Strip tower defence down, and there’s not much to it. Enemies trundle towards towers that you’ve plopped down, and you get to watch in the hope that the towers win. That’s it. There’s an argument that a tower defence is one of the simplest of all genres, since so much of it is automated. The enemies, the towers, the base that you’re protecting: you’re not necessarily involved with any of them.
Hell Well knows this and embraces it. Everything gets stripped back. The graphics, as you can probably tell from the screenshots, have had pruning shears taken to them. They’ve been reduced to simple Spectrum or C64 graphics, focusing you on the important stuff rather than any overblown pyrotechnics or distracting backdrops. And the gameplay is distilled too. Towers (in this case, demons) are dropped down and they will do their thing without any input from you. Sure, you can top up their health and upgrade them, but once a level’s started, you will leave them alone ninety percent of the time.
It sounds like Hell Well would be easy, boring or – at the very least – unengaging, but it’s nothing of the sort. We enjoyed the hell out of Hell Well, and the minimalism was a big part of it.
Tower defence games tend not to be roguelikes, but Hell Well is very much in that camp. On each run, you’re given a procedurally generated level to protect. These are graveyards that have two important ingredients: a crypt where you can buy upgrades after each wave, and a maze of graves that form the level. That’s it.
Which might get you asking: where’s the base to protect? Ah: the base in Hell Well’s case is you, the player. You have a number of hearts, and once those hearts are depleted then you’re one hit away from death. So, as a moving base, you’re going to want protection, and that means placing towers.
In Hell Well, the towers are demons. There’s a lovely and contrary story at play here, as the baddies are angels. They are in a smiting mood, as you’re a dark sorcerer who they have deemed to be a threat to Heaven. Through a bargain with Hell, you use their forces to defeat the angels and keep your life. It certainly makes a nice change from tanks and turrets.
Every game starts off with a Perdemon, which has a small range and reasonably weak bullets. They can be upgraded to increase both of those things, but you should be under no illusions that they’re basic and need to be supplemented. That’s done by approaching the crypt we mentioned, paying a small ‘soul’ contribution (souls are Hell Well’s currency), and choosing from a range of different buffs. Some are passive, giving you more health, souls or speed, while others are additions to your grimoire. Suddenly you can play rotund demons, blocking-wall demons, massive-turret demons and more.
A wave goes something like this: you are given a couple of minutes to prepare for the incoming wave. That might mean picking up the souls that litter the arena, as you may not have had time in the previous round of combat. Then you’re spending. A trip to the crypt is all but essential. You can only do it once between waves, and the cost gets increasingly exorbitant, but you need the buffs and demons that it offers.
After that, it’s all about how you spend your souls, and that will often mean placing demons (the towers) and healing/upgrading the ones that remain. Now, this is no small matter, as there is complete freedom to where these demons can be placed. Outside of the gravestones which create your landscape, you can attempt any strategy you fancy.
We found that our strategies were determined by the demons in the grimoire. On one run, we unlocked powerful exodemons that could be interlocked into walls. We surrounded some healing demons, which meant that we could, feasibly, create a fortress and wait it out. From the top of our parapets we could lob fireballs (the sorcerer has a limp little spell with a massive cooldown, but that too can be boosted) and wait for the wave to end. On another run, we gained a demon that pumped out bullets in diagonal directions. We put them in the corners of the arena and the centre, creating corridors of death that we strayed into as bait. The demons followed and got chewed up, turning into piles of souls. Any that were left behind, we blew up with bombs.
Hell Well thrives in this freedom. Each run is a sandbox where you can try out different strategies, looking for exploits that maybe – just maybe – mean you can finally complete the wave this time. We found ourselves stuck on rounds that culminated in the most frustratingly OTT angels, dying repeatedly, until we thought about an approach that might work, and then pulled it off.
This is what keeps me playing Hell Well. It’s the complete lack of foreknowledge about how the run will play out. I’m constantly adapting, changing my strategy to suit the new overpowered demon I have unlocked. Some best laid plans get scuppered, but a new plan will emerge from the wreckage.
There are still some flaws that you should be aware of. Being the ‘base’ that enemies want to smite, the wave can devolve into running away. Lots of running away. If your fortress collapses and your defenses are no longer worth maintaining, then you can engage in a drawn out game of cat and mouse where you chuck fireballs, hoping to kill one or two demons that follow you. That gives you souls, which might mean you can lay another demon. But in all honesty, once you lose the higher ground, you’re in the gutter until the next round. Maybe longer.
Hell Well is also not particularly great at offering progress. Complete a run and, more likely than not, you won’t have gained anything that makes you better next time out. There is the odd bonus, conferred by mucking about in the game’s opening hub, but that’s about the limit. If you’re failing, and failing repeatedly, then the game won’t help you out with more health, bombs or souls. Not really. You need to git gud, and you do that through experimentation.
What this means is that you, the player, is the driving force behind whether you play another round of Hell Well. That was just about enough with us because we’re tinkerers. We wanted to see what tools we’d get on the next run, and whether that meant that we could utterly break the game. That was the engine that kept us running: the complete freedom to try out layouts and combos, to see if we could overpower anything Heaven could send at us.
Hell Well might be a little too minimalist for some tower defence fans. It certainly could have done with more of a sense of progress, and the graphics are likely to be offputting. But buy into its stripped down approach, and this is one of the cleverest and most addictive tower defence games that we’ve played in recent memory. Hell yes.