Retro: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

Posted by Gilgamesh on 27 February, 2013 at 02:32AM

Tags: PC, FPS, Retro, Raven, ID, Doom, Fantasy

Retro: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

What was that about it being too PC heavy around here? Sorry, but I'll get to that later. The recent article on Doom inspired me to give my two cents about my favourite "Doom clone" Heretic.

Released in 1994 using a modified version of the Doom engine Heretic and its "expansion" Shadow of the Serpent Riders was a great FPS that in my mind, trumps Doom 1 or 2.

The original mail order version of Heretic only came with three episodes. The retail version contains five and it was called Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders. The original mail order version could be upgraded to Shadow of the Serpent Riders via a free download so for the entirety of this review you can assume I'm talking about the five episode version of the game unless specified otherwise. I'm also going to be comparing it to Doom a lot. So if you haven't played Doom then you might want to get on that? Seriously, what are you doing reading about old school FPS having not played Doom.

So what is Heretic? Some might say "Doom with a crossbow" and that's not entirely false. It is a medieval fantasy version of Doom but that sells it short. So yes, you run around medieval settings fighting demons and the like using a variety of fantasy weapons. Crossbows, magic wands, staves, rods, gauntlets and others. Instead of power armour you collect shields and instead of a backpack you have a bag of holding. ect. ect. The game is divided into episodes with each episode having nine levels with the ninth being a secret level. You progress through the levels finding the colour coded keys to open the colour coded doors. The eighth level contains the end of episode boss that you must defeat and then you'll be returned to the main menu to start a new episode. Now let's talk about some differences other than setting.

One of the main differences in Heretic when compared to Doom is the inventory system. The player can collect a variety of items and use them when he feels the need. These range from simple health restoring items to temporary invincibility or flight. These items can be carried from one level in an episode to the next but your player will drop all but one of each item upon completion of a level. The exception being the item that allows you to fly. It cannot be carried between stages. The controls for flight are a little awkward but workable. It's better saved for short cuts or access to secret areas rather than using it to gain the upper (no pun) hand in combat. One of the more interesting items is the tome of power. It changes the function of all your weapons while it is in effect. Your simple staff gains increased damage and knockback. The gauntlets will drain health from enemies to the player. The phoenix rod (rocket launcher) turns into a flame thrower. The hellstaff, normally a rapid fire weapon, then fires slow moving projectiles that summon clouds of acid rain to deal damage to the surrounding area. Then there's also the morph ovum. The morph ovum will fire out several projectiles that will turn any enemies (most enemies) they hit into chickens. These chickens are easily killed by the player. This item is rather interesting in multiplayer as a player chicken can still try to peck other players to death. If successful he will evolve into a super chicken, doing more damage. There's also a low chance of the morph ovum backfiring and instead of turning an enemy player into a weak chicken it'll turn them into a giant devil chicken with insane hp and instant death pecks. The tome of power can be used by a chicken to revert to human form.

Other differences? You're also able to slightly look up and down (still no jump) and there are ambient noises such as dripping water at appropriate locations that help add to the atmosphere. There are sections of the map that will push the player along (running water) and I'm sure there are other minor improvements or changes from the days of Doom that I didn't notice. I found the game significantly harder than Doom, especially in the Shadow of the Serpent Riders episodes. Those final two episodes on 'normal' were harder than Doom 1 or 2 on Ultra-Violence. The difficulty settings are almost identical to Doom but the hardest difficulty doesn't have respawning enemies this time. Which is a good thing too because the enemies in Heretic take a bigger beating than they do in Doom. You can also feel the influence of the RNG (random number generator) much more in Heretic with the exact same enemies doing and taking noticeably different amounts of damage. One enemy might fall in two hits from your crossbow and an enemy of the same type next to him might take 6 hits. Whether or not you feel that is more appropriate for a fantasy setting is up to you and it has its ups and downs. I found it somewhat annoying at times when I was running low on ammo but I'll admit that not being certain of how much an enemy could take before falling adds to the tension in the harder encounters.

The enemies themselves are your basic FPS variety. There is a lack of a support monster such as the arch-vile but the variety of enemies is decent and the encounters don't really get stale. For the most part monsters will either shoot projectiles and run at you, shoot projectiles and stay away from you/wander aimlessly or run at you to try and melee you. Some of the enemies do have a variety of attacks and there are also ghost versions of enemies that basically mean they're immune to certain attacks. The boss fights are also much more interesting than Doom 1 or 2 although the final two episodes simply reuse the bosses from the first two (in greater quantities as they both become occasional enemies later on.) The episode three boss is the 'end boss' of the game.

The enemies are fun, the inventory system is nice and interesting, the music is good and the setting works pretty well. What really makes me prefer this over Doom 1/2 is the level design. I'll say it now that there are a few annoying segments where you must shoot a switch/door rather than use the use button and that always shits me off but as long as you keep that in mind you shouldn't ever get stuck for too long on any of the stages/puzzles here. I'm not great at describing what I appreciate about map design but for me Heretic does it well. Compared to Doom 1/2 I get a better sense of immersion when it comes to the look and feel of the stages. It's easier to believe that you're playing as some crossbow wielding psycho running around a demon infested castle rather than a collection of doors and rooms. The level design is closer to Doom 1 than 2 although not always as claustrophobic as Doom could be. That said the level design in the (very) recently released No Rest For The Living expansion for Doom 2 (first released with the Xbox 360 port of Doom 2) is probably the best level design I've seen in a Doom/Doom clone game. It's definitely quality over quantity and I'd recommend grabbing that if you can.

So yeah, Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders is a great old school FPS and if you enjoy the gameplay of Doom 1 or 2 I'd recommend checking it out. It's easy to find cheap.