Video Game Review: Greetings, mortal. Are you ready to die?

Hexen: Beyond Heretic (1995) Developed by Raven Software, Published by id Software, Distributed by GT Software

Review by Jonathan Raab

Screenshot_Hexen_20140920_113953
Are you a wizard?!

Ever since our old 486 was upgraded to an amazing 6 megabytes of RAM, I’d been able to play id Tech 1 engine games. Doom shareware levels, Heretic shareware, Final Doom—these were the first person shooters I played religiously. They looked real, or as real was back in the early to mid nineties to a young gamer with too much time on his hands and not enough real people with whom to interact. I can’t count the number of hours I spent blasting through familiar levels, aching for a full release to unlock all the super weapons and new monsters.

During those formative gaming years, I’d play anything “3D” (more often 2-and-a-half-D) that I could get my hands on. Blake Stone, Corridor 7, Nitemare 3D, and Ken’s Labyrinth included. Having played the Heretic shareware levels to death, I was elated to learn that Ravensoft produced a sequel: Hexen: Beyond Heretic.

Build on the same id Tech 1 Doom engine, the game seemed familiar enough. However, like Heretic, it offered a handful of small but important improvements to the engine and innovations in the first person shooter genre in general. You could look up and down, use an extensive inventory system, play different character classes with unique weapons, jump (!), and experience a variety of environmental effects, including moving walls, blowing leaves, swirling storms overhead, and atmospheric sound effects that really pulled you into the setting.

The problem was—and is—the game is designed to frustrate you. As a child, I couldn’t make it past the first hub zone without cheating. Re-visiting it now as an adult, I find myself having to consult a guide every few hours of play to advance. The game isn’t broken—far from it—but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s start with the positive aspects of the game.

The aging id Tech 1 engine doesn’t look better in any game, period. Doom 2 has a few levels that look like real places—sort of—but Hexen takes the medieval architecture of Heretic and amps up its design, both in terms of quality of gameplay and exploration, and in terms of realism. Many of the places look like what they are supposed to be: bell towers, seminaries, chapels, outposts, fortresses, decaying houses in the swamp… Each new area is more than just a collection of stale sewers and dungeons (although there are a few of those as well).

Combat is fun and fluid, although the enemies themselves don’t pose much of a threat one-on-one. When they’re in large groups, or paired with a variety of other enemies with differing offensive and defensive capabilities, combat becomes challenging and a lot of fun. Resource management—particularly your healing items—becomes integral to your survival in the midst of the flurry of combat. There’s enough variety in the enemies and the types of encounters that Hexen throws at you to keep you on your toes.

Screenshot_Hexen_20140920_114047
You’ll fight a lot of these guys.

The enemies themselves are varied, and, in groups and when fighting together, present a decent challenge. You’ll get tired of fighting a few types—namely the two-headed foot soldiers and the centaur knights—but generally combat is fun and interesting.

The weapons are unique to each class, and will affect your gameplay style. That said, I never found myself not using one of the weapons—the starting weapon included—for a long period of time. Each weapon is appropriate for different situations, and balancing which weapon you use for which encounter, all while keeping an eye on your mana levels, is part of the fun of combat.

The inventory system is robust, but you’ll often find yourself sticking to one or two items. Rarer, more powerful items don’t lend themselves to the gameplay that well, because you’ll be afraid to waste them. That said, some of the items are pretty much useless (the force push type powerup is a waste of your time), and you’ll end up sticking to either the green potions or healing potions for most encounters. Still, the Wings of Wrath, Porkolater, and Maulotaur power ups are always fun to use. Too bad they are so rare.

I’m giving the game a lot of praise. Deservedly so. But Hexen is not without its problems.

Most of the time you will not be in combat. Unlike Doom or even Heretic, the levels are not full of monsters as you progress from point A to point B. Instead, you’ll be backtracking through largely empty zones (those that you’ve cleared hours ago) to scour every wall, every space, and every doodad in sight, looking for a stone to collect, a door to open, or a switch to pull. If you’ve ever been lost in an old-school first person shooter, you understand the frustration that this model can produce. When done right, exploration, puzzle solving, and item collecting can be great parts of the FPS experience. When done wrong—and Hexen often does it wrong—you’ll just end up walking in circles, feeling trapped and frustrated.

Therefore, I recommend playing the game with a guide handy. I know that will rub a lot of purists the wrong way, but truthfully, this game was meant to be played with a guide, or with help from friends. As a kid, I could only share tips with my older cousins—who were often equally lost and baffled. Thanks to the age of the Internet, we have walkthroughs, videos, and more to help you find your way.

Would I recommend Hexen: Beyond Heretic? That depends. If you’re a fan of old-school first person shooters, and have a taste for puzzle-oriented gameplay spiced up with some fun combat, yes. Just go into the game prepared to spend some time feeling lost, and don’t be afraid to look up some help from time to time. Sticking with Hexen gives you a sense of accomplishment, not unlike that provided by other obtuse but tightly-designed games like Dark Souls.

Pick up a copy of Hexen and one of its sourceports—I recommend ZDoom or GZDoom—and play with updated controls and clearer graphics. It’s cheap, and provides plenty of old-school challenge with a lot of charm, attention to detail, and plenty of atmosphere for the horror or dark fantasy fan. Despite its obtuse puzzles, it’s infinitely more interesting and fun than most any contemporary first person shooter, which is often a simple cover-based straight line movement from one end of a long corridor to another.

Hexen pulls you into a well-realized world, and sends the id Tech 1 engine out with a flurry of fun, dark magic, macabre settings, and interesting combat.

4/5 Serpent Rider-Invaded Worlds

The entire Heretic & Hexen series is available on Steam.

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