Video Game Review: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

Available on Steam; GZDoom Sourceport Available Here

Heretic is a gothic, medieval fantasy horror first-person shooter developed by Raven Software and published by id Software back in 1994. To call it a Doom clone does the game a disservice. Yes, it plays essentially the same—explore winding mazes and complex levels, blast away at monsters, find keys, hit switches, and make your way to the exit. However, its design philosophy, art style, and atmosphere set it apart, and make it a game that, all these years later, holds up better than even the venerable Doom itself.

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Heretic, like Doom (and its sequels) is a game I revisit every couple of years. Thankfully, wonderful sourceports like GZDoom exist to make the game playable with improved graphics and controls. Mapping the controls to a modern WASD + mouse setup has never been easier, and there are a variety of display options to make the game as pretty (or 90s-gnarly) as you like. Conversely, you can always play the game in DosBox for a truly retro experience.

Heretic’s big claims to fame over its predecessor Doom is the ability to look up and down, and a rudimentary inventory system. While new sourceports allow mouselook in Doom, looking up and down can unfairly affect the difficulty balance of some maps. (Then again, I have a lot more fun playing Doom when I can actually aim those friggin’ rockets at the enemies above or below me.) Needless to say, this opens up the player’s ability to survive and navigate complex ambushes and enemy placement.

The use of power ups, while not essential for an expert player, adds some variety to the corridor combat and can get you out of otherwise nigh-impossible situations. Like other shooters of its time, Heretic’s primary challenge comes from trapping you in a small, enclosed space before shoveling wave after wave of monsters at you. Using these items—invisibility, warps, wings of wrath, health flasks, and the alternative fire mode-enabling tome of power—often marks the difference between life and death in many situations. This subtle layer of depth adds a lot of strategy to the game, as you’re forced to use your resources wisely to survive the game’s brutal levels.

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Make no mistake—the levels are difficult, especially if you cut your teeth on contemporary Call of Duty garbage. These aren’t straight-line walks from cover to cover, with plenty of opportunities to regenerate your health as dumb-as-rocks enemies take cowardly potshots at you. No, you’ll have to explore a myriad of designs, including labyrinthine mazes, open spaces with scant to no cover, caves, lava rivers, villages, castles, and treacherous dungeons—and a healthy mix thereof in any given map. Heretic has a diverse level design, and you’ll never get bored with the layout.

What really sets Heretic apart from other games of its time (and many today) is its cultivation of atmosphere. Strange sounds dog your steps; creepy (and gory) textures litter the map; gothic architecture and doodads lend the maps a sense of place and menace. The game is at once subtle and overt; however, its gore effects are quaint by today’s horror standards, especially considering that contemporary developers’ ideas of “scary” and “atmosphere” are over-the-top gore.

The monsters themselves are as diverse as the levels. The first enemy type you encounter is a flying gargoyle with a peppering projectile attack; from there, melee and projectile-based enemies abound, often with high hit points and the nasty tendency to chase you down in groups. Killing even the most basic enemies is often satisfying, with ample gory visual and audio effects, making each kill feel like a victory rather than a triviality. While some enemies are overused—the scorpion warriors come to mind—they are all intimidating and dangerous. Each encounter can feel like a life-or-death situation, something Doom and other shooters (including many that came after Heretic, well into the current generation) cannot claim.

The weapons in this game, unfortunately, represent the game’s biggest shortcoming. Almost all of them are simple re-skins of the Doom arsenal. The final weapon, a mace-ball-throwing-thing, is completely useless in almost every situation. This is, however, somewhat offset by the tome of power, which unlocks alternate, devastating fire modes for a limited time, allowing even the lowly elven wand to become a room-clearing powerhouse. Keep in mind however that much of the game’s ammunition is in short supply, forcing you to conserve your damage output in favor of strategically working your way through each map’s numerous and deadly encounters.

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Shadow of the Serpent Riders includes two additional episodes not available in the initial release of the game. These level sets aren’t as tightly-designed as the first three, and tend to mass enemy placements and restrict ammunition supplies in an attempt to appeal more for expert players. The first level of episode 4 is almost impossible to beat on higher difficulty levels for all but the most dedicated and hardcore Heretic players. While I’m a fan of difficult games, there comes a point where I want to play and enjoy a game, rather than figure out the precise, time-consuming way to defeat an arbitrarily-difficulty design. Beyond the official five episodes of the game there is plenty of user-generated content out there, including new maps, mods, and whole episodes to blast your way through. It’s not as robust a community as that of Doom, but since the source code’s release, plenty of would-be level designers have offered up some really great (and completely free) content.

Heretic is pure, unadulterated horror-action-fantasy-shooter fun. It holds up well, especially with the development of modern source ports. Its single player campaign is more fun than Doom, and sports great horror sensibilities. This is an oft-overlooked classic that is ripe for a modern sequel with old-school sensibilities. Play Heretic to see what a good action horror game can be—and what a developer can accomplish when they set out to build a solid, immersive single player experience.

5/5 Interdimensional Serpent Riders

If you enjoy Heretic, you may like its sequel, Hexen.

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