System(s): Windows PC
Release Date: August 17, 2007
Publisher (Developer): Ruminant’s Whimper (TONNAR)
ESRB Rating: Unrated
As stated in my review of Mamorukun Curse! I’m particularly fond of the shmup genre, especially those of the manic/bullet hell variety. HellSinker is the result of 5 years of labor from the game’s sole creator Hiranyon, also known as Ranyon, also known as TONNAR; released under his Ruminant’s Whimper brand of doujin works at Comiket 72 (look up) back in 2007 (Confusing, huh? Just wait). Of course, being a doujin game, HellSinker was originally only in Japanese, however, after the game started to gain some traction and appeal here in the west—and become arguable more popular and well known here than in Japan—many fans took to the cause of translating the game to English. With the “official” patch being released earlier this year, I guess it’s about time to sit down and give this cult game its fair share of recognition.
Going in to HellSinker my expectations were about as neutral as one can expect; I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it and I only really expected it to be the sort of doujin-shmup that would be overshadowed by the likes of the Touhou games. And truth be told, I had never actually heard of HellSinker prior to starting this review: which is odd considering my history with the shmup genre and my love of Japanese pop-culture. Just like every game I review, I started off by doing a little research into the game just to get a feel for what I was in for; what I found was not only a multitude of gameplay videos and discussion forums, but a quite large and passionate fanbase. I found the HellSinker cult. Finally getting around to starting the game, I soon discovered something about not only HellSinker but also its fans: their hardcore tendencies are matched only by their confusing nature.
Not your typical Shmup narrative
HellSinker actually has a pretty deep narrative that goes well beyond that of a typical bullethell; though, you’d be forgiven for missing it completely as the story is told primarily through the game’s manual. Still, this aspect of the game cannot be overlooked. The central narrative revolves around a mysterious corporation called Graveyard who has tasked several of their elite soldiers, called Executors, to infiltrate and destroy an even more mysterious tower called the Cardinal Shaft. The Executors live isolated from the majority of society who fears them because of their supernatural powers, but nonetheless relies on the Executors to keep them safe: how ironic.
However, HellSinker’s story goes far deeper than this as it tells of the history of this world and the construction of the Cardinal Shaft as well as tales of a great war that occurred long before the ancient tower’s construction. Come to think of it, HellSinker’s story is more of a history lesson of a fictitious world than it is an actual narrative, and like history seems to be open to much interpretation. For example, the game’s manual states that no one knows what the Cardinal Shaft’s purpose is, only that it is heavily guarded by thousands of bio-mechanical entities called Prayers and is directly in the center of an island called Paradise. However, the game’s official wiki as well as many HellSinker forums cite the Cardinal Shaft as a machine that regulates karma and affects the lives of every living creature on the planet; the goal of the Executors, and the primary plot of the game, is to destroy the Cardinal Shaft so humanity can flourish and karma is returned to its natural state. So it seems that there is some dispute as to which story is the real story; this is only one example of the confusing and all around masochistic nature of HellSinker: a nature that takes no prisoners and pulls no punches.
Just what the HellSinker is going on?
Even though I did my usual amount of research prior to starting HellSinker, I was still utterly lost upon its commencement. The first thing you see when the game begins is the title screen, followed by the main menu; while in any other game these two are mere time-sinks before the actual game begins, in HellSinker they are more like the first of many punches to the gut and kicks to the face. To begin with, the font used in the menu is so heavily stylized I didn’t even think it was English at first. V’s look like backward L’s, A’s and R’s are nearly identical, and the text is stretched so much horizontally that I initially thought the aspect ratio was off. You’d think things would get a little less cryptic once you figure out how to decipher the text, but you’d be mistaken. Initially there are only three options available to you on the title screen: “Full Sequence Order”, “DipSW”, and “Away” as well as some strange words that you can’t seem to interact with and seem to change at complete random; sometimes they say “Minogame”, “Fossil Maiden”, or “Dead Liar”.
Well, I eventually did tune into HellSinker enough to figure out what I was looking at; I did this primarily by selecting each option at random and hoping its effects would be noticeable. Full Sequence Order is how you begin the game, DipSW is the options menu, and Away is how you quit the game; however, each of these selections only led to further confusion—well, except for Away: that’s pretty self-explanatory. The options are even more confusing and I still don’t know what half of them do. When you choose Full Sequence Order to begin the game you are greeted with yet three more choices such as how you want your slow down button to work, how many lives you can have, and something called a “Bootleg Ghost”. Not really understanding that last one, I just went with the default setting and began the game.
Finally, after wading through the cryptic text and the terrible user interface I was finally shooting down enemies and weaving in and out of patterned streams of bullets: now, this is more like it. However, that feeling didn’t last very long, as I soon discovered just how insanely difficult the gameplay was. Now, I can get through most shmups; the Touhou games are somewhat of a forte of mine, and games like DonPachi and Ikaruga, while challenging, are still within the realm of my shmup skills. That said, HellSinker wreaked me—time and time again. After I finally made it through the first level and died very quickly on the second, I decided it was time to delve back into my research and figure out just what I was doing wrong, as well as figure out just what the mysterious meters in the HUD labeled “Sol” and “Stella” meant and why they fluctuate so wildly.
