Reviewed: June 29, 1999
Released: April 13, 1999
Interplay has been promising Heart of Darkness for almost two years now (almost as long as it took me to get this review out). Was it worth the wait? YES!
It has been a long time since I have been so captivated by any game; let alone a side-scrolling action title like HOD. Tantrum; a division of Interplay and the designer of fine 3D games such as Die by the Sword, went all out in bringing a stunning cinematic adventure to the Playstation.
For those of you who can remember as far back as the late 80's, there was a great adventure title from Sierra/Dynamix called Willie Beamish about a boy and his frog. The opening movie in Heart of Darkness instantly reminded me of this classic adventure only the frog was now a cute dog named Whiskey and the carefree adventurous boy is named Andy.
The story for this game is pretty original. Seems that there is a solar eclipse happening and the evil ruler of a shadowy universe is using this period of darkness to pay Earth a visit. When they mistakenly kidnap (or rather dognap) Whiskey, Andy races to his hi-tech tree house complete with computer, hovercraft, and a devastating energy weapon, and begins his one-man Rambo assault on the denizens of the shadow world.
But in the end, that's all HOD is, another 2D shooter, but oh what a shooter! The level design is amazing, the puzzles challenging and the enemies are...well the enemies are pretty stupid, but what they lack in brains they make up for in sheer numbers. By the time you finish this game you will have racked up a body count in the 6 figure range.
Heart of Darkness is total action from the instant you crash your ship into the canyon wall until the finale when you defeat the evil ruler of darkness and rescue your dog. Perhaps the most unique concept in this game are the enemies which are actually created from shadows. The main enemies in HOD are these little shadow sprites that come at you by the hundreds, but they are easily eliminated by your endless stream of energy from your trusty Plasma Rifle.
Other ingenious concepts allow you to manipulate real-world objects by using the shadows they cast. A classic example is where you need to move a large rock that is hanging over a deep chasm. You can't reach the actual rock, but you can push the "shadow of the rock" which is being cast on the canyon wall. Other times you will find a dead tree or a piece of dinosaur fossil casting a scary shadow on the wall that will come to life and attack you as you get near. You are never really safe unless you are in the dark.
The puzzles in HOD range from the basic "knowing where to stand so you can kill all the shadow creatures" to some more advanced object manipulation in the later levels. About halfway through the game you will lose your Plasma Rifle but in return you will gain some magical powers which give you the ability to shoot green energy and turn seeds into climbable beanstalks. Andy cannot carry these seeds so you are forced to kick or push them along the path until you get the seed into position where you can zap it. The concept is simplistic, but it makes for some challenging puzzles, especially on the levels where your seeds will drop into the water and float to the next screen.
Andy has a wide range of moves including the standard running and jumping. Certain textured backgrounds are climbable surfaces, so Andy can stick to walls and climb up and down at various points in the game. He can push boulders, swim, and even has a cool somersault move he can do either while standing or running. If the shadow creatures ever manage to get past Andy's plasma weapons and grab him you can quickly manipulate the controller from side to side to fling the creatures off. You must do this quickly because once two or three of these guys gang up on you it is almost certain death.
But death isn't that bad in Heart of Darkness. In fact, you will become quite accustomed to it before you finish this game. On the average you can expect to die about once every 7-10 screens. Fortunately the game designers have put in checkpoints about every 2 screens and you have unlimited lives, so even though you will die often, you won't have to replay large portions of the game over again. Many times you will have to die just trying different solutions to certain puzzles while other times you will die simply because you weren't fast enough on the trigger. If you die often enough on the same screen a helpful hint will be displayed hopefully pointing you towards the correct solution to your problem. It's a bit frustrating at first, but once you accept dying you learn to overlook it and just enjoy the game and story.
I can't rave about the graphics in this game enough. The levels are diverse and beautifully rendered with great attention to detail including blowing leaves, swaying trees and other idle animations that just bring each screen to life. Between each of the levels is a gorgeous cut-scene that picks up where the previous level ended and starts you at the beginning of the next level with a seamless graphical look. The animation of the characters is amazing, with each move or action composed of many frames for fluid movement and flawless control of your character.
Unlike Willie's artistic comic book adventure, HOD features stunning cinematic cut-scenes and some of the most gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds to ever be seen in a Playstation title since Oddworld. HOD uses the 16 million color hi-res mode of the Playstation to give us a side-scrolling action title that looks more like a movie than a game. The cut-scenes never interrupt the game but rather blend almost seamlessly with the action portions creating the illusion that you are really controlling a movie character and not playing another 2D shooter.
The music and sound in Heart of Darkness are as good as the graphics. The voice acting is superb and the music, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, is some of the most professional high quality music I've heard in a video game. The sound effects are incredible and downright creepy at times - especially in areas like the Swamp.
Heart of Darkness took over two years to finally reach us, but it was certainly worth the wait. This challenging action/adventure game delivers everything; a great story, action, puzzles, sound, and music. HOD took me over 30 hours to complete as I refused to resort to any of the available cheat codes. There isn't much replay value since there is no scoring system and the story is the same each time through. Once you win this game for the first time you will probably just want to sit back, watch the movie then take a nap.
As a bonus, you will find a pair of Red/Blue 3D glasses with your game. When you finally do manage to finish Heart of Darkness you are treated to the closing movie in stunning 3D. Ah, time for that nap. Just make sure you turn the lights off. You never know what might be lurking in the shadows...
Heart of Darkness is an amazing adventure for kids and adults alike. The challenging gameplay is admittedly repetitive but always fun. You will have a hard time putting down the controller from the moment you start this game until the exciting closing movie.