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When it comes to classic shooters, everybody knows about Doom, Quake, and Serious Sam. They’re classics and favorites for a reason and despite each of them doing their own thing, they all share a core gameplay element – run, aim, and shoot. Whether you’re up against demons from Hell, aliens, or Lovecraftian foes – running and gunning is what will keep you alive. Another game that fits this style is Painkiller and it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the others. That’s not to say it’s obscure. It’s known about and from what I can tell, it has an active fan base. Developed by People Can Fly and published by DreamCatcher Interactive, Painkiller was released for PC in April, 2004 and Xbox as Painkiller: Hell Wars in 2006. For this review, I played the PC version, specifically the Black Edition which contains both the original game and Battle Out of Hell expansion. I did consult the game’s PCGamingWiki page before playing and installed some mods including Randomguy 7’s Fix Compilation which fixes numerous issues and the Widescreen HUD Fix which fixes the stretched HUD present when playing the game in a widescreen resolution and comes with some new settings.
The story in Painkiller isn’t something to write home about but it is a good set up for the gameplay. The story follows Daniel Garner, a man trapped in purgatory after he and his wife are killed in a car accident. His wife made it to Heaven and in order for Daniel to join her, he must kill four of Lucifer’s generals to prevent a war between Heaven and Hell. There are multiple endings and the one you see will depend on the difficulty.
Painkiller definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously and features a nice mix of humor and campiness along with a badass style. Daniel travels to a variety of locations around the world to kill the generals and must fend off the armies of Hell along the way. That’s the gist of Painkiller. It’s violent and gory, cool and silly, and the gameplay can be intense. The plot is pretty straightforward with most cut scenes placed after boss battles and the story never gets in the way of the gameplay.
Painkiller is a fast-paced first-person shooter that borrows elements from classic shooters like Doom, Quake and Serious Sam. Running and gunning, strafing, jumping – it’s got all the staples. You go from area to area blowing away hordes of enemies. You’re given a variety of weapons to play with and can evade enemies and projectiles by any means necessary. Painkiller is primarily a linear experience so there’s not much key hunting or maze-like levels like you would see in Doom or Quake nor are they as massive as those in the Serious Sam franchise. Painkiller lies somewhere in the middle and manages to maintain a unique identity thanks to its cool weapons, campiness, simple and fun gameplay and the Tarot Card system.
Your main objective in each level is simple. Kill all the enemies and get to the end. The levels take you from area to area and you’re typically locked in an area until all the enemies are defeated. Once they are, you can proceed to the next area. Rinse and repeat. Enemies release souls when killed and Daniel can absorb them to replenish some health. After a absorbing a certain amount, he will morph into a demon for a limited time rendering him invulnerable to attacks and able to kill any enemy with a single shot of demonic power. The only thing I don’t like about this is that you can’t trigger the transformation at will. Once you absorb the final required soul, you automatically morph and it can feel like a waste if you’re at the tail end of a battle.
Painkiller features a very diverse cast of foes along with several bosses and sub-bosses. Each chapter typically introduces new enemies, and despite the large cast, a lot of them do feel like variants of others. Regardless, the variety does help to keep things interesting all the way through. You’ll engage zombies, demons, ninjas, samurais, bikers, clowns, soldiers, pirates, monks and so many more. It should be noted that the enemies are not very bright. They run, some will jump, they’ll shoot at you, throw things at you, a lot of them will rush you and perform different melee attacks, and some lob explosives. Any patterns they may exhibit are predictable and it’s not uncommon for them to get stuck on or behind things. The challenge comes from being overwhelmed. Enemies arrive in numbers so you’re constantly fending off mobs and will often be attacked from multiple directions.
One thing that makes Painkiller great is its simplicity. It’s easy to pick up and play. Just run, jump, aim and shoot. The arsenal consists of typical weapon types but unique weapons. The most unique is easily the Painkiller itself. It features retractable rotating blades that will spin and slice enemies and you can also fire what I’m calling the “head” as a projectile and even combine the attacks to fire spinning blades. Other weapons include a shotgun that can also fire freezing charges, a stakegun that doubles as a grenade launcher, chaingun that doubles as a rocket launcher, submachine gun that doubles as a flamethrower, a machine gun that can also unleash lightning and, finally, the bolt gun which acts as a sniper rifle of sorts and can lob multiple small grenades.
