Video games and heavy metal music have long shared a passing curiosity with one another. Look no further than the iconography of Doom, or Tim Schafer’s Brütal Legend, for evidence of that. But it was in the mid 00s – during the reign of music and rhythm games such as Guitar Hero – that the link was most obvious. Count me among the ranks of those who learned about Pantera and Megadeth by way of the plastic instrument.
Which is why this year’s Metal: Hellsinger is on my radar. The game is a cross between a first person shooter and a rhythm game: by matching your shooting to the tempo of the music, you build a score multiplier that increases the damage you deal. We’ve seen this before in BPM: Bullets Per Minute, but Metal: Hellsinger brings its own setting and original heavy metal soundtrack to the party.
In 2016, creative director David Goldfarb was playing through the new iteration of Doom and complementing it with his own soundtrack. “I was listening to Meshuggah… and at some point my shots overlapped with the rhythm, and I thought: ‘Oh, that’s cool.’” Along with a few other novel ideas – such as playing as the demon rather than the demon hunter – this realisation laid the early groundwork for Metal: Hellsinger.
“I really wanted to do metal in a way that I didn’t feel like anybody had done before,” says Goldfarb. “Doom has its techno metal. Brütal Legend has its licensed songs – and we knew we couldn’t afford to get licensed songs.”
He approached the composer duo Two Feathers, made up of musicians Elvira Björkman and Nicklas Hjertberg, who had worked with him before. They set out to create their own metal record, designed from scratch. “We have done lots of dynamic music and lots of games before,” says Björkman. “[This time] we wanted to go all in … let’s make it so interactive that it might blow their fucking minds.”
You can try out a demo of Metal: Hellsinger on Steam now, and as in all good rhythm games, the interplay between music and gameplay feels magical in its best moments. The fast-paced shooter action plays off against the desire to remain locked into the rhythm. Maintaining the game’s 16x multiplier has an added bonus, too: that’s when the vocals kick in, so playing the game well is the only way you will hear the impressive list of guest vocalists, including elusive metal icons such as System of a Down’s Serj Tankian.
Players have noticed that certain weapons allow for higher scores than others, limiting your options if you want to chase the top leaderboard scores – but Goldfarb says that the demo is running on older code, and that the scoring is being reworked before release. This is just as well, because Hellsinger really does feel like a rhythm game rather than a shooter with tacked-on musical elements, and rhythm games live and die by their leaderboards. Games such as this are not about achieving perfection, but rather that feeling of getting just a little bit closer to it with each playthrough. Like practising an instrument, they give you the satisfaction of gradual mastery.
Metal: Hellsinger is released on, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on 15 September.