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Hexen: Beyond Heretic

Hexen:  Beyond Heretic

Published originally in 1995 and later released on Steam, Hexen:  Beyond Heretic, its predecessor Heretic and their cousin Doom (which used the same ID Tech 1 engine) are an early example of how realistic graphics can age terribly.  That’s not to say that there is a lot of realism in Hexen, it’s set in a fantasy world, but it suffers the same problem as other aging games in that it’s attempt to have high graphical fidelity (for it’s time) results in it dating very quickly.

You can find the same effect on other more ‘modern’ games that are aging- if you’ll excuse the stupidity of that comment. To explain:  I remember playing games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and thinking about how detailed it looked, but compared to Grand Theft Auto 5 it looks hideous, the character models in comparison look like horrific animated mannequins.
This seems to be an unfortunate aspect of the video game industry that a lot of developers/publishers refuse to acknowledge so as to have the shiniest graphics of the moment and advertise it as such.  Games that are designed to look as good and as detailed as possible for their time immediately look dated as soon as the next generation of technology, or iteration of that game is released. When you apply this process to Hexen and realise how many ‘generations’ ago this was, how many engines have come and gone between then and now, you can understand why it looks as it does – extremely ugly.

 I cannot blame a game for aging but I can blame it on it’s art/graphical style.  Cartoonish games, or games that have a more definite style age more favorably.  As a comparison, I googled some screenshots for other games released in the same year (1995),  One of which was Megaman: the Power Battle. It has a unique style that ages a lot better.  I then did another search for Hexen to compare:

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Top – Megaman:  The Power Battle.  Almost 20 years old

and still pleasant to look at.

Bottom – Hexen:  Beyond Heretic.  Makes my eyes want to cry bloody tears.

I realise that I am discussing the graphics a lot here, but it really does hit you as soon as you launch the game.  Pixels everywhere.  I understand that what you see on screen is made of pixels, but I have gotten so accustomed to not seeing them in more recent games that it just stands out all the more.  Just like I understand that people and things are made of atoms, and that seeing them would be horribly distracting.  This is difficult to ignore when enemies get further away and the monsters in the distance morph into a collection of indistinguishable shuffling boxes.  Heretic and Doom also had this issue, though as older games, they had it even worse.
I know there are third party packs and mods that will improve the textures (I even saw a version that was upgraded to the Doom 3 engine) but I’m not counting this here. The game being sold (currently) as it was originally made, which is what I am reviewing.

 The screenshots for this game may be a tad misleading on the Steam Store page.  The smaller sized screen captures reduce the size of the pixels causing them to be less obvious. Though you can decrease the screen size in game, this isn’t what you see in the screenshots.  They are full screen in a scaled down image.
A final word on the graphics.  As with most older games you will probably get used to the aesthetic eventually.  After a while you will understand the games objects, enemies, weapons and HUD in relation to each other and at this point you will likely stop comparing it to other games and focus more on the world that you are inhabiting, but a period to acclimatize is required after the initial shock.

However dated the graphics are, it does lend itself well to the atmosphere.  The world of hexen is a demon filled realm, whose population consists of you and the hideous creatures that exist only to kill you.  It is an ugly place with ugly creatures.  The environment is deliberately hideous and is genuinely an uncomfortable place to be. This is something that Heretic and Doom did well also, creating very unsettling worlds.

 Other environment details will keep you feeling on edge, such as the constant grunts and moans of nearby monsters that you cannot yet see.  The occasional high pitched scream in the distance from faraway ifrit’s caused the occasional moment of genuine shock.  The low quality sound file  making it more unsettling as the distortion of the scream gave it a feeling of wrongness, something that no human or animal could make.
Other audio cues that also increase the tension would be that of doors screeching open and closed in the area’s beyond and the sounds of monsters so close that they could be on the other side of the wall.

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Throughout the levels you will find humans, usually impaled gruesomely through spikes on the floor, hanging from hooks or just lying dead on the floor, almost skeletal, as if restrained and left to wither away.  Anything that’s not a demonic monster is a corpse that has died in a horrific manner.  As with Heretic and Doom, Hexen’s grainy graphics still gives me the chills. It’s the old technology/style I believe, like looking at old war footage of an atrocity, the older technology and poor quality gives the impression of a more barbaric place and time.

