Review: Hellboy: Web of Wyrd
If you ask gamers of a certain age about content based on comic book properties, you’re probably going to get a mixed reaction. That reaction is justified because of who might be holding onto the IP to make it into a game. This might sound strange given that the latest sequel to Insomniac’s Spider-Man (which I enjoyed) is also dropping mere days after this. But even with largely fantastic games like the Batman Arkham trilogy from Rocksteady, some folks might still approach new comic-based content with some skepticism out of sheer habit. Those folks remember the level of effort (or lack thereof) that showed fans that the publisher was more concerned about people buying the game off of name recognition than they were about releasing a good game.
This was pretty widespread back in the third and fourth generation of consoles, so forgive the folks who might have had a sour taste in their mouth when they opened up a Christmas present and found that they got the abysmal Silver Surfer for the NES or some lackluster Batman game on the Sega CD. It’s not something that you forget. But like it or not, many would contend that the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and the inception of the MCU did a lot to sway public opinion.
Thankfully, the aforementioned well-received DC and Marvel games have done a lot to turn the tide with how people perceive comic book games. But even then, they’re established properties being developed by people who care very much about the quality of said game. It’s pretty rare to have any comic book game have the involvement of the creator of the franchise on board on general principle, but Mike Mignola himself penning the story should perk the ears of fans of Big Red. I’ll admit I was surprised to see he was involved at all. But it’s pretty rare to see a Hellboy game grace any platform in 2023.
While some might find themselves balking at another shot at the property after the wet fart that was the 2019 movie, I’m just excited to see Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. get a shot at redemption at all. Developed by Upstream Arcade and published by Good Shepard, Hellboy: Web of Wyrd will be released on PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series S | X, PC (Steam), and Switch on October 18th, 2023. The PC version was played for this review.
Another Day, Another Paranormal Anomaly
Opening up at the Butterfly House, the B.P.R.D.’s base of operations, head honcho Tatler tasks Hellboy with the extraction of the agent Lucky from the titular Wyrd (pronounced “word”). In the process of said extraction, he encounters Scheherazade. She dubs him the “Protagonist,” and as such considers him a catalyst in the tale that is currently being weaved in the Wyrd. Once Lucky is extracted, it’s discovered that the Wyrd is experiencing an unusual amount of psychic spikes. Naturally, Hellboy has to navigate the different areas of the Wyrd to simultaneously neutralize these spikes and figure out the source of the activity.
The overall plot in Web of Wyrd is pretty straightforward. It unfolds in a manner not unlike certain mysteries, but with the paranormal slant that this franchise is known for. This game is set in its own canon but does just enough to let the character traits of everyone involved enough room to breathe. Hellboy has his trademark snark, Tatler is the hard-nosed taskmaster that you’d expect from someone like that, and everyone else is pretty personable. The story generally unfolds through progression, but most of the time you’ll find character-driven moments that I found to be entertaining.
This shouldn’t surprise me given Mignola’s involvement with the story, but I guess I might have expected a little more from the story given his involvement. Budgetary concerns might have limited the scope, but they work with what they have on hand. It toes the line of what a fan might expect from a Hellboy story, but I was surprised with how straightforward everything unfolded as I played. Certain story beats did surprise me, it wasn’t overcomplicated, and the talent brought in with the voice cast understood what kind of game was being made here.
I’m not entirely sure if it’s because this game is rooted in roguelike elements or what, but don’t go in expecting something along the lines of an MCU movie or something similar. It’s just a straightforward story with a twist or two along the way, and there’s a lot of characterization to help carry it through. I don’t want to say Mignola wrote an anemic story, but I had to shift my expectations as my playthrough progressed. It’s not bad , not by any means. But I would recommend not treating this like it’s an overproduced film because it’s not that. This is a no-nonsense story more concerned with keeping things from getting too complicated instead of trying to be something more than it is. I enjoyed it, but the story is in service to the gameplay here.
Fisticuffs Before Firearms
By now, most people are familiar with the gameplay flow of roguelike games or games with roguelite elements. Web of Wyrd considers itself to be a “roguelike action brawler,” and I think that’s a pretty apt descriptor of the gameplay loop here. Runs are walled off in the four areas of the Wyrd you explore, and I think that could be something people who are curious about the genre might find appealing. Mostly because these runs are usually pretty quick once you get up to snuff stat-wise.
Early on in your playthrough, you might have to make multiple runs that end poorly to purchase the permanent upgrades found in the Butterfly House. You start with your fists and Big Red’s trademark handgun, but you’ll soon have a couple more armaments at your disposal through progression. Charms are also a secondary attack or defense method and do help add a bit more leeway for your playstyle throughout your run.
Most of the time, though, you’re going to be engaged in close-quarters combat. The best way I can describe this aspect of the gameplay would be that it’s “aggressively competent, yet deliberately repetitive.” Each combat encounter boils down to tracking down the handful of Big Bads in each room and using the usual 3D beat ’em-up elements of punches, dodges, and the aforementioned weapons and charms to take them down. Capped off with a boss fight at the end of the run, you’re gonna get used to this pretty quickly. Using those elements can result in additional environmental damage via blowback (sometimes through the game’s “payback” system or combo-ending punches that send foes flying), but more often than not you’re going to be doing this gameplay loop quite frequently.
