Hell Yeah: Wrath of the Dead Rabbit is, without question, bustling with energy. It bounces around the screen with all the vigor of a wide-eyed puppy, eager for all your attention. Presenting a lovely hand-drawn version of Hell and oozing with juvenile, Ren and Stimpy-like personality, Hell Yeah will certainly draw your eyes to its antics. Unfortunately, shallow gameplay and poor design results in a hollow experience that frustrates more than it charms.
Hell Yeah tells the story of Ash, the rabbit prince of Hell. Ash is a real edgy dude, as evidenced by the fact that he’s a skeleton who speaks in outdated memes—he seems to be ripped straight out of a 90s game full of impotent attitude. Ash runs into a bit of embarrassment when a hundred pictures of him playing with a rubber ducky are stolen and distributed among Hell’s denizens. His rule over Hell threatened, Ash sets out to slay the hundred monsters that stole his pictures and regain his dignity.
If that premise made you erupt with laughter, then Hell Yeah’s sense of humor will likely delight you all the way to the end. But if it barely elicited a chuckle, be warned: you’ll quickly grow tired of the game’s string of punchlines. Hell Yeah barrages you with jokes, desperate to make you laugh, but it instead comes across as a cloying attempt to make you like it. Tiring, unskippable dialogue boxes and pointless references to old games come at a blistering pace, but it all bears the mark of a developer trying to force humor into its game. And nothing is less funny than someone trying too hard to be funny.
Ash’s trek for revenge will lead you along a gameplay path strewn with familiar old-school tropes. Ash hops in his circular saw blade drill (which doubles as a jetpack) for some traditional 2D platforming and light twin-stick shooting, with a few vehicular sections thrown in for good measure. The best compliment I can give the gameplay is that it functions. It’s not broken or defective in any way, but it is incredibly unoriginal. Everything in Hell Yeah has been done more successfully in other, better games. Moreover, Hell Yeah is an incredibly shallow experience. Despite attempts at variation, you’re always generally doing the same thing: running through a few pointless fodder enemies en route to defeating mini-bosses to fill an arbitrary number on a door. The door opens, you pass through to a new area, and you do the exact same thing again and again until the final boss.
That repetitious cycle would be tolerable if the monster fights were more interesting. Early monsters merely require you to get close and hold Right Trigger until their health is depleted, but it gets harder. Soon you’ll face enemies that require ranged attacks to defeat, or the occasional boss that can only be beaten by solving a puzzle. Ash can amass an impressive armory to assist in his rampage from the game’s shop, but there’s really no need to waste your money on flamethrowers or missile launchers when the basic Gatling gun and shotgun obliterate every enemy with ease.
A couple problems hamstring most of the fights in Hell Yeah. Monsters can’t be damaged when they’re off-screen, yet their projectiles can still harm you. Moving into position to defeat the monsters proves annoying because the controls don’t allow for the dexterous acrobatics these fights demand.
The minigames that conclude each monster battle are the other big issue. Once you’ve depleted a baddie’s health bar, you’ll finish it off with a WarioWare-like minigame that requires a few button presses. From launching a shark missile from space to summoning a hungry T-Rex, each minigame is short, bizarre, and designed to show off the depths of Hell Yeah’s kookiness.
The minigames are worth a good chuckle at first, but it doesn’t take long before they start repeating and turn monotonous. More aggravating is the punishment for not completing the minigames correctly. Failing a minigame costs you a bit of health (or outright kills you if your health is too low) while restoring some of the monster’s health. Because many of the minigames are too obtuse or random and often too short to figure out, it can feel like you’re being unfairly punished for failing a silly, bite-sized aside despite putting in the work of emptying a monster’s health bar.
Poorly spaced checkpoints and healing stations compound the issue. Checkpoints are so spaced out that you often have to replay minutes’ worth of gameplay and any stale dialogue that occurred (by the way, how is unskippable dialogue still an issue in 2012?). Health drops would have been a godsend, but the game instead opts for healing stations sporadically placed throughout each level. Checkpoints spawn you with minimal health and are often very far away from the nearest healing station, forcing you to brave annoyingly long treks if you want a full health bar.
Even the gorgeous hand-drawn levels and characters—Hell Yeah’s strongest aspect— grow tiresome by the game’s halfway point. While the absurd monster designs manage to entertain, the various levels modeled after museums, casinos, prisons, and outer space are detail-heavy to a fault. The screen gets clogged with too many moving objects and flashing backgrounds, making it far too easy to unwittingly stumble into insta-kill spike traps. I can’t confidently say how many times I let out an exasperated sigh after spawning from a checkpoint and running straight into an obscured trap, but I assure you it’s a high number.
One of the things that makes Xbox Live Arcade so brilliant is it allows smaller developers to try unique, innovative things in their games, resulting in experiences that have their own feel and voice. But just because the allowance is there doesn’t make it an easy task to accomplish. Hell Yeah: Wrath of the Dead Rabbit, with its banal gameplay and misguided attempts at humor and attitude, is one of the games that tries to forge its own path, yet it ultimately stumbles along well-trodden ground. Hell Yeah isn’t a broken game, but it’s hard to recommend when there are so many other worthwhile experiences to be had on XBLA.