Hellpoint Review (Switch)
It is impossible to fully assess Hellpoint, the latest hardcore action RPG to be released on the Nintendo Switch, without understanding it is the first offering of Quebec-based Indie Dev, Cradle Games. This team of ~11 have been working for nearly half a decade to bring the twisted vision of Irid Novo – itself an inspired fever-dream from a single mind (Creative Director Matt Boudreau’s mind to be specific) – to as many gamers as possible.
What began as a kickstarter in 2017 has come full circle as the team focuses their attention both on a Next Gen console release and a DLC that promises to wrap up their vision for their debut title, Hellpoint.Looking at how much they’ve done, it’s clear that Cradle Games has always been, if nothing else, ambitious. One can only hope that ambition is matched in execution.
There is an air of mystery about the space station Irid Novo. One that permeates the entire experience of Hellpoint. Cradle Games is not shy about how inspirational FromSoft Bloodborne was to their decisions to shape Hellpoint, and it shows in many of the best ways possible. From the moment you arise from whatever goo holds your synthetic body, you’ll only have a faint notion of what you should do next. A voice rings in your head telling you to figure out what went on here. With literally nothing except the synthetic skin on your back, you set out to do just that.
Along the way, you’ll possibly meet a few friends, perhaps a nemesis, maybe an entire army of cenobite-inspired shamblers. Oh, and let’s not forget three cosmic gods that act as the games main bosses. Of course, most of these encounters are not guaranteed. So individual playthroughs can vary quite a bit unless you are going the 100% completion route (this is possible as well).
That’s the thing with Hellpoint’s story – you may follow it or you may not. Fans of soulslike titles are familiar with this approach. No matter which parts of the story you experience in your time with the game, hacking and slashing and exploring will be the highlights that sustain your enthusiasm until the enigmatic origins of the narrative begin to reveal themselves.
The mysteries of Irid Novo run deep and twist as much as the corridors and secret passageways the station is saturated with. The game, however, doesn’t do its best job of motivating the player to want to know what’s at the center of this enigma as it could – especially in those oh-so-crucial early hours when people who are not already addicted to the soulslike loop need other reasons to stay involved.
Yes this is a criticism, but it’s also one made with the acknowledgement this is an extremely ambitious *first* title for a small team. Still, most players are going to need to find a reason other than the story to stick with the games challenging combat and 3D platforming mechanics unless, as it came to be for myself, the challenge in the combat and exploration itself became the appeal. More on this when we discuss mechanics and gameplay next.
How Hellpoint Differentiates itself from other Soulslike Titles.
The systems in Hellpoint are, for the most part, standard fare for stamina-based 3D action RPGs over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t added some fun new things. First and foremost, you can jump in Hellpoint. Platforming mechanics add a sense of verticality to exploring Irid Novo that, to my knowledge, only Sekiro can match in the subgenre.
And you know what? There is something very old-school about the platforming in Hellpoint that feels at home with the other old-school sensibilities that inform soulslike titles. I’m a gamer dad who grew up playing super unforgiving platformers on the NES. I felt right at home, and if you beat all the Mega Man and Mario games (either recently or decades ago), you’ll likely get into the challenge here as well.
I’ve spent enough time within the game’s community to know that my opinion on how well the jumping mechanics fit is not universally held. There is a vocal section of the community who actively dislikes the jumping in Hellpoint. I personally think this is one of those things that boils down to personal taste. Do you like Platformers? Then you’ll likely enjoy it.
Do you NOT like platformers or games that mix genres? Maybe not for you. Look – I see my job as a reviewer as helping you decide if you want to pick the game up or not. So I will always try to point out systems that the community is divided over because I think most of us know intuitively which side we will fall on once we know the point of contention.
Before moving on from systems, I want to also mention a unique real-time system where the game changes as time progresses. A clock is included in your default UI to track this. This makes for one of the most intriguing aspects of Hellpoint. Some places can only be accessed at certain times. Some events can only happen at other times. Ultimately, this keeps you on your toes. I often entered a familiar room to instead be puzzled at the layout of enemies. Why does this place change depending on its orbit? was a question that I enjoyed savoring as I explored. I’ll leave any further explanation to your curiosity to discover if it is so inclined.