Hellboy and the Big Bads you’ll encounter will have a Toughness meter to get through before you get to their health proper, but you’ll have the advantage of being able to upgrade that in each run and more permanently at the Butterfly House. The Mooks that often accompany each of them are primarily fodder for you to recoup toughness in combat. With the game being focused on 3D beat ’em up elements, those firearms and charms are more of a combat enhancement than something you rely on as you play. They’re useful in combat, but their purpose is more to help tack on extra damage or give yourself some more breathing room as you navigate each area of the Wyrd. I found myself taking a more fisticuffs-focused approach during my playthrough, but each charm and weapon has its advantages and drawbacks.
The core gameplay loop is competent, but I can see how some might pull punches with how repetitive it can be. What makes it a little harder to swallow past that is the prevalence of re-using the environments in a way that doesn’t exactly do much to mix up the level design. I won’t go too far into it, but there are return trips that end up just having you retread ground you’ve already gone through to get to the new content. There is some precedent for this kind of thing in the genre, but the implementation just doesn’t feel right to me. I’m not sure if they were trying to satisfy roguelike newbies and fans simultaneously, but it doesn’t work either way.
Even with these gripes, the total gameplay package is competent enough for some people to gloss over these elements. So long as you don’t drill down and nitpick it, as I have, it’s the kind of game that I can see some people using as a way to relax and turn your brain off. Very rarely did I ever find myself in a frustrating spot. But when I did, I just bought upgrades and tried again as you do with roguelikes and roguelites. While some elements might irk some, I can also see it as something that might be appealing to others. It depends on what you’re looking for in with this genre, really. If you’re looking for runs that are limited to a specific stage instead of a series of them, this is an appealing option. It’s even better if you like your roguelikes a little more straightforward like this.
Wyrld-ly Sights and Sounds
Look, I’m always a sucker for games that use the cel-shaded style effectively. Some might immediately think of the Jet Set Radio games and Bomb Rush Cyberfunk by extension. However, unless you’re talking about something like The Wolf Among Us, it’s kind of rare to see a game adopt this graphical style in any capacity. This is one of the things Web of Wyrd has going for it that’s worthy of a little praise, though most of that praise is directed at Mignola himself. With him being involved in the development process, I’m sure that he had a fair amount of input in terms of graphical presentation. Going with the decision to adopt the art style from the comics actually translates better than you might expect from a cel-shaded game like this. It often felt as if I was playing an animated version of the comic’s art style, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit.
The overall art style does adopt the low-poly models common with certain cel-shaded games and the thick lines that the comic style is known for, and the environments are pretty moody to go with the dingy nature of each area of the Wyrd. With that moody vibe often comes some environments that are occasionally dark, but the amount of times that got in the way of gameplay was thankfully pretty rare. There are times where models won’t move in a fluid way, but I think this was more of an artistic choice more than anything else. Because when you’re in the heat of combat, animation in general is about as fast as one would expect for that kind of action. Seeing the game in motion and the art style that accompanies is its strongest suit, though I would say it’s more of a highlight instead of something that carries this game.
Some praise can be levied on the audio side of things, primarily leaning towards the voice acting. The biggest piece of that is this being one of a series of projects Lance Reddick lent his talents as the lead role here before his passing earlier this year. You can tell he understood the vibe of the role he was playing, and I really appreciated that. There are lines of his that end up being repeated during gameplay quite a bit, and his delivery for these were done in such a way that didn’t get incessantly annoying. The rest of the voice cast for this game perform just about as well as Lance has here, and they help soften the blow of how straightforward the script is at times.
Music tends to flip-flop between moody and occasionally ethereal in the Butterfly Room and outside of combat in the Wyrd to crunchy driving guitar while in combat. Depending on your affinity or aversion to the latter, your mileage may vary. But I personally didn’t mind the shift, and everything at least meets the vibe. Nothing especially stands out, but it’s fine otherwise.
Now, the presentation is undoubtedly solid. You can tell that there was a fair portion of effort in making sure that this aspect of the game was not only up to snuff to certain gamers, but Mignola himself. The ratio of effort between gameplay and presentation does lean towards the latter a little bit, but I can’t really say that it’s a detriment to the total package either. Fans of Hellboy will enjoy the comic-skewed art style, newbies will probably just appreciate the cel-shaded approach, and everything else is generally good. Switch owners might appreciate another game that isn’t going to set their aging console on fire because of the less-taxing detail of this game, but every other platform should be able to enjoy this without their hardware being taxed too much.
Wyrd Has It
There’s something to be said about accessibility through simplicity, and Web of Wyrd is a pretty good example of that. For some folks, the roguelike genre can be a bit of an off-putting affair by nature. But some may warm up to the more involved examples once they cut their teeth on something like this, especially with everything here being something of a baseline from start to finish. I’ve tossed around the phrase “aggressively competent” before, and this game in particular does fall under that banner pretty handily.
Comic book games are certainly having a moment lately, and Hellboy: Web of Wyrd does little to deter me from thinking otherwise. While it may not hit as high as some of its more lauded contemporaries, it’s still a good game. If you can endure some of the rougher edges it has, you’re going to find yourself with a game that is simultaneously a way to wedge into more involved roguelikes and another example of what developers can do when you stay true to what makes it work in the first place. Sometimes you just need something a little less intense, and games like this fit the bill nicely.
Review copy provided by Good Shepard for Steam (PC). Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Good Shepard.