Hellboy: Web of Wyrd (“word”), a new console/PC roguelite brawler from developer Upstream Arcade and publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment, marks the first video game to star Mike Mignola’s character since 2008’s disappointing movie tie-in The Science of Evil. Set in Argentina in 1982, the game finds Hellboy (voiced by the late Lance Reddick) and the B.P.R.D. investigating the Butterfly House, a laboratory that is causing the titular dimension to breach the human world.
Guided by the spirits of Scheherazade (Pooya Mohseni) and the Norns (Cissy Jones, Maile Flanagan, and Melanie Minichino), Hellboy fights his way through the Wyrd’s monsters to find the House’s creator. Each time he dies, he is pulled back to the House by an Aetheric Tether, allowing him to start over in each realm every time.
For this review, Multiversity Comics news manager Chris Chiu-Tabet volunteered to finish the experience on Mark’s behalf—and failed miserably, going to YouTube to watch the cutscenes shortly after finishing the first major area.
Developed by Upstream Arcade
Production by Hannah Bradley and Annette Cottell
Story and script by Dene Carter
Hellboy: Web of Wyrd is a roguelike action brawler with an original story created in partnership with Dark Horse Comics and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. When an agent of the B.P.R.D. goes missing, Hellboy is sent to investigate; pulling him into the depths of the Wyrd.
Christopher Chiu-Tabet: According to my PlayStation 5, I spent two hours playing the game, which came as a surprise: I could’ve sworn it was more like four. I did not enjoy my time in the Wyrd; I found it an incredibly tedious and grindy experience, going through the same painted corridors, fighting the same enemies, over and over, until I mined enough experience points to eventually overcome the final boss in the first realm. The combat is no fun at all, with blocking relying on you taking out footsoldiers, non-existent weapon aiming, and nigh impossible dodging. By the time I defeated the first boss, I was so drained, I felt nothing.
Mark Tweedale: I should preface my comments by saying rogue-like brawlers are not my genre. That said, I managed to push further than the first level, getting as far as the fourth boss for this review. But my experience with the game was very similar to yours, Chris—it’s a grindy experience. My poor gaming skills undoubtedly exaggerated this aspect, but even when I unlocked a new level, it was very samey, essentially the same as the first with a different skin. The rooms look very much the same, the corridors look the same, and since it’s a roguelike game where the map keeps changing, that samey quality made it harder to retain a shape of the overall map in my head.
Chris: Which is a real shame, because it looks gorgeous; the developers clearly took advantage of limited resources to lovingly recreate Mignola’s minimalistic art style, to the point cutscenes resemble a motion comic. There’s some graphical issues, ie. green texture popping against outlines in the distance, but overall it looks perfect.
Mark: That’s an aspect of the game that gets better the further in you go. The second level looks great, but it also uses distance much better, using the treeline to become a wall of black shapes. The third level adds little Mignola-esque flourishes, like fish swimming through the air. But the fourth level taps into it best by moving the location underground. The art style is just better suited to a confined environment where you can’t see way off into the distance, and the restrictive environment taps into the mood of the story better.
I would have liked to have seen the colors pushed further, especially for the environments. A rock, for example, is a uniform color, but if I was looking at Dave Stewart’s colors in a comic, each facet would be different. And it would have been nice to have some distance value, so that colors pop a little as you get closer, to give the world more volume and perhaps with some of Stewart’s brush texture through it. And this would open up the door to treat interactive elements differently, like for example the bits of architecture you can pick up and throw could be rendered in the flatter style, so that in the busier bits of action, your eye can still quickly identify the interactive elements.Continued below
Chris: Man, you just reminded me of how bad the debris throwing mechanic was. What makes this all even more of a shame is Lance as Hellboy; every time I heard his voice, it made me ache at the bittersweet joy of hearing him one last time. He’s admittedly not how I imagine Hellboy—few actors could overshadow Reddick, and Ron Perlman is one of them—even with his attempts at a more working class accent, yet he genuinely made me chuckle several times with his deadpan delivery.
Mark: Amuche Chukudebelu did some additional voice work for Hellboy, and it’s very seamless. I’m assuming his work was probably vocalized grunts for battle; the kind of stuff that would be recorded closer to the end of the game’s development. I don’t know who recorded the line, “That’s all for you!” but they totally nailed it.
