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If you’re a fan of first-person shooters then you’ve probably heard of the Painkiller series. It has numerous sequels or expansions but the first game or the Black Edition is still held in high regard. From what I’ve read, Painkiller was inspired by classics like Doom, Quake, and certainly Serious Sam. In fact, I would say it feels more like Serious Sam than the others because of its emphasis on killing hordes of monsters. Doom and Quake were revolutionary and their impact is still felt today. I like to think of Serious Sam and Painkiller as the second wave of balls-to-the-wall shooters and I would consider them classics at this point. Sure, they may not be revolutionary but they’re fun as hell. Developed by People Can Fly and published by DreamCatcher Interactive, Painkiller was released for PC in April, 2004. The expansion, Battle Out of Hell, was released in December of that same year and includes new single player levels, new weapons, and new multiplayer content. The Painkiller: Black Edition combines the original game with the expansion and that’s the version I played for this review. I have played this once before a long time ago and remember enjoying it quite a bit. The game was ported to the original Xbox as Painkiller: Hell Wars and it contains a mix of content from both the original game and the expansion. And I feel I should mention Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, released in 2012, which I believe is supposed to be a remake and sequel to the original. It’s not bad but you need all the DLC to really get the most out of it.
I did install the Randomguy7’s Fix Compilation which is a mod that makes the game run and look better on modern systems. Although, the latter may be subjective because the mod does remove fog in an effort to increase the draw distance so some levels don’t look as intended. However, this mod does fix slowdown on dual-core computers and allows you to modify the HUD and field of view. I am going to give a shout out to other mods that you may want to check out as well. The Widescreen HUD Fix will resolve the stretched HUD when running the game in widescreen. Some levels are locked behind specific difficulty modes but if you install the All Levels Mod, you can play through any level on any difficulty. Then there’s Powermad, a mod that reactivates some cheats that have been disabled in the retail version. After I beat the game, I installed this just to mess around. I was able to enter some cheats but couldn’t actually get into a level. I didn’t play with it too much and I assume it should work with the Black Edition but I really can’t confirm. I will also give a shout out to the FPS Limiter mod which may interest some players since there is no v-sync option, although I should warn you that limiting the frame rate in any way can result in an odd issue that I will go into detail about later in this review.
Painkiller’s story opens with the protagonist, Daniel Garner driving his wife Catherine somewhere at high speeds in the pouring rain and they both end up getting killed in a crash. Catherine goes to Heaven but Daniel is trapped in Purgatory. Evidently, Lucifer has been preparing to launch an assault on Heaven and has amassed a large demonic army. Daniel is approached by a figure named Samael who tells him that he needs to kill Lucifer’s four generals to prevent a war between Heaven and Hell. If Daniel succeeds, he will be reunited with his wife. Obviously, Daniel accepts the task. On his quest to eliminate the generals, he meets a woman named Eve who has been wandering around Purgatory for a very long time. She becomes an ally and provides him information on Purgatory and Lucifer’s army. The story in Battle Out of Hell continues where the original left off and as the title implies, Daniel has to battle his way out of Hell. The stories here are simple and the voice acting isn’t horrible. It’s not amazing but not horrible. I think the performances for the supporting characters are actually pretty decent. The game includes a lot of references to Christianity including making up excuses for why God won’t do shit. The game’s slogan is “Heaven’s got a hitman” and Daniel is literally a one-man army.
Painkiller plays out in chapters with multiple levels per chapter and Battle Out of Hell is basically a single chapter. The game includes four difficulty modes – Daydream, Insomnia, Nightmare, and Trauma. In Battle Out of Hell, Trauma must be unlocked. In both the original game and expansion, certain levels are only available by playing on certain difficulty modes. The higher the difficulty, the more levels you have access to. You can, of course, get around this with the All Levels Mod where you can play through every level on any difficulty. Higher difficulties also make things a lot more challenging. However, you can make your life easier through the use of Tarot Cards but they must be unlocked first. Silver Cards provide bonuses that are always active. Gold Cards also provide bonuses but need to be activated manually. You can place up to two Silver Cards and up to three Gold Cards in between levels and it does cost gold to place and withdraw cards. Silver Card bonuses include things like doubling the amount of health from souls, base health level increase, the ability to acquire souls from farther away, and things like that. Gold Card bonuses include things like slowing down time, doing more damage, moving faster, taking less damage, and stuff along those lines but you can only use these once per level. Now there is a card that increases the amount of times you can use Gold Cards but the trade-off is that it takes up a card slot.
There’s a couple of things I don’t like about the cards. For one, the requirements to unlock some them can feel like a chore. And second, you cannot activate Gold Cards individually. It’s all or nothing. I don’t mind limiting the use of the Gold Cards because activating them frequently would probably would make the game too easy, plus it encourages you to study the levels so you know what cards to place and when to use them during subsequent playthroughs. Sometimes you may want to use certain cards just to make it easier to unlock other cards. The requirements for unlocking cards can range from anything like defeating bosses within a specific time limit to only using a specific weapon. You may have to find a specific amount of gold, break all objects, find all secrets, kill all enemies, and let me tell you, a lot of them are not easy tasks, especially on the higher difficulties. It is possible to beat the game without using cards but they can make certain encounters and situations easier. Unlocking cards is also an incentive to replay through the game and you can replay any already completed levels.
