Aside from a guest appearance in Injustice 2Hellboy has been absent from the video game scene for almost two decades. That’s changed with the release of Upstream Arcade and Good Shepherd Entertainment’s Hellboy: Web of Wyrda new roguelike game that allows players to once again step into the role of the world’s greatest paranormal investigator … who just happens to be a demon from Hell.
The previous Hellboy video game for consoles, 2008’s Hellboy: The Science of Evilwas more closely based on the 2004 Hellboy film by director Guillermo del Toro. But Upstream Arcade’s Web of Wyrd is the first Hellboy game that actually attempts to recreate the look and feel of the comic book series. That was no easy feat considering that Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s art style is very unique, and Hellboy is an unconventional hero.
Ahead of the game’s launch, Pro Well Tech spoke with Upstream Arcade co-founders Adam Langridge and Patrick Martin (who also served as Hellboy Web of Wyrd‘s art director). Together, they told us about the game’s story, characters, and music, as well as the challenges they faced when adapting the visual aspects of the comic.
Masters of lore
Although there are decades of Hellboy stories by Mignola and his collaborators, Upstream Arcade was given the freedom to craft an original story during a rarely explored period in Hellboy’s past: the early 1980s.
“The game is set around 1982 in Hellboy’s timeline,” Martin tells Pro Well Tech. “There’s a series of paranormal spikes occurring around the world, and through further investigation, it appears they’re giving off a set of coordinates that point Hellboy and his team towards South America and into Argentina. When they arrive at this location, they find an abandoned mansion called the Butterfly House. Exploring deeper into the Butterfly House, they discover that it’s actually a conduit or passageway into The Wyrd. Hellboy is the guy who goes into The Wyrd and discovers that it’s an ever-changing place based on humanity’s stories and folklore of the past. It’s a real nice opportunity to tell some lovely stories there and create some wonderful worlds that you haven’t seen in the world of Hellboy.”
Unfortunately, Hellboy’s amphibian pal, Abe Sapien, does not join him on the adventure. Instead, the game introduces several new members of the B.P.R.D. who will have Hellboy’s back during this investigation.
“The nice thing is it gives us the opportunity to create some characters, the B.P.R.D. characters that we’ve got in the game, that really help backup the game we wanted to create,” Martin says. “There’s some people who help you with lore, for example. Or exposition, and things that help you as you discover more throughout the game.”
“There’s a whole little roster,” Langridge adds. “We’ve got a fantastic hard-nosed boss, Tatler, who has got a slightly difficult relationship with Hellboy. We’ve got a couple of great lore experts, Mads and Benson — one is way more [perky] and one is quite excitable, so they’re a nice slightly comedic duo. We’ve got a character called Lucky who, at the start of the game, has not been very lucky, and is trapped. And we’ve got Altman, who is our coms guy. He’s a wisecracking New Yorker who is really a lovely character. It’s a really nice sort of semi-homage to the archetypes that you’ve become familiar with in other Hellboy books. But they are fresh characters to themselves.”
Into the Mignolaverse
One of the big swings that the developers took on this game was to adapt Mignola’s unique comic book style and fully integrate it into the game’s visual design. The team didn’t have a lot of other examples to rely upon, as they were pioneers when it came to adapting the comics, rather than their film adaptations.
“I think this is the first Hellboy game that is based on the source: Mike Mignola’s comics,” Langridge says. “His style, his style of storytelling, and his character. Quite often, people sort of bring other IPs halfway to what they’re about. In this game, we just wanted to go 100% over to what the comics were and try to do two things at once … We’re just enormous fans of the comic, and we’ve done everything we can to put that into game form.”
How did they pull off the game’s visuals? Langridge jokes that it took “love and code.” But Martin offered a more detailed explanation.
“The beauty of taking on something like Mike Mignola’s work is that you have decades of work to pull from,” Martin says. “And obviously, Mike Mignola’s drawing style has changed slightly over the time. So you draw comparisons that he drew in the ’90s and something that he’s done more recently. We pored over that stuff looking for the patterns basically. How and where he applies little notches and details to surface areas. Angles of eyes, for example. How diamond an eye might be for one type of monster. How full and almost formless an eye might look for a creature that’s a bit more less intelligent … I remember we sort of pored over ‘how long is Hellboy’s tail?!’ That was one of the questions.”
