Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders Review

This was played using the GZDoom source port.

The 90s were a pretty great decade for first-person shooters. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, GoldenEye, and Duke Nukem 3D are some of the most popular. Heretic is one of those games that you may consider a Doom clone. It ran on the same engine and had the same style of gameplay but with a different coat of paint. Even though that’s true for the most part, it’s hardly a Doom rip-off. Heretic is a gem of a game and introduced the item management system that many games take advantage of today. It had great level design and fantastic visuals for it’s time as well.

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Similar to Doom, Heretic was released in 1994 as shareware. Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders is the full retail version containing the original three episodes plus two additional episodes. Like many games back in the day, the story in Heretic was only a backdrop for the gameplay and I’m guessing most people didn’t pay attention to it. Three brothers, known as Serpent Riders have apparently used their magic for evil and some Sidhe elves resist their magic and now their considered Heretics. You play as the elf, Corvus, on a quest to slay D’Sparil, one of the serpent riders. Obviously there’s no cinematic cutscenes but there is plenty of shit to shoot. Heretic runs on the Doom engine and it definitely feels like Doom. Heretic is a dark fantasy game and doesn’t contain any weapons of modern times. From the moment you start playing you’ll be able to tell what weapon corresponds with what Doom weapon. The Elven Wand feels like the pistol but shoots crystals, the Ethereal Crossbow is clearly a remodeled shotgun and shoots green bolts, the Dragon Claw fires claw orbs and feels very similar to the chaingun. You’ll also get a staff, gauntlets, a Firemace, a pretty cool looking Phoenix Rod, and a Hellstaff. It may play like Doom but the weapons, environments, and music make it feel like a unique experience making you feel like a badass elf rather than a badass space marine.

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You’ll be dodging enemy fire and circle strafing all while holding down the fire button and trying not to miss a shot. Yeah, you’ll be hunting down keys, activating switches, trying to find what the switch did, running back and forth, opening doors, and trying to find all of the secrets. The first three episodes are not particularly hard on the standard difficulty but the final two episodes definitely bring the pain. Not only that the levels in the last two episodes are much more complex and I found myself getting lost all of the time. This is back when games didn’t hold your hand and you had to figure everything out for yourself. If you didn’t realize you need to shoot the door to open it rather than find a switch you’ll be pulling your hair out trying to figure it out unless you look at a walkthrough. Each level usually contains a handful of secret areas containing weapons or items and discovering these is usually worthwhile so you’ll want to press the “Use” button on the walls hoping to find that secret entrance. The item system in Heretic was revolutionary for the FPS genre at the time. Yes, you can automatically pick up ammo and health to but there are special items that you can store in your inventory. Things like the Mystic Urn which, when activated, grants the player full health. The Tome of Power is probably my favorite since it makes all your weapons extremely more powerful. Another one of my favorites is the Morph Ovum which turns enemies into chickens. It’s pretty funny. There are others like a Quartz Flask which grants more health, Wings of Wrath giving you the ability to fly, Sadly, the inventory has one problem and that is the fact that you need to cycle through the items to find the one you want, select it, then activate it. Being a fast-paced shooter, trying to do all of that when you’re in a bind just may get you killed.

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There are plenty of standard health pickups and I usually died after getting cornered. The last two chapters get a little stingy with ammo which becomes annoying and being forced to use the Elven Staff on more powerful enemies is almost a death sentence. You’ve got some pretty cool enemies like Undead Warriors, Ghosts, Gargoyles, and other fantasy-type enemies. My favorite enemy is the Maulotaur and I think that’s because it’s similar to the Cyberdemon. They wield giant hammers and have powerful attacks. Heretic also introduced multiple gibs and seeing the creatures explode into bloody chunks is always awesome. The game has great lighting and vibrant colors with some excellent texture work giving great visual diversity to the levels. You’ll traverse through lava pits, crypts, dungeons, cliffs, and other standard fantasy locations. The final levels definitely feel like labyrinths and will require extensive searching to find what to do next.

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Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders is an excellent game. It runs on the Doom engine and instead of blowing away hellish demons with modern and futuristic weapons, you’ll be using classic fantasy weaponry to take down mythological creatures. It’s actually refreshing to play Heretic after playing Doom for hours on end. Heretic isn’t just a cheap clone of Doom, it’s a great shooter with fantastic sprite work and superb level design. If you don’t like key hunting, exploration, basic puzzle solving, or anything awesome, then Heretic is not for you.

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