The first enemy type you stumble upon in Metal: Hellsinger is an omen of things to come. Marionettes move erratically, as if being dragged around by floating strings. They are literally trapped in a rhythm. Heavy metal artists from bands like System of a Down and Arch Enemy play the part of puppet masters, taking you through multiple stages of hell itself with double kick pedals and guttural screams. Throughout the course of Metal: Hellsinger, it’s impossible to ignore the beat as you kill a multifarious tide of demonic abominations.
I finished Metal: Hellsinger in a single sitting, spending four hours rushing through the levels, trying to stay on rhythm for as long as I could. This isn’t the first game that has mixed music with a shooter — BPM: Bullets Per Minute kickstarted this new subgenre back in 2020. But here, the incentive to jump to the next stage, the sooner to hear each successive song, felt like listening to an album in a different way. Hearing new tracks from known artists is the hook, but you’re also navigating their rhythm with your actions.
Your objective in each level is extremely simple: Shoot everything that moves until you’re granted access to the next room, and repeat it all over again until you face the boss. Picture the arenas of Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal (two of Metal: Hellsinger’s crystal-clear influences) without the platforming sequences or any exploration. Instead, it’s a relentless lineup of fights, with new enemies and weapons introduced continually throughout. The key element at play is the challenge of staying on rhythm, since it provides several bonuses (more on that later).
The rhythmic aspect and the overall simplicity of Metal: Hellsinger’s approach are compelling in their own right, even if they sometimes miss the opportunity to elevate each other. Enemy types are fairly straightforward at first, with demons that come at you in packs, and tougher foes that try to pummel you at close quarters. But then, when you least expect it, you’re getting shot with acid bullets from afar, or projectiles that slam the ground and create pulsating waves for you to jump over. Slowly but steadily, Metal: Hellsinger becomes a bullet hell. Surviving the more varied encounters in later levels is as challenging as it is satisfying (although there are multiple difficulty options to pick from, which also affect how many times you can revive at the cost of a portion of your score.)
Weapons are fairly inventive as well. You start with a sword and a fire-shooting skull (the ideal care package for a trip to hell), and end up with dual blades that act as boomerangs. There are more rudimentary options like revolvers and a shotgun, but they’re merely useful, and nowhere near as creative as the alternatives, such as a crossbow with explosive bolts that excels at long range. You also don’t have to worry about picking up ammo, but there is a Gears of War-esque active-reload mechanic in which you can reload on a specific beat to finish the animation earlier. What’s more, the rhythm itself can also inform your choice of weapon — the speedy nature of the revolvers shines through in songs with a faster tempo, for example.
But while the arsenal initially allows for experimentation, there isn’t all that much strategy required in the long term. Sure, it makes sense to use long-range guns on distant enemies, but a shotgun is also useful if you don’t mind closing the gap. And considering that there’s a loadout involved — both the sword and the skull are always available, in addition to two slots for primary and secondary weapons — by the time I had found a combination that worked for me, I didn’t look back.
Instead, it’s the incentives to stay on rhythm that tie it all together, and make it easy to get lost in the trance-like moment. Maintaining a high score streak doesn’t just get you more points, but also introduces vocals to the song you’re listening to, a la Devil May Cry 5. In general, the songs are integrated into pretty much everything you can do — dashing and shooting being the most obvious. Aside from the fact that jumping isn’t taken into consideration, which is an odd omission that oftentimes feels counterintuitive, getting into a flow state is pretty much automatic. Losing and then recovering the vocals whenever my score streak dipped was always seamless, making the songs smoothly fade in and out. The final boss in particular takes every kinetic element to its utmost potential, and it’s a spectacle that’s still stuck in my mind, days after beating it.
Overall, Metal: Hellsinger is quite brief, with a story told through vivid but ultimately inconsequential cutscenes. This is a game that doesn’t take itself all that seriously, often parsing through sequences with humor, but it’s far from a Tenacious D. (I will say that the final cutscene, which I won’t spoil, is incredibly bizarre, and more evocative than any story beat leading up to it.)
Those looking for an encore in the form of a new game plus will be left wanting. However, beating each level unlocks challenges to tackle in a replay, which, in turn, reward unique abilities of their own once completed. There are also leaderboards, following in the wake of this year’s excellent Neon White, which made surpassing your friend’s score more compelling than it’s been in years. Yet, unlike my time with Neon White, I wasn’t motivated to immediately replay a level for a better score. Moving through stages at a brisk pace felt too satisfying to interrupt the flow of things.
It’s hard to picture Metal: Hellsinger being as memorable as it is without its lineup of popular artists. After all, the soundtrack can’t be divorced from the game’s main appeal. But even though I would have liked to see more risks being taken with its core pillars (similar to BPM: Bullets Per Minute’s experiments with roguelike elements and more varied weapons), Metal: Hellsinger achieves a pulsating, vibrant synergy, and it knows how to pull your strings.
Metal: Hellsinger will be released on Sept. 15 on Windows PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Funcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.