The game Heart of Darkness, that is. Nothing to do with the Conrad novel. Eric Chahi of Out of this World and Frederic Savoir of Flashback pooled their talents and did something awesome: Heart of Darkness is possibly the best 2D action-adventure I've ever played. (Possibly except for Viewtiful Joe: VJ has it beat as far the core combat and art direction goes--Heart of Darkness is a little too wannabe-Spielberg--but in every other respect I think Heart of Darkness is superior.)
But I'm looking at old reviews right now, and reviewers were underwhelmed. Some theories as to why: there was a fair amount of hype. According to Bill Dugan, who worked at Interplay when Heart of Darkness was launched, it showed very well at E3. Then years went by. 3D happened. Finally Heart of Darkness ships, but nobody wants to play these 2D games anymore. It didn't sell well, as I understand it.
Or maybe it's because the ending is a little flat. The last level isn't terribly climactic and doesn't feel like anybody could have possibly designed it with the intent that it really be the last level of the game: it feels more like whatever last level they truly did have in mind got cut, and they managed to stitch the ending together and finally ship something not quite satisfactory. The second-to-last level is quite climactic--and incredibly difficult: after playing all the way through the game in two sittings, for the last level I'd play it a dozen times, get frustrated and leave, come back to it a few hours later, play it a dozen times, etcetera, until I finally managed to win--and it seems to me that if they'd been willing to throw out that last level they would have had a better result.
Still, I gotta say, it worries me that reviewers are so fallible. I loved Galleon, I loved Heart of Darkness, but reviewers consider these games to be C+'s pr B-'s. How many cool games am I missing out on right now because I rely so heavily on gamerankings as a filter? I wish there was a movielens.org for games...hey, if any of you know of great games that got mediocre reviews that you think I would like, let me know.
Heart of Darkness has the same sort of cinematic aesthetic as Out of this World, but takes a somewhat more systemic approach to delivering it: it's like the authors of the set-piece heavy Out of this World and the highly systemic Flashback, together, managed to deliver the best of both worlds: a game the length of Flashback that is still full of highly memorable set pieces.
Examples of what makes it cinematic would be: you start the game standing in the wreck of your spaceship - you jump out, and immediately afterwards it explodes. Guess what? You can stand in that spaceship as long as you want; it only explodes when you leave. This parallels one of the moments in Out of this World when a platform shoots up on a jet of water right when you stand on it - you feel like you just made it in time. But it's all magicianship. And although most of the game is more standard do-the-wrong-thing or don't-react-quick-enough and you're dead, there are other moments of this fake drama: you swim across a lake or crawl through passages with monsters on your tail - as long as you don't do anything stupid (like stop) you'll barely make it. (Much like running down the corridor with lasers blasting away the sliding doors behind you in Out of this World.)
On another note, although a lot of the game is stock--the timing puzzles, for example--and some of it we've seen before in Out of this World, some of it is just so damn inventive that I want to find these guys, shake them, and say "Why do you make such great games!" and then I'd jump up and down on them, yelling, "Why do you make such great games!" I'm not going to spoil these inventive bits for you. Buy your own copy and find out. You can supposedly get ones in good condition for $3. (I tried that, and the disk was scratched to hell. So I bought it from somewhere else for $10. A bargain!) It runs fine on a PS2.
Although let me get to the difficulty. It's much less frustrating than Out of this World. A lot of it obeys Scott Miller's "God Concept": after playing it through once, I started again and made it pretty far without dying. Contrast with Out of this World, where it requires just sheer luck for me to make it past the first set of screens. But there are some random effects (despite what the review on IGN says) that make parts of the game a crapshoot: there are these armored guards near the end of the game that randomly shoot missiles at different levels - if you're too close to them, you've got to just guess what's coming and hit the right button. Then, when they die, they drop two eggs, which will grow into mature guards in a moment - you can drop and shoot the eggs, but the lightning out of your gun wavers randomly, and may or may not destroy them in time. I don't think even God could do anything when the dice roll wrong and you end up with a horde of these guys shooting random projectiles at you.
Little did I know there was an Easy setting! It never occurred to me to go to the options page, which you can only access from the shell menu. Save yourselves: buy the game, but play it on Easy.
One last thing: people frequently bitch about games that take away powers from you. They were upset about the ending of Prince of Persia where you lose your time dagger; they were upset by your ships getting weaker in Wing Commander; they would have been upset by this, as you lose your gun fairly early in the game, and have to play for a while unarmed before you get a replacement. I tell you, I want to throttle those people. (My apologies if you are one of those people.) As a game designer, looking for ways to milk a game for level ideas, this is such an obvious move, and these complainers want to take it away from me! It's more game I'm giving you, man! Enjoy it!
That said, I suppose taking the gun away and fundamentally changing the game mechanic is a different kettle of fish than taking the dagger away in Prince of Persia, which feels a little like taking away your save-game option in the last level. It's a fine line between clever and...stupid.