Like many first-person shooters, Daniel can run, jump, and strafe, and if you’re not hopping all the time, you may be playing the game wrong. Jumping or hopping does make you move faster and the action here is very fast-paced. You’ll be running, jumping, and strafing in all directions as you blast away the demonic hordes and avoid incoming attacks. You will always be outnumbered, you will always be getting swarmed, and you will always be pressing the fire button. The gameplay is simple. Run around and aim and shoot at anything that moves. You can turn on a flashlight at any time during gameplay to see better in dark areas. Daniel will acquire numerous weapons on his journey, many of which represent your typical weapon types seen in other shooters, and all of them have alternate fire modes. You start with the Painkiller which is a very deadly melee weapon. It has retractable blades that can slice enemies and it’s secondary fire launches a blade straight ahead, good for attacking enemies or destroying objects in the environment. You’ll acqiure the shotgun very early on which may actually be the most useful weapon in the game because of its secondary fire mode. It can fire a freeze blast that will freeze enemies, allowing you to kill or shatter them with one shot. It’s best used against tougher enemy types. The Electrodriver is kind of like machine gun but it shoots shurikens and you can also use it to electrocute enemies. The Stake Gun is kind of like a rifle. It fires stakes that can stick enemies to surfaces and it can also launch grenades. This is a great medium to long-range weapon. I think the Rocket Launcher – Chaingun might be my favorite weapon just because of how it looks and feels. It’s a rocket launcher that doubles as a chaingun. Battle Out of Hell adds two new weapons to the roster. The SMG is a submachine gun that doubles as a flamethrower and the Boltgun is kind of like a sniper rifle. It fires multiple stakes in bursts, it can fire multiple grenades that will bounce off surfaces, and you can zoom in while firing. Ammo boxes are littered throughout the environments and knowing what weapons to use and when is crucial for staying alive in Painkiller.
Health can be acquired from Souls. When enemies are killed, they leave behind Souls which are usually green. Tougher enemies leave behind red souls which are worth more. If you’re playing on the Trauma difficulty, you can’t acquire health from enemy Souls. You will find Yellow and Mega Souls throughout the environments which provide a good chunk of health should you need it. After acquiring sixty six souls from dead enemies, Daniel will morph into a demon for a limited time. During this time, he is invulnerable to all attacks and you can kill any enemy instantly by aiming and firing only once. Unfortunately, you can’t control when you morph. As soon as you collect sixty six souls, you automatically morph and it sucks when it happens towards the end of a battle, making it sometimes feel like a waste. Daniel can acquire armor scattered throughout the levels for additional protection and power-ups that provide temporary benefits. The Weapon Modifier power-up enhances all weapons in different ways and I think this is the only power-up I ever found in single player. I’ve read about others but I think they only apply to multiplayer which I didn’t get a chance to try. Exploring the environments is in your best interest because secret areas always contain goodies like health, armor, and ammo. And the environments are filled with all kinds of breakable objects. Some will even explode and it’s best to blow these objects up when enemies are near them. Broken objects usually result in gold coins so you’ll want to break everything to acquire as much gold as you can for placing and withdrawing those Cards. When not actively engaging enemies, I would advise against shooting these objects as to not waste ammo. Use the Painkiller weapon instead.
Unlike Doom and Quake, Painkiller’s level design is more straightforward. The levels aren’t really maze-like, you don’t have to hunt for anything to progress, and it would be very hard to get lost. This is why I feel like the gameplay reflects Serious Sam, although the environments are nowhere near as big as the ones seen in the Serious Sam series. However, they are large and there’s a compass at the top of your HUD which will point you where you need to go or to where the enemies are. Every level has you doing the same thing – go from area to area killing everything. Once the enemies in the area are eliminated, you move to the next area, rinse and repeat. The areas are separated by checkpoints which are plentiful. When you die, you will respawn at the last checkpoint. Many areas will include rooms or branching paths that lead to secrets so you’ll always want to be aware of your surroundings. You’ll traverse through a cemetery, prison, military base, castle, colosseum, orphanage, and other diverse locations. I think my favorite has to be the Leningrad level in Battle Out of Hell. You’ll content with undead soldiers, tanks, the city is in rubble, things are on fire, and it just feels like a demonic war zone. It’s pretty cool. The amount of diverse locations in Painkiller is impressive and they do help to keep things interesting.
