Hellnight, known as Dark Messiah to our Japanese cousins, is a survival horror game released only in Japan and parts of Europe. It was developed by Dennou Eizou Seisakusho (they also developed deSPIRIA on the Dreamcast, which is pretty obscure too), published by Atlus in Japan and translated into English by Konami. Despite being released in the United Kingdom, the game appears to be fairly unheard of.
Hellnight is viewed from a first person perspective, but you don't shoot anything. You have no faithful means of defense, and there's only a single enemy to contend with. All you do is wander around a maze, and watch out for a creature that's constantly stalking you. In many ways, it's like a 3D version of Clock Tower.
It also appears to have been a relatively cheap production. Hellnight comes in a nondescript box with a cheap CG logo and virtually nothing else besides a mess of murky reds and blacks. The back of the box features screenshots from the rather dire CGI that was prominent back in the 32-bit era in an attempt to mask the woeful programming.) "All you can do is run, and keep running!", the intro proudly states.
You take on the role of standard salaryman on your way home from work, when some occultist types called the "Holy Ring" approach you, babbling about their "Dark Messiah" and the impending armageddon. Not wanting to be bothered, you decide to hop on the last train home - possibly the worst move you could make, as any horror fan will tell you. Needless to say, the train ride doesn't go smoothly - it crashes and it appears that everyone on board is dead. Except for yourself, naturally, as well as a Japanese schoolgirl.
Wondering what you both will do, soon your mind is made up when a bunch of special forces operatives run in and begin battle with a strange humanoid (that seems heavily inspired by Resident Evil 2's Scooby-Doo villain, Mr.William Birkin.) The police are quickly slaughtered, and both the schoolgirl and yourself take cover in a nearby sewer entrance. However, this sewer isn't quite like any other - apparently, it's an entrance to a long forgotten military complex. Thus the stage is set and our game begins properly.
The sewer is a 3D first person perspective environment broken up by the occasional door and unusual landmark. The graphics are certainly quite poor. Characters are presented to us in cardboard cut-out form - popping out of thin air when you encounter them - they are not spectacularly well drawn either. They're all CG rendered, which suits the semi real-world setting, but they're not nearly detailed enough to be convincing or attractive. At least the atmospheric soundtrack, consisting of the sound of water dripping in the distance and the occasional echoes of the unknown, lend better to the spooky setting. If you have some surround speakers, it actually does quite a convincing job of making you feel isolated and alone.
Upon exploring the maze, you'll enter various rooms, which utilize pre-rendered backgrounds and are interacted with using a point and click cursor. Thankfully, you don't have to float your cursor over every pixel, as the game highlights any items of interest to your character, and pressing X button allows you to examine or pick it up. The puzzles tend to be the norm as well: a crowbar to open tight grates, keys used to unlock doors, switches to activate power, and so forth. You also have an automap function, activated with the triangle button.
Most important to Hellnightight are the various companions you can bring along:
Naomi is the schoolgirl mentioned before and the first character you meet. Being subject to anime' cliches, she has minor psychic powers. She also has the obligatory dark past^(TM). Naomi proves to be useful for being able to detect where the monster is on the map, however, she spends the better part of the game terrified and confused. She also has no form of self defense.
Kyoji is a handsome young man. However, he also happens to be an insane murderer. When he joins, you'll have to make moral decisions for him (for instance, whether to murder people who irritate him) which drastically affects the game's ending. Kyoji carries a handgun with him, and can use this to temporarily stun the monster.
Ivanoff is the sole survivor of the special forces team (called Organ) that we seen at the start of the game. He is out for revenge against the beast that killed his team - but is that his only objective? Ivanoff carries a handheld rocket launcher with him, which proves quite handy for keeping the monster at bay.
You can only bring one character with you at a time. Your chosen companion will help guide the storyline, but they also serve as extra protection, in case our monster friend catches up with you. One hit and they're out - if he catches you again, then down you go, and the game is over.
The characters with firearms don't have much ammo, so you will only very occasionally be able to rely on their ability. Furthermore, their attacks will only put the monster down for about five seconds, so having a good escape plan is useful. Being without a companion will negatively affect the ending. The Square button allows you to communicate with your partner - if you're by yourself, you're left with the chilling message "You're all alone now!"
Of course, the real star of the show is our monster pal:
The Monster is the primary antagonist for the entire game, never once letting up on his chase to kill you. Throughout the course of the game, he will take on five or so different forms - from goofy zombie-ish gimp at the beginning to a full-blown monstrosity near the end. You can always hear the big guy coming, due to his heavy, guttural breathing and crashing footsteps, as well as his occasional groaning. He gets a lot more persistent as the games goes on - you have to really keep on your toes! Despite what you may be thinking, he isn't your standard experiment gone wrong, as the game reveals much later into story. Despite the dated cheesiness of the graphics, I guarantee if you play this game in the dark by yourself he will make you shriek like a little girl on more than one occasion - just like I did.
This is when you come across one of the more novel features. Since your avatar is a mere pen-pushing workaholic, he's not exactly in great shape, and if you run for too long, you start to run out of breath. This causes you to slow down and breath heavily, and the screen (as well as your Dual Shock controller) to start shaking with your movements, since this is technically the best exercise you have had in ages. Other survival horror games like Silent Hill tend to emphasize that your character is an average joe by making them unskilled with weaponry, but running out of breath while being chased by an indestructible monster makes this weakness even more apparent.
As the game progresses you get further and further into the depths of the sewer/military base. At first you encounter strange nomads, vagabonds and social misfits who have minor advice to dispense or fetch quests to send you on. Bizarrely, all characters you meet tend to have a prefix to their name, such as "Natural" Mika or "Repeating" Inosuke - probably the result of something that makes more sense in Japanese than English. However, the deeper down you get, the more sinister things become - secret labs, more and more people being bumped off, and the presence of the Holy Ring cult. We find out more about our companions, the monster and ourselves.
The biggest shock of all must come in the games grand plot twist towards the end section of the game. It goes from a survival horror-esque situation to something really rather surreal (and skip the next paragraph if you don't want to find out!)
It turns out the military base, lab and cult were all just minor pieces of the puzzle in comparison to the true mystery that lurks beneath Japan's sewers - the whole time you have been deliberately been chased down into the sewers by an ancient alien menace! It turns out you are the Dark Messiah of the aliens and they have deliberately engineered everything from the dawn of mankind, just to have you awaken their planet by absorbing consciousness (rather like Lavos from Chrono Trigger, I guess!). Although it comes out of nowhere, this twist is just crazy enough to be quite compelling.
The game does have quite a few faults, and it definitely won't be to everyone's tastes. The automap function isn't quite as useful as it should be - you literally have to press yourself up against the walls at points just for it to show up on the map. This may not sound irritating on paper, but when you think you have missed a corridor only to find the game just hasn't bothered acknowledging your line of sight, it gets quite painful. Plus, there's really no variety to the gameplay - it's pretty much fetch questing amidst running from the monster. It's also a bit on the short side.
However, these are issues that survival horror fans should be used to - it's more about the atmosphere, the scares, and the plot, rather than the actual gameplay. As such, Hellnight is really only worth it for those who really dig the genre, and can't get enough of games like Silent Hill, because it really is a unique experience.