I've owned a 3DO console for awhile now, and I am aware that it is widely regarded as being one of the worst in history with a large library of bad games. But still, I couldn't help feeling curious about a game called "Hell" that stars Dennis Hopper. (Yes, the Dennis Hopper.) I have to admit that for my first experience with a 3DO game, it could've been a whole lot worse. Although Hell is chock full of cutscenes, it's not so much an "FMV" game as a Maniac Mansion clone. The gameplay consists of picking up objects and figuring out where to use them or who to give them to. There are some truly inspired moments here, some clever puzzles that made me think, but they are equalled by the game's shortcomings. In the end, Hell was a game that I liked, but left me feeling depressed.
As special agents Gideon Eshanti and Rachel Braque, you are trying to solve the mystery of why the ruling government of 2095, known as the Hand, has targeted you for execution. Although I prefer games to be heavier on the interactive part than the cutscenes, in theory I don't have a problem with them as long as they're exciting to watch. Much of the early part of Hell is setting up the story and introducing myriad plot threads, which is accomplished through endless FMV's of ugly characters talking while repeating the same hand and head gestures over and over again. What's really strange is that every character in the game is represented as a cg model except Cynna Stone (played by supermodel Stephanie Seymour), who is digitized and looks out-of-place. Her role, as a bombing expert, is rather silly, too. It's as though Hell's creators jumped on the oppurtunity to cast a supermodel for their game, but had no idea how to realistically fit her in.
The prerendered backgrounds look similar to SaGa Frontier, but with a much darker and grittier theme. I don't really like this approach to point-and-click games because it's difficult to tell what objects in the room can be manipulated. Hell compensates for this by having a drop-down list of all the items and people in each room. Wonderful. There goes the thrill of discovery.
The best parts of Hell are, not surprisingly, the segments in which you actually visit hell to free prisoners from its various torture chambers. Here is where you actually have to put your brain to work and solve puzzles by finding and using items. There are even a few word, number, and musical note conundrums to mix up the platter. I genuinely enjoyed some of these puzzles. I even felt my hands tremble with a excitement a few times when I hit upon the correct answer, but other puzzles weren't as much fun. With point-and click adventures, I accept that there's always going to be one or two things that I'll need to look up a FAQ for. But the number of abstract puzzles in Hell exceeded my tolerable limit. I had no idea what a "still" is, let alone how to go about making one. The solution for killing the hitman was ridiculously insane, especially since there appears to be a glitch in the game that requires you to activate the solution before talking to the guy who gives you the hint for it. Otherwise, it doesn't work. I still do not understand the solution to the jukebox riddle. I've looked over the answer and the number puzzle that goes with it, and it just doesn't make any sense at all to me. I think something is wrong with their code.
It doesn't help that there is so much dialogue in this game that you can't really tell when something you're told is important. It's very easy for a clue to go right over your head when it's nestled in several pages worth of mumbo-jumbo. Hell does have a replay function, but it's very time consuming to read through all those old conversations. I also think Hell could've benefitted from being a bit more linear. Although I like freedom of exploring to a certain extent, it's easy to find yourself involved in way too many situations at once and lose track of what you should be doing.
The voice acting is often good, sometimes bad, and some is rooted in ethnic stereotypes, but overall I've heard much worse. The performance by Dennis Hopper is respectable, even though a drug-dealing demon who rambles on and says, "mannn!" at the end of every sentence is as typecast a Dennis Hopper character as possible. The storyline is so convoluted that if you don't get up and start wandering around the room as characters ramble about minor plot developments, then you can practically play "count the clichés" with such wonderous dialogue as, "Just relax and think of baseball," and, "I know you're in heaven, because you've already survived hell," and, of all things, new girlfriend vs. old girlfriend bickering between Rachel and Cynna over Gideon. Some of the plot elements don't even make much sense. How is it possible that no one knows the sex of the Hand's leader, Solene Solux, when she rose to power by rallying thousands of supporters at campaign speeches? Because the writers wanted to capitalize on the fact that she's played by gender-bending actor/model Grace Jones, that's how. Not to mention that any sentient gamer will have figured out the truth behind the existence of "hell" long before the dimwitted protagonists come close to discovering it. But to be fair, there is another major plot twist later that I did not see coming, despite the subtle clues given throughout the game.
Hell is not a game I'd recommend for the squeamish. Although most of its depictions of hell and its denizens are cartoony, there are some really disturbing moments, such as a dentist's office where a man is being sadistically tortured by a tooth-drilling demon. Oddly enough, the game doesn't really take itself too seriously; the torture scenes are often followed up with injected humor. ("I told him I just had my teeth capped, but he just kept drilling!") There is also much use of strong language, brief nudity, porno references (though nothing actually shown or explicitly described), and some really gory death scenes. And, of course, there's the matter of the satanism. You actually fight Satan in this game, although it's a rather goofy Satan who is also voiced by Grace Jones. He does have one of the funniest lines I've ever heard in a video game: For no real reason, he opens his chest and taunts, "There's nothing there. Not a damn thing! Kind of pisses you off, doesn't it?"
Perhaps Hell's story is dumb, but it still left me feeling depressed. I won't spoil the ending, but I would've liked to have seen a better outcome for the main characters, especially considering how much they go through to help free others from such depressing situations. It doesn't help that the final battle climaxes in such a ridiculously cheesy way that I didn't feel vengeance was satisfied. Other mass segments of the story consist of programmers spouting off reams of elaborate techno-babble that would put some Linux vs. Windows message board arguments I've seen to shame.
The absolute worst part of Hell, the part that most takes it down from being a good game to an okay game, is the in-game timer. You actually have to complete Hell in a certain amount of "game days". A time limit in a game where you have to spend much time talking to people and solving mysteries is not funny at all. Technically, Shadowgate (a similar game) had a time limit (if all the torches ran out), but in Shadowgate was much easier to bring yourself back up to where you left off. In Hell, you have to sit through all of those damn cutscenes again! You will also reach points where you cannot progress until the timer advances a few days. The only way to accomplish this is to wander around the map. Forcing gamers to advance time in a game that has a time limit is a bad idea. Making them wander around aimlessly, doing nothing for several hours is inexcusable.
I still think my first experience with a 3DO game could've been a lot worse than this. Take2 had a halfway decent game here, but they needed to cut at least 1/4 of the dialogue and focus more on the puzzle-solving than the waiting around for time to fly. I don't regret playing Hell because it was certainly a unique experience, but I just can't recommend anyone hunting down a 3DO for it. After completing it twice, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell I'll ever want to play through it again.
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