The jumping and clock mechanics add a lot, but they are not the only new systems to a familiar formula. You’ll also have a little companion “Omni-cube” that can do different things for you like fast travel, lighting up dark corners, protecting you from environmental hazards, revealing secrets, playing music, and more. Little other wrinkles continue to pop up throughout your journey, so stay on your toes.
The Gameplay Loop: or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Orbit a Black Hole
What does one do on Irid Novo? Quite simply, one explores. Along the way, one will kill, be killed, and find all kinds of cool loot. But primarily, one will spend their time finding ways through the twisting corridors that will challenge internal mapping, jumping, and combat skills. And don’t forget, the longer you stay in one area, the more it changes.
The clock in the upper left hand corner keeps moving and what you can and should do changes along with it. Is it the Black Hole hour? Maybe it’s time to try to open one of the game’s most securely locked secret doors or take on a boss for a bonus reward. Is the clock lighting up strangely? Maybe you should look around again and see if anything has changed.
How does one even get going? By slowly exploring from breach to breach and observing what the game teaches along the way. Simply put, Hellpoint is a game for the curious. Do you want to pull at that mysterious thread you noticed and see what you can uncover? Do you want to persist down an obscure corridor, across a hidden platform, behind two hidden doors, across a series of lift jumps, down a huge slide, across a series of floor tiles with symbols, etc? If you are thinking this sounds awful, the game isn’t for you. If instead you are intrigued, there is much to discover.
I’ve played my share of soulslike titles, and very few of them come close to cramming in the number of hidden secrets, twists, and easter eggs that Hellpoint manages. Much of the joy found in the gameplay loop is in moments of solving small environmental puzzles and finally reaching that tantalizing shiny object that had previously eluded you.
For example, a broken pathway makes reaching two objects in one area of the game impossible. I must have died 15 times trying to make the jump because I’m obstinate before I decided to flick on my omni-cube’s black light which reveals hidden tiles – a puzzle solvable with 0 deaths if I had stopped to think a little more about what tools I had at my disposal.
As you venture out, you are rewarded for persistence and experimentation. Paths that surely cannot be the way forward turnout to be just that. The out-of-the-way ledge that looks like an afterthought might just lead to a new armor set. But, in Hellpoint you’ll be asked to risk a lot to satisfy this curiosity. Few platformers have dropped all of your XP when you miss a jump. I can understand why some find this an exercise in frustration, but that’s not something the devs were concerned with. Their vision was to make a punishing game that rewards persistence, creativity, and courage. If this is your cup of tea, I think you’ll find much to enjoy while exploring Irid Novo.
Irid Novo is a dark and twisted locale for a Switch title. In almost every section of the station you’ll find mutilated corpses in varying quantities along with twisted enemies like space fish, severed body limbs, and more I don’t want to spoil. Simply put, everything here is twisted both figuratively and, often, literally. This aesthetic is as informed by Swedish Heavy Metal acts like In Flames, Meshuggah, and Opeth as much as Bloodborne, the game Hellpoint’s creative director Matt Boudreau says “left a deep scar in him” and cites as his primary influence.
This is an indie action RPG from a first-time developer who also built an engine with the vision of using it beyond Hellpoint. At times, the team’s inexperience and size shows, but it is this rawness that draws me to indie titles as the perfect palate cleanser to the plastic aftertaste AAA games can leave after prolonged exposure. Improvements in graphical presentation and the combat engine will come over time with Cradle Games later titles. Hellpoint brings a solid engine to a development team that is highly active with its fan base.
And this, to me, points to Hellpoint’s biggest success: despite somewhat dull graphics at times and a clearly problematic port to Switch, Hellpoint is curated for by a team that continually listens and wants to improve. This is a passion project. That means something. If this commitment to executing on a bold vision and listening to their community to ensure they hit the mark, I genuinely believe we can expect better things to come.