So, barring any more stories of my somewhat frustrating induction to the world of HellSinker, I’ll get to the point (finally). From what I can gather, even the most seasoned of HellSinker players are still in debate as to certain game mechanics. So going back to the title screen, I’ll share what I’ve learned: the strange words such as Fossil Maiden and Minogame are actually different characters and you select them by pressing left or right on the game pad (or the keyboard, but I’ll just go on record and say that this game is impossible to play with a keyboard: don’t even try). Each character not only has a different shot pattern, but also has entirely different methods of attack: to the point where playing a different character might as well be synonymous with playing a different game. Each character has a sub-weapon and a main weapon, as well as bomb meter (which is what Sol is) that recharges over time. Different combinations of firing your main and sub weapon yield different attacks, as does the timing in which you perform these actions. The Stella meter is more or less a real-time difficulty setting that goes up when you’re doing well and down when you’re doing poorly; so if you just want to survive, keep your Stella meter low, but if you want more of a challenge (you’re insane) and want to get significantly higher scores, keep it high.
Unlike other shmups, which have you firing straight ahead while weaving in and out of bullets and occasionally using a bomb, HellSinker requires far more finesse and strategy. For starters, your primary attack is pretty weak and is really only useful while waiting for your bomb and sub-weapon to charge. Like any good shmup the bombs make you briefly invincible and eliminate all bullets on screen. The sub-weapon and bombs recharge over time and as such never run out of ammo. Likewise, your Stella meter slowly drains the longer you go without killing an enemy and rises slightly with each kill. There are a multitude of enemy drops—far too many to mention here. Some items charge your Sol meter faster so you can use your bombs more frequently, while other items raise the power of your primary shot (which is called Luna, by the way).
Another difference between HellSinker and other games in its genre comes in terms of bullet speed and variety. To begin with, there are far more bullet types and patterns than most danmaku shooters. Many of your enemies’ shots not only look different, but behave different as well. There are oblong bullets that rotate as they fly toward you, and occasionally your only choice to avoid being hit is to time your movements perfectly with the rotation of each piece of hail-fire. Strings of bullets tend to vary greatly in terms of the speed in which they approach you, sometimes requiring you to have superhuman reflexes or just be lucky in order to dodge them. You can mitigate the number of bullets on screen by taking out enemies quickly with the careful deployment of your various attacks, however not all enemies respond to your attacks in the same manner so you’ll have to strategize when you fire which attack in order to be successful.
This is what sets HellSinker apart from other manic shooters; whereas in a traditional shmup you only have a few attacks to choose from: regular fire, bombs, and sometimes charged shots. Here, you have a regular shot, a level 1 sub-weapon shot, a level 2 sub-weapon shot, a regular shot combined with a level 1 sub-weapon shot, a regular shot combined with a level 2 sub-weapon shot, and a bomb; not to mention, holding the primary fire button puts up a field that slows incoming bullets for some characters and for others it charges up a more powerful shot. There’s also a slow button that can be programed to allow for various amounts of speed reduction. Keep in mind that each character has a completely different control scheme and sub-weapon, and some characters actually have multiple sub-weapons to choose from. Then there’s the Bootleg Ghost that is sort of like a shield and works differently depending on what you choose before you start the game. I recommend setting this to “Solid State” as it provides you with a slowly recharging shield that can take a single hit for you and will work up to three times per stage; and trust me, you’ll need all the help you can get because this game is relentless and only gives you 3 lives to start with as well as a single continue. You can earn extra lives by collecting a certain number of hearts throughout each stage, but these are few and far between and even though you have the option of setting your number of max lives before you start the game, that’s all this is: your max lives, not how many you start with—you always start with 3.
Another aspect that keeps HellSinker in the realm of the hardcore is that it likes to keep you in the unknown and breaks away from any perceived conventions; for example, the first boss can be beaten in around thirty seconds once you know what you’re doing. However, the second boss can take 5 minutes or longer and some levels have enemies spawn at the bottom of the screen with shots that fire upward. One of the later levels has the screen rapidly switch between vertical and horizontal scrolling and forces you to navigate a labyrinth of sorts as you dodge enemy fire and take any number of portals that transport you to some other location in the level that may or may not be farther back in the level’s progression. Then there’s “The Shrine of Farewell” which is sort of like a boss rush that seems to be entered upon the completion of a level depending on how good or bad you did—some say you enter if you do poorly, others say you enter if you do well; I think it’s just random.
As Niche as Niche Can Get
I’ve reviewed quite a few games this past year that I’ve labeled as “niche” titles, but HellSinker takes the cake; this is certainly a game designed only for the most hardcore, masochistic gamers out there and I can’t stress that fact enough. While I did enjoy the game and will probably go back and play it again sometime, I didn’t really get into it. Perhaps that’s part of HellSinker’s charm: its exclusivity. It’s an elitist game that will beat you down and not only tell you that you aren’t even worthy to mention its name, it’ll show you. It basically says: “oh, you can’t understand what’s going on? Well screw you, I’m not going to lighten up for your candy ass; just go back and play Touhou and cry like the little bitch you are.” Something like that. Still, I can’t help but admire a game that knows its audience and gives them exactly what they’re looking for, even if I’m not part of that intended audience. HellSinker is quite possibly the most in-depth and complex shmup there is and is sure to please those looking for a real challenge; even if it does shun those with less refined shmup skills.
Site: [HellSinker Wiki]