it might be fun to toy with this human; indeed, the ending would seem to suggest that this is the case.
The overall tone of the game’s dialogue is coated in layers upon layers of caustic irony — the sort of self-deprecating ironic humour that is widespread on social media among certain fandoms. The sort of people who will joke about hardcore hentai being absolutely fine, but holding hands being “lewd”; indeed, there’s even a sequence in the game’s ending where an interest in romance is described as being proof of being a “perverted degenerate”, for example, which is exactly the sort of language this sort of humour generally uses.
You’re either a fan of this or you aren’t. Some find it antithetical to sincerity and/or having something of substance to say, but equally there are plenty of people out there who like to hide behind layers of irony in order to express an interest in something without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious about it. Your mileage may vary, and your own response to this description will play a big part in determining whether or not you will dig Helltaker’s overall vibe.
It’s a distinctly Western thing; the example cited above is a Western-centric riff on the usually earnest, sincere convention in Japanese media that a couple holding hands for the first time is a huge deal in their relationship — and that, yes, there are examples of manga, anime and visual novels where pairs of characters are sexually intimate with one another before they kiss, talk about their feelings or hold hands. Western ironic humour often jokes about this because it is, in theory, so different to our own societal conventions — though anyone who’s ever had a one-night stand may well disagree.
As for the actual gameplay of Helltaker, the majority of your time actively playing involves grid-based sliding block puzzles that require you to clear a path to the girl of the hour, perhaps collecting a key along the way. Some levels also conceal sigils that will ultimately open the way to the “secret” ending, too. The twist here is that you have a limited number of moves to complete the puzzle, and there are traps around the place that will drain additional moves from your counter, meaning there are times when you will want to time your movements to minimise these “injuries”.
The levels are typically designed in such a way that you need every single available move to clear the puzzle, and there are often a couple of routes that see you literally one step away from victory. This is, of course, extremely frustrating, but it’s simple and straightforward to immediately try again — plus if you get really irritated with a particular level, you can just skip it through the menu with no penalty other than the fact you won’t get the Steam Achievement for that particular stage.
Bizarrely, the final stage of the game consists of a reaction-based boss fight where you are moving around while attempting to avoid rhythmic telegraphed attack moves. The encounter itself is actually quite well-designed, based on taking advantage of obvious openings in learnable patterns rather than being obnoxiously randomised, and the grid-based movement works well with how the telegraphs are implemented. The complete incongruity of this stage after the strictly cerebral challenges of the rest of the game is rather jarring, though — so much so that it’s a frequent topic of conversation on the game’s official forums.
Ultimately, Helltaker is a game whose main distinguishing feature is its excellent character design, but not a lot else. The gameplay is derivative and the brief length of the dialogue sequences doesn’t give us a lot of time to really get to know any of these characters — but the game as a whole provides enough of a tease to make it clear that there’s potential here.
Were these demon girls in a more substantial and perhaps more narrative-centric experience that allowed us to learn more about them, they could really shine with the infernal light that burns brightly inside them. As it stands, right now their future feels like a more exciting prospect than their immediate present.
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