Hollow Ground is a minor tragedy. Released for the Macintosh way back in the naughties, it would probably not be languishing in obscurity had the developers simply sat on the idea for a few years, then released it for PC instead. So many boxes are ticked: an indie ‘roguelite’ (before the term existed) drawing more on Gauntlet than Diablo, with local co-op, controller support, a grim occult-industrial setting, moral ambiguity, clever symbolism and a bevy of cleverly crafted little levels arranged semi-randomly so that no two playthroughs are the same.
The premise is straightforward: it’s the cyberpunk apocalypse, and you must dungeon crawl through the feral military installation ‘Bunker Epsilon’ in order to destroy the ‘Cortex Utero’ that is spawning a plague of cyborg-zombies. You choose one of four anti-heroes — Gibsonesque street ninja, genocidal space marine, tattooed psionic or trenchcoat-clad Road Warrior — and battle your way through progressively more intricate dungeon levels, accompanied by piles of corpses and a moody industrial soundtrack.
Level design is excellent. While this is superficially an action RPG, it’s mostly about parsing each level’s eldritch architecture. Traps and treasures abound, while slow, constant health loss due to ambient radiation means you often need to balance exploration in search of goodies with a panicked rush to the exit. This is complicated by the fact that progress can be slow: you are literally wading through piles of corpses, and some enemies just keep coming in numberless hordes until you destroy the machines that spawn them. That said, the pacing varies: some levels are replete with health kits and can be traversed in a more tactical fashion, while others are simply deathtraps that will see you rushing for safety.
The fins, eggs and venom-spines? The game’s symbolic statements about what dungeons have been all along (Cortex Utero, indeed) are more eloquent than a thousand naive roguelites. The level names read like the track listing from a metal album: Tomb of the Mutilated; Blacker than Darkness; Cthudral; Unsilent Grave; Tunnels of Madness; all part of a deliberately over the top aesthetic which feels, well, metal rather than designer-ly. The anti-heroes are genuinely dark and violent, but seem to be seeking redemption by entering the bunker — no fridged girlfriends, main-chancers or wallflower-ninjas here. The game as released was polished, complete, and bundled with a level editor. Oh, and it was made by Swedish philosophers. This is very much a labour of love rather than an ‘indie’ game in today’s sense, and it shows.
[A note: the developer’s website is still up and the original mac download seems to work, but the link to the site of the third-party company which made the ‘Special Edition’ PC port leads to something NSFW which is most definitely not the original site.]