No weapon ever renders another useless. Some weapons are better against certain threats and several are great for crowd control. Firing a rocket into the center of a mob and seeing all the foes explode never gets old nor does freezing foes and then shattering them with a blast from the shotgun. The gunplay in Painkiller is very satisfying thanks to both the audiovisual feedback of the weapons and the gore effects. Bodies do ragdoll and a good blast can send them flying. You can also blow enemies to bits, impale them, and splatter their blood all over the environments.
Painkiller does come with numerous difficulties and the harder the difficulty, the more levels you gain access to. Alternatively, you can install a mod that allows you to play all the levels on every difficulty. The Painkiller campaign features multiple chapters with multiple levels per chapter and Battle Out of Hell is basically an additional chapter. Each chapter ends with a fight against a boss and the bosses range from really easy to challenging, depending on not only the difficulty but also what Tarot Cards you have equipped.
What really separates Painkiller from its brethren are the Black Tarot Cards which offer bonuses and are unlocked by meeting certain requirements in the levels. Every level has one Tarot Card to unlock and the cards come in two forms – silver and gold. Before starting a level, you can spend gold to equip a max of two silver cards and up to three gold cards. Silver cards offer passive bonuses and gold cards can only be activated once per level, unless you equip a silver card that dictates otherwise. I think my biggest issue with the cards is that many of them are redundant. It would have been cooler if each one was truly unique.
I think the Tarot Cards were intended as a way to encourage the player to replay through the levels but because a lot are redundant, I never felt the need to experiment with different combinations. Some cards make it easier to unlock others so sometimes it’s better to revisit a level later on when you have more cards to choose from. But once I had them all unlocked and replayed through the levels, I rarely felt the need to swap out any of the cards in my set. Only boss levels. I would swap out one of my Silver Cards for another that allows the player to activate Gold Cards three times.
The requirements to unlock cards range from easy to frustrating. And the frustrating requirements have more to do with the locations of secrets than the actual requirements, themselves. For example, killing all the enemies, collecting a certain amount of gold and finishing a level with a certain amount of health or within a certain time limit are all relatively easy, especially if you have the appropriate cards to aid you. But any card that requires you to find all secrets or destroy all objects or collect all ammo for example may prove to be very aggravating without a guide.
Painkiller will take you to an excellent variety of locations. You’ll blast your away around a cemetery, ride a rollercoaster around an amusement park, contend with tanks at a military base and and shoot your way through Leningrad which looks like an active war zone. The environments feature a nice mix of tight, open and vertical spaces for battles. When it comes to exploration, to put it bluntly, some of the secrets suck. I am well aware that secrets should be hard to find. That’s the idea. But several secret areas in Painkiller are well beyond hard to find. They’re abstruse, often leaving me scratching my head and thinking to myself “how the fuck did they expect you to find this?”.
If it wasn’t for certain card unlock requirements, the secrets really wouldn’t be that bad. But when you’ve scrubbed what you think is every inch of a level only to discover you missed some breakable objects or ammo because they were located in secret areas you didn’t find, that can become a little aggravating. I fully admit to watching videos showing how to find certain secrets and if there’s anything positive I can say about the secrets is that there’s often multiple ways to reach them.
Finding all the secrets in a level on your own will require you to meticulously explore each area, jumping around hoping to find objects, buildings or structures to climb. That’s not to say every secret is a bitch to find but some can feel like pure evil. You can knock something down to climb it and push objects around and use them to climb onto. Sometimes, even after reaching an area that initially seemed inaccessible, you may have to take some crazy route to a different area of the level just to reach the secret. Some can only be found after reaching certain points in the levels and others may require you to backtrack a relatively long distance to reach areas that were previously inaccessible.