Chris: Wow, I didn’t know someone had been brought in.
Mark: The rigid level structure was something that particularly bothered me. I found I enjoyed the latter levels much more, because the paths branched more and involved more split-level elements, which opened up new ways to play. It was satisfying to have a big nasty and instead of fighting it, bait it into following me and leading it into a trap. If I played smart instead of just brawling, I could enter an area with a single bar of health and end the level back at full health. But the initial few hours of the game are pretty dry and it could’ve benefited from more options for creative play. And all the way through, the structure is very rigid; every level is a room with corridors that lead to other rooms. A door from a room never leads straight to another room. A corridor never has intersections.
But I think what could have really helped the game is atmosphere to give each room a stronger identity. Instead of having bones littered about in almost every room, limit them to specific rooms. Maybe in a room with an altar in the center, the bones are in piles instead of scattered. Maybe there’s a corridor that’s dark and as you walk in, torches burst to life as you approach. . . and maybe that tells you something about the room ahead? Maybe when you enter a room with sickly green light, that means it’s an ambush room? By creating rooms with different feelings, the player gets a stronger sense of the space.
If there’s one term I think of when I think of Mignola’s storytelling, it’s theatrical. There’s a sense of presentation, and I missed that in Hellboy: Web of Wyrd. Take the prologue for example: we have a briefing sequence in a helicopter, then we’re straight into the Wyrd. It would have been so much more effective to leave certain information out of the briefing, have Hellboy enter the Butterfly House, no other agents in there yet, and let him learn a few things, then discover the Bell Chamber, drop into the Wyrd and rescue Lucky (Steve Blum). Then when he returns to the Butterfly House, the other agents are there, and it’s been transformed into the game’s hub.
And it makes Hellboy feel like an investigator, not just a tank. Flip some of the scenes around so that he tells the other agents what’s going on instead of them telling him.
Chris: That would’ve gone a long way to make the story more engaging, because as a whole the experience feels like a “Hellboy clocking in and out of work” simulator. If he’d taken more of an interest in what was going on, and his experience of repeatedly having to do the same thing over and over, I might’ve appreciated what was going on more. (Plus it would’ve given us more of Reddick’s wonderful performance.)
Mark: As the game goes along, it finds its legs and the story gets more engaging. But that brings up other problems, like the music in the game’s hub. It’s fine for the beginning of the game, but as the game progresses, it feels more and more disconnected from what the characters are experiencing and feeling. It’s too laid back. After each level is completed, the hub should feel creepier. And again, this is an area where a change of lighting or making the machines start to spark or the house start to groan could’ve gone a long way.Continued below
From here on, we’re going into spoiler territory.
Chris: I’m glad you brought that up, because I wanted to ask about the story and the big twist, which is how Martinez (Krizia Bajos) turns out to be the granddaughter of the Sonnenrad Society member who built the Butterfly House with Deneveux, and betrays the B.P.R.D. to bring back the Nazis who relocated to the Wyrd. I should’ve known something was up with the decision to place the House in Argentina, since the country was a hotbed of Nazi fugitives after the war, so that made sense. However, I had misgivings about her sympathetic death, especially since Hellboy would know better than most people about how we always have the ability to do the right thing, no matter who our ancestors are, and becoming a Nazi collaborator is, well, absolutely terrible.
Mark: Certainly she’s trying to tap into Hellboy’s sympathy. But at her last, when she says, “Family is family. You would never understand,” and Hellboy replies, “You know what, kid? You’re right,” that doesn’t feel sympathetic to me. It feels disgusted.
That said, I think he went into that conversation, hoping she’d somehow explain how she could have done something so reprehensible. He’s looking for a reason not to believe she’s the piece of shit she is.
But, yeah, there were certainly stylistic choices, like breaking with the style of showing the human characters with their eyes lost in shadow, which were altered for this scene so that we see Martinez’s eyes, that did feel like the storytellers were trying to get at least some sympathy for the character.
Chris: Yes, I think they were going for a parallel with Hellboy’s destiny to bring about the apocalypse, meaning he found her situation relatable. It’s an interesting contrast too with how Scheherazade’s story ends with her going out on her own terms, instead of remaining beholden to telling stories for someone else, which was certainly quite poignant.
