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Review: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: NR - Not Rated
My Rating: Adults - 18+
Genre: First Person Shooter
License: Commercial
Release Year: 1994
Review Published On: June 23rd, 2021
Played on: Thaddeus & Giles

Available from:

Steam

Save System:

How you save depends on what sourceport you're using. Some allow you to save at the beginning of a level, while others let you save at any time.

You can always pause the game by bringing up the pause menu, which is done by pressing ESC.

Summary of
Major Issues:

Despite the name, there aren't many references to evil magic. The main issue is the large amount of blood and gore depicted during the violent gameplay.

Screenshots

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Trying to zap a gargoyle

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Playing "pin the arrow on the Disciple"

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Demon Staff vs Undead Knight



Game Overview

One of the nice things about older games is that they weren't afraid to try new things. Modern AAA games tend to stick to formulas that work, and really only innovate by imitation. But, back when DOS ruled the gaming scene, things weren't standardized yet and developers had to throw ideas at the wall in order to figure out what worked. Raven Software was determined to make 3D roleplaying games a thing, and while their earlier attempt (a game called ShadowCaster) didn't pan out, they simply tried again with Heretic. Both ShadowCaster and Heretic were made with engines licensed from id Software, whom gamers will quickly recognize as the company behind many classic games like Doom and Wolfenstein.

In fact, Heretic is built around an upgraded version of Doom II's engine, creating a hybrid of First Person Shooter and RPG gameplay. Some of the new features would become standard fare in FPS games, like the ability to aim along the Y-axis, fly, and swim. However, Heretic's implementation of these features wasn't perfect, as they came with limitations. The most obvious limitation is that nobody in this game uses a hitscan weapon; everything is either a melee weapon or a weapon that fires slow moving projectiles. These projectiles move slow enough that both the player and their enemies can dodge the attack by simply moving out of the way.

On a different note, the inventory system made for some notable of improvements to the typical FPS gameplay. In most FPS games, powerups are usually only be found near the places where they might be needed. This often leads developers to create stereotypical "pre boss" areas, which are small rooms containing only health and ammo pickups that appear right before a major boss fight. These rooms have become a running joke in the gaming community, as they make it painfully clear what the player is going to be doing next. In contrast, by allowing the player to carry powerups in an inventory, Heretic's levels can avoid this issue and hide trinkets all over the level. This not only allow the levels to be more organically designed, it also makes exploring more fun and rewarding.

But, the inventory could break the game. If a player stockpiled enough items, they'd eventually reach a point where they weren't facing any real risks. So, the developers fixed this problem by having the player lose most of their collected items between levels. No matter how many things you've collected in a level, you'll only be able to keep one of each item when you move on. The practical way to deal with this is to heal yourself completely before exiting the level. Otherwise, those health potions are gone forever.

Aside from the inventory, the main roleplaying aspect of Heretic comes from its high fantasy setting. Instead of fighting soldiers or aliens using guns and flamethrowers, the player uses magical crossbows and enchanted staffs to fight against a magical threat. This is also the source of the game's name. You see, an evil group of sorcerers known as the Serpent Riders have used magic or force to "convert" most of the world into worshiping them. This cult, known as the Order of the Sign, has now been instructed to kill every heretic (ie, anyone who refuses to bow before them). Since the elves refused to submit, all of them, including your character, have been labeled heretics and are being hunted down. Your character objects to this, and embarked on a quest to stop the Serpent Riders and save the world from their influence.

Ultimately, Heretic is a great old school FPS. If you're like me and enjoy playing through Doom once in a while, you'll enjoy this new twist on the same general concept. Just be aware that Heretic goes a bit farther with the gore than Doom; much like how Doom's chaingunner always dies in a pile of gore, the enemies in Heretic always die graphically.

Points of Interest

Sourceports for all
An unexpected benefit of Heretic being based on the Doom engine is that many Doom sourceports can also properly run Heretic. Thus, if you don't like how the game runs, you can simply replace it with another engine that might fit your tastes better. Personally, I prefer Zandorium for games like this, but there are many others out there.
Players need to be clever
Older First Person Shooters were probably some of the most direct games out there. The levels might not be linear, but it was clear where you were going next and what needed to be done to open the way towards the next objective. Heretic doesn't quite play like this, as you'll often need to search for hidden passages in order to progress. One of the craziest examples comes in the form of a room with two secret exits. You'll need to find one of the exits, head through the newly revealed hallway, come back around and jump onto a piece of furniture to trigger the other secret exit, which is where you need to go.