Without a guide, finding secrets can be a very painstaking process. You may need to jump up a wall or beam or other things that don’t even look like they could be climbed. Plus, some secrets seem so out of the way, they almost require luck to find. You’ll often have to hop along a ledge or rock formation or climb something or jump across buildings or structures or around them to reach secrets. Plus, secret areas don’t stand out which I guess is the point. But if you don’t look around, the game ain’t helping you. For most levels, you’re not going to interact with switches or buttons that reveal secrets, you won’t get special items that help you locate them, and there’s no map to reference in-game. One of the most obvious indications of secrets is Holy Items. You spot one or more and you’ve identified a secret area but not every secret area houses them.
Excluding some of the secret areas, I really enjoy the level design. The environments are diverse and well crafted and, despite their mostly linear nature, encourage exploration. Levels will often include smaller rooms and areas off to the sides and many encounters take place in big open spaces. You can run and jump around areas freely and often discover multiple ways to reach different locations. You can jump up inclines and certain buildings and structures and destroy all kinds of objects, often revealing gold and pickups. Breakable objects are scattered around everywhere and some can be blown up which can be a great way to wipe out multiple foes at once. Exploration will typically lead you to weapons, ammo, gold, and every now and then you’ll come across powerups that offer temporary bonuses.
One thing I really like about Painkiller is its replay value. It’s simplicity makes it easy to jump in and enjoy immediately which, in turn, makes me want to come back to it. Plus, the numerous difficulty levels, finding all the secrets, trying for better scores and trying to meet the requirements to unlock all the cards are all valid reasons to return. Furthermore, you can start a new game and carry over all your scores and Card unlocks. In addition to the campaigns, Painkiller does come with a multiplayer mode which relied on GameSpy services which shut down years ago so I did not get to try the multiplayer.
For it’s time, I think Painkiller was a pretty good looking game. The blur effect that occurs when you get hit gets to be a little annoying but other than that, I have no real gripes with the visual presentation. The environments and weapon models are detailed, the texture work is good and each level looks and feels different. As for the audio, the soundtrack is amazing. Painkiller is metal as fuck, featuring tunes with some great riffs that kick in when the action gets going. On the technical side, the game did crash on me a few times and the frame rate would stutter here and there. Other than that, it ran pretty smooth.
Painkiller is a game for those who love this style of shooter. That said, it can be repetitive. Every level, minus the boss levels, has the player annihilating waves of foes, similar to the Serious Sam games, just not on the same scale. So if you’re not a fan of this style, Painkiller might not be for you. Personally, I think Painkiller is a phenomenal game and a bit underrated and overlooked. In fact, at this point, I do consider it a classic. It’s simple to pick up play, it holds up really well, and most importantly, it’s still a lot of fun.
What I think stops Painkiller from being a leader in the genre is that all of its best parts have been done before. I know that if I revisit Doom, Quake and the Serious Sam games, I’ll always have a great time. That’s partly why I consider them classics and the same could be said for Painkiller. But those games also did things that were revolutionary and/or technologically innovative. Painkiller isn’t breaking new ground. We’ve been up against the armies of Hell and decimated legions of baddies before. Running, jumping, strafing, shooting – it’s been done. But it does these things so well and the fact that it doesn’t feel like a straight rip off of the classics makes it unique. Painkiller does introduce some cool ideas but I can’t say any of them are the reasons why I keep coming back. The most obvious being the Tarot Card system. It’s a neat idea but I think it could have been better. What makes Painkiller great is the core gameplay. It’s fast, fluid, and fun. The weapons are cool and satisfying, there’s plenty of baddies to shoot, and the variety of enemies and environments is excellent. It’s just an all around fun game.
I would absolutely recommend Painkiller. It’s one of those games I consider a must-play if you’re a fan of the genre. It’s easy to pick up and play, offers plenty of shit to shoot, and you’ll have a great time doing it. I see it as a timeless entry in the genre and I think it’s earned its place as a top-tier shooter and should be recognized as such. Definitely check it out.