Hell Architect is one of those games I wish I could enjoy. On paper, it sounds great – you play as a demon, tasked with designing one of the circles of Hell. Your job is to torture sinners and extract as much suffering from them as humanly (demonically?) possible. By carefully examining each sinner for their weaknesses and vices, you are expected to cunningly orchestrate the ultimate torture for them.
I came into it expected something along the lines of Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius. Unfortunately, what I got fell far short of either of those.
Torturing, 9 to 5
Hell Architect asks: what if the afterlife was run like an office? What if the demons wore ties, carried clipboards, and had overbearing, annoying supervisors? What if Lilith, Primordial She-Demon, was the fussy head of Hell’s HR department?
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Nothing, of course, except that the idea has been done to death. The premise is so overdone that TV Tropes has not one, but two entries for it. At this point, depictions of the afterlife that aren’t run like a beige-carpeted tech consultancy firm are refreshing. Plenty of video games have grappled with the idea – from Grim Fandango to 1996’s Afterlife to the rogue-like Hades. What does Hell Architect do better than any of those entries?
The sad answer to that is – very little if anything.
The Sights & Sounds of Hell Architect
Neither the art nor sound design of Hell Architect is anything to write home about. The overwhelming colour scheme is a drab brown – unsurprising, considering the game is set deep underground. The 2D sprites are cartoonish but largely forgettable. The human sinners are pretty much indistinguishable from one another, while the other demons are all the same stereotypical red-skinned, horned variety. Albeit with reading glasses and clip-on ties.
Similarly, the sound design is fairly forgettable. The music is unremarkable. The sound effects, individually, are okay – but later on in the game, when upwards of 30 of them may be playing at once, the nuance is lost. Each torture device, every piece of processing equipment, has its own sound effect – a sound effect that plays every time the item is activated – so once you’re up and running, the noise is chaotic, irritating, and never-ending. Maybe Woodland Games is, from a sense of twisted irony, trying to torture their players? Regardless, I couldn’t stand it for too long – after a few hours, I simply had to turn the sound off.
On a related note, the voice acting is simply woeful. Each new character, as they’re introduced, gives the impression that they’re trying to outdo the last when it comes to nasal, irritating voices.
Iron Maidens, White-Hot Furnaces and… Coffee carts?
The core gameplay loop of Hell Architect couldn’t be simpler. The main currency of the game is Suffering. You get Suffering from torturing sinners – a little bit more if the method of torture lines up with their fears. Suffering is spent on upgrading buildings – crucial for making your setup more efficient. Essence is another currency – you get it from executing the sinners. Yes, you can kill them (again?). No, they’re not gone forever; you can get them back later. Essence, along with Suffering, is needed for more advanced buildings and upgrades. Everything you do in Hell Architect is geared towards getting more Suffering and Essence. That’s about it.
Weirdly, your sinners all have needs (like Sims. Sim Sinners? Simmers?) that must be met. These include Hunger & Thirst, Rest, and the need to use the toilet. If a sinner goes without one of them for too long, they die. That is to say, they disappear from your circle of Hell and go to Limbo. As before, you can get them all back with the Limbo Gong, and advanced building.
I have to say, the whole premise of meeting the physical needs of souls is a bit bewildering to me. Like, why does dearly departed Steve need to eat and pee? Moreover, why does the game encourage me to provide luxury for the sinners I’m supposed to be torturing? Late-game buildings allow you to provide things like steak dinners and fresh-brewed coffee. Mechanically, you absolutely want to do this – it’s much more efficient than early-game slop & recycled excrement (yes, ew, I know). But thematically, it makes no sense. To me, the whole system smacks of Woodland Games running a little short on creativity. Every other game of the genre has upgrades, and the upgrades mean more luxury – so this does too.
Torture & Torment Have Never Been So… Easy
My final, and probably most damning criticism of Hell Architect is this; it’s too easy. Once you get the basics set up, it’s just a matter of keeping it scaled to the number of sinners you have. That’s… About it. There are 7 scenarios to complete, each a little harder than the last, but not noticeably so. The driving narrative behind the scenarios isn’t terribly interesting, either. All this combines for a game which, frankly, isn’t terribly entertaining to play. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Hell Architect is boring, but it’s not far off. Once I got through the scenarios, I had very little motivation to try the game’s Sandbox mode.
All in all, Hell Architect feels uninspired. The premise isn’t terribly original, the story and characters are forgettable (as are the art & sound design), and the gameplay is lacklustre. Even if, like me, you’re a fan of simulation/management games, there’s not enough here to keep you engaged. The price tag (€22.99 at the time of this review) is well above what the game is worth.
My recommendation – get it on sale, or not at all. I don’t see it improving much – all of these problems are fundamental to the game’s design, not anything I see being remediated by patches in the future.