Well, this ought to be an interesting match up. I hate fantasy, and I love Doom. What happens when you mash them together?
Heretic was Raven Software’s fourth game. It cemented a partnership with id Software that began back with Shadowcaster – Raven’s first-person RPG based on a heavily-modified Wolf3D engine. A similar situation happened here, with Raven licensing the Doom engine and likely benefiting from some Carmackian tinkering and feature tweaks after the engine code had to be locked for Doom’s development. The result is a game that falls squarely in line with Raven’s exclusively fantasy lineup thus far, obviously plays quite a bit like Doom, but features a number of improvements that fit Heretic’s slightly different thematic direction.
In proper old game fashion, the manual lays out a dark fantasy tale that the actual game in no way seems to reference. Your kingdom is besieged by three evil brothers called the Serpent Riders. These mystics establish an iron grip over the land by using magic to enslave its kings and subjects. You play as the last member of an elven race naturally immune to this magic; subsequently branded as heretics by the possessed kings and hunted to extinction. Handy with spells and ripshit pissed, you decide to sharpen your pointy ears and charge through three episodes of ferocious fantasy fightin’ to assassinate one of the Serpent Riders while he’s away from his two brothers and vulnerable. Payback. Retribution. Et cetera.
Anyone who’s played any 90s FPS will need no introduction to the gameplay offered here. Fantasy elements merely give different artwork to the enemies, weapons, and level textures – the rest is a classic, gory blast-a-thon squarely in line with Doom and its other derivatives. You’ll hunt for keys, you’ll splatter quasi-demonic bad guys, and you’ll improve your arsenal as you go on. If this was your concern, then yes, everything you suspected is true. There are minor modifications to the formula, some interesting graphical tricks worth seeing if the history of that sort of thing interests you, and a campaign featuring staple FPS action that’s worth playing through if you’re a fan of the genre. But if you’re tired of this genre already, nothing here will change your mind. Like Taco Bell, it’s a new product simply remixing the same basic ingredients.
This also made Heretic easy to dismiss as a fantasy reskin of Doom. You can easily spot Doom’s pistol, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, and chainsaw code hiding under the new artwork. Monsters also fall into this camp, with knights hurling axes just as imps shot fireballs, gargoyles flying and charging just like Doom’s flying skulls, and a giant pseudo-boss character that floats around and spits fire much like the Cacodemon. Even level design is similar, with traps falling into the “crushing ceiling” and “monster closet” categories, and little in the way of puzzles, beyond looking for optional secret areas or figuring out which door an unmarked switch tripped.
If you play it, though, you can see where Heretic manages to stand on its own. That miniboss character may have its movement based on the Cacodemon, but its ability to launch a splintering ice projectile and a homing tornado (oh, yes) put it in a different class that Doom’s lumbering beach ball. The crossbow may end up filling the same general use slot as the shotgun, but its ability to aim its three bolts slightly independent of each other make it easier to hit groups at varied heights. If you’re just focused on the surface then sure, it’s “Doom in tights.” If you’re invested in playing all the way through, there are enough tactical tweaks to feel fresh.
Heretic’s major addition to the genre is its inventory system. Instead of using every item as soon as you run over it, most objects are collected and held in an inventory you navigate with the bracket keys. The ability to hold items and deploy them only when needed is extremely helpful and very appreciated. You could argue that it makes the game easier, but I’d say it’s really no different than leaving items behind to pickup later, only many times more convenient. Heretic also only lets you keep a single copy of each item at level change, so when you find duplicates within a level, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t use them. I love that this discourages my hoarding nature.
These items are smartly varied and useful. A flask acts as a portable health kit, and can help you survive any ambushes. The invisibility and invincibility artifacts work the same way, and because they were just a key press away, I found myself using those powerups far more than I did in Doom. A pair of wings gives you the limited ability to fly, and these are often used as part of the level (to get out of pits once you have the key) rather than in a way that could break the intended path. An hourglass timebomb demolishes crowds, and an egg shoots magic that will turn the deadliest of foes into a harmless chicken.
