Game Review: 'Painkiller: Recurring Evil'


The Painkiller franchise is, through and through, the gaming definition of a guilty pleasure.  Borne out of the early 2000's "retro FPS" renaissance (which also saw released like Serious Sam and Will Rock), it placed emphasis on over-the-top gunplay, claustrophobic arenas, and dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of enemies to mow down per level.  It's the sort of lead-spewing insanity that leaves mousepads worn smooth and keyboards creaking under the stress of its full-bore lunacy.

Painkiller's lore has always been unapologetically over-the-top.  It originally focused on series hero Daniel Garner, a soul too good for Hell, but too evil for Heaven, doomed to spend eternity in purgatory.  However, he is sent as a sort of special-ops soul by the angels in Heaven to tip the scales in the ongoing war on Hell with the ultimate prize being entrance to the pearly gates.  It has branched off since then, over several expansion packs and sequels, bringing in demon-angel hybrids as protagonists, a rotating cabinet of hellish higher-ups, and finally the protagonist of the last three games, William "Bill" Sherman.

If you've fallen off of the Painkiller train like I have, the opening cinematic for Painkiller: Recurring Evil does little to fill you in.  There's some nonsense about Belial (the aforementioned angel-demon hybrid) and a sword, and some other ham-fisted narrative.  All that matters is that Sherman is sent back into the corridors of Hell for five brutal levels of mowing down the damned with a unique of arsenal of weapons.

While five levels may seem like not a hell of a lot for your 10 bucks, these levels are long, and I mean long.  Playtime can range anywhere from 40 minutes to well over an hour apiece, and the flow of enemies doesn't let up at all for any of them.  Even the first level on easy mode overflowed with close to 700 damned souls to be felled by Bill, and the population count crept up and up the closer you get to the endgame.  There's really no strategy when you have enemy population approaching quadruple digits except run like hell, fire like hell, and pray like hell.

My initial response to easing back into Painkiller after all these years was not exactly positive.  The development reins have been handed off to Eggtooth, and while they certainly get the Painkiller vibe (take slightly creepy real-world environments and pack ‘em to the rafters with enemies that are crazier than shithouse rats), the sense of rhythm that original developer People Can Fly worked out to a science is lacking, leaving players without any real sense of flow.  Instead, Eggtooth seems satisfied simply scooping enemy after enemy on top of you without rhyme or reason.  It's a giant, explosive, chaotic mess.  The strangely broken English only adds to the overbearing lack of polish, with some on-screen instruction leaving me scratching my head.

Then, something magic happens: you start to fall into the game's nerve-shredding pace, the blinders go on, and you find yourself suddenly locked into the brutality of it all.  The driving metal soundtrack serves as the perfect backdrop for your slaughter, mowing down bizarre enemies (zombified WWI doughboys, electrified ghouls in straitjackets, and even self-immolating children) with weapons as varied and bizarre as stake launchers, machine guns that launch shurikens, and the titular Painkiller, a steampunk weedwhacker that slices enemies apart as readily as a dandelion patch.  It's not highbrow entertainment by any means, and those who prefer their shooters with even a dash of strategy will probably balk at the game's thrashing sense of violence and chaos.  However, there are few games as cathartic as Painkiller, whether it's the original or Recurring Evil.

Painkiller: Recurring Evil is available through Steam for $9.99.