We also had a completely fake entire lighting paradigm.
“Then, of course, there’s the rendering as well,” Langridge adds. “The rendering of the game isn’t the out-of-the-box rendering of a normal game engine. We pretty much had to rewrite how the lighting works to get the dark shadows, to get the crispness of the edges, and how to make the outlines work. We also had a completely fake entire lighting paradigm as well. The lights don’t apply normally as they do in other game engines. In terms of form and function, we had to just pore over all of the art style, internalize it, and then try to reproduce it. Or rather, then trying to get a computer to reproduce it 60 times a second from any angle. So, it was a really fun challenge.”
From page to screen
Getting the art right was a feat in itself, but the real challenge would come from adapting flat panels into interactive gameplay. What does Hellboy play like? What does the world of the comics sound like? And most importantly, who was the right person to voice the devil? To fully realize Hellboy’s character, the team turned to John Wick actor and Fringe star Lance Reddick. That decision would end up carrying unexpected weight, as the actor passed away earlier this year after he had already completed recording Hellboy’s lines. It would be one of his final roles.
“It was very sad,” Langridge says. “It hit the team hard finding out about it. We just enjoyed him so much, and what he brought to the role. He was a delight, basically. .. it was an absolute pleasure seeing him work.”
“He was very enthusiastic in the role,” Martin adds. “And if he felt that he wasn’t delivering a line right, he was like ‘let me get back in there and do it again.’ The hunger to sort of nail it was just lovely to watch. [It was] a real honor to have him with us.”
With a perfect voice actor in the titular role, gameplay would present the team’s next challenge. The goal was to bring the static action of a comic book page to a full animated game. That would start with the demon’s move set. The biggest, and most obvious weapon in Hellboy’s arsenal is his indestructible hand, which is called the Right Hand of Doom. Hellboy also comes armed with a few B.P.R.D.-issued firearms, as well as a collection of mystical objects that prove to be even more powerful in the Wyrd than they are in the outside world. But according to the developers, one of the early challenges was determining exactly how Hellboy fights.
“The thing I remember talking about very early on was trying to identify [Hellboy’s] fighting style from the clues that Mignola gave,” Martin says. “He’s kind of resourceful, he takes a few hits before he sorts it. We really wanted to oversell the punches and compare the weight and heft of the guys.”
“There’s a lot of dishing it out and taking damage,” Langridge adds. “We wanted to systemize that so the gameplay is about getting close and staying close and taking a few hits, but it’s worth it. Because, after all, Hellboy is the one person there who can hit the hardest. And when he does, he really does hit hard.”
We just ended up realizing that Hellboy is the bass guitar.
Finally, there was the question of music — something that would require a lot more creative thinking. Phil French and Tom Puttick from Cedar Studios handled the music for Web of Wyrdafter previously working with Upstream Arcade on West of Dead. While developing the game’s soundtrack, the Web of Wyrd team came to a surprising decision about which instrument best represented Hellboy in the game.
“We just ended up realizing that Hellboy is the bass guitar,” explained Langridge. “You end up with motifs and stuff like that, that were coming through with the bass. They tried to drive a lot of the thematic feelings of how the combat music goes to a crescendo through the bass as well. There’s some nice experimentation that I really enjoyed hearing about and their point of view of what they were doing … They landed a really interesting … sort of slightly jazzy noir-ish kind of vibe ,along with a bit more metal when it really kicked off.”
Each of those pieces comes together to form a first-of-its-kind comic book adaptation that sets the stage for new studios to tackle the IP. If nothing else, Web of Wyrd is a road map for how Hellboy can look and feel in a video game world. It may not be the biggest or boldest comic book video game released this month, but it’s a different kind of feat for a studio looking to expand on which heroes players get to inhabit. After all, why should Spider-Man hog all the fun?
Hellboy: Web of Wyrd is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Windows, and Nintendo Switch.