Heart of Darkness - A Retrospective Review
With the release of the fifth generation consoles, the transition to 3D game spaces was in full swing. Mario had safely made the jump to three dimensions with Super Mario 64, not to mention challenging every other game to do the same thing with as much style. Some platformers either confronted the task head-on (Spyro the Dragon), while others hid behind the tight game design that only linear titles can bring (Crash Bandicoot). Some though, just didn't get the memo.
Heart of Darkness was a 2D game in a 3D world. Developed by veteran French game designer Eric Chahi, Heart of Darkness was, in effect, a spiritual successor to his 1994 title Another World. Taking over six years to develop, and having the title of being the first game to have its soundtrack composed of an orchestral score, its cinematic ambitions were clear.
Much like Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Heart of Darkness takes advantage of having only two dimensions to worry about by emphasizing the atmosphere and the story. Playing as a young boy called Andy, the game follows him as he attempts to rescue his dog, Whiskey, from the land of darkness. It's a simple and possibly clichéd tale, even for its time, but there's certainly a lot of imagination going on beneath the generic story.
First off, for a game that's clearly aimed at younger players, it can be pretty disturbing. There's a Dark Crystal and Return to Oz vibe about Heart of Darkness; it's willing to appeal to kids but it certainly isn't afraid of frightening them. In fact, one of its most notable features was the abundance of unique death sequences that would play depending on how you died. This wasn't the kind of game willing to leave things to the imagination, Andy could have his head bitten off, fall of a cliff, have his spine broke, be eaten by tropical fauna, the list goes on.
And boy did you get familiar with them. You would die in this game. A lot. Unfortunately, that's where a lot of the game's problems stemmed from: archaic trial and error gameplay. It was pretty much impossible to get passed certain sequences without dying at least once, since you wouldn't have any idea what was beyond the current screen and any wrong move was instant death. And whereas Abe's Oddysee had attempted to add new gameplay mechanics with the use of Gamespeak, Heart of Darkness was hoping you'd simply be transfixed by the gorgeous visuals and FMV sequences to forget how frustrating everything was.
Beyond the very basic combat mechanics were the typical adventure game puzzles. After stripping you of your rather powerful laser gun in the first half an hour, the game switched things up by introducing two special powers you could use. One was explicitly for combat, a fast glowing ball of green energy that would have the enemy shadow creatures explode in a blast of light. The other however, could be used to stun various animals (that would otherwise eat you), and cause little seeds to burst to life, Jack and the Beanstalk style.
Again though, the trial and error nature of almost every single level can make for some tedious progression. The later levels also feature an inordinate amount of climbing, complete with killer worms and goo-pooping spiders. It's clear that Heart of Darkness had its long development time to blame for a lot of its problems. By the time of its release it simply didn't compare well with the other titles coming out at the same time.
The short length didn't help either. It was perfectly possible to complete the game in less than four hours, especially once you were familiar with the level layouts, and so weren't as likely to suffer as many unfair deaths.
Things didn't end well for Eric Chahi either, as Amazing Studio went bankrupt. After some arguments over the game's authorship went to court, the experience soured his relationship with the game's industry and he went on a long hiatus. He's since returned though, being responsible for Ubisoft's From Dust, which is certainly a different kind of game to his previous work.
While Heart of Darkness has plenty of flaws, it did have scope and ambition, and, while it might not deliver anything especially new, the old-school platformer's influence can still be felt. Just take a look at Limbo.
Heart of Darkness was released in 1998 for PC and Playstation.
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