99 Levels to Hell, an action-platforming rogue-light developed by two-man team Zaxis Games, carries with it a name that tries very hard to evoke difficulty. That idea bleeds into the game’s concept, challenging the player to travel through a multitude of stages, all culminating in a teeth gritting boss fight. In order to reach these boss battles, the player is tasked with fighting their way through a gauntlet of ghouls and beasts armed with nothing but a shotgun, a top hat, and a monocle.
What struck me as strange is the visual style of the game. It’s quite clear that 99 Levels to Hell is trying to create a hardcore experience of some sort. But the art direction of the game sits in heavy contrast to its intended vibe; the characters and enemies scattered throughout the levels of the game are imagined in a very cartoonish way. The previously mentioned protagonist, with his top hat and monocle, stands out in the hellish landscape to comic effect. The juxtaposition of cute visuals with violent themes works in some games, but it kills 99 Levels‘ sense of identity. Gunning down ghouls that look like they belong in a more child-friendly title isn’t viscerally charming here; it’s just kind of weird.
To the game’s credit, it combats the off-kilter art style with a fitting soundtrack. Infused throughout the game are a select amount of heavy rock and metal tracks. The blazing electric guitars and bombastic drums complement the game’s mythos well, and the overall soundtrack helps the game evoke a hard rock atmosphere.
Now, the core concept of the game sounds tough. The shotgun with which you delve in to the depths of hell has a limited range, and your health drops at a rapid rate when an enemy gets close enough to hit you. Upgrades are expensive (and randomly selected for shops) and gold is not as bountiful as one would hope, making the opening levels purely dependent on the player’s aptitude with the beginning weapon.
THE GAME COMBATS ITS OFF-KILTER ART STYLE WITH A FITTING HEAVY METAL SOUNDTRACK
Unfortunately, this is not exactly as difficult as the game would have you believe. In games like 99 Levels to Hell (games from which it clearly takes cues and inspiration), every move you make has to be carefully calculated and planned. Everything you do may lead to your immediate death. Falling to one’s death in similar titles is a common occurrence: the player constantly has to be aware of their footing and make sure that there path is clear and safe before moving on. 99 Levels to Hell does not inspire this same feeling of unease. In fact, charging around the map with reckless abandon becomes a habit very quickly, taking away some of the fear of death that the game tries very hard to instill.
The game quickly recommends that you use a two-handed controller instead of a keyboard to play–and with good reason. In each level, you move about the map trying to locate a golden key, which will unlock your route to the next level. You do this by vanquishing enemies and using bombs to traverse many of the destructible tiles scattered about. Take too long doing this, and a foreboding message will appear on the screen, warning you to run away. As this happens, ghosts begin to hone in on your location. This makes you feel like getting to the exit is absolutely integral to your survival, when in fact, you can take a few hits from these ghosts and keep going. And, if you so choose, dodging them is of no real issue.
IN GAMES LIKE 99 LEVELS TO HELL, EVERYTHING YOU DO MAY LEAD TO DEATH–BUT HERE, RECKLESS ABANDON QUICKLY BECOMES HABIT
While this frantic pacing can be fun, it doesn’t satisfy the level of challenge that players familiar with the genre are used to. In fact, conquering the main levels of the game leaves you with no sense of pride. You may die a couple of times, but jumping back in and beating the level with ease is a common occurrence. This leaves the bulk of the challenge resting on the shoulders of the game’s boss battles, in which Zaxis’s development efforts actually achieved some success. During combat with the bosses, your movement is limited to the stage, so the easy dodging and manoeuvring of the core levels is not present. This often means that the boss can take violent stabs at your health gauge whenever they so wish. Throw in some regular enemies to divert your attention, and you have a caustic combination that will result in death after death. Though victory is ultimately a simple matter of pattern memorization.
NEITHER INFERNO NOR PARADISO
As a whole, 99 Levels to Hell is not a bad game. It is a decent little action-platformer that features some very fast past gameplay. It’s topped off with boss battles that at are times an exercise in futility, and will result in a fair share of teeth gnashing and groans of disdain. What holds it back is a slight identity crisis, paired with core gameplay that just lacks challenge. This makes the experience lag behind other titles in a genre increasing in popularity; by comparison, these 99 Levels could be a hell of a lot deeper.
- Soundtrack excellently highlights the game’s cutely-creepy theme
- Boss battles are devilishly hard in a fun way
- Regular stages are too easy
- Cartoonish characters seem out-of-place