Hellnight (also known as “Hell Night” and “Dark Messiah” in Japan) is a survival/horror title published by Atlus and Konami in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and developed by Dennou Eizo(u) Seisakusho (電脳映像製作所), a small obscure Japanese game outlet that has released a few adult PC games, but also several strange or rare titles, ranging from the lauded Japan-only Dreamcast RPG/Adventure game “deSPIRIA” (bizarre spiritual sequel of sorts to Hellnight / Dark Messiah) to the sought-after collectible NeoGeo Pocket Color game, “nige-ron-pa” (where they also went by “Dennou Club”). Being released in Japan and Europe in limited quantities, Hellnight is, in many regards, a cult-classic game by the gaming community and a fairly poor game by major review outlets, but it probably more closely identifies with “The Room”– in other words, it’s so bad that its good.
The game deals with Tokyo’s underworld towards the end of the millennium (or around modern day when the game was made). Most people above ground are happy and generally unaware of what lurks beneath the streets, although things were very different decades ago during World War II and the battle at Pearl Harbor. During this time, Tokyo was in the process of constructing an underground military headquarter to formulate attacks against their enemies with less interruptions, but when they were eventually defeated, this underground world they built was abandoned and faded into history, acting as a stark reminder of the authorities’ intention to sacrifice their people to protect the land in a final battle to the death on the Japanese archipelago…
…Or that’s what people think. In recent years, the subways and Tokyo underworld has become a paradise for weirdos and a mysterious dangerous cult known as “Holy Ring” (sometimes referred to as “Sacred Ring” in the manual) who send some of their followers above ground to spread their propaganda about the world’s supposed end by the turn of the millennium (which, strangely, had little to do with Y2K hysteria). Those who hate the law on the surface are attracted to the underworld… killers… rebels… and shady characters with secrets to hide are but a few to inhabit what they now refer to as “The Mesh”. The (unnamed) player character gets wrapped up in the mysteries of the underworld while eluding acolytes of the Holy Ring society, hopping on the last train of the night in an effort to get home. However, a “man” is on the tracks and causes the conductor to panic, crashing and killing most on-board. When you come to, you meet a Japanese schoolgirl named Naomi Sugiura and are confronted by soldiers trying to determine if you are friend or foe, but all hell breaks loose when a monster appears and starts killing everyone. You flee to the nearest area, which leads to the sewers, where your twisted journey begins.
Hellnight is clearly a low budget game with several technical flaws, a somewhat sloppy translation, and disjointed story-telling… BUT, Dennou Eizou did at least one thing right in this game: they nailed the suspense factor, something that is present in one form or another in most supposed “horror” games but rarely to the extent that Hellnight delivered back in day. In part, the game is so successful in scaring the player because of how vulnerable the cast of characters are and because the game is so schizophrenic in design… the game properly delivers a feeling of isolation and hopelessness as you struggle to complete the game while always evading an ever-evolving monster. All the player can do is walk, run, utilize partner actions (shoot a limited number of times or sense the monster), and tackle simple puzzles, but the characters, atmosphere and multiple paths through the game make it feel rather surreal. The game starts off slow but becomes more interesting as you progress, learning more about the characters, The Mesh, and reach the absurd conclusion. Many things can happen depending on how you choose to progress through the game and each character has an ending for added replayability. Besides, it’s not often that you get to “befriend” a serial killer in a game…
The graphics are fairly poor. The game is littered with various okay FMVs, but the underworld is quite rudimentary and bland in its entirety. Navigating between areas is done in a first-person 3D fashion, while actual rooms are displayed in 2D with the player being allowed to click on specific objects. Characters are presented with 3D stills with the exception of the monster that chases you, which is a fairly simple 3D model that changes through the game. For some reason, characters are not shown on the field; they pop up when you move over certain spots or search certain spots. I don’t know if this is intentional or not (it’s likely the product of inexperience or time/budget restraints), but it adds to the creepiness factor a little. The music is brooding and appropriate… I can’t really say much more than that.
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