Belated Completion

Turning a pile of shame into a pile of victory!

Heretic II

1998, Ravensoft.
PC.

Getting it working
This game was a pleasure to install, no problems whatsoever. Be sure to soup up the graphics options before you play, as the defaults are rather low quality. Also, have the toggle clipping command at hand (in game, press tilde then type kiwi) in case a triggered event locks you out, or you get stuck in a wall.

In Short
Great fun!

hereticII.jpg

The strange choice of purple smoke surrounding the browner tones of the logo in the opening cinematic beg some kind of in-game link, but no, it is just an ugly colour choice without adequate justification. The cutscenes smacked of the design choices and general look common to late 1990s 3D pre-renders: blocky moment, and cheekbones you could rest chairs on. The low polygon in-game models looked far better, particularly the player character, Corvus. The mix of third-person perspective and first-person action used in this game was new when Heretic II was developed (it was released before other games famous for the formula, like Tomb Raider), and was innovative at the time.

So, the story begins with a cutscene that explains what is what. We learn of the events of Hexen I, wherein Corvus defeats some evil serpent guy, and now our hero desperately wants the homely comforts of a warm bath and fluffy slippers. But his comfy dreams are snatched away, and he is banished to wander a pretty crappy looking landscape filled with fire and rocks and aggressive lacertilian ladies. I'd like to think that I, like Corvus, would be unphased if a floating book appeared and started talking to me. He doesn't bat an eyelid as the tome floats up and helps him home.

I like that the in-game companion (a talking black book with a skull on front, of course) is rarely present – the lack of a constantly nagging companion really let you feel like a tough adventurer rather than a henpecked houseperson. It does creep me out that a skull!tome has a very feminine voice, but I'm guessing this was to contrast the gravelly manliness of the main villain of the story, Morcalavin.

Anyway, the tome 'ports Corvus back to his home village, Silverspring. It isn't as he left it. Dust everywhere, nobody's swept the courtyard in ages and people (uh, elves) are eating each other. Eventually you stumble across a still sane harbour master, a fellow with excellent sideburns, who fills you in. A plague has swept the town, spread by people throwing orbs. Before you can ask any more, the wall explodes, killing the harbour master (RIP sideburns). A dirty rotten orb-thrower bursts in. Cue some village exploration. I was pleased to find exploding barrels, plenty of crates, several enemies who seemed to have stolen the harbour master's clothes, but sadly not his sideburns. It was while fruitlessly trying to walk through one of many locked doors that Corvus said “No”. A quiet, somewhat dispirited “no” that leads me to conclude he must have had a sad experience with a door in his childhood, perhaps involving a puppy.

Silverspring is an excellent first level, with sufficiently weak enemies that you're not overwhelmed and have the luxury of experimenting with different attacks, but don't feel patronised either. You could easily jump straight in, though the masochistic chicken at the end of the tutorial is well worth a visit. Combat could be approached as a button-mashing affair, but the addition of running and jumping attacks with the spear, and many different ranged and defensive attacks, mix things up nicely. A double jump (well, more of a jump then flip) is good for medium gaps, but the spear-assisted pseudo-pole vault is the best way to jump long distances, into fights, and generally stuff around. Health, power-ups and the like are conspicuously scattered around, brightly coloured and rotating for the blinder audience.

So, after wandering around a bit (read: getting hopelessly lost, as I completely lack any directional sense) Corvus stumbles upon a room with a big world model and constellations. This room is a good example of the best and worst of the game's attributes: it looks great, it intrigues, but Corvus seems inexplicably appalled, exclaiming “Constellations and seasons” in the way he might say “Murderer and rapists”. From here you track down the once-nice ruler of the city, and kick his magical butt. His skirt/robe has tentacles, which I thought was a great look and should be immediately adopted for high fashion. Then, oh noes! Corvus has come down with the plague too! Good old tome-lady uses her magic to stop him from getting too ill, and the remainder of the game is a quest to cure Corvus and the rest of his people. I found it odd that the 'save-the-self' and 'save-the-world' motives were smushed together – I get the impression Corvus is out to save himself, and everyone else keeps ascribing noble motives to him.

So, off we trot through some horrid swamps, on our way to Andoria to ask the healer for some healing. The swamp gameplay is a nice bit of puzzle platforming. If you land in the swampy bits, you have a short chance to get to safety before you sink and drown. The controls are exact enough that you don't get too frustrated, but CRUDDAMN bird things ('Harpies' according to the manual) keep swooping and pushing you backwards. These bird things don't do much damage, and clearly telegraph their swoops with a screech, but it doesn't make them any less annoying.