 The enemies are suitably ugly, though they have less of a ‘Horror’ feel than those of Heretic.  In Heretic you have more outright grotesque monsters such as the axe throwing undead warriors or the enormous floating skulls of the Iron Liches with many teeth and frighteningly large eye sockets.  Hexen follows a more fantasy route rather than a satanic one.  The monsters have a more classical style, such as the Swamp creature, the two headed dragon humanoid (ettin) and centaurs – more fantasy creatures rather than demonic ones.  The large horned serpents and dark bishops are slightly creepier.  Though they do not look as creepy as they did in heretic.  The aforementioned atmosphere, environment and sound effects certainly provide the chill factor to keep you on edge pretty my constantly.

The accompanying music is suitable for both gameplay and atmosphere.  It is a first person shooter after all and the music keeps with the pace by having a fast tempo.  It matches the atmosphere as it’s melodies are onimus, representing church organs mainly.  I say represent as this was nearly 20 years ago and the technology not as advanced, all sounds were represented by basic midi’s.  However, they did well with what they had.  It is appropriately creepy and fast paced and was quite melodic and catchy.  I found myself nodding to the tune as I was running and shooting on more than one occasion.

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 The gameplay is straightforward.  You kill enemies while trying to find switches to open doors.  Thats is essentially it.  Your motivations for doing so are to kill Korax, one of the three serpent riders, a god like demon who has invaded the world of Cronos.
None of this is explained at the beginning of the game by the way.  This information was gathered from Doom/Hexen Wiki Sites.  At the time these details were given through the game’s manual.  The manual is not available through Steam though, and after googling for a while I managed to find it in PDF Format.  Presumably, if the game was purchased legitimately this would have been acceptable (at the time), but personally is a practice that I’m gald is no longer common.  I believe that the game genuinely suffers for it.  It doesn’t have the most amazing fantasy story – it’s essentially Doom.  Demons teleport into a dimension and invade, but a fantasy setting instead of Sci-Fi

I wanted to know more about the fantasy world for which I was fighting.  All we get in game are the text screens between mission hubs and these provide pretty much the same information each time.  You killed the boss, you realise it isn’t over, you step through the portal to fight some more.  Almost no information is given about what your last kill meant, what your goals are, or what you are trying to achieve.   There is no reason that this information couldn’t have been replaced with the story text in the manual and continued as you progressed through to each hub.

For the most part, the story is non existent.  The game suffers as getting through 5 hubs would have been more interesting if story was given out at intervals, something to carry us along and hold off some tedium and repetitiveness.  Though I am fully aware that this may have been the practice at the time and some may argue that it’s all about the action and not story, this is a game that is on sale now, for money.  When making the decision to buy this or a more story focused game, and you prefer games with story and motivations for why you are doing what you are doing, then you may be bored and frustrated very quickly with Hexen,

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 Gameplay is focused on killing enemies in fast paced running and gunning and it certainly does this best.  Essentially each map and hub will have you clearing an area of enemies section at a time – finding a switch or object to open a new area to once again clear out, then find another switch, object or portal.

 There are 3 classes to play from, a mage, a warrior and a cleric.  Mages are powerful casters that can deal a lot of damage but take the least damage of the three classes.  Warriors are more mele focussed, able to give and take a lot of damage, though at the sacrifice of range.  The cleric is a mix of the two.  Good at short and long range and able to take a considerable amount of damage.

Each has four weapons to use, 3 of which are quite situational, and one superweapon.  A weapon will consume either green or blue mana, or if using the default weapon starter weapon, nothing.  The super weapons uses both.  You obtain this super weapon by collecting pieces of it throughout the first couple of hub’s and will likely only use it on bosses, the odd surprise horde, or in my case; times when enemies are difficult to hit due to their position on hard to see ledges and the frustration on wasting mana causes you to just nuke them at the extra cost to just be rid of them.

 Each class has it’s own unique weapons.  I played the cleric which began with a mace for melee.  This had a satisfying meaty impact sound, was quite powerful and had a good range for a melee weapon.  The next weapon was a serpent staff that shot green orbs of ….magic, in quick succession that was useful for ranged targets.  When used at close range, the serpent staff will drain health from the enemy to you.  It is moderately powerful and also satisfying to use.  The third was Firestorm, magic gloves that gave an instant hit (that is, almost no travel time) fire attack that was very powerful.  Finally the super weapon Wraithverge, which helps you get out of hairy spots, but will likely be mostly used for boss fights.  For the cleric this shot a number of ghosts that jumped from enemy to enemy dealing massive damage and would almost always clear the room.  You will likely reserve use until absolutely necessary due to it’s high mana cost.

