The moment it was clear that Jupiter Hell had well and truly hooked me was around my 5th hour. I was creeping through the second moon of Jupiter, Europa, packing a 12-gauge Jackhammer shotgun with an extended mag. Each time a demon crossed my path I pulled the trigger, unleashing a deafening cacophony of fully automatic shotgun fire. My AV2 shotgun amp added a sizeable critical hit chance to each shot, and my Army of Darkness Master Trait ensured that each shot would tear through armor as if it weren’t there. Every time I pulled the trigger, demons exploded into pieces. The autoloader attached to my medi-fiber armor automatically loaded fresh shells into my shotgun with each step, keeping me topped up and ready for any unexpected surprises. I opened the door to a vault (a room with particularly good loot that needs to be unlocked prior to accessing it, typically guarded by stronger-than-average enemies), and my character took stock. Five enemies, grouped closely together. One turn, one pull of the trigger, and the AOE damage from my shotgun ensured nothing remained but torn chunks of demon flesh. Within, I found a singular revolver, a unique weapon simply named “Love”. This weapon would apparently heal me for each shot fired, and even more unusual, had an XP meter all its own. My curiosity was piqued, however, my character wasn’t any good with pistols, and wasn’t carrying any .44 ammo besides, so after a few practice shots on dormant robots in the area, I had to leave the weapon behind. I was committed to returning, maybe on my next run, in order to discover the mysteries of Love. Bringing plenty of .44 ammo with me, of course.
Jupiter Hell is a turn-based roguelike that puts you in the combat boots of a single marine, tasked with overcoming a demonic invasion of an off-world mining colony. If that sounds familiar, there are several good reasons for that. Jupiter Hell is a spiritual successor to DRL, formerly known as Doom the Roguelike, a classic freeware game developed by ChaosForge back in 2002. With Jupiter Hell, ChaosForge has reigned in the direct inspirations from Doom (likely to avoid a repeat of the cease-and-desist order they received from trademark owner ZeniMax Media for DRL in 2016), yet there is no questioning the influence Doom has had on Jupiter Hell. From the setting, to the tone, to the iconic chainsaw, Doom is an intrinsic part of Jupiter Hell’s DNA. But there is something more there as well, an additional level of depth and strategy, as well as a desperate tension uncommon to the FPS genre. There is no quicksave in this world, here there are stakes.
Jupiter Hell remains faithful to the core roguelike experience and provides a mountain of difficulty for the player to attempt to summit through grit, trickery, and determination. Unlike some other modern roguelikes, however, Jupiter Hell does not necessarily reward the player for banging their head repeatedly against a wall. There is no meta-progression designed to aid the player, although there are plenty of ways to make your life more miserable. The only meta-progression unlocks come in the form of challenges and higher difficulty levels.
These difficulty levels should be approached with caution, as Jupiter Hell is by no means an easy game, even on the “Easy” difficulty setting. Runs tend to be longer than average for the genre, with a winning run clocking in at around 3 – 4 hours typically. This gives you adequate time to create your ideal build… and also plenty of time to dig yourself into a hole. Ammo is plentiful early on, however certain side-branches may be entirely lacking in gun-wielding enemies and ammo chests, giving you no opportunity to refuel your ammo-hungry chaingun or auto-shotgun. Regardless of the difficulty level, complacency or inattention can very quickly lead to your downfall, resulting in potentially hours of progress lost. This leads to very intense and rewarding runs… as well as some of the most infuriating 11th hour deaths I’ve experienced in a game. The further you get into the world of Jupiter Hell the more carefully you need to play, as a moment of inattention or impatience in the later stages of the game can lead to your immediate death with very little fanfare.
Positioning is of supreme importance in Jupiter Hell, as cover renders considerable advantages to any unit behind it. In traditional turn-based style, waiting for your opponents to come to you while you hide behind sturdy cover is typically the smartest play. The tutorial lays this out in no uncertain terms, informing you that your best move is to wait behind cover unless your opponents are also behind cover, in which case your best move is to back off and make them chase you.
This leads to one of my major gripes with Jupiter Hell: enemies are stupid. Very stupid. Kiting in this way works 100% of the time, even in situations where logically it probably shouldn’t. A highly-guarded vault full of enemies will file politely out of the door in single file, allowing you to pick off each one in turn until the hallway is a glittering mass of dropped loot and gore, the treasures of the vault left undefended within. A dozen heavily armed demonic marines (with intelligence apparently sufficient to wield plasma rifles) will charge heedlessly from their entrenched positions and follow you like a gaggle of ducklings anywhere you wish to lead them. Given how powerful optimal positioning is, it sometimes feels as though the simple act of walking backwards to pull enemies out of cover is an overpowered strategic option. This is especially ironic for a game that bills itself as “Like Chess. With Shotguns”.
