From the depths of the PlayStation dump is a game called Hellnight, a horror game by Atlus about an underground Tokyo society and a mutant.
|Release Year||1998 – 1999|
|Purchase (PS1)||Purchase from eBay.|
Hellnight, sometimes spelled as Hell Night and known as Dark Messiah in Japan, is one of the most obscure games I ever played on the PlayStation. Hell, there’s a high chance that you’ve never even heard of this game. Well, that’s because Hellnight was only released in Japan and Europe. Because screw the United States, I guess.
But even some European gamers well versed in survival horror titles have no idea what the flying fuck this game is. There are very few reviews for it, all of them by small-time reviewers. Soo… I guess I’m going to be part of that small number now. What a strange honor it is.
The Wonders of Underground Tokyo
“I see, so you are the one who that will be the next Prince of Darkness. Arrrggggh.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a video game intro with sitar background music. I always found the sitar to be a strangely mesmerizing and even haunting musical instrument at times. It’s pretty cool to listen to in a survival horror game. I think it fits really well somehow.
So, Hellnight is brought to you by developer Atlus. Yes, the team behind the Megami Tensei, Etrian Odyssey and Trauma Center series. I’m not sure how to feel about that, but it really does come to show that Atlus was once more prolific before it made it big with games like Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne and Persona 3. Even a valiant attempt at a survival horror title. Naturally, this means that a lot of old Atlus games ended up becoming some of the most underrated and rare games in existence. This one included.
Here is our premise, through the intro movie’s speedy credit crawl:
It took place in an ordinary subway. A subway accident that took the lives of 56 people. The number of survivors still remains unknown.
You were involved in the accident, and what you see is a gruesome scene where blood and rubble lay scattered about. Lurking in the darkness, you feel the presence of “something” horrible.
A large-scale underground shelter that was built by Japanese Army during the war. it is now occupied by menacing “underground residents” who fled from life above the surface.
You are the main character who wanders in from the subway tracks and find yourself in the Tokyo Mesh.
You desperately search for a way through the vast underground dungeon in an attempt to return to the surface.
Under the Tokyo Mesh lies “another world”.
What is this “Metropolis” of the menacing followers of the Dark Messiah?
You do not have any means of offence! If attacked, do everything possible to run! Various partners will help you in your getaway. How you utilize their help determines your fate.
You run and run through the darkness to get away from it. As you run with all your might. What is waiting for you at the other end? Is it life? Is it death? An unimagenable horror is about to begin.
“Unimagenable?” Really now? Kinda feels like the English translation was a bit rushed. Hell, during a cutscene, your main character says:
Why are thay kept following me?
ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US!
The weird thing is that the English translation is not that bad overall for the game, so these strange mistakes in spelling and grammar are definitely out of place.
As described, Hellnight stars you as an unnamed male protagonist, taking a simple walk at Tokyo. In the middle of the night, a cult known as the Holy Ring is preaching the end of the world. Then suddenly, the cultists spot you and give chase. You make your escape via underground train, until the aforementioned train wreck happens. You and another survivor, a high school girl named Naomi Sugiura, end up getting caught in a fight between a group of soldiers, led by Leroy Ivanoff, and a mutated human with monster-like traits.
So you and Naomi flee further underground, eventually reaching the underground shelter known as the Mesh. However, the mutant (later to be known as the Hybrid) persistently pursues you while absorbing every living creature along its path. To make things worse, the way you came from was sealed off. So you have to find another way back up to the surface. Along the way, you will meet eccentric characters of the Mesh while learning of a disturbing secret hidden deep underground.
I am honestly impressed by this setup and amount of world buildup, even from a lesser-known game of this era. Aside from the fact that Hellnight has no North American release, why is it so obscure? This game is so fascinating.
Hellnight is a first-person exploration game where you navigate through labyrinthine environments, collect items and solve puzzles. It’s like a dungeon crawler, minus the RPG mechanics. It’s such a weird sensation to play a survival horror game from this era that doesn’t give you the means to fight back.
Oh yes. Long before the days of Frictional Games and the ever-popular Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, we had a first-person horror game where you’re defenseless. You’re looking at it. I don’t know if Hellnight is one of the first of its kind, but what a cool thing.
Aside from the main 3D areas, you can enter inside rooms to interact with NPCs and objects. It’s like the game switches to a point-and-click interface, but more streamlined to just selecting specific spots. It’s eerily similar to how you speak to some characters in Shin Megami Tensei games.
The puzzle-solving is simple. You just need to check as many rooms as you can, collect items and find other rooms where you may need to use the items. There isn’t that much puzzle-solving in the 3D sections, so you don’t have to worry too much about missing small details. While the controls are a bit wonky, they’re certainly manageable. Overall, it’s a fairly competent first-person exploration game where diligence is key to beating the game.
In various sections of the game, you will encounter a man calling himself Mole. If you show him an item, he will either tell you what it does or hints you on what it might do. He is actually a useful NPC who can help you get unstuck, so it’s best to memorize his locations so you can consult him for guidance.