Heart of Darkness. Well, to be kind let's just say I don't think most people share your point of view on it being a good game. I pretty game yes. A good game?
I suppose there is the question of what to compare it to. Being a 2D run and jump game though it doesn't come close to being as fun any of the 2D Marios. In fact I'd go so far as to say they are not even in the same league. Heart of Darkness is a very very BAD 2d game dressed up in inspired animation and art. It probably breaks every "no twinkie for you" rule there is as far as being just frustrating for the hell of it. Can you make it through the game by skill the first time through or only by trial and death at learning where you need to jump, duck, run, kick, etc? Instant death around every corner? Massively repetative game play.
Of course everyone likes something different. Some say GT4, some say Burnout. But, are you sure there isn't some rose colored glassed you are looking through when you remember that game? There are lots of older games that are full of bad design but that I enjoyed as a kid when I was too inexperienced to know the difference between good and bad. I have fond memories of those games but I go back to play them and wonder how I ever had a patience.
One rule of thumb I like to use for action games is would the game be fun if I removed all the graphics and just used colored rectangles. Most of the most memorable games would still be fun that way. I don't think Heart of Darkness would though.
For now though I'll just assume we just have different tastes.
Posted by: greggman | November 02, 2004 at 01:29 AM
I'm not agree with you greg.
Ok, for me and like a big part of the people in the industry, the gameplay is biggest point in a video game, if you have a good gameplay you have 99% of chance to have a good game. If you have a gameplay that work with crappy gfx, your game will be good with good graphics, good script, good voice over etc ...
But it's not the only way to have a good/great game.
Sure, If we replace the sprites and the scenery of Heart of Darkness by some color block, it will be boring, exactly like REZ that is a really simple&simplify Panzer Dragoon. But a game is also a combination of lots of things and the great things in HOD is the universe (for me). The scenes in the game are really exciting and we are often surprise by the action.
Posted by: Lama Himself | November 02, 2004 at 06:11 AM
One of the things that put me off Heart of Darkness (although I did eventually beat it) was that the death animations tended towards the horrific. Giant black blob picks up the kid and eats him, and while he chews, the kid's arm is still sticking out of his mouth. Or - the worst one - a creature pops out of a hole, grabs the kid by the head, and pulls him halfway into the hole so that only the kid's legs are visible, and they are kicking. Then you hear a CRUNCH, the kid's legs go limp, and then disappear into the hole. Yak.
Plus, the game was just too darned hard. Same deal with Out Of This World, Flashback, and the Abe games. Brutal, punishing games that suggest adversarial designers. I used to enjoy games like that, but now that I've got two kids, my gaming time is too limited for me to spend any of it frustrated (or disgusted).
Posted by: Badman | November 02, 2004 at 09:46 AM
No, no rose colored glasses of nostalgia: I played it for the first time this weekend. But one thing that might be coloring my perceptions is that I played *Out of this World* again a mere month or so ago, and *Heart of Darkness* is strictly better. So...if *Out of this World* is a great game, and *Heart of Darkness* is better, doesn't that make *Heart of Darkness* a great game?
If you don't like either game, fine. But to say *OotW* is good and *Heart of Darkness* isn't is inconsistent.
Normally, the transitive law applies to one's opinions: if you like pizza better than cake, and sushi better than pizza, it implies you like sushi better than cake. (Granted, if you're sick of sushi, you may well prefer the cake at this time. We'll ignore the concept of satiation for the purposes of this exercise.) If you go to movielens.org or netflix and rate movies, you'll probably find that the transitive law holds: you can ask yourself, "Which did I like better? Alien or Clockwork Orange?" And use it to guide your ratings. This transitive law, in a way, does not apply to videogames: the same reviewer will give a sequel a lower score than the original, even though the sequel is a marginally better game, simply because the times they are a'changin', and what he used to think is cool isn't anymore. The same reviewer might even say, "If you've never played the original, don't bother, go straight to the sequel." So why the lower score? I suppose in an ideal world, that reviewer would be allowed to go back and downgrade his scores for games that he no longer likes...I'm not sure what my point is here...except that there's something Sisyphean about making videogames; each videogame you make is better than the last, with improved gameplay, improved graphics, all those things you've learned implemented, but the rest of the industry has learned those things too, and some of them faster than you, so it ends up feeling like you've run really hard to stay in the same place. Oh well, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.
And I loved the death animations. Cartoon gruesome, like *Itchy & Scratchy.*
I hate punishing games. At my company, I'm one of the voices for making our games easier. I didn't finish either of the Abe games. In fact, I didn't finish *Super Mario World*. Although *Heart of Darkness* was too punishing in places, checkpoints were frequent--every three-to-six screens or so--so at least you weren't playing the same solved portions over and over and over, like I found myself doing in one of the underwater sections of *Mario*, and I didn't think *Heart of Darkness* was inexcusably punishing until the final boss.
