Horror

‘Night at the Gates of Hell’ Review – Retro-Style Zombie Game Channels Italian Horror Classics

The zombie genre is one that’s had a long life in the video game space. Resident Evil, Telltale’s Walking Dead, Dying Light and Back 4 Blood are all in the same thematic subgenre but have almost nothing in common with each other. Night at the Gates of Hell, the latest game from the creators of Bloodwash, decides to take a decidedly old school approach, both in theme and gameplay. Slower enemies, sparse ammo and PS1-style retro graphics all immediately make Night at the Gates of Hell stand out from the pack, even if it doesn’t innovate in any significant way.

Right off the bat, it’s clear that the game draws inspiration from ‘80s Italian zombie films, featuring over the top gore and a heavy layer of sleaze. The tone often shifts from surreal and gory to crass and goofy, in ways that don’t always work out for me. I’m not the biggest fan of “guy who is a total sexist ass for the audience to laugh at” humor, but your mileage may vary.

When the game’s tone shifts to spooky, it feels more at home with the story it’s trying to tell. Instead of a viral outbreak, there’s a supernatural cult behind this zombie apocalypse. This decision lends the game a surreal tone, allowing it to get weird when it needs to. Night at the Gates of Hell excels at telling short stories peppered throughout the level, teasing quick setups and punchlines that are effectively unsettling. Notes scattered around the levels tell the tales of the people before and during the apocalypse, often mentioning a room or area that you’ll end up going to in short order. It’s a well worn formula, but it works, even if the game ends a lot of these tension buildups with loud jump scares that feel a bit cheap.

Even though the zombies are slow in this game, they manage to be a huge source of tension. The developers made the smart choice to require headshots, making every encounter a frantic scramble to line up the shot while the enemy bears down on you. Aiming down the barrel requires you to stand in place, emphasizing your vulnerability. What gives this a little extra spice is the fact that there are reportedly 85 unique zombie models in this game. Some are taller, some are shorter, some have a broken neck with their head hanging down on their back, so it’s not just simple muscle memory to snap to a headshot hitbox. It’s one of those perfect decisions that provides variety both to the art and gameplay.

If a zombie reaches you, it’s considered an instant death, unless you have a knife in your inventory, which will automatically kill your attacker. This essentially makes them equal to your hit points, so it’s crucial that you scour the levels for both knives and ammo. There are two guns available to the player, a pistol and a shotgun, but since headshots are the only thing that kills zombies I didn’t find much functional difference between the weapons. I mostly felt comfortable with the pistol, since it had a larger clip size and could fire a bit faster. Maybe I was just being abnormally thorough in exploring, but I didn’t find myself short on ammo at any time in the game, but encounters still felt desperate when there were more than a few zombies on screen.

Usually indie horror games of this style tend to be pretty short, contained experiences, but Night at the Gates of Hell takes you through many different environments in its three to four hour runtimes. Level design varies in quality but is generally above average for the genre. The apartment complex near the beginning was a standout, finding clever ways to change as you doubled back to previously explored areas. The prison near the end was less successful for me. It felt a bit too long and confusing, with lots of similar looking areas that felt like indistinct mazes.

Getting lost in a level became extra frustrating due to a specific technical quirk of the game: you cannot save mid-level. Sometimes when I’m wandering around for a while without getting anywhere I just want to step away from the game for a bit, but I wasn’t able to do that without losing progress, leading to frustration on my part. Small other issues pop up in the design, like the fact that any time you use a knife it automatically holsters your gun, making you defenseless when the animation finishes playing, but overall the game felt reasonably polished.

The retro graphic style works well with the creature models, bringing them to life with a strange otherworldliness that standard high definition zombies just don’t have any more. The lighting also shines, especially when it leans into the Italian zombie movie inspired neons that add a dose of weirdness to otherwise standard areas. Night at the Gates of Hell has a PSX filter on by default, one of many retro feeling filters you can apply to the game. It’s a pretty cool look, but I found that it sometimes obscured what I was looking at to the point of difficulty, particularly in a later game boss fight. Once I turned it off, I found myself appreciating the chunk, polygonal graphics even more, despite losing a little bit of the video nasty feel the filter brings to the table.

I’ve been conditioned to expect indie horror games to be smaller affairs, but not only is Night at the Gates of Hell longer than I expected, it comes with two other short games from the developer’s catalog as extras upon completing the game, including the popular Booty Creek Cheek Freak that was previously available on the Puppet Combo Patreon page. It’s a fun addition that rounds out the package nicely.

You won’t find much depth or innovation in the main game, but its combat and commitment to its style make it memorable. If you want to capture the feeling of tuning into a late night B-movie that you probably shouldn’t be watching, Night at the Gates of Hell will give that to you in spades.

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