There are all kinds of enemies in Painkiller and the enemy AI is pretty poor. It’s not really an issue but watching them get stuck behind an object or wall can be immersion-breaking. Some enemies hang back and fire weapons, some lob explosives, some will explode when killed or if they get near you, and many just rush you. Even though a lot of the enemies show off the same basic behavior like rushing at you head-on, their attacks may be slightly different, and how much damage they can take before dying will vary. The enemy roster is pretty large, actually. You will want to approach battles in different ways or with different weapons because some of the tougher types can prove to be a real threat if you’re not careful or not using the appropriate weapons. The different enemy types do encourage you to use each and every weapon at your disposal. You’ll have to deal with undead Pirates in one level and nurses trying to inject you in another. Evil Monks will run at you with axes or simply throw them at you. Biker demons will shoot at you with chainguns and tommy guns while other enemies rush you. Some of the large enemies will use smaller enemies as shields. Evil Samurai’s will come at you with katanas. Winged Demons are little flying bug-like creatures that appear in swarms and toss molotovs and this is easily my least favorite enemy type in the game. In the Orphanage, Evil Girls will light themselves on fire, Evil Boys will transform into headless corpses, and a Flying Nun will hurl homing fireballs at you. As you progress, you’ll learn to prioritize certain enemies over others and learning their patterns won’t be difficult. As stated before, many of them just rush you, and the ones that hang back to fire weapons or hurl something at you usually stay within a given area. At the end of every chapter in Painkiller is a boss and there’s only two bosses in Battle Out of Hell. The bosses are large and they can be quite challenging. Many of them require you do specific things to defeat them. They do have attack patterns you can memorize and they usually change up their attacks after losing a certain amount of health.
Painkiller really doesn’t look that bad. The visuals hold up pretty well. Yeah, some textures and parts of the environments may appear a bit bland by today’s standards but I can’t say anything about the visuals looks terrible. The varied locations make every level feel unique and they all have this creepy and gritty quality while at the same time, the visual presentation does a good job at reflecting the game’s campy tone. The gore effects are a real highlight here and make the combat ever so satisfying. Fire a rocket into a cluster of enemies and you’ll paint the area in blood. A well-placed shotgun blast can result in some enemies exploding, resulting in a shower of body parts. And sticking an enemy to a wall with the Stake Gun can feel rewarding. Now if there’s any game that could use some Slayer in its soundtrack, it’s Painkiller. Sadly, that’s not the case. But it is filled with metal tunes and riffs that fit the action well so you may want to crank up the volume. Most of the audio work in Painkiller is good. Weapons-fire sounds satisfying, explosions are loud, and you’ll be hearing these things a lot. I did encounter some issues with the performance and technical aspects. For the most part, the game ran smooth but there were some stutters here and there and it froze on me twice. After a while the sound effects would briefly cut out and I resolved that by switching the 3D Sound Provider in the game’s Sound options. There is no v-sync option and I think the frame rate is uncapped. Now I mentioned before that if you limit the frame rate in any way, it can result in an odd issue and it may only apply to those using standard widescreen monitors. For recording purposes, I always try to limit the frame rate in games to sixty. This is so I can avoid variable frame rates when putting the review together. From what I tested and researched, if you limit the frame rate in any way, it may cause the frame rate to appear to dip when you get hit. When you get hit by anything, it results in this blur effect, and I say it “appears to dip” because based on my tests, the frame rate didn’t actually dip. And I say you “may” encounter this issue because I’ve read that it might only apply to a sixty hertz monitor or display but I can’t confirm because both my monitors are sixty hertz.
I definitely had fun with Painkiller and I’m hoping that one day it receives a proper makeover, is remade, or enhanced to run better on modern systems. I’m not talking about something like Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, I mean this game, specifically. The Black Edition in full with all the content. The game’s concept is simple, it’s fun, and the developers don’t try to hide what it really is behind any complex mechanics or deep narrative or exposition. Run, jump, and shoot. Kill all the demons to prevent Hell from taking over. Doomguy has been doing this for years. The formula works and it proves to be fun. Plus, Painkiller offers a good amount of replay value. With all the Cards to unlock and experiment with and the multiple difficulty modes, there’s plenty of reasons to return. But I can’t say Painkiller does anything new for the genre. The cards add an interesting layer but they don’t make the game stand out enough in the pack. Almost, everything you see in this game has been done before. It definitely feels more like the Serious Sam games with the whole “player against a massive number of enemies” idea, just to a lesser extent.
I do consider Painkiller a classic and would recommend it to fans of shooters and action games. The only other Painkiller game I’ve played is Hell & Damnation and I would recommend the Black Edition over that. This is one game I feel has achieved cult status but deserves more recognition. It’s a fast-paced shooter that never slows down until it’s over and contains plenty of content to keep you coming back. The Black Edition did release with mapping and editing tools and I’m actually surprised I didn’t find more mods for this. Don’t get me wrong, there is a modding community out there and maybe I just didn’t look in the right places. I think some of the expansions or sequels originally started out as mods. But this is where it all started and I think the Black Edition is the definitive Painkiller experience. If you enjoy fast-paced action and blowing away demons, definitely check out Painkiller.