Posted by: Jamie Fristrom | November 03, 2004 at 08:23 AM
One game that really impressed me but did only get very average reviews (at least here in Germany) was Quantic Dreams' The Nomad Soul.
To be honest, I never managed to play through the game but even starting the game from the beginning every now an then gives me the impression that it was way ahead of it's time.
You have that big maps with almost no (blocking) borders, you can enter most of the buildings, there's so much detail - you have to see it.
If only for enjoying a few hours exploring the first big city with all the freedom the game gives the player, go get a copy and try it.
Its a 1999 release and as far as i know it was the first project of the company/founders.
Posted by: Nelvin | November 03, 2004 at 08:36 AM
I remember Heart Of Darkness too while at was at Interplay. It was a great game and I always wondered why it didn't take to a wider audience. Granted, as stated, 3D was becoming king at the time, but the game had solid visuals and a cool little story. I'm a big fan of story and in our industry it's rare that a story captures my imagination. The ones that do are usually the ones that I'll remember fondly. Who wants to remember a frustrating games? Bleh, not me. I belive in good game design, but like an orchestra a game is best when all the players like, the great Art section, the great Sound section, and the great Game Design section (and others) all play in tune and harmony. On merit Angel of Darkness was close to being one of those games.
Posted by: Obi Busta Nobi | November 03, 2004 at 09:33 AM
Flashback, Heart of Darkness, and Out of This World are influences on the game I am directing right now, GOD OF WAR. We have more action than those games but I have tried really hard to capture the feeling of playing those 16 bit games too. Hope you give it a go!
Posted by: david jaffe | November 03, 2004 at 01:20 PM
Just FYI: I didn't like OotW as a game. I was impressed with it. In fact bowled over at the time but I played it, got maybe 6 or 7 puzzles in which was probably about 250 lives and gave up.
I think later I walked through the game with a code list as in play until I died, enter the code for the next scene.
Those games are hardly even games at all. They are almost like movies with "press this button now to continue" gimmicks. I suppose by that defintion so are most music games (Parappa, Space Channel 5) but in those I probably enjoy the music more than the actual game.
Posted by: greggman | November 03, 2004 at 11:34 PM
If you're a fan of Out of this World and/or Heart of Darkness, you should read the Idle Thumbs interview with its creator:
Posted by: Walter | November 04, 2004 at 05:55 PM
About removing abilities from players, I think the frustation comes from the player working hard to get skills with a specific ability (like the dagger in Prince of Persia) and then being told "you can't use that skill". If you've invested a lot of time in getting a skill and if you're playing a game for the fun of it, you expect to be able to use that skill.
On the other hand, removing an ability from the player can be good for the variety of gameplay. It forces the player to find new tactics, to try new approaches he may not have tried before.
I think solutions to this are either to avoid removing the ability far into the game or to only make the ability weaker instead of removing it.
If you remove the ability far into the game, it's frustrating to the player since he spent a lot of time getting skilled at it. If it's removed earlier, the player has less invested into the ability and doesn't mind losing it as much. Also removing an ability early has the advantage of forcing the player to find new tactics, which he can still use once he got the ability back. If you wait for the last level, the player must find new tactics but then he never has to use them since the game is over.
The other solution is to weaken the ability. Either you make it work not as well or you slightly punish the player for using it. Taking the Prince of Persia example, instead of not being able to use the dagger the player could lose a bit of health each time he uses it (say it needs some life energy to work or something), or the ennemies could use the sand of time on their own and not be slowed down as much by the dagger's powers. This way the player is less frustrated because he can still use the powers, but using them isn't the optimal strategy anymore so he'll stop using them on his own. This solution is simply to let the player decide to stop using the ability on hiw own rather than forcing the decision down his throat.
Posted by: PaG | November 06, 2004 at 08:24 AM
While I think that Heart of Darkness is great gameplay wise I still much prefer Flashback or maybe even Out of this World (or Another World as it's known around here). The problem with Heart of Darkness for me is that I have absolutely no suspension of disbelief. I don't care about the main character in any way whatsoever, it's just a game and not an adventure to me. The story of the game is rather bland and uninteresting, flashback is much better in this respect and much more involving.
Posted by: Malekh | November 16, 2004 at 06:02 AM
Heart of Darkness the 1998 game of Amazing Studios.
I think that this game has to be revived.It can get as much attention as the popular Zelda and Kingdom Hearts and Golden Sun and other games(some of them 2D even). Where are Amazing Studios? If they need ideas for the game, I can give them.
But Heart of Darkness is a game I have desired to have for a long time, after I played it only partly on the PlayStation.I loved its story and the animation of Andy(2D) and how it almost looked like a film, without status bars etc etc.
I could revive this game if I knew how to program.I do not yet. So I have just the vision...
Posted by: PHL | February 09, 2008 at 01:25 PM