You also have a mini-map, which you can slowly construct by exploring every inch of the area you’re in. Because the areas have complicated layouts, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by checking as many places as you can. Beware, though. There is definitely something out there to get you. And if your current partner is Naomi Sugiura, you can even see the monster on the mini-map (as a flashing yellow dot).
Speaking of Naomi, there are various “partner” characters who can become your traveling companion during your journey through the Tokyo Mesh. By default, Naomi is your first partner. But if she dies, another partner character can take her place and travel with you. And as a result, the game’s story (and even partner character’s abilities) will also change to reflect that. This is a neat feature that encourages multiple playthroughs, just to see what each character is like.
- Naomi Sugiura – a Japanese schoolgirl who seems to possess some psychic ability. She can tell you when danger is near (and you better heed her warnings). She can also pinpoint the monster’s location on the mini-map.
- Kyoji Kamiya – a serial killer whose first victim was a cop, and carries the cop’s gun as a memento. A smooth talker and a shady fellow. He can use his gun to distract the monster.
- Leroy Ivanoff – a Russian soldier and member of a black-ops team sent to contain the mysterious Hybrid wandering the Tokyo Mesh. He attacks with his rocket launcher.
- Rene Lorraine – a French journalist with a daredevil personality, who intends to expose the corruption of the Holy Ring cult. She attacks with an uzi.
The game sucks you in with its eerie ambiance and fascinating setting. I didn’t think exploring the deep, disturbing underground world of Tokyo would be interesting, but this game somehow pulls it off.
Seriously, though. The graphics weren’t terribly impressive for their time, but they work for this game. It’s weird. The 3D sections of the game are mostly empty and awkwardly primitive, but they are dark and grim. And then suddenly a random portrait pops up to jumpscare you.
AH! WHAT THE FUCK! GET AWAY FROM ME!
Me!? Where the hell did YOU come from?
Normally, jumpscares annoy me. Even Naomi lampshades this. But they strangely work in this game. Some of the NPCs are more unnerving than they should be because of the eerie environments and the dated 3D graphics.
‘kay then. Thanks for telling me that, freaky bear girl…
I don’t know exactly what it is, but these NPCs fascinate me. Atlus could have easily made these into generic characters who tell you go here and there. But even these generic characters have personality in them. The dialogue can be corny at times. But in other times, the NPCs talk like real, down-to-earth people. They question your actions and question their surroundings. Some of the people of the Mesh are clearly cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, while others are more levelheaded and treat the eerie Mesh as their home like any other.
And when I mean eerie, well… just listen to some of this.
Short, repetitive loops in a similar nature to the soundtrack of Yume Nikki. As if we need to have more insane mindfuckery here. Certainly makes certain other tracks more comforting to listen to, to break some of that tension.
Keep rocking, “Sweeper” Leno. Your presence was pure awesomeness.
The Elephant in the Room
So as you wander the dark, repetitive hallways where very little happens, you suddenly hear raspy breaths. You freeze in one spot, then hear an agitated snarl. That’s your cue to GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE.
AHHHH—that’s not as intimidating as I thought it would be…
It’s really weird. If you look at the monster up close, you’ll find that he looks pretty goofy. Like a Power Rangers knockoff. Hell, some of the harmless NPCs look creepier. And he sounds like Darth Vader after he finished his morning jog while in his suit. I’m… it’s… it’s… it’s so fucking weird!
But oddly enough, this thing is still scary. Not many horror games actually scare me, but this silly creature chasing me down through a long, dark tunnel is hectic and suspenseful. For one thing, it makes those weird raspy noises whenever it’s nearby. That’s already eerie, but imagine that thing charging straight at you from the dark depths of the underground tunnels.
It’s strangely brilliant. This lesser known game with outdated graphics can still manage to be scary, by using a series of good strategies.
- You have no means to fight back, so your only choice is to run and hide.
- You’re stuck moving around in these dark, eerie tunnels while trying to gain your bearings. Imagine that thing suddenly leaping out of the darkness to get you.
- The monster makes creepy noises when it’s nearby.
- The monster is pretty good at spotting you.
- The monster can suddenly chase after you, instilling a sense of panic and helplessness.
Developer Frictional Games used a similar set of strategies, namely in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I won’t lie, though. This monster can be a cheap bastard sometimes. One thing I forgot to mention is that there are few sound effects during the actual gameplay, to the point where you can’t hear your own footsteps. But oddly enough, he can hear YOU when you move close by (indicated by him snarling and putting his arms up in the air). He can also spot you really well, sometimes before you can pinpoint where he is.
If you have a partner character and he reaches you, the partner dies. If you get attacked a second time, you die. All in one hit. This guy also moves pretty fast. One strategy to avoid him is to move around him when he’s coming at you, moving into the direction he’s coming from. But you can’t really do this in narrow hallways, so you have no choice but to run in the opposite direction.
Woe be to those who see this message.
But during certain points at the story, you can pick up another partner character who will aid you. Like a serial killer, for example. Isn’t that lovely.
Oh good, I thought you were one of those crazy… eh?
So better get used to running away a lot. Speaking of which, you have a hidden stamina meter! Run for too long and you will significantly slow down and things will be harder to see.
