Pixel Memories: Heretic
What Is It?
In 1993, Doom crashed onto the PC games market like an apocalyptic meteorite. id Software’s juggernaut didn’t just define the first-person shooter genre. It laid the seeds of online gaming culture with its deathmatches, too. And it did all this while making the ‘moral’ Western media shriek with horror at its unyielding bloodshed. Milestone game? Definitely.
It also left plenty of software companies scrambling to cash in with their own imitations. Some were better than others: 3D Realms had Duke Nukem 3D (great), while LucasArts competed with their own Star Wars-inspired shooter, Dark Forces (not so great). Meanwhile, RPG makers Raven Software were trying to come up with their own, and had a slight edge against their competitors. Through good relations with id, they had permission to use the actual Doom engine for their own works. The first result of this cordial agreement, released in 1994, was Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders.
The first in the Serpent Riders quadrilogy, Heretic switched out the Hell n’ shotguns theme for gloomy dungeons and awesome magic crossbows. It pitted you, an elven warrior named Corvus, against the evil mage D’Sparil, one of the three aforementioned Serpent Riders who have brought devastation to your land. Raven’s prior experience with dungeon crawlers also meant they could switch things up in the gameplay stakes, adding a few sprinkles of fantasy to make things more interesting. After all, who doesn’t love using magic items to turn monsters into chickens?
Before the term ‘first person shooter’ came into vogue, the phrase ‘Doom clone’ was widely adopted to describe such games. It’s a clear indication of just how much of a game-changer the original Doom was. But it’s also a sly criticism of the titles that tried to imitate it. In essence, no matter what setting it was or which monsters you fought, everything in this genre played like Doom in the end.
In the outset, Heretic seems just as derivative. Levels are broken up into sets of ‘episodes’, and each level resembles a maze-like domain with ‘find the key’ style progression to get through it. There are weapons to collect and hordes of monsters to fight, and some of the beasts involved will definitely feel familiar to the average Doom addict. Even the storyline itself involves you fighting through each episode to reach a dimensional gateway (hmm), guarded by a hard-as-nails boss (okay), so you can get one step closer to D’Sparil’s domain. The text-based narrative also likes to suggest that what lies beyond each gateway could be Hell itself. I mean seriously, Raven — I know you built your game literally on top of Doom, but you could have at least tried with the plot.
Fortunately, once you scratch beneath the surface and get through a couple of levels, the actual changes Raven have made to try and distance its own title from id’s become apparent. Foremost, its the modifications to the Doom engine that are the most eye-catching. Far from being a Doom mod with Olde Worlde textures, Heretic’s world is a brooding, ‘Dark Age’ fantasy realm with a tremendous atmosphere. Its gothic churches and mystic fortresses flicker with murky lighting and ill intent. The morose MIDI soundtrack foreshadows a grisly end. The sound effects particularly excel: the ominous dripping of water in dark, dank sewers, the thunderous crackling of magic as you clear a room of nasties with your Ethereal Crossbow. Sure, there’s still plenty of growling, demonic monsters, but grim fantasy has plenty of room for those. And while it might still move and control like id’s classic, there are many moments when Heretic feels like a world far removed from it. For a Doom clone, that’s a very good thing to have.
Level design throughout the game is also of worthy note. Granted, some levels do have that Doom-y feel to them, laid out in a monotonous, labyrinthine manner. Others really do stand out, however. ‘The Cathedral’ in the first episode with its moody clanging bells, stained-glass windows and murals of D’Sparil is a great tone-setter for the rest of the game. ‘The River of Fire’ in the second episode meanwhile is based entirely around a lava flow with narrow ledges for you to sidle along, showing just what could be done with id’s engine given a few enhancements. Certain levels will even pit the natural environment itself against you — flowing water and high winds become every bit as much of a hindrance as the enemies around you. Be it through engine expansion of cunning level-building, there is no doubt around Heretic’s efforts to try and exceed the limitations of its engine. And, admirably, it succeeds at doing so quite often.
Where Heretic really comes into its own, however, is with its power-up system. Each level is scattered with various items that can enhance your abilities, and you’re allowed to store them in an inventory to use at any time. This means you can handle your journey through each level in a strategic manner. A lot of these items are pretty standard — potions will replenish much-needed health, and Rings of Invincibility will make you, um, invincible. But then there are the more badass ones, such as the Tomes of Power and the Morph Ovum. Tomes of Power give your weapons a considerable damage boost for a short period of time, making them great for clearing large waves of beasts. Meanwhile, Morph Ovums — curious, egg-shaped artifacts — give you the ability to turn your assailants into dismayed, clucking chickens. And why not? If you can’t beat your enemy, you should at least be able to humiliate them.
The inventory system is certainly novel (and welcome), but it does provide a weakness: Heretic is all the easier for it. The game feels balanced initially, but once you begin to stock up on power ups, certain levels can be breezed through — especially on lower difficulties. Save for the boss fights and particular monster waves, the three original story-based episodes of Heretic don’t feel all that challenging compared to anything encountered in Doom. The retail CD version does contain two bonus episodes that are genuinely hard to beat, however. Anyone looking for a bit of adversity outside of the game’s original level set will find plenty there.
On the whole, while it doesn’t completely escape feeling like a Doom expansion, Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders is a good, rare example of quality through derivation. Any game that plays and feels like id’s legendary title still deserves a look, and Raven Software deserves credit for pushing the boundaries they were restricted by. For the vintage PC gamer, it’s a simple decision. If Doom with a fantasy setting is your idea of a good time, then track down a copy and give it a play.
Media utilized in article is property of Raven Software.