This is not to say that Jupiter Hell does not reward patience and careful planning. In order to successfully survive a run, you need to be playing the long game almost from the start. While individual engagements are often simplistic and easily trivialized by walking backwards, without some significant degree of planning (or a truly outstanding bout of luck) your chances of overall victory are slim to nil.
It’s good, then, that Jupiter Hell has so much build variety and player customizability. You can play a running-and-gunning, dual-SMG wielding maniac, charging from cover to cover bathed in evasion gear while your weapons fire automatically with each step you take due to your Onslaught Master Trait. You can play a stealth assassin archetype, cloaking yourself before engagements and teleporting from the shadows to deliver guaranteed critical hits, weaving between enemies, evading attacks, and then vanishing once again. You can play the Doom Guy, with rocket launchers and shotguns capable of stripping all armor that reload automatically on the move, destroying entire groups of enemies with singular, massive, blasts. You can play a sniper, increasing your damage and hit chance before each shot by pausing to aim, with each bullet fired escalating your critical hit chance and allowing you to deftly string together chains of kills from across the map. There are dozens of other options, and nearly every option can be mixed together, creating several dozen more hybrid builds. After around 15 hours of gameplay, I still find myself with new build possibilities, due to the inspired combination of character traits (gained by leveling up), weapon mods and complementary utility mods (gained through crafting at workstations and exploring respectively), rare unique weapons (gained from pursuing extra risky, high difficulty side-paths), and relics (gained as rare drops from special enemies).
This is a game that builds player interest the more you get to know it. At first, it may seem overly simple, however, when you get to the later stages of the game you may run into roadblocks due to insufficient planning. Choose your traits carelessly, without planning for a specific Master Trait, and you may lack the survivability or firepower to handle the later chapters. Switch weapon types unwisely without a sufficient stockpile of ammunition, and you may find yourself facing a horde of elite enemies on the next floor, without enough ammo to dispatch them. Small mistakes can end runs, which adds weight to every decision you make and forces you to plan things out properly.
Fortunately, the game isn’t entirely merciless. You aren’t completely dependent on good dice rolls in order to get good equipment. Each level contains a terminal, which allows you to (among other things) scope out your route. By reading highlighted emails you are able to get tips about weapon and armor availability, as well as the presence of special floors. Since Jupiter Hell is procedurally generated, things tend to move around between runs, however, certain things are fixed (or at least predictable). If you are able to track down the CalSec Central floor, for example, you have a good chance of tripping across the unique .44 revolver Love. Certain drops are dependent on your build as well, with the game preferring to drop weapons that fit your current playstyle. Knowledge of these special areas, their potential rewards, and how to consistently navigate to them, are things that come with time, and are one of the main ways to improve your gameplay. Although the game doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times you die, your knowledge and understanding of the world grows, allowing you to more easily and efficiently kit yourself out precisely the way that you’d like to. This is a classic roguelike with classic roguelike sensibilities. The game remains the same, from run to run, the only thing that levels up is you.
Ultimately, Jupiter Hell is a delightfully old-school take on the roguelike genre. With a pulsing metal soundtrack, (optional) cheesy 80s voice acting, and hundreds of demons to blow into glorious chunks, Jupiter Hell knows its audience and invests heavily in style.
Despite the old-school visual sensibilities, Jupiter Hell is mechanically very solid, with a wide variety of modern comforts embedded within. The end result is a punchy, impactful turn-based shooter with punishing difficulty and seemingly endless character customization.
- Deeply satisfying character customization and synergies
- Amazing heavy metal soundtrack
- Several options for profanity and cheese level in dialogue, allowing players to adjust to their sensibilities
- Longer than average runtime gives you ample opportunity to flesh out your ideal build
- Several mechanics are never explained, yet critical to certain builds (damage types, notably)
- Gameplay can feel somewhat reductive, pulling enemies out of cover is trivial
- Stealth doesn’t seem to work correctly, enemies will chase you down even when you’re invisible, they just won’t be able to hit you
- Campy animated introductory cutscene and ending cutscene clashes with overall art style and confuses the tone of the game somewhat
- Some audio tracks repeat for several floors (looking at you, Europa)