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.