Hellboy is exploring a desolate Eastern European village, in search of a witch. Smashing his way into a ruined house with his giant stone hand, he discovers a skeleton slumped in the corner. "You've seen better days," he quips. "I've seen worse" deadpans the skeleton.
This is one of the few moments where Konami's adaptation of the cult comic, by way of the recent movies, truly finds the pulse of Mike Mignola's esoteric supernatural world. Needless to say, it's a cut-scene. In fact, most of the best bits of this game occur in cut-scenes, where the offbeat mix of pulp action, Nazi intrigue and earthy folklore has room to find its feet. The bulk of the game - you know, the bit you actually play - is just another predictable and characterless brawler to add to the pile.
Things don't really change from the first level to the last. You have strong attacks, you have fast attacks and you have grapple attacks. Stunned enemies can be dispatched with pre-rendered finishing moves, and Hellboy's gun can make use of various different ammo types depending on the situation. Combos are of the expected fast-fast-strong variety, while melee weapons can be picked up from the scenery.
This element is actually one of the few bright spots in an otherwise monotonous game, as Hellboy can turn pretty much any item into something to smash demon skulls. Drainpipes and window shutters can be wrenched from walls, wheelbarrows and light stands can be swiped from dig sites. Some enemies can even be turned into weapons themselves - pulling off exploding heads to act as grenades, or ripping off a mummified leg for a club.
The flickers of amusement from seeing Big Red go to town on a swarm of identical creatures soon sputters out though. The graphics do no justice to either Mignola's unique drawings or Del Toro's grand gothic movies, with Hellboy's plasticky CG likeness only redeemed by a spirited voiceover from Ron Perlman. Levels, meanwhile, are bland in design and drag on for far too long with not enough happening to justify the length. There are secret areas but since these are signposted with luminous white cracks, denoting walls and doors that can be pounded open with the Right Hand of Doom, there's little accomplishment in their discovery.
The game is also shockingly easy. Hellboy's health recharges, and if you should get knocked down when he's near to death, you can hammer a button to get back up again with a health boost. Factor in his range of attacks and devastating ammo choices, and most foes simply stand still and take their punishment without protest. Even the boss battles against such typical foes as cybernetic Nazi gorillas and enormous Lovecraftian worm gods are simple affairs, tricky only because they often rely on the game's twitchy throwing system for success.
It's as middle-of-the-road as games get, really. Uninspired but fun in the sort of vaguely distracting way that average games always favour, it'd be worth a rental for dedicated Hellboy fans were it not for one glaring omission: characters. It's been claimed that both Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro consulted on the game, but it's hard to see where their influence was felt. Obviously when you have a lead character with a giant stone hand, the lure of the melee brawler is going to be hard to resist. That doesn't excuse the way the game ignores the potential contained in the rest of the Hellboy world though. His employer, the BPRD or Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, barely features in the game except for occasional cut-scene mentions, and the wonderful supporting cast is entirely absent. No Abe Sapien, no Liz, no Roger the Homunculus, no Lobster Johnson.
Well, that's not entirely true. Abe and Liz do crop up in the co-op multiplayer mode, where player two gets to choose which of those characters they'd like to use while the host is forced to play as Hellboy again. It's playable in local split-screen or online, but it's still just the exact same game with the exact same enemies and cut-scenes. There's no real banter between the characters, and they all control more or less the same. For fans, it's a massive missed opportunity to really go beyond the obvious punching and "Aw crap" soundbites.
I realise that it's financially unrealistic to expect a property as offbeat and niche as Hellboy to really benefit from ambitious game design, but that doesn't stop me from wishing that someone would let Blizzard loose on the character, for instance. A reskinned Diablo with Hellboy characters might not be terribly original, but it worked for Marvel Ultimate Alliance and would certainly be more fun and appropriate than this forgettable offering.