Come Andoria and you meet the first non-elf humanoid species, the Ssithra, which are reminiscent of frilled-neck lizards. Later on you meet the k'cheksik (bee-like humanoids), t'chekrick (sort of fish-like), the cauthorians (more your traditional dinosaur look), 'overloards' and ogles. I only realised that the T'chekrick and Cauthorians weren't just types of Ssithra when I finished the game and read the manual. The Ssithra, K'Cheksik, Overloards and Ogles are clearly tied to locations (Andoria, K'Cheksic hive, and mines respectively), but the T'Chekrick and Cauthorians seem to come and go as they please. This really confused me in terms of building a mental representation of the story's lore, but the different enemy types were a good way to keep the gameplay fresh. Abandoning the perhaps bemusing littany of names, I must point out how excellently designed these species were. They had a sleek look that was creative without being downright silly, and top-notch modelling supported their interesting designs. I liked that many had a melee attack and a ranged magic attack, just as Corvus does, as it made for more interesting fights and a more cohesive feel of what is normal in the fantasy world being established. As sentient beings, it stands that they should have access to the same (or similar) weaponry and magic as the player character. Very nice indeed.

So, in Andoria, you find a healer and strike a “fair” bargain – you get him the stuff he needs, he'll make a potion to cure you. Fair bargain my buttocks, Corvus is using the poor confused old Ssithra! Anyway, Andoria is teeming with murderous Ssithra, who every now and then taunt you with the phrase “Join us”. Why yes, yes I shall, for a nice cup of tea and biscuits. Or not. Eventually it turns out the potion doesn't work 'caus Corvus isn't a lizard, and the healer ships him off for a consult. Off to the K'Cheksik hive! On my way there, I noted that an enemy followed me through a door that spanned loaded levels. This is a good example of how tenacious the AI is – it can be a little stupid at times (enemies run straight at you, the usual complaints) but once a foe has you in their sights, they're not easy to escape.

The K'Cheksik are supposed to have souped-up security, but the idiots leave the key to their hive rather close to the door (didn't even bother hiding it under a pot plant) and soon Corvus is hacking his way to the queen. He inevitably gets overrrun by soldiers, but seeing as he moved an amulet from one statue to another, they decide not to kill him. Yep, you steal an amulet from one part of the hive, and put it in a different part. Not sure how this counts as recovering it, but hey, I guess I can't really fathom how a kickass humanoid insect thinks.

So, you placate the K'Cheksik queen by participating in a gauntlet, and she turns out to be both blue and somewhat unhelpful. But she does push the plot along, after you beat her up (which, like the ruler of Silverspring, seems to turn her from evil to good). The Seraph are Corvus's people's ancestors, and are worshipped, so Corvus is pretty peeved when the K'Cheksik queen tells him that a Seraph named Morcalavin is behind the plague. Morcalavin was trying to ascend, but cut corners on the essential six magical tomes, and so things went jolly wrong. Why, I ask, did the last of the tomes seek out Corvus instead of Morcalavin? She seems to be able to pop up anywhere, and if she'd been there in the first place, none of this would have happened. Bad tome, bad! No dinner for you!

The beaten K'Cheksik queen teleports Corvus to Morcalavin's mines, where the amusingly named Ogles are being whipped by Overlords. These brutes are a lot of fun, especially the ones you meet later with axes. Their stupidity lulls you into a false sense of security... Then WHOLLOP! They make a great change from the flighty, ranged-attacking Cauthorians (who still pop up every now and then). Corvus wanders around and presses buttons that close Morcalavin's tomes (I've no idea how button pressing achieves this... But it does). Then it is on to face the sinister Seraph himself.

Though I may be disparaging on some points, overall this game so far has been incredibly enjoyable. Puzzles are challenging but not too frustrating, and things don't get too repetitive. The graphics are by no means painful today, and were amazing in their time. I spent many hours playing this when I was younger, and this re-play didn't dampen my fond memories. However, those fond memories were formed when I could never make it through the whole game.

The major disappointment with this game was the ending. I understand this was the last in the somewhat popular Heretic/Hexen storyline, and that makes the ending doubly dissapointing. My first complaint is Morcalavin's hat. It is SO HAPPY. If you look at it right, it looks like a very happy smiley face. I couldn't take Morcalavin seriously, the eviller his face got, the more happy his hat looked. Not that he had much credibility to work with – one minute he was incredibly evil, gloating about how he was to cleanse the land of the weak with his plague. The next, he was a glowy holier-than-thou pure being thing thanking you for stopping his evil plans, and bidding you learn from his mistakes. In other words, exactly the same arc as the hive mother. It was thin when she went from evil to good, but here it was downright absurd. The final battle itself was more satisfying than the story, it took many tries (keep in mind, though, I do suck). However, the second I heard Morcalavin's evil taunts, I knew that once defeated he'd turn into a great guy. This took the oomph out of the battle – why fight hard for an ending you can see coming from a mile away?

Now I have finally finished it, Heretic II confuses me. It has an engaging world with excellent ambience, but a very week story. The puzzles and different locations are excellent, but the justification for solving the puzzles and moving to the next location are paper thin. Ultimately, I wansn't driven forward by the story, but by the challenge of working out how to move on. The biggest plus this game has is that it is a lot of fun. And that's what a good game should be – fun. While story and character arcs can elevate a mediocre game into a great game, sometimes they're not needed. Sometimes just being fun is enough. I think this is the case for Heretic II, and would heartily recommend anyone with a bit of time to kill (this playthrough took me about ten hours on 'Novice' difficulty) to pick it up.

 

Other belated game reviews...