I mentioned the graphics can be underwhelming. Most noticeably, many of the areas, despite clear attempts to differentiate, looked similar enough that it was hard for me to look around and determine where I was within a given part of the map if there weren’t any huge unique landmarks nearby. Thankfully, these are all across the game. The usefulness of this, however, is lost when you are in twisting and turning access tunnels. Though these sections felt authentic in their similar appearance (I mean it’s access corridors in a space station, makes sense they look alike), I still found myself saying “This all looks exactly the same” more than I would have preferred.
A few notable exceptions to this exist, including the Arcology Underside where, if you figure out how to survive, you can enjoy a terrifying platforming experience in the deep cold embrace of space. Pretty unforgettable, especially when it takes so long after falling into space for the death sequence to initiate. Thankfully, no one heard me scream.
How The Switch Port Stacks Up
When it comes down to it, the most disappointing part of the experience of playing Hellpoint on Switch is the quality of the port. Simply put, the original Switch port is the most troublesome of any version of the game that I’ve played when it comes to performance. In the first area alone (not terribly populated) FPS dips to 22-25FPS often and hits 20 a few times.
This is definitely felt when you swing your weapon. Given the game actually has rooms where waves of enemies spawn in, this can quickly become a real frustration. I’ve encountered numerous other bugs – like warping through a wall in a boss fight and being immune to the boss after that. It’s clear the Switch port needs more work at the time of this writing.
This is disappointing to see, but after talking to devs and learning that they were not able to do the port internally, it makes sense. I definitely scored the game lower for Switch than I would have on a different console simply due to technical issues at launch. That being said, there is a patch already on the way and Cradle Games has been vocal on social media about fixing it.
Additionally, a DLC is on the way for the game which will give the devs opportunities to continue to refine the experience on Switch. So while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend buying it at the time of this writing (unless you are a hardcore soulslike fan), I have strong confidence that if you wait a few weeks, a far more stable version worthy of a higher review score will appear. I will be reviewing the DLC upon launch and will let you know if performance has been improved or if that is a much better time to pick up the full title for Switch.
Looking back over my time on Irid Novo, a few things stand out: the way weapons gain experience and unlock new moves really encourages you to do new playthroughs with other builds so you can discover new combos. However, it also means many of the cool things about the weapons you find you won’t even know until you’ve put a lot of time into them. I like this system, but feel it could be improved moving forward. Maybe you gain overall experience with weapon types that causes your individual weapon experience to gain at a much faster rate – allowing a build focused on strength weapons to more easily explore the different benefits of strength-based weapons, etc.
Another thing that stands out is just how much fun I had going back over areas I already knew to grind some experience and look for secrets. Often I found a little (or big) thing that I missed. This made me want to go back to other old areas, and as I kept acquiring keys to doors that were locked the first time I visited, it felt like each area slowly yielded its best kept secrets to my dedication as a space explorer. Of course, if you want to be one and done with areas and not go back and poke around and get to know them better, you’ll not benefit from or latch on to this gameplay loop as much as I did.
But perhaps the thing that stands out most is the amount of games that less than a dozen people managed to pack into such a reasonably-priced title ($35.99). The soulslike genre is not for everyone, but that’s okay. SRPGs are not for everyone either, yet I’ll love them as well until the day I die. Despite being clearly designed within a niche RPG subgenre, Hellpoint reeks of the potential of the team that created it.
This team genuinely does not need the crutches of the most readily-identifiable FromSoft tropes anymore. After talking to them, I think they realize this. So yes, looking back, the thing that stands out to me the most is that if Cradle Games can build an experience this intricate on their first outing, they are going to do a much better job next time. This thought excites me.
But Cradle Games story is not yet set in stone, so for now we watch and wait. I would really like to give Hellpoint a higher score. It is a well-thought out and engaging coop soulslike set in a world that’s a blast to explore. The game’s additions to the soulslike formula have merit and teeth. However, the Switch port suffers more than it should at launch. While I do think this performance will ultimately be fixed, the copy that I played just cannot deliver the fluid experience I found the game to be on other consoles.
If you are intrigued, pick up the game after the Switch gets patched. The devs have been super vocal about working on it. Your best bet is to buy it on a different console for now or to wait until that patch or maybe the complete edition comes out on Switch with the DLC included at a great price. Check back with us here at SwitchRPG when it launches to see what we think of it.