When I encountered To Hell with Hell while sorting through my Discovery Queue, I gave it a good, hard look. If the Giana Sisters had a female cousin, it would be this game’s protagonist Natasia, who fancies the outfit of Shantae “the Half-Genie Hero,” with a thong rather than harem trousers. The promotional artwork of THwH in particular prominently features Natasia front-and-center, winking while provocatively holding onto the kind of pole that one “dances” on for cash flung in her general direction. This strikes me as one…hell…of a way to establish the protagonist, and a case of trying too hard. Though I fancy shooters, I passed, wondering if this game is one whose content is too crass, like Postal or Hatred, to justify coverage.
Independently of my suspicions, our PR Manager Joe applied for a preview code—as To Hell with Hell is a game that is still in early access—while also asking himself similar questions. Deck13 gave the green light, and I took on the assignment, not wanting to put anyone on my team at risk if the content turned out to be as lewd as I thought (I am more sensitive to nudity than violence). I am pleasantly surprised to report that my projections were an egregious case of judging a book by its cover.
The artwork in To Hell with Hell is on par with the best modern comic books. Through those cutscenes, and placing my mouse cursor over Natasia’s profile during standard gameplay, I discover that she is an exotic dancer, and ends up in hell because she took a wrong step during a, um, performance, and fell. By playing through the first two difficulties, I came to realize that her story, with some humorous twists, is like a metaphor for how we might fall in the most egregious or seemingly negligible ways. After all, the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). As I was discussing this game with my wife, we said to ourselves out loud, “Jesus loves people even though they may strip,” and meant it.
Those who last long enough to fight the good fight in To Hell with Hell will get to see Natasia spend some time in heaven too. But to do so means enduring a top-down shooter whose arena-style level design and enemy encounters might remind gamers of Nuclear Throne or Enter the Gungeon. Here, those who want Natasia to succeed in her conquest of hell must endure nine randomly-generated stages plus three bosses. While finding miscellaneous weapons is a well-known, all-too-familiar mechanic, what some shooter fans may not be expecting is a “mask” mechanic that will remind old geeks like myself of Kid Chameleon from the Sega Genesis days.
These masks transform Natasia, granting her extra abilities that facilitate her run through hell. Here is where I point out that for early stages and on the easiest difficulty, one will find weaker weapons and lower-tier masks. Stronger weapons are found in later stages, while stronger masks appeared for me only after I had beaten the game once. Among my favorite low-tier masks are the hulk, that can activate invulnerability while immobile, the demo mask that always uses a grenade launcher, the Oni who gets a damage bonus at the cost of a range reduction for all weapons, and the poison mask; the latter makes weapons poisonous, inflicting damage over time (DOT).
The fire and ice masks also apply DOT damage, however, their special abilities include a dash, which is useful, but preferable to me is the doppleganger the poison mask deploys, who draws enemy fire while dishing out its own punishment. Another high-level mask is similar: the necromancer mask allows one to summon a skeleton army that puts the poison mask doppleganger to shame, though it requires significantly more energy. I also found a spider queen mask, allowing Natasia to deploy spiderlings that can not only inflict contact damage to enemies, but they can also be set to explode!
Though much smaller in scale, To Hell with Hell reminds me of Nex Machina in its generosity towards new players, not intending to crush souls at first; it does so through its six saves on the easiest difficulty. Combined with perks between every level such as extra health or the ability to hold more than one mask, this formula also reminds me of another roguelite from earlier this year, Wizard of Legend, but sans the spectacular effects. As one “gits gud,” the next difficulty only offers three saves to clear the nine stages plus bosses, while the final difficulty only allows for one save. Death means starting over at that save, so brute force folks beware.
After beating To Hell with Hell twice, I would like to see more variety with masks and weaponry. I find ice, fire, and ninja masks far more often than any other. Through my two runs, I have discovered the necromancer and spider queen only once each, when I would have liked to have seen them more often. I think the balance between enemies and weapons is sufficient, but practicality tends to outweigh unconventionality. For example, the golden shotgun is more useful than the banana gun, and the magic wand(s?) get me killed more often than the grenade launcher. Even so, these issues are minor, so To Hell with Hell is on pace to become a quality release when the time comes.