A Blast from the Past review
FBT relives a painful memory.
My memories of Painkiller are vague yet vibrant. It stayed with me somehow, despite playing once and never going back. I recall the best ‘melee’ weapon of any shooter (The eponymous weapon) as I fought through the lost and pissed off souls of Purgatory to re-join my wife in Heaven, assisted by none other than Eve, looking typically seductive. What really stuck with me, my first thought when I recalled Painkiller is endlessly battering baddies; that’s the point of any shooter, but it was such a consistent onslaught and not in a frenetic, frantic or exhilarating way. I remember them in their hundreds plodding towards me as I plodded towards them, Painkiller akimbo. I think I enjoyed it but didn’t want to be stuck in purgatory again.
Painkiller was released in 2004 - a big year for gaming, starting with Rockstar’s GTA San Andreas. It finally cracked what we’d been after since the beginning; an immersive shooter experience. Along with 2004’s other open world release, Far Cry, games that would have been traditionally linear shooters changed - Now we could choose how and when we shot it. Shooters began to absorb more Role-Playing tropes; xp, level ups, choices and side missions and eventually games like Borderlands became the modern shooter, only CoD laboured lineally on. Meanwhile, 2004's Doom 3 had one thing going for it – it's iDTech4 engine; Doom 3’s guts and GTA:SA’s heart meant games were going to get interesting again.
And in the middle of this revolution was Painkiller, in its own kind of purgatory. It’s ‘shut up and shoot’ approach seemed dated, a year too late like Daikatana or SiN, steamrolled by their contemporaries. But somehow Painkiller held on, kept coming like its monsters. A steady stream of add-ons, DLC, odd remakes, and a sequel - Painkiller was one of those games most gamers had played but didn’t really talk about, like living through ‘Nam.
So, my expectations for Painkiller are mixed. Would it play like a refreshingly clean game, a change to the overly complicated shooters of today? Why did I play it once and never go back?
Still a Blast?
Despite it being all about Hell, Purgatory, Regret, Loss and all that, I wasn’t prepared for how Gothic it is in here. An opening cut scene shows a car on the road at night, our hero Daniel (What kind of name is that for a hero? I’ll assume some biblical reference that I can’t be bothered to google) looking lovingly at his wife instead of the road and ploughing their car into a truck. She goes to Heaven while Daniel, in purgatory is left to his own device. The Painkiller. Easily one of my favourite Melee weapons, beating the Grav-Gun from HL2 or Duke’s foot, PK is a bladed fan that slices through enemies like one of those Dicers that cuts anything on a teleshopping channel. But wait, that’s not all! If you order now you’ll also get an alt fire that sends a tracer firing out creating a laser that eviscerates anything walking through it, while the tracer also grabs an enemy and pulls them towards the blades. Plus it can rip open anything destructible. It’s the multipurpose tool of any Purgatory survivor and one of those early weapons you keep going back to because it shakes things up a bit. I'm in a graveyard and looking forward to letting loose.
But two steps of exploration later and I’m battling through pretty much an endless roll-call of Gothic, horror nightmare-ish villains. Crone Witches, Skeletons in armour wielding swords. Fine, this is a shooter afterall and it’s a strong start. But after this happens two or three times, I sense a trend. For no real reason, I’m locked or forced into battles, trapping me into what really are mini arenas; walk into an area and a door locks and off I go, spinning and shotgunning until it opens again. I’m just corralled and set upon. But that’s what a shooter is surely? I justify this as Hell’s punishment for me, to eternally wander into firefights, fighting for my non-life. A dozen baddies pop up, I dispatch and continue. And keep doing it.
Eventually my smiting is over and the entire graveyard smote, my stats are revealed like a deathmatch game and on we go. For levels and levels I repeat this until Eve appears, who along with an angel (who looks like the keyboardist from a ‘80s Swedish pop band) explain Lucifer is on the march to claim Heaven via Purgatory and all I have to do to join my wife is stop him. That's ... big. That's a big boss battle, the devil. And then it's back to killing groups in areas in levels, with no real sense of moving forward, of getting anywhere because each level is it's own part of Purgatory - that makes sense thematically, it just doesn't work narratively, when in the game itself. When I die I expect it to ask me to insert more coins.
Painkiller is schizophrenic. The cutscenes do all the telling, I do all the shooting. They could be different games if it wasn’t for the backgrounds. Sure, that’s the basic structure of any FPS, but the stages, the stats completely remove me from any personal involvement. I just wander looking for traps to spring waiting for the exit to open. I have no investment; This feels like a bot-controlled deathmatch, like I have no friends to play with online. There’s no story elements to the parts I control, no reveals, no curiosity to be had. Just shoot.
Daniel, in a pleather jacket and frowny face, doesn’t seem too concerned about it. He’s like a Max Payne knock-off. Had Daniel been a bit more of a Maxalike, constantly doubting himself in-game, it could have been interesting but once you’re back in control, Daniel is silent (except for those annoying ‘huh, haa, oof’ noises first person heroes used to make every time they jumped.); All the apprehension and seemingly unwinnable situation carefully woven into the cutscene’s narrative is swept aside in favour of literally hundreds of creatures who take the quickest route towards Painkiller’s blades. Zero AI, zero challenge. All I got from this was RSI from clicking fire. You could mod the backgrounds into anything (Serious Sam springs to mind) and it would have no effect on your experience; Your purpose is to clear out the baddies and start the next battle.
To look at, it’s a thing of beauty. Each level is a master-class in art design and different to the next. Every possible gothic and nightmarish location is explored and it’s done so well - you’re maiming through huge cathedrals where robed figures lob axes, blazing medieval villages under attack from witches on broomsticks, a mental institution where tortured patients still strapped to their electro-shock equipment scream, medieval castles with Executioners. Later levels reflect WW1. It drips with death and despair and that's what is so anger-inducing; none of the surroundings are reflected in the experience. Purgatory is full of decrepit and wasted places inhabited by victims siding with the Devil in the hopes he’ll lead them to Heaven yet you’re just holding down the shoot button in arena battles. If it felt like you were pushing forward, that you were progressing through the story not a level it would be perfect. Painkiller should work, it should be full of a creeping sense of unease as I hesitantly explore the underworld knowing I’ll have to face off with the devil at some point. But I make no connection, I have no war-stories to tell, no anecdotes of lucky/clever fighting on my part or the baddies, no narrative moments while I’m in control; I don’t personally achieve anything except unlock the exit and my experience would be identical to any other gamer's.
And it gets more frustrating. Each new level removes your previous ammo and armour disconnecting you from the narrative - It’s Unreal Tournament in a Haunted House; It's easy to see why PK was chosen as the first World Cyber-Athelete game. Chasing after souls to invoke ‘devil mode’, juggling coin out of dead bodies to unlock one-use power-ups just add to the disconnect; Daniel should be Max Payne, the levels should show me clawing my way back to my wife, I should want to get through this but I just maim until I get to see Eve again in her barely there outfit; I don’t blame Adam for making a mess of things. Painkiller is essentially an arcade game while the cut-scene story is an animated Divine Comedy. Just watch it on YouTube.
2004 | Developer People Can Fly | Publisher DreamCatcher Interactive
Platforms; Win | XBox