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All were unique in their own way.  I found myself using each an equal amount of times through the majority of the game – they all had their place.

 Enemies are enjoyable to fight mostly.  There isn’t a very large number of enemy types, but each have different attack and speed mechanics and you will find your approach changing depending on the one you are facing.  You could use nothing but ranged attacks, but you will likely find this eating resources quickly.  Strategies will emerge and efficiency will develop.  For example, I used the mace for the close range ettins and centaurs, the serpent staff for the flying ifrits (and sometimes to regain health) and the fire gloves for the more dangerous serpents and dark bishops.  I would sometimes combine the weapons, such as a first blast from the gloves followed through with a quick shot of the serpent staff.  This helped to keep ammo balanced.
Ultimately the combat is the core gameplay and is done well.  You are focused on the situation and need to think of the right tools for the job while keeping resources and safety in mind.  Enemies can die quite gruesomely and viscerally, highlighting the feeling of impact your weapons have.

 You also have an inventory of items.  Quartz flasks can be collected and when used will provide 25 health.  These stack to 25.  This however, gives quite a safety net as (in normal mode) some of the tension is lost when you are at low health.  There is comfort knowing you have a reservoir of health potions.  I found myself at 30 or less percent health but still confidently strode into battle knowing I could hit enter and regenerate health by knocking back a flask.  I believe that this was a bit more tension killing than intended.
There are also other collectables.  The one I used mainly was the oddly named flechette.  Glass vials of green liquid that are collected throughout the levels.  The function of the flechette varies depending on your class.  For example, warriors lob them and they explode like grenades on impact.  For my cleric, they would drop where I stood and after about 2 seconds would explode into a cloud of poisonous gas.  Care needs to be taken when placing them as they will also do damage to your character.  You need to quickly get out of the way.
I found these to be very overpowered.  The gas cloud will cause a constant stun effect on the enemy and will last a considerable amount of time. In any situation where the enemy could be narrowed, dropping just one in their line of sight could kill a half dozen enemies  The first would be stunned constantly, unable to move as the gas cloud sapped their health until they died.  The next enemy would then do the exact same thing, walk in, get stunned, and die.  This would last until all enemies were dead or the cloud expired (about after a minute).   This of course was my experience as the cleric, I am unsure if they would be so helpful for the other classes.

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There is a limit to the amount of flechettes that you can carry (25) so you don’t have an endless supply.  You will use them at a sweet opportunity or sometimes to conserve mana.  Run into a ranged enemy, drop it, runway.  They are fun to use especially when doing so strategically, but again quite overpowered.  On the boss of the 3rd hub I ran directly to him, dropped 5 or 6 flechettes, ran away, and essentially trapped the boss in the clouds until they killed him.  I don’t think I even fired a shot.  However, up to that point, on the previous attempts the boss reflected most weapons and did high amounts of damage so I am unsure how else I could have effectively killed him otherwise.

There are other items that you can collect.  Some increase attack and defense stats, make you run faster, go invulnerable and replenish health and mana, but I rarely used any of them.  Mainly because I didn’t know what they were for (again, no manual).  I eventually looked them up even then I didn’t use them until the final boss.  I used the speed boots once to get to a timed switch.  For the most part I was able to get through most challenges with weapons, quartz flasks and flechettes

The game is structured into 5 hub stages.  Each hub has a number o f levels that can be freely travelled between (though some need to be unlocked first).  I would compare a hub to an ‘episode’ that you would find in other similar games at the time, but instead of linearly progressing through one level to another, you travel between them, flipping switches to unlock the final teleport, or boss after which you can then continue to the next hub.  Each level will have a switch or objective (which are usually just a different type of switch) that allows access to another area of another level in the same hub.  This new area will likely have a switch for access to another area on a different level and so on.  You traverse between levels until each part of the hub’s puzzle (every switch, switched) is complete.  To narrow down the structure:

A hub may have 3 levels, A, B and C.  Go into A, hit a switch that opens a new part of level B.  Go into level B hit a switch which opens part of level C.  Go to C do same, opens part of Level A.  Repeat until all switches are flipped and after all area’s are opened.

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Pictured:  Serpent about to strike

Not Pictured:  Level structure – Hard to illustrate

This was an interesting approach at the time, though I’m not sure how necessary or advantageous it was.  Knowing exactly which area you have just opened up can be difficult.  A lot of the time you will need to go through each level again to find which locked door has been opened.  Some of the level design can be quite confusing too.  On one hub I could only find access to one of the levels by dropping down an elevator that was part of a corridors floor, which only activated because I hit the Space key randomly at the time.  This happened pretty much by accident and had I not known better I would have thought it was a hidden area for bonus items or weapons, too obscure for main progression as there was little to no hints that this was a usable object/door.