Most interesting by far is the Tome of Power. When activated, it actually changes the way your weapons work, like a prototype of later game’s secondary fire modes . By default, the Hellstaff shoots out fireballs exactly like Doom’s plasma rifle, but with the Tome of Power active, it causes fire to rain from the sky in a persisting area of effect attack. Your regular wand is fairly wimpy. With the Tome, it shoots multiple bolts faster, with increased damage to bosses (making great use of otherwise stockpiled ammo). Tomes are limited pickups just like other inventory items, so you can’t use them recklessly, but there’s quite a lot of satisfaction to be had when you can break one out at the perfect moment. It’s a great idea that I wish more games had considered.
Level design trends toward large outdoor areas or ornate cathedrals with colorful stained glass. Typical dungeon or catacomb levels, while certainly present, are comparatively rare. This helps to make the game feel different from the many dungeon crawlers before it, and if you’re used to something like Ultima Underworld, the levels will seem incredibly colorful, detailed, and diverse by comparison. The environment also plays more of a role in gameplay itself. Rivers and waterfalls appear, with currents that actually drag the player along. Ice floors screw up your movement and slide you around based on momentum. Lava flows through other levels, with platforms that sink under the player’s weight. Impressive stuff, and before Dark Forces made this famous.
The tradeoff is that Heretic’s level goals often exceed id’s engine tech. The game’s resolution becomes a bigger problem here, and many larger areas disappear into a smear of fuzzy pixels before you can see halfway across the room. Be prepared to track a lot of enemies by the movement of their pixels more than any detail, and consider one of the many Doom source ports if this becomes a problem.
Otherwise, there’s some great graphical effects that are new to the engine. First is a limited system of “gibs.” Rather than simply falling into static corpse puddles, the gargoyles will also eject smaller pieces upon impact with the ground. It’s not the flying viscera of Rise of the Triad or Duke3D, but you’ll definitely notice that pieces get scattered around the ground a bit. Likewise, the environmental effects interact well with corpses. Shooting a gargoyle down over water results in a splash effect and accompanying sound. Enemies walking over lava causes smoke to hiss and flames to shoot up. Some lava pools even have miniature volcanoes that shoot up deadly fireballs. The golem enemy even ejects a visible spirit from its destroyed body, which is pretty fuckin’ metal.
Lighting also seems slightly improved, with good use of light sectors for shadows, and flickering for candlelight. The inventory system allows the designers to feel more confident you’ll have a torch in hand, and so you’ll see areas of pitch black that you’d never find in Doom. Even though levels are abstract, and clearly designed for gameplay rather than realistic purpose, they’re enjoyable to travel and blast through.
It’s worth noting that the initial levels are pretty easy, even at the hardest difficulty. A modern WASD setup can strafe literal circles around the game’s starting enemies, and even a player with bad aim should find their ammo stocks overflowing. Conversely, the next two episodes will pound players into the dirt at harder difficulties, as enemy numbers are scaled way up and the full force of evil’s ranks come out to play. If you’re expecting a challenge, don’t go by the first episode. You’ll definitely have one by the end.
Multiplayer is included, with the same deathmatch, co-op, and support for DWANGO as Doom. There’s not much to say here, as this is where the least amount of changes or additions have occurred. The weapons and inventory items make the biggest impression, and it is immensely satisfying to bomb around with the Tome of Power active, or to turn your opponent into a chicken. Otherwise, it’s standard deathmatch through the game’s normal levels.
Overall, Heretic is pretty much what you’d expect from a “Doom-clone.” It’s an industry-standard length at three full episodes, and any fantasy elements take a backseat to the core gameplay of messily blasting apart otherworldly foes. It’s about on par with id’s creations, has some creative differences and additions, and is worth playing through if you’re a fan of the genre or, for whatever reason, aren’t playing Doom. That strength is an equal weakness for everyone who isn’t out to play every 90’s FPS ever made, and without Doom’s novelty, the number of people interested in playing an almost identical game is understandably cut.
Copies the best parts of Doom and adds some brilliance of its own. Strong entry to the FPS genre.
Copies Doom a little too closely. Has its own twists, but hardly as unique an experience as later games in the series.