The monster doesn’t change its tactics, even as it evolves into a bigger, stronger beast. Once you figure out how to avoid him, much of the game is pretty simple. The main thing that will screw you over is the level designs themselves.
For the most part, the level designs of each map are surprisingly not too shabby. While Hellnight can be a brutal sprint through the park, diligent exploration will ease the pain. In areas where there are shutter doors that refuse to budge, there is a room hidden somewhere on the map that will reactivate them. For whatever reason, the monster can’t enter through these doors, but you can. So use that to your advantage.
But there are moments when the level designs can irritate you. I pretty much hate any map that includes conveyor belts in this game. Not only do conveyor belts steer you into one direction, you cannot go back the way you came on them. So at that very moment, you’re next to a dead end. And if the monster just so happens to be nearby… hehe… hehehehehe…
Journey into the Depths
The story is… intriguing, to say the least. The fact that there is an underground city beneath Tokyo, where the residents there seem to hate the outside world, is… bizarre. They live in these dark, creepy places that look like run-down barracks than real homes. It’s like discovering a lost society of hermits. I, myself, don’t know what to make of this.
I don’t think Hellnight ever properly explained why these strange folks want nothing to do with the surface. Were they mere outcasts of society? Criminals? Or people afraid of the horrors out there? I would certainly be weirded out if a band of crazy cultists freely wander the streets with no police around, and then they attempt to kidnap you to use as a sacrifice.
The residents can be disturbing, but also comically eccentric. Their dialogue is strangely fun to read, attributing that they have personality to them.
This might be just me, but I wasn’t expecting a trip to an underground world of stone and metal would be that interesting. The plot is actually simple once you get past the backstory. You’re some random guy from Tokyo and the monster wants to kill you for some reason, so he chases you down for the whole game. Seriously, he’s a real persistent asshole. And stumble upon some bizarre cultist plot…
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU EVEN!?
See what I mean about NPCs being creepier than the monster? Whew, boy…
And it just gets weirder from there, ending on a bizarre note. I love it. It’s like the ending of the original Half-Life.
In spite of the good fortunes I preach about this game, it has one major design flaw: the final area is TERRIBLE.
Basically, you have to destroy an altar in which you have to use the four stones you collected on your journey. So you have to visit four separate maps and find a portal to a fire pillar. Then you sacrifice a stone to destroy the pillar.
Now, here are my major problems with this final mission:
- All four of these maps have the same exact layout. They’re literally copy-pasted all across. This is a half-assed move on the dev team’s part and only serves to make the last moments of this game into a slow, tedious slog to the finish line.
- The monster is on each one of them, but spawns in different places. Sometimes, it’s even guarding the conveyor belt that you need to find in order to get to the flame pillar. And you would have to draw the monster away by going through a series of circle-jerks.
- The level design is terrible. The area consists of long, narrow hallways. Some of them don’t loop and take you straight into different parts of the map. And as I mentioned earlier, conveyor belts suck in this game. There is one single conveyor belt in each area, which you are required to go on to find the area’s fire pillar. But it is entirely possible to stumble upon the wrong end of the conveyor belt. If this happens and the monster is around the corner, you’re screwed.
- The constantly droning music. Seriously, it gets annoying quick.
- No saves in between.
In other words, this part of the game is long, drawn out, tedious, boring and just plain frustrating. Die once, and you have to start them all over. These maps would be less painful if the hallways were wider and/or if there are no conveyor belts. It all just feels so lazily designed and unfair. This is easily the worst part of Hellnight.
But don’t worry. There’s some payoff to how the game ends, for there are SIX alternate endings. The ending depends on which partner character you finish with (if any at all), as well as some changes to the plot prior to the climax (or lack thereof). But to save you the trouble (in case you’re not interested in repeat playthroughs), this is what happens during each ending.
Going through Hellnight, it’s pretty clear that this game had a low budget at the time of its production. For the most part, there’s extremely little voice acting (there were some minor voice clips), so you’re stuck to reading subtitles during cutscenes. The sound design is fairly minimal, resorting to using stock sound effects to try to scare you. The graphics looked like they came from a Sega Saturn game, despite the PlayStation being in the middle of its life cycle by the time this game was developed (1998, four years after the console’s debut).
But strangely enough, I actually kinda like Hellnight. It has a strange charm to it. It’s slightly campy at times, but it also has multiple creepy moments that put you in a tense mood. Not to mention the world of the Tokyo Mesh is fascinating. These elements make an otherwise dated game into a unique experience. And if you don’t mind playing old horror games, I would definitely recommend looking into this one.
Hellnight (Dark Messiah)Price Varies
- The exploration and puzzle-solving are straightforward, though this gameplay may be an acquired taste for some.
- Multiple partner characters allow for slightly different play styles and six alternate endings.
- Good horror atmosphere due to soundtrack and bleak, muddy graphics.
- The NPCs have surprisingly entertaining dialogue.
- The plot is decent overall, with some weird turns here and there.
- Despite looking goofy, the monster can actually be scary.
- Graphics weren't impressive for the time it was developed.
- Some maps are frustrating to get through due to bad level design.
- The endgame is terrible due to repetition and unfair monster encounters.