Mark: Agreed. It was also interesting to see the game directly tap into the comic when it referenced Hellboy’s encounter with the Sonnerad Society from “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1954—Black Sun.” It’s the kind of reference comics readers can enjoy, but it doesn’t take anything away from the game if you’re unfamiliar either.
Chris: Yeah, makes sense if you’re pulling on the thread of the Nazis in Hellboy’s backstory though. For the most part, as far as I could tell from cursory searches though, everyone else was new here, and to be frank, the absence of characters like Abe Sapien was sorely felt. That said, perhaps the game itself got in the way of making the newcomers more interesting, because you noted Mads (Jin Maley) is non-binary, and I had no idea, I just assumed they looked androgynous because it was the ’80s!
Mark: Mads was referred to with they/them pronouns, and at one point they correct a character that uses she/her. It was a pretty subtle thing and easy to miss, but I was glad to see a non-binary character in the game’s cast.
While it would’ve been cool to see Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, I get why they aren’t there. If Abe and Liz are there, you kinda need to make them playable. It was purposefully limiting the scope to just Hellboy, which is important when you consider this game has a sixteen-person development team. And the result is one the most faithful, if not the most faithful, adaptations of Hellboy to another medium we’ve seen.
Chris: Wow, I didn’t know the dev team was that tiny. Regarding Mads and the other new characters, hopefully we’ll see them again, and learn more about them in the comics, even if it’s only initially an adaptation of this game. I’m sure with Mads in particular you could craft an interesting story that pulls in genderfluid characters from mythology (eg. Loki), or with Tatler (Mara Junot) one that draws from her African American heritage.
Mark: I get the feeling that the continuity elements are a one-way street, especially given the way Shakti is used in the game. It’s used by Hellboy to reinforce his weapons in the Aether and stuff like that, just really casually using it like a plain old source of magic. In the comics, Shakti is another name for black flame, which is extremely bad and corrupts and consumes all that use it. This is the way the non-canon Hellboy prose novels are treated, where they generally draw on the comics canon, but introduce elements that aren’t harmonious.Continued below
But, yeah, I would like to see these characters again. For me, I really loved the dynamic of Benson (Bumper Robinson) and Mads throughout the story. I feel like after the initial chunk of the game, the writing gets much stronger, and it shows most in the characters. I’m hoping this game finds its audience so we can get more. The game has given us a small fragment of the Hellboy Universe and it did that fragment really well. I’d love to see that scope expand.
Chris: So, any final thoughts before we wrap this up?
Mark: I just want to call out a few tiny things I enjoyed. Hellboy moves like I imagine Hellboy moves; he’s generally slow, but he’s capable of short bursts of speed. I liked how when he was low on health, he was a faded version of himself, just like in “Hellboy: The Island” and “Hellboy in Hell” when he was dying or dead.
I feel like it could’ve been really easy to rely on Hellboy-isms like his saying an understated “Crap!” or hitting something and yelling “BOOM!” but they actually were pretty light on that stuff so that when it happened it made a bigger impact.
Overall, I had fun with Hellboy: Web of Wyrd, and a lot of that was just seeing Hellboy in a game done well and with obvious love for the source material. I just wish I enjoyed the gameplay more.
Chris: I’m glad you had a much better time with it than I did, and I feel almost bad for tapping out now! Almost: I think it was a really clunky, boring experience, as gorgeous and faithful to the comics as it is. It’s been a rather great year for video games (nevermind how this came out the same week as Spider-Man 2), and it’s a shame Hellboy couldn’t be a part of that. (I can’t help but wonder if this is why the game got delayed to and buried the same week as Marvel’s behemoth.)
I’ve noticed I’m the only one who even brings it up on Twitch chat, despite it being Reddick’s final video game project, which speaks to how word-of-mouth is not getting out there. Baldur’s Gate 3 is not a release many would describe as being their style of gameplay either (heck, I have no interest in playing it, much as I adore Karlach), but look at how it’s broken through and become a crossover hit. Ultimately, the existence of a good Hellboy game still eludes us, much like a good game for many a classic comic book hero, all of whom have been around well before him. Not bad company at least.