Review: “Heretic: Shadow Of The Serpent Riders” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m replaying this classic game from my youth (and I’m about four levels away from finishing it), I thought I’d write a review of it. “Heretic: Shadow Of The Serpent Riders” is a fantasy/horror FPS game from 1994 which was made by Raven Software and published by ID Software. It uses a modified version of the “Doom” engine, with a few additional features such as being able to look up and down as well as being able to carry several items which can be used at any point within a level.

The original “Heretic” apparently only had three episodes, however the “Shadow Of The Serpent Riders” edition contains two additional episodes (“The Ossuary” and “The Stagnant Demesne”). Since I bought this game many years ago in a multi-pack (called “Towers Of Darkness”) with another FPS game called “Hexen”, I can’t really comment too much on the original version of this game. But, from what I can tell, it’s exactly the same, but without these two extra episodes. Oh, each episode seems to contain a secret level too (although I’ve only found two of these so far).

I should probably point out that, when I was replaying it, I played it using a source port for “Doom” called GZDoom which allows some features which weren’t part of the original game (such as using the mouse to look around).

In “Heretic” you play an elf whose lands have been taken over by an evil sorcerer called D’Sparil and his hordes of undead minions. Naturally, you have to fight your way through all of them. Yes, in the 1990s, FPS games generally tended to have very little in the way of plot. However, at the end of every episode, there is a “Doom”-like text screen which gives you some more of the storyline. However, the main focus of this game is on action, shooting and finding keys.

In many ways, the gameplay is fairly similar to “Doom” although it’s a much more challenging game in a lot of ways. Although it contains some wonderfully non-linear level design, the keys and switches you need to find in order to complete every level are sometimes fairly well-hidden and you will have to do a fair amount of searching and exploration. In fact, “Heretic” is of of the few FPS games I’ve ever played where I’ve actually had to consult an online walkthrough.

But, saying this, “Heretic” contains a reasonably fair difficulty curve, which will give players a chance to build up their skills as they progress through the game. Yes, it isn’t an easy game (if you’re playing on one of the medium difficulty settings), but it’s a reasonably fair game which will keep challenging you fairly often. Just remember to save quite often.

Going back to the subject of level design, the levels look a lot more impressive than many of the levels in “Doom”. Although the quality of the graphics is pretty similar, there is a lot more variety in terms of settings and there are even a few parts where the settings will affect how you move (eg: icy floors which you can slide across and a bridge with a wind effect which will knock you off of it if you’re not careful and which will also deflect any projectiles from some of your weapons).

As for the weapons, they’re basically just fantasy versions of the weapons from “Doom” and, although I prefer the “Doom” weapons, there are some pretty cool weapons in “Heretic”. For example, instead of the chainsaw (from “Doom II”), you get the “Gauntlets Of The Necromancer” which are basically two gauntlets which fire lightning bolts into anything standing near you. Using these is strangely satisfying and they are one of the coolest weapons I’ve ever seen in a game.

However, some of the weapons, like the crossbow (which replaces the shotgun from “Doom”), fire relatively slow projectiles which distant enemies can dodge fairly easily. But one of the things which makes up for this is an item called the “Tome Of Power”. It’s a rather cool-looking book which, when activated, upgrades your weapons for about forty seconds. As well as being a precursor of sorts to the Quad Damage in “Quake”, it also changes how your weapons behave too.

For example: Your ‘rocket launcher’-style weapon turns into a flamethrower and the “Gauntlets Of The Necromancer” will regenerate your health when you use them against enemies (and this basically makes you invincible when taking on more powerful enemies). Some of the other weapons fire three projectiles instead of one and there are a few other interesting changes too. This item is relatively common, so you’ll probably get a chance to use it in most of the levels in the game.

As well as health power-ups, there are some other interesting and original items which you can carry, such as the “Wings Of Wrath” (which act in a similar way to the jetpack from “Duke Nukem 3D”) and the “Morph Ovum” which turns any enemies in it’s path into chickens. All in all, the items system in this game was very forward-looking for it’s time and it introduces some gameplay mechanics which would be far more well-recognised in games which were released later in the 1990s.

The only problem I have with the items system is that it only lets you keep a few of your items when you move from one level to the next level. Basically, some items will disappear when you start a new level and if you have multiple copies of an item, then you will only have one when you start a new level. I can see why they did this, in order to stop people hoarding items for the more difficult later levels of an episode, but it’s still annoying nonetheless.

Plus, when you start a new episode, you don’t get to keep anything (even your weapons) from the previous episode. I’m not sure if this was an intentional decision on the part of Raven Software or just a limitation of the game engine (since a few other games from the 90s do this too), but it can also be slightly annoying.

All in all, “Heretic” is an incredibly solid game which is well worth playing if you’re into old-school FPS games. Yes, it’s basically a fancy version of “Doom”, but even if (like me) you prefer sci-fi to fantasy, you’ll still find a lot of things to enjoy in “Heretic”. Plus, since it’s a fairly old game, you should be able to find a second-hand copy of it fairly cheaply and it’s also apparently available fairly cheaply on Steam too.

If I had to give “Heretic” a rating out of five, then it would get a fairly solid four and a half.