Zaxis Games and B-evil invite us to descend through the 99 Levels to Hell. Newly released for the PC and Mac, the game is a 2-D sidescrolling roguelike dungeon-crawler with a trigger-happy twist that trades traditional sword and sorcery for more modern weaponry, such as guns and bombs.
As expected of a roguelike, 99 Levels to Hell features randomly generated dungeons —not to mention ten different dungeon environments, so that each playthough is a fresh and uniquely hellish experience (in the best sense). In addition to over ninety-nine levels, the game offers more weapon types and upgrades than you can shake a shotgun at, as well as some extra unlockable player characters and a wide variety of creepy-crawly underworld baddies to blast away with your weapon of choice.
While permadeath always gives me a headache, Hell turns out to be a relatively laid-back sort of place in this regard. (Maybe it’s because you’re usually dead on arrival anyway?) The game is broken up into ten-level sections (each ending with a boss encounter), so that instead of being forced back to the very beginning, death only sends you back to the beginning of the current section. Unfortunately, you do lose all your character stats and any special items or upgrades you’ve picked up along the way. There are few things more depressing than the loss of one’s beloved pet Skull of Death.
As if the death penalty doesn’t make your journey harrowing enough, a few classic traps (including spiked floors and spinning saws) are introduced once you pass the tenth level. Moreover, if you tarry too long in one place, the overtime ghosts will come after you. The 99 Levels to Hell are no walk in the park —dillydallying will not be tolerated, and loitering is punishable by death.
Time truly is a precious commodity, considering how much there is to explore in this game. Each level is a riddle to be solved on the fly, and like any good maze, there are quite a few dead ends and sidetracks to slow you down. Several accessible rooms can be found in each level – some are mysteries to be solved at your own peril, while others are clearly identifiable as shops, casinos, or elevators. Shops let you buy goods with gold, while in a casino you can gamble with cash —or raise the stakes higher and bet on your life, to try to win random prizes. Hopping in an elevator allows you to skip a few levels, but beware: elevators travel in two directions.
Aside from being lazy, taking the elevator may also cause you to miss one of the most interesting items of all: narrative fragments. While dungeon-crawlers typically feature little to no attempt at an actual story, hidden within each segment of 99 Levels to Hell is a puzzle-piece of poetry which, when fitted together with the rest, will reveal the ending of a riveting tale which began once upon a time, “on a bleak and twisted night.”
Despite the intimidating title and the dire consequences of failure, the game possesses a rather quirky personality lurking just beneath the surface. There is a cartoonish quality to the aesthetics of the game, especially the look of the player characters, that steers it away from true horror in favor of something less scary and more darkly fun. It’s difficult not to crack a smile when the protagonist you start out with looks like the Tim Burton animated version of the Monopoly guy.
The sound design has a similar vibe, featuring deep-toned, threatening tracks and ghoulish sound effects, including wolf-howls and a chorus of whispers. It evokes haunted house imagery without ever resulting in actual goose bumps. The most stressful moment of the game is a tie between challenging boss battles and the appearance of the overtime ghosts, whose arrival (which sometimes feels a bit too early) is accompanied by a fast-paced electric guitar chase theme that really makes you feel your time running out. Death metal, indeed.
The expedition through 99 Levels to Hell, not surprisingly, becomes increasingly challenging as you descend deeper into the abyss. Aside from the difficulty inherent in any game with roguelike dungeon generation, each level is cleverly crafted and populated with oodles of dangerous bats, rats, ghosts, and countless unnamable monstrosities, all of which would be more than happy to get a piece of you.
This is where your guns come in handy – and despite being in Hell (or perhaps because of it), you get unlimited ammo. There is no reloading. There is no cool-down time. It all comes down to just how fast your trigger finger is. (And how often you make the stupid mistake of jumping into your enemies by accident – because sooner or later, it will happen. Controlling characters is not always as easy as the tutorial makes it sound.)
This game is a perfect example of how much fun a game can —and should, be, even when you completely suck at it. I’m far from being an expert in either dungeon-crawlers or platform shooters (especially when permadeath is involved…just looking at how high my death count was in Grimind still makes me cringe), but even so, the sheer violent joy of blowing up bad guys and blasting through walls to grab the key and race to the door before the ghosts come out keeps me coming back, even in spite of the ever-increasing possibility that I may never beat this game.
If you would also like to go to hell (and have the time of your life), you can purchase 99 Levels to Hell, or download the free demo, on the official site. The game is also currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight.[review pros="Dynamic and engaging gameplay, challenging level design, massive amounts of content and unlockables, classic roguelike elements with a unique approach and look" cons="Permadeath (though less punishing than usual), agility can be difficult to master, overtime may rush some levels a bit too much" score=90]