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‘Metal: Hellsinger’ is heavy metal theatrics at their finest

(Washington Post illustration; Funcom)

Metal: Hellsinger

Available on: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S

Developer: The Outsiders | Publisher: Funcom

Release: Sept. 15, 2022

Think of music games, and series like Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Beatmania are usually the first titles that come to mind. These sought to replicate a sense of what it feels like to jam out onstage; players tap buttons on plastic instruments or controllers to cascading notes on the screen, and are rewarded for smashing the right notes as closely to the tempo as possible. But while keeping to the tempo is undoubtedly important for musicians to play in sync, these games lacked a crucial aspect of live music: the spontaneity, the improvisation and the melodic dialogues between musicians.

That’s not to say these games don’t require dexterity and skill, but they don’t really let you noodle around on your instrument, compose riffs on the fly or experience the buzz and trepidation of a live jam session. You can be booed in Rock Band if you’re not playing the right notes all the time, something that rarely happens in real life. Something I’ve learned from drumming in local amateur bands years ago is that the drummer plays a key role in fostering this spontaneity: They’re the ones setting the tempo and pace of the songs. If I inadvertently sped up or slowed down, the rest of the band would have to yank their notes along to my fluctuating beats. But playing music is more than just keeping a steady tempo; an overly strict, even slavish adherence to the beat can make a performance feel a tad too mechanical.

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“Metal: Hellsinger,” a rhythmic first-person shooter, understands this, and, in doing so, veers surprisingly close to the heart-palpitating sensation of live performance, infused with the sort of off-the-rails improvisation that’s not usually captured in rhythm games. You play as the Unknown, a fallen archangel and feared nemesis of the infernal pits, rampaging through the eight levels of hell with a sword and a couple of nifty-looking demonic weapons in your arsenal. Like an unholy take on “The Little Mermaid,” you’re scouring the underworld for your lost voice, your vengeance carried out to the taut, brutal assault of heavy metal music.

At the same time, you’re encouraged to line your kills up to the songs’ underlying beats, as you’re guided along by the punchy grooves of the soundtrack’s heavily bludgeoned drums. The more in sync you are with this beat, the more damage you can deal, and the more intense the music will become. What begins as an instrumental reverie will eventually morph into a full-fledged barrage of melodic, aggressive metal, complete with gristly roars and impassioned vocals — that is, as long as you can slaughter demons to the beat.

First things first: the progenitor of “Metal: Hellsinger” is almost definitely “Doom,” given the latter’s heavy metal stylings and how it popularized the concept of Glory Kills — the act of squeezing health and ammo from demons on the verge of death. “Metal: Hellsinger” borrows a lot of concepts from “Doom,” but adds a twist with its rhythm-based mechanics, which only render these kills even more dizzying and adrenaline-soaked.

Yet “Metal: Hellsinger” is not just about keeping time while slaughtering bloodthirsty fiends; it also offers room for improvisation through its array of weapons. Take Paz, a fire-belching talking skull that essentially functions as your pistol — a gun that lets you fire shots consistently and rapidly, but deals minimal damage per shot. Unlike other guns in your arsenal, Paz doesn’t need reloading, which makes it a perfect weapon for learning to shoot demons to the beat of the game’s heavy metal accompaniment. Subsequent levels will unlock more weapons, such as Persephone, the game’s version of a shotgun, and Vulcan, a heavy, sluggish crossbow that fires bolts that deal area damage, devastating enemies where the bolts land. Persephone deals infinitely more damage, but is slightly more challenging to wield as it requires some time to reload, and its lower firing rate means you can, at best, only shoot the gun once every two beats; Vulcan has an even lower fire rate.

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This changes how you experience “Metal: Hellsinger.” Do you stick to Paz throughout the level, or switch up the way you deal with the encroaching waves of foes with a slower but more powerful weapon? While this dilemma may not be such a foreign concept to FPS veterans, when combined with the need to stay on the beat — no matter what — it can throw a spanner in the works. You’re going from firing your gun every beat to every other beat, and it’s not a shift that everyone can swiftly adjust to. That said, if you do switch up your guns and go offbeat, you’ll need to improvise and adapt — not unlike a musician who has committed a small gaffe onstage and has to quickly recover to not derail the performance — in a way that feels like a stark contrast to most rhythm games.

In a way, “Metal: Hellsinger” does expect virtuosity from its players, and that means you’ll probably end up failing and resetting your run a couple of times. After all, any solid performance is backed by hours of practice. That’s not to say that “Metal: Hellsinger” is a thoroughly unforgiving jaunt — you don’t always have to kill everything perfectly in sync — but that practice can help you discover your own rhythm and playstyle.

My approach, for example, was to rapidly alternate between Paz and the Hounds, a pair of revolvers; the two weapons have similar fire rates, which helps, since I would prefer not to complicate matters by using another gun with a much slower fire rate, even if it has the potential to do more damage. In the same vein, not every drummer enjoys laying down relentless tides of cymbals washing over machine gun-esque blast beats; some would prefer pirouetting around the tom drums to keep the tempo going. “Metal: Hellsinger” values interpretation and improvisation. It’s exhilarating, the game acknowledges, to perform music or execute hellspawns your way.

And when you manage to rake up enough hit streaks and Fury, a meter that fills up the more you remain on beat, the sounds of guttural barks and soaring vocals gradually being mixed into the rest of the instruments is particularly euphoric. It’s the part of the performance where you ease into your groove, as you feed off the blissful energy of every part of the music finally coming together, of nailing grisly kill after kill to the singular pulse of the soundtrack. Then there’s the intensely physical aspect of “Metal: Hellsinger,” as your fingers race rapidly across the controller, and you attempt to ease yourself into the cadence of the game’s frenetic, delirious energy. It makes shooting these satanic zombies bone-crushingly resonating.

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Of course, you really shouldn’t come into “Metal: Hellsinger” expecting a lesson in musicality; it’s an FPS after all, and you’re mainly here to rip demon flesh and crack infernal skulls with the smoking end of a hefty gun. But what the game has revealed about the good ol’ shooter is its amicable ties with rhythm games — that there’s a thread that connects the unlikely genres together. It tells us that there’s a rhythm to the cacophony of death and violence in FPSes, and when such games are channeled through the rumbling logic of heavy metal, they can result in a performance that is deeply theatrical.

In a way, it’s the FPS genre that grants players a kind of agency that rhythm games haven’t — the freedom and exhilaration of performance. You can execute kills to the beat of your internal pulse, with the act of shooting bodies and popping heads forming a pleasing rhythm. That’s why playing “Metal: Hellsinger” can almost feel like you’re holding the drumsticks yourself, as you blaze through demon hordes with a percussive flow of your own.

Khee Hoon Chan is a freelance writer who lives on the internet. You can read more of their pieces here, or ask them about the weather on Twitter @crapstacular.