This happened far more often than I liked.  At some points progress was kept behind hidden walls that had little or no differentiation to the walls around them.  This reminded me of when I played Doom and Wolfenstein, where I would mash my face along walls tapping spacebar to find secrets.  It shouldn’t be used for main progression as it can get frustrating wandering about cleared out empty levels trying to find some inconsistency in the scenery that may or may not be the way out.

 I have mentioned switching pulling a few times, but for the most part this is how you progress to any new section of the map.  Sometimes these can be difficult to find.  Mainly because they don’t differentiate much between the walls on which they are placed.  You will find murky green and brown switches on murky green and brown walls.   Wood switches on wooden walls.  All 2D painted objects that blend into a grainy background.  This can’t be blamed on the older graphics or technology either, as a simply more contrasting colour could have resolved it.  It didn’t need to glow or be super obvious but a subtle change would have cut out a lot of wandering.  On other occasions these switches were obscured behind pillars or portals, almost unfairly so – and if they were not a hub puzzle switch (which provides a message) it could be very confusing as to what the switch actually does.  On a few occasions I needed to look up a guide online to find out how to progress as some switches apparently did nothing whatsoever.  Some of the guides I read were not fully sure either and advised to just keep switching two switches back and forth for ‘a bit’ until a wall opened up elsewhere.  These kind of nonsensical puzzles seemed to be a trait of games at the time, but comparing it to modern games it just seems time wasting and frustrating.  Today we have far more options in games than then, so there is less tolerance for these arbitrary time lengthening mechanics.

 The important question is:  Is this this is worth your money?  Hopefully by now you have decided but I feel a summary is appropriate.  At the time of writing this game is currently on steam for €4.99.  There is also the bundle for €9.99 that includes the predecessor Heretic, The expansion to Hexen and Hexen II.

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The final boss.  Taunts you throughout the game via monstrously large demon face.  Unfortunately looks like a child’s drawing

* Disclaimer.  The following recommendations are based on the authors opinions.  These are subjected to the terms and conditions of your own.

If you played doom and Duke Nukem back when they were released and enjoy the traditional first person shooter with not much thought required nor much in the way of story, then you should get enjoyment out of this.  It should also allow you see past the dated graphics.  The combat/fighting is the aspect of the game that is probably the most solid and if you have played older shooters you will know what to expect.  Whenever I put aside a few hours at a time to play I did find there a lot of fun to be had jumping between levels and fighting fresh rooms of bad guys, trying to balance my resources and being as efficient as I could.  It is not an essential experience that you are missing though, and if you have other games on your steam list, then you should probably hold off a while.  Perhaps keep it on your wish list, or wait until it drops in price via a sale to a couple of euro.  At one point the in the past the collection was on sale for 7.49 euro and the game itself for 2.49.

If you like a story to keep you interested then I can’t recommend this game whatsoever.  You will find yourself dropped into maps with little or no context, killing demons and finding switches to progress for arbitrary reasons.  Story comes in the form of between hub text screens that give essentially no plot information.  Forget about characters or why you are doing anything.  You fight monsters and pull switches.  Though you may initially have fun with the combat, with no context it will start to get tedious.  You’ll likely find yourself in hub 2, with 3 more hubs to go and will either quit because it’s will just be too long with more of the same, or you’ll find yourself playing just to finish it, justifying the cost and /or have it as a completed game on your list.  This to me is the worst scenario, finding yourself playing a game you dislike, feeling frustrated all the way through and also having to pay for the experience.  Even if the game is on sale and very cheap I would advise you to avoid it.  It will sit on your steam list unplayed and money wasted, or played with frustration to fulfill the completionist part of you.  Avoid.

If you are undecided from the above then you may wish to try a more reliable option.  The original Doom games would be safer bets.  They also have run and gun mechanics, and similar graphics.  Hexen would have more mechanics, such as the inventory items, power ups and different level design, but the experience is quite similar.  Doom would be the more acclaimed of these types of games also, so again a safer bet.  In fact to save, see if you can find the shareware of Doom 1.  That’s 6/7 levels for free.  If you like it then try to find a lets play of hexen on youtube and it should help you with the decision.