Ambushes are also commonplace in this game, as are areas where monsters can attack you from behind walls. You'll need to be wary of the latter, as the levels are often designed so that these hidden enemies are protected from your attacks. There's usually a hidden hallway or other way to reach these hidden enemies, so you might want to look for it.

Fortunately, the developers were nice enough to include an item that reveals the entire map, secret areas included. If you can just find that, you'll be able to work out any obstacle the game throws at you.
Serious with a side of silly
Most of the game is very serious, as this is supposed to be a life or death struggle against impossible odds. Yet, some silliness crept in. There's a special item you can find - an enchanted egg - that renders all nearby enemies utterly harmless when used. Called the "Morph Ovum", it works by transforming your foes into helpless chickens.

A similar bit of silliness happens if you try using cheat codes from Doom -- a few of them do work, just in the exact opposite way. For example, attempting to use cheats to give yourself every weapon results in the game printing a sarcastic message and taking away all of your ammo.
To be continued
Unfortunately, this game doesn't resolve its own plot. Only one of the three Serpent Riders are encountered and slain by the hero, and even then the game ends with them lost wandering through endless inter-dimensional portals. Ending a game on a cliffhanger is often pretty annoying, but the good news here is that this is the first game in a series, so your epic journey is only getting started.
Regarding the title
Originally, this game was known as Heretic upon release. A little while later, an expanded edition, known as Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders, was released. The original three episode version of the game was retired at that point, leaving only the newer five episode adventure available. Stores today seem to use these titles interchangeably, so I've decided to stick with the shorter version for this review.

Concerns and Issues

Lots of magical stuff
Since this game has a high fantasy theme, castles and magic are the rule. Every weapon the player can use is magical in some fashion, and most of the monsters are drawn from mythology. Of course, it's probably important to point out that the monsters are deliberately designed to look menacing and evil; the gargoyles in particular could easily be mistaken for some sort of imp or demon.
Lots of faux religious stuff
As the story revolves around an evil cult, the environments are filled with stained glass and other religious decorations. These can include anything from altars to statues of kneeling angels, though you'll sometimes stumble across a large relief of a man who is wearing only a mask and loincloth. Weird, but not exactly alarming.

You'll also need to deal with Disciples of D'Sparil, religious zealots who use their magic to subdue heretics like yourself. These cultists are depicted as floating robed figures, much like your stereotypical cultists from a movie.
Less demonic than you'd expect
By the time of this game's release, id Software had developed a reputation of publishing very violent games with overt satanic overtones, so with a title like "Heretic", you'd probably expect this game to be more of the same. Surprisingly enough, there isn't much in the way of demonic or satanic references in Heretic. You'll never encounter a demon, Hell is mentioned just once, and technically you're not even a heretic. That said, one of the weapons you'll acquire is the Demon Staff, a "staff" made from a horned skull and spinal column. Like your other weapons, it's powered by magic and mainly exists to be another way to shoot fireballs at the bad guys.

Someone might make an argument about the symbol used by the Order of the Sign being demonic, but I feel like that's a bit of a stretch. It's supposed to be an inverted trident; there's a bar across the handle that sort of makes it look like a cross resting on a sideways letter E, but even if you take it that way, it's not a real occult symbol of any sort.
Lots of blood and gore
The amount of gore in this game is frankly ridiculous. A large part of the reason there's so much gore is that every monster has only one animation depicting their demise, and it's usually graphic. Gargoyles, for example, get ripped open so you can briefly see their skeleton for a frame or two before they collapse into a heap of red goo. Golems are a little better, as they get torn in half vertically as a gray "spirit" is released. The other monsters typically either explode or dissolve into their outfits when they die.

But, dying monsters aren't the only time you'll encounter something graphic. Many levels are decorated with hanged disciples, implying that even members of the Order of the Sign aren't safe from being labeled as heretics and executed. Skulls hanging from the ceiling are also a popular decoration.