Reviewed On: PC
Review copy provided free of charge by the publisher.
Tom leads a pretty normal life, working a nine to five coding job that typically lasts a lot longer than it should, and hating every minute of it. He’s stuffed into a little cubicle, alloted a 2-minute break each day and deals with people whom he barely cares about. It’s a familiar picture for so many people around the world who must trudge to a job they hate every day. Sadly for Tom hell on Earth literally becomes actual Hell as his entire building gets dragged into the fire-filled dimension from down under, all thanks to his company’s secret underground shenanigans with dimension-hopping technology. Things get somehow worse for Tom as a resident of Hell decides to use his entrails as a skipping rope, ripping off his arm in the process. Tom, though, doesn’t just get to die, which in many ways might be a preferable option, but rather his life is saved by a strange imp named Beezle who replaces his severed arm with a demonic one obtained from…eh, somewhere. That’s not all, though, because Beezle also holds Tom’s soul, meaning Tom has to go along with Beezle’s plans.
Talk about a shitty day.
As setups go, it’s kind of cool and one-man development team Sean Burgoon mixes it with plenty of humor. A favorite moment of mine came when Tom encountered a chunk of his office that had been transported to Hell, still full of workers tapping away at their keyboards like lethargic chimps, and commented that he was pretty sure they hadn’t even realised anything had changed, such as the already Hellish nature of their dull jobs. It’s hardly subtle humor, but that doesn’t matter, it made me smile. It’s never a snort-tea-out-of-your-nose funny sort of game, yet it managed to elicit a chuckle or three from me. Even the demons themselves get in on the action with speech bubbles conveying that they believe lag was the cause of their defeat, or that the player is totally OP. Sure, their speech bubbles do sort of get in the way of the on-screen action and they don’t have anywhere near enough lines of dialogue, but it’s fun to see the denizens of Hell briefly break the 4th wall so that they can complain about the game’s balance.
The story itself is pretty forgettable stuff with a twist you’ll see coming from Parsecs away. Twelve Parsecs, to be exact. Still, it’s enjoyable fluff that never tries to stop you from killing the demons of hell for too long, which is smart. If the recent DOOM revival showed us anything it’s that sometimes we really just want to kill stuff and push all that narrative nonsense to the side.
What this fun setup boils down to in terms of mechanics is a pretty standard to-down shooter/brawler where you blast and punch your way through the supremely boring environments of Hell at the behest of Beezle, fighting hordes of regular ghouls and creeps, as well as plenty of bosses that need a solid kicking. Aaaaaaaaaand that’s it. It’s like playing Torchlight or Diablo, but without the mountains of cool loot, leveling system or powerful abilities spicing things up. And that means that Tom vs the Armies of Hell’s combat has to be absolutely spot-on. Aaaaaaaaand it’s not. You have a single melee button that can be augmented using the energy meter which fills when pummeling enemies. Once past a certain point you can hold down the attack for a ground-pound, or if you maintain the energy you’ll be able to teleport over distances to punch things in the face, although trying to target a specific foe is a bit of a challenge. Meanwhile there is at least one interesting idea in the form of Tom’s gun which can suck up souls that act like ammo, each one granting a different power to his special gun. Purple, for example, is a straightforward shotgun while orange turns the weapon into a flamethrower. You can also freeze enemies, or hit them with a laser which causes explosions. It’s a decent variety of things, although none of it hides the fact that ultimately, souls or not, it’s just a gun you’re using that can take a few different types of ammo. The novelty wears off quickly. Still, there’s some pleasure to be had from killing a foe and then using his floating soul to murder his friends as well. Ammo is also scarce enough that you’ll be changing types all the time rather than just relying on a single type. There ‘s also Tom’s charming ability to briefly transform into a full-blown demon provided he’s got a crystal/shard thingy. In this form he’s naturally much more physically capable of dealing with the murderous hordes of Hell, and he’ll slowly regenerate health as an added bonus. It might be tempting to wade through some of the lesser hordes in this form, but you’ll quickly find yourself keeping hold of any crystals to help combat the boss battles which range wildly from dull to fun, and from damn annoying to well designed. Finally there’s a dodge button that left me frequently annoyed at its inability to cancel out of some animations. This is a game where you are frequently surrounded by enemies on all sides, so it’s practically impossible to time attacks so that you can finish up the animations before needing to roll away.
It feels……okay, I suppose. With so many great isometric brawlers/shooters on the market Tom vs The Armies of Hell was always going to have a tough time making a lasting impact, and sadly it never does. That dodgy dodge which doesn’t always cancel out of a current animation is a huge problem for me personally, because if you’re going to chuck loads of enemies and projectiles on the screen then I need a dodge button that’s going to drop everything as soon as it’s pressed to get me out of trouble. There’s other problems that hold it back from greatness, too, such as iffy hitboxes and attacks that aren’t telegraphed too well. And on top of that there’s just all the little details that you can’t quite put your finger on, but that you also know are the difference between just being okay and being brilliant. The end result is that death comes more often than it really should, and does tend to feel like the game’s fault rather than your own. This gets muddled by the fact that Tom vs The Armies of Hell also has a mean streak in its difficulty, pulling no punches. The problem comes when trying to work out where the dividing line between hard and just plain scruffy design lies. I commend the fact that the game wants to be challenging, demanding that you be on alert at all times, but if you want to push players to the max then everything has to be polished to a tee. There can never, ever be any question of the controls being a little slow or the movement speed being a bit off. Everything has to be responsive so that when defeat comes it feels like your fault, and an opportunity to learn something. I rarely felt like learned anything from death in Tom vs The Armies of Hell.
There’s also some minor loot to be snagged along the way, like armor that gives you some buffer room or energy blades deal out a bit of extra kickey-kickey-punchy-punchy damage or even a handy device that heals you up a tiny bit every time you suck up a soul. These upgrades are quite welcome, but sadly vanish upon death, so one bad move means losing everything. I’d much prefer it if this system was changed so that you perhaps lose one random item upon death instead of everything. Having said that the danger of losing items you’ve acquired does at least make death feel impactful.
Checkpoints are another problem in the sense that the game tends to go on for far too long before it gives you one, or has some in odd places, such as right before a cutscene, although thankfully they are all skippable. In some cases you can make it quite far through a level before dying, only to be sent right back to the start again. In once annoying instance I died in a boss fight and was deposited at the very beginning. There are also no mid-level saves, so if you have to close down the game for whatever reason you’ll have to replay the whole level once again. Are you kidding me? What happens if somebody turns up at the front door? Or the dog suddenly needs attention?
I feel bad about ragging on Tom vs The Armies of Hell because the game has been developed by a single person who is incredibly active on the Steam forums and very, very responsive to criticism and new ideas. It’s clearly a project borne of passion. Therefore I have nothing but respect for Sean Burgoon, and while I believe Tom vs The Armies of Hell is not a particularly good game it’s still considerably better than many projects that have entire teams of people working on them. He has a bright future ahead of him, and I look forward to seeing what he comes out with.
For now, though, it’s my self-proclaimed job to evaluate the game itself, not the person behind it or the story of its creation. Ultimately Tom vs the Armies of Hell is a serviceable top-down brawler that is held back by some basic design flaws, although given the rate that Sean is working it’s entirely possible that all my problems with the game will be solved by next week. Right now, right here, however, I can’t really recommend it unless you’re a die-hard fan of the genre looking for a fix, or unless you simply want to support the developer. If that’s the case, there is fun to be had and you’d be supporting someone worth keeping an eye on in the future.