In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
I once rode a train on the Tokyo underground one night and ended up accidentally stepping on some drunkís foot when I lost my balance. He cursed at me really loudly in that very instant. My Japanese was pretty poor (still is) but as I looked around at the shocked faces of late night commuters nearby, I realised heíd called me something pretty nasty.
My long suffering girlfriend apologised profusely (I didnít want to since he called me a 'fuckwit' or something) but the guy seemed adamant to break my nose until it was our stop. Unfortunately, all three of us shared the same stop, so he goaded me on the platform too. Something tells me that my girlfriendís frantic English-only apology obviously sounded like an insult and he didnít take too kindly to it. Still, in a gentleman kind of way he was gunning for me instead of her. In the end, he sort of gave up on intimidating us Welsh folk and we went our separate ways.
Even though I put a brave face on it, deep down it was a genuinely scary moment. I was trapped on that carriage with him over an accident and then I was being followed around by this very stocky figure who I didnít understand. I hated Tokyo after that. Osaka, on the other hand, was lovely. I have a feeling that a similar event happened to someone at Atlus back in 1999. Hellnight takes such a premise and plays it to such an extreme that it ends up being one of the most frightening games ever made.
Hellnight AKA Dark Messiah is a simple game of cat and mouse. An updated 3D Monster Maze where the cutesy dinosaur is replaced by an exoskeleton killing machine that increases in size and ferocity as you find an exit out of your current hellhole. Itís dark, sparse and unremittingly bleak throughout. Your goal is simply to traverse the corridors and twisting areas in an effort to see daylight again.
Youíre a regular guy walking the streets of Tokyo on the eve of the Millennium, only to be chased around by a bunch of cultists who believe you to be the key for some ritual. You manage to escape to the Tokyo underground and catch one of the last trains home, but elsewhere at a research lab, some symbiotic creature breaks free and melds with a scientist. After having a good old jolly bloodbath, it escapes to the underground where it collides with your train. Youíre derailed and only a handful of people survive, including a psychic schoolgirl named Naomi.
As the creature re-awakens and starts tearing up the surviving commuters, you and Naomi run away further down the tracks only to be confronted by a special ops team. The creature easily disposes of them and youíre forced to flee deeper underground. Soon you find The Mesh; a shanty town full of former Tokyo citizens who have given up on the city above and decided to live the quiet life hidden away underground.
Unfortunately, the creature catches up and has become more agile and powerful in its quest to rip off your head and call you ĎStumpyí. Soon youíre on the run again and trying to find an exit out of the claustrophobic mazes ahead...but eventually, youíll have find out why the creature wants you so much and stop it forever.
Iím not going to lie. Hellnight is an ugly game. Thereís obviously the work of a shoestring budget going on here and it shows. But with a low budget, thereís also inventiveness. Hellnight thankfully has this by the truckload. Itís a game based around sound and usually the lack of it. When the creature gets too close, you can hear it make drawn out intakes of air, punctuated by the sharp exhale. Once it finds you, thereís a horrible scream that cuts through you like a knife, sending you into a panic.
Other than that, all you can hear is the occasional footsteps and the dripping of sewer water. Itís the kind of minimalism horror that Sam Raimi would be proud of. Youíre offset by the slightest noise, be it a door a metal grate or water stream. Once an inevitable chase begins, your teeth will already be on edge as you scramble around corners in an effort to shake off the beast.
The chases themselves play out in brief panics, until they gradually become longer as the creature adapts and speeds up. Youíre constantly wondering which direction to take, with a limited amount of time to make it. You donít have anything to defend yourself with and only one life (bar save points), so you have to plan things out and take it slowly. It might be quicker to take the long corridor straight to the exit, but the creature moves quickly in straight lines. You could outrun it, but then you might get out of breath and slow down before you reach the door.
Hellnight makes it hard for you to predict the whereabouts of your antagonist because itís mostly randomised; give or take the handful of scripted set-ups. The developers have gone out of their way to make sure you never really get the upper hand and thereís nothing here that suggests a gradual empowerment like many modern survival horror games. Even at the end, your method of defeating the creature is indirectly through a variation on the Ďput item hereí puzzle. You can never confront your enemy and win.
Itís not all doom and gloom though. You get help in the form of a map, a compass and a companion. At first youíre given Naomi, who can sense the creatureís whereabouts. Unfortunately, she can only tell if itís nearby and the pinpointing of the creature on the map reflects this short range. You can play through the entire game with just her as your radar, but if she dies in your place then other companions you meet will help you escape.
These are well defined characters too, with their own agenda and reasons for helping. Thereís Kamiya - a wanted cop killer, Ivan - the only survivor of the special ops guys at the start and Rene - a journalist who wants to discover to cultís real intentions.
The companions donít have a radar sense, but they have weapons that will temporarily stop the creature. Unfortunately, they donít have infinite ammunition; so you have to make it count. Companions donít really show up in the game unless you press a button to make them appear as 2D renders. Sometimes they, along with the supporting cast, will pop up out of the (scripted) blue, scaring the hell out of you. Thankfully, thereís enough diversity between them to give the game replay value.
Other than the companions, youíll interact with The Meshís denizens and a few oddball misfits. Youíll find them in rooms dotted around the maps and once inside, you find yourself in 2D pre-rendered locations. Here, youíre required to solve puzzles, talk to characters and find items in a rudimentary Ďpoint and clickí way. Ultimately, you just highlight the hotspot and see what you find. Itís a diverting contrast for the gameís core mechanics, if a little crude. You come to treat these rooms as safe havens and short breathers before making your way back into the mazes.
Like I said, the writing in this game is surprisingly well written. Thereís a twist halfway through the game that turns your expectations upside down. Youíre thrust into something completely unknown in the last third and thereís some stunningly creepy art direction that complements this.
Iíd actually like to go on record and say the story is just brilliant.
Itís sci-fi horror in the vein of Alien, but it also acknowledges real social issues like Tokyoís airbrushing of the homeless and the countryís dismissal of traditional heritage for modernisation; an issue that crops up in many Eastern survival horror games. I probably wouldnít be the first to make a connection between the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the one in-game either, considering the Tokyo subways are involved. There was a lot of work put into this game that has so little to give.
A personal theory thatís backed up by the walkthrough book I found by chance while shopping around in an old Tokyo games store. Itís just packed with information about the underground and the Japanís military history.
Itís a shame that this never got a better release from Atlus.
I guess at the time, they werenít the cult developers they are now after the Persona series, but even with a distribution deal from Konami, youíd think they would have had some kind of marketing push. I suspect Konami made the deal because of their success with Silent Hill at the time (Hellnightís manual artwork is near identical), but probably just did enough to ensure they didnít make too bad a loss.
Itís easy to say Atlus got a bad deal, but considering they were nobodies in the UK back then, they probably thanked their lucky stars that somebody got hold of their underrated (and virtually non-existent) little gem.
This might sound crazy, but this game is probably the best thing Atlus ever did until they started making real money with Persona. Looking at the video, youíd be right to call me nuts, but Hellnight is the low budget horror thatís big on ideas. God knows how much Dead Space cost to make, but for all that money, it doesnít even come close to being absolutely terrifying like this game. It reminds me of that creepy indie film that few have watched, but none can forget. Between this and my run in with that drunk, the Tokyo underground has never been the same for me since.