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Painkiller: Overdose (PC) artwork

Painkiller: Overdose (PC) review

"The game does a lot right, and is worth a playthrough just to see what each level has for you. They all have a similar feel, but at the same time are all very different. Enemies aren't reused. There aren't any palette swaps in this adventure. An impressive line is walked in that aspect. Unfortunately, all is not well in purgatory. While all of the aesthetics are in order, problems come up in the mechanics themselves."

Within minutes of starting Painkiller: Overdose, playing through the remainder of the game was an exciting prospect. The opening sequence is a wonderfully written soliloquy about hatred. It starts with hatred borne of thousands of years of fighting between the angels and the demons. When a child, Belial, is born a mixture of both sides, the hatred spreads to him. Wanted by neither side, his wings are brutally torn off by Cerberus after he is sold out by one of the Angels, and he is left to rot in a prison in purgatory for untold millennia while he stews in his own building hatred. This hatred is where the game begins.

While not particularly mind blowing in terms of premise, this introduction sets the tone for the game convincingly, and it gives you a solid motivation. The intro beckons you on, but it's not where the excitement really begins. The first level of the game, indeed, the very first room is the fiery wreckage of the cage of Belial's imprisonment. His twisted, demonic talons clutch the severed head of the guardian of his cell. Within mere steps, he is set upon by a horde of half burned zombies which rise from the ground to impede your escape. So you have at them with the only thing you possess.

That's right, the first thing you do is attack zombies with a severed head that fires lasers. Right about here was where the pure giddy rush started. Painkiller: Overdose's biggest strength is in its artistic direction. The weapons are smart, and the levels are at once creepy and amusing.

A few rooms in, Belial stumbles onto purgatory's shotgun. For the most part, it functions like shotguns do, blowing big meaty holes in things at close range. At long range, however...actually at long range, it still dominates. It's common for FPS games to incorporate alternate fire modes into their weapons, but it's uncommon for them to be as clever. The shotgun's can also fire a ranged puff of smoke that turns monsters it hits to stone, but does no outright damage. It does, however, buy time to close the gap and bring the primary fire function into play, or circumvent enemies with shields, allowing you to strafe behind them and blast their weak points unimpeded.

Purgatory's Japan is a hellish caricature of the real thing, full of screaming ninjas dressed like Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. Partially decomposing geisha girls attack from all sides with razor fans.

Later on, Belial arrives in Purgatory's New York. A similar mockery where hoodie-wearing zombies set upon you with cans of toxic spray paint. Likewise the zombie police brandish their riot shields with menacing authority. What's more, these two groups will actually fight each other if you don't interfere.

The game does a lot right, and is worth a playthrough just to see what each level has for you. They all have a similar feel, but at the same time are all very different. Enemies aren't reused. There aren't any palette swaps in this adventure. An impressive line is walked in that aspect. Unfortunately, all is not well in purgatory. While all of the aesthetics are in order, problems come up in the mechanics themselves.

Belial has this nasty habit of taunting his downed foes. Not that anyone is really going to feel bad for them. The problem is that he only has a handful of taunts in his repertoire, and one of them is used pretty much every third enemy. And in a game where enemies descend upon you in clouds, this translates to a lot of one-liners that lose their sting somewhere about half way through the second time.

~Zombie explodes~

Belial: Do do do...another one bites the dust!

~Fiery spirit puffs out~

Belial: Do do do...another one bites the dust!

~Strange lava creature that rolls about on a large wheel falls into a pit~

Belial: Do do do...another one bites the dust!

Why does he even know that song, anyway? He's been holed away in purgatorial solitary confinement for thousands of years. And yet here he is regurgitating a line he should never have been exposed to. Yes, yes, complaining about realism in a game where tarot cards actually do something is probably bad form. But listening to his uninspired droning over and over seems pretty similar to purgatory anyway. Especially when it isn't even clever repetitive droning.

And that's the heart of PK:O's problems. It's a very very repetitive game.

It's not a condemning flaw, the game is unabashedly linear, and the draw is in the ceaseless carnage. So long as you're knee deep in gore, it's hard to notice that each stage is basically a series of tiny one room levels strung together with a similar theme. This only becomes a problem when you aren't mowing down dozens of pot-bellied grim reapers with a gun that fires radioactive stakes.

Basically, the flow is as follows: You start in a sealed room, kill everything in it, and then the game grinds to a halt as you locate a glowing red seal in the ground which saves your progress, refills your health, and leads to the next sealed room. Repeat ad infinitum. Each time you clear a room, you go on your merry way with a free ticket to square one, though you do keep your previous weapon and ammo counts. The jarring breaks in the action disrupt the experience somewhat, especially when the game wants you to go back the way you came in order to progress.

Usually this isn't too bad, especially since a compass points the way to the seals, but there are instances where the game leads you to a U shaped room, spawns the enemies in a way that leads you around the U, and then wants you to go back around and out the same door you came in to continue. What's the point? Why even do that room? It's just poor design.

There are other such blunders. While the tarot cards themselves bring a slew of interesting powers to the table, and really do add to the game, acquiring them is an exercise in anger management for the sake of your keyboard. It's not so much that they're hard to get, though some of them are brutally so, it's that the objectives are inane. There's one hidden in each level, and each one is acquired by imposing an excruciating handicap on the player.

In one case, the game encourages you to "Beat the level using only the melee weapon" as the objective. That doesn't seem so bad, except that said level is the first one that has flying enemies in it. You're supposed to melee flying enemies, and it can't be done, I promise you. To be fair, the game's melee weapon can be thrown, but it travels through the air in a way reminiscent of the way a rowboat travels through sand. So there you are, chucking your completely impotent razor cube at them and calling it back over and over again while dozens of angry demon wasps drop kegs of napalm on you.

It's just needlessly frustrating. If this particular objective had been used in any level where all of the enemies were ground bound, it would have been fine. There's really no justification for a decision like this. Asking that the player kill a boss in a certain amount of time is a reasonable objective. Telling him to give up armor in a level where burning meteors are constantly falling from the sky in a random pattern is not.

Within minutes of finishing Painkiller: Overdose, hindsight revealed an enjoyable experience, but one devoid of the initial unbridled enthusiasm. The game does a lot of cool things, but does them in a glass-half-empty kind of way where poor design decisions hold them down. Still, for a pure white-knuckled gorefest that puts your twitch reflexes to a very serious test, you could do a lot worse.

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Freelance review by Josh Higley (December 02, 2007)

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