A Blast from the Past review
If there was one Doom era shooter FBT would call his fave, it would be Blood. And Heretic.
I have hugely fond memories of Heretic. It was part of such a great era of gaming, thanks to id. That half-decade, starting with Wolfenstein and ending with Half-Life, was a grand golden age of familiar, similar fun – Wolf, Doom, Heretic, Rise of the Triad, Duke, Shadow Warrior, Dark Forces, Redneck Rampage, Blake Stone, the mighty Blood; until Quake (and Goldeneye for the N64 crowd) they were interchangeable and all great. I’m sure there’s more games listed under ‘Doom Clone’ but back then, with shareware disks traded about and hundreds of magazine CDs filled with demos that piled up in the corner - you could never be sure what you’d played. It was glorious gamer mayhem until Steam ruined it.
I always liked Heretic’s goth sorcery setting, all medieval villages and castles, filled with flying imps, giant floating skulls that fired tornados and those Alien-a-like rip-offs. It felt like Lord of the Rings if Sauron won. Heretic and Blood are the ones I remember most fondly, being much more fun to play, much more involving than the others; I have no idea why I was shooting or who I was shooting but I remember the creatures I shot, I remember the weapons I used and the magic spells I cast; who forgets turning creatures into chickens?
I’m guessing Heretic hasn’t aged well; it was built on the Doom Engine so it’s going to be basic but it was overseen by Romero and developers Raven were also behind the good Elite Force and the great Jedi Knight II so maybe it’s withstood the test of time. Let’s go to the land of whatever and find out.
Still a Blast?
Heretic is hard to look at. Not just because the pixel count is in double-digits, but because there’s a lot of red and green and brown. It’s like one of those optician tests to see if you’re colour-blind. But, I’m also instantly back to that era, having simple fun blasting away at the tiny little flying imps. I still don’t know why or what I’m doing. There’s a couple of ‘serpent riders’ who have corrupted the kings of various worlds and filled them with their own creatures. I’m an elf (an elf?! I never thought I was an elf, he has a hairy mitt of a shooting arm) who’s taken it upon himself to rid the world of those Riders. I find I don’t really care.
I miss this simpler, point and shoot era; of course, if a game was released this basic now I’d whinge about it being shallow, but that’s because expectations have changed. My expectation here is to be handed a gun and shoot it until I see the level stats and realise I still missed secrets. Like how, I space-barred every single wall? If I missed the secret level ... This is great. None of the cutscene continuity, mission marker malarkey, moral choice-making; I’m gonna go check out the UseNet and find that secret level.
Aside from all looking vaguely the same colour, Heretic is more than playable. The mouse acts as both aiming and moving, causing our elf to fall off everything, and you can’t reassign keys but that’s hardly the end of the playable world. The levels are imaginative and involving rather than Doom’s grim drudge and while you’re only ever looking for keys for doors for exits, it tries to feel creepy and labyrinth without being annoyingly maze-like; it does feel like villages and castles and they’re interesting to explore rather than just shoot through; it’s more early Elder Scrolls than Doom-like.
I pick up the bow and later the Dragon Claw which is basically the same as the machine gun from Doom. Doom’s bloody fingers are all over Heretic but it’s no reskin, it is its own game. Fighting is as you’d expect – everything rushes at you but the weapons are fun to fire, and the powerups change things up – spell books to overpower your weapons, invisibility and invincibility, the egg spell and wings of wrath that give you flight - you never used it for fear of needing it but still, a nice little powerup.
There’s a few standout creatures too; the flying imps are oddly endearing while the hulking Golems make an amusing ‘guh’ noise when you clobber them – of course, they clobber back and then there’s those huge skulls which are great to look at and a nightmare to fight, the alien rip-off things, the axe-throwing knights, and the Weredragon that looks nothing like a dragon, Were or otherwise while the wizardy blokes with their dashing cloaks and sparkly orbs are simply the most fabulous villains of the era. Their echoing chant joins the other creatures’ calls, moans and growls – The Serpent Riders’ lot are not what you’d call stealthy, I’ve never played a game with so many chatterboxes and their prattling helped me find the exit more than once. Alongside the game’s ambient chain rattling, water drops, moans, cackles and creaks it’s one of the noisiest games I’ve played but it has the feeling of a really good ghost story. If it wasn’t so bright it could be quite a menacing game.
I will admit, Heretic is a lot lighter than I remember. I might have merged some of Blood’s gothic atheistic with Heretic. Instead, there is a sense of cuteness about Heretic, almost loveable, maybe less like a Ghost story and more like a ghost train at the end of the pier. Still, Heretic is living up to those great memories.
In every demonstrable way, Heretic has been surpassed and it would be easy to dismiss it once the initial ‘oh I remember that’ wanes, but once you get into the harder levels it’s not mucking about - it's not samey or tiring, I'm pushing and being pushed in a perfect balance; it does the job of a Doom-clone very well – there are improvements, such as the menu system, looking up and down etc, but it just feels more complex, more detailed – Raven clearly took their time with the mighty Doom Engine and learnt from Doom’s designs, it feels real not random like a lot of shooters from that era (like why did the villains of Rise of the Triad pepper their castle with trampolines and floating coins?)
Since nothing could compare to Doom, The Exorcist of gaming, even the most shameful Doom Clones had to do something to differentiate themselves. Duke had his extreme masochism and jetpack, Shadow Warrior had interaction and Big Trouble in Little China quotes while Blood had its perfection, but Heretic’s ‘thing’ was fantasy familiarity; it’s plot and characters recall a hundred D&D games and it was great to see that come to life; it took what we loved about Doom and put it in the fantasy setting we always imagined.
For me, it really is the second best of the Doom Clone Clan which is quite an achievement considering the competition; even my beloved Blood is closer to Doom than Heretic is - We should have more medieval fantasy shooters. I didn’t know I wanted a spell-casting Gatling gun until Heretic gave me one. Heretic is the best retro game I’ve played for ages.
Recently, the game industry has dusted off the golden era and resurrected pretty much the entire Doom-era, ironically calling them classics now after being dismissed as Clones then.
There was the Shadow Warrior, RotT and Doom all got rebooted, Wolfenstein was rebooted twice while Quake 4 was an in-name-only reboot/sequel as was 2017's Prey, which started out as a Doom clone in 1996. And we're all trying to forget Duke Nukem Forever. And most of them got a remaster, but there was neither in store for Heretic.
And I can’t work out if that’s a good thing or not. Having played it and found it still awesome, I like that we only have the unsullied, pure original, but the gamer in me wants at least a remaster so I can stop flinging my hairy elf arm off walls. To not have a modern Heretic is heresy.
Developer; Raven Software | Publisher; id Software / GTi