"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.
In the world of first-person shooters, Painkiller is a throwback to an earlier time in gaming history (back in the days of Doom and Quake), when shooters were all about fast-paced, cathartic action. Developed by People Can Fly in 2004, Painkiller tells the story of Daniel Garner; after dying in a car crash with his wife, he's sent into purgatory to battle Lucifer's army, in order to prevent a war between Heaven and Hell and to earn his passage to join his wife in Heaven. Alone against the armies of Hell, Daniel must fight the demons through different slices of history recreated in purgatory, before facing Lucifer himself in a final showdown.
In Painkiller, the main point of the game is to walk into a room and turn every moving thing into a shower of blood and dismembered body parts. The action is fast, the shooting intense and cathartic, and there are no other objectives besides "kill everything." As much as I enjoy more sophisticated shooters like STALKER and Deus Ex, I also hold a fond appreciation for shooters that can make mindless action fun and engaging. Thanks to the tight shooting mechanics, the wonderfully diverse and evocative level designs, the unique variety of weapons and enemies, and the colossal boss fights, Painkiller does the action very well with fantastic presentation.
As an action-heavy FPS, one of the main attractions in Painkiller is its guns. Rather than just having the usual affair of melee weapon, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and rocket launcher, Painkiller's guns are all unique and interesting. Each gun has a standard primary firing mode and a separate alternate firing mode, thereby doubling (or at least enhancing) your firepower in any given situation, since each gun has two radically different attacks, sometimes even three if you combine the fire modes.
The default starting weapon is called the Painkiller; its primary fire spins three blades at high speed, letting you dice enemies to shreds at close range, and its secondary fire shoots a small warhead that explodes on enemies. If you shoot the warhead at a wall, it creates an energy beam between the gun and the warhead, which you can then use to kill multiple enemies with. It's also possible to fire the spinning blades out and then have them retract back. Then you've got the shotgun, which functions like any ordinary shotgun, except its secondary fire shoots a close-ranged freeze blast, instantly freezing enemies whom you can then shatter with any other weapon.
Just watch the different weapons in action.
Next up is the stake gun, which shoots large wooden stakes that pin enemies against the walls (satisfying every time it happens), and with an alternate firing mode that launches time-delayed explosive grenades. For ultimate firepower, there's a rocket launcher with a gatling gun attached to it, letting you fire off a series of rockets and a constant stream of bullets simultaneously. And, just for the hell of it, there's a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning, either separately or letting you supercharge a shuriken to explode in a cluster of enemies.
These are all incredibly fun to use, and it's just so thrilling to switch between them on the fly depending on the scenario. Also in the vein of old-school shooters, there is absolutely no reloading, meaning there's zero downtime in the action. There are no missions objectives, no side-kick NPCs, no vehicle sequences, no door keys to track down, no cover systems, and none of this other nonsense that's been shoehorned into modern FPSs. The gameplay here is just pure murder, death, and mayhem with fast movement speed (there's even bunny-hopping and rocket-propelled flight) and hundreds of enemies to slay.
As cool as the guns are, though, and as frenetic as the combat can be, endlessly killing monsters would get repetitive if not for the widely diverse level designs and enemies that you face. Purgatory is broken up into five separate "worlds," each with four to six different "stages" to complete, each with their own unique theme. You go from fighting skeletons in a cemetery, to fighting biker gangs in a prison, to fighting ninjas in an opera house, to fighting plate-armored knights in a medieval castle town, to fighting monks in a cathedral, to fighting WWI Nazi imps in a train station.
The first boss, Necrogiant, with a glitchy shoulder.
At the end of each of these "worlds" you face a boss battle against one of Lucifer's generals, with some of them even dwarfing the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus. These guys are big and epic, and they're usually far more challenging than the fights leading up to them. Like the level designs, they each have their own unique themes, so it's exciting to reach a new boss and have to figure out how to avoid their attacks and when the opportune moments are for you to attack. Unlike some other games, where the bosses just feel like stronger versions of the same stuff you've been killing the whole time, the bosses in Painkiller actually feel like bosses, reminiscent of the days when bosses were fearsome and not just bloated push-overs.
On top of the usual shooting elements, enemies drop their souls when they die, which you can then collect to replenish a bit of your health. When you collect 66 of these souls, you transform into a demon, which lets you go on a rampage killing everything in sight with a single hit. As a bonus for completing certain challenges within a level, you can also unlock tarot cards to pick and choose from between stages, which serve as buffs that you can enable in a level. And, much like the original Doom, there are a lot of secret areas in each level to find unique rewards, and also to contribute to your scoreboard at the end of a level.
The story is pretty much rubbish when you get down to it, and that's about the game's only real drawback. Not that it really matters, since the whole point of the game is the action, and there's really no need for a detailed narrative to explain everything. That two-sentence summary I made in the first paragraph of this article is all you need to know of the premise to enjoy the gameplay, and yet the developers somehow managed to cram over 30 minutes of cutscenes between the levels where characters drone on and on about stuff you just don't care about. Supposedly there are different endings depending on which difficulty you play on and how well you score, though, which is always a nice incentive to play better.
So that's Painkiller for you. It wasn't massively popular back in 2004 and went somewhat under the radar, and yet it handles the old-school action so well that it's still fun and enjoyable, even today. The game drips with charm and charisma, just from the weapons, level designs, and enemies by themselves. The game was popular enough to spawn five stand-alone expansions, the only one of which I can recommend being Battle out of Hell -- the one developed by People Can Fly.