Lots of animations today! Keep an eye out!
An epic score, a fly-through of the solar system, a narration on black holes... could this be a space game?
"In fact, many believe that these 'black holes' are, in reality, doors which open to parallel worlds. Unknown, fascinating, perhaps even terrifying!"
"No, I was just...!"
"Sleeping! In my class! In BROAD DAYLIGHT! Well, lets see if you're more alert in the DARK! You'll spend the rest of the hour in the cupboard!"
What? The CUPBOARD?!
That's what you get for being a tyke, Andy. You don't know how well you've got it. The teacher here's trying his very best, being as ridiculous as he can, but the way you were fast asleep you'd imagine he was more like the teacher from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You've earned that cupboard. Git.
These cutscenes are great, but they're also a bit not so great. It feels like the animators were doing their very best within very strict limits. The music and voices are perfect, but everything seems slightly off. It feels like a slapdash mickey-take of a toy commercial.
I'm a little worried about the kids in the distance. Looking at the Sun through a telescope doesn't sound very safe at all.
The dog is gone. Disappeared. Vanished. GONE.
No! Andy won't stand for this dog-snatching astronomical phenomenon nonsense! To the treehouse!
Andy's treehouse is an awesome place. Not only do you have to use a special makeshift elevator to get inside, but it's filled with crazy machines like a computer-controlled robot arm that packs your lunch for you. But how is Andy going to find Whiskey? We'll take the...
It's like Andy knew this was going to happen. I wouldn't trust my life to a spaceship made out of skateboards and trashcans but this is an emergency!
Super heroic music! Operation Dog Rescue is a go!
Well nothing's killed me yet, so this isn't Dragon's Lair. I can't move left or right. What happens if I jump?
One life down.
Eagh, what a mess! I was not prepared for that.
Still, it's better than what happened the first time: the blasted shadow in the background poked me and made me fall off the screen towards the camera! That shouldn't be possible, damn it!
I bet he thought that was pretty funny. Well, I've got infinite lives, so we'll see who's having the last laugh.
Holy crap! This thing's really dangerous! Andy built this thing all by himself? In a treehouse? With a bunch of scraps?
Who then eat you whole.
Blimey, is there ever a lot of zapping in this game. I thought it would be like Abe's Oddysee, stomping about quietly and observing the other characters until it's time to put into action a wacky plan relying on split-second timing... but it's more like Streets of Rage!
It's a freakin' riot in here!
Shame there's no music. Awesome music for the intro sequence and rendered cutscenes but nothing in-game.
Andy can't walk while firing, so you only stand a chance if you stand still and throw the beam around. There's specific animation frames where the enemies are vulnerable. You can hold the beam on a single enemy for multiple seconds with no effect. The normal beam doesn't hit enemies that are lying down, so you need to tap 'duck' to get them to leap into the air. And leap they surely do, flapping around in mid-air like crazy.
But it looks pretty. And there is a knack to it so it's not that hard.
It's all fun and games until there's one last monster that you're not supposed to shoot. And there's no way to know this until you try to shoot him and it doesn't work. And he knocks you off the level. And you die. And you repeat the last couple of screens. And you can't shoot him, and you die. And you can't shoot him, and you die.
Yeah, yeah, sure it sounds obvious, but jumping didn't work against any of the other enemies so far. They'd just grab me right out of the air and eat me.
All of Andy's moves are designed to connect together in specific ways so you can admire his absurdly detailed animations, but this means that jumping over a moving enemy is something you have to really focus on to get right. Land on the enemy in the wrong way and you'll be killed instantly.
LET'S DO IT.
Oh crap, he's gonna eat it, isn't he?
Never mind. With a snap of the jaws, Andy's flailing body goes limp, and the monster shoves him in his mouth as if he's finishing the last bits of a packet of crisps.
The game's restarted me right here again. I can't prevent him eating my stuff, but I can control Andy for one second afterwards.
Let's try crawling... nope. Jumping? Attacking? Going left instead of right? Crawling almost worked, I'll try that again. The monster sorta moves to the right when I crawl, so if I time it just right...
JEEZ, I'LL RUN.
I'm safe, but now I've got no gun. This game is sort of like Another World but half backwards.
In Another World you play as a silent dude who accidentally travels to another world by means of advanced scientific technology and lightning. He wanders around aimlessly without a weapon, and runs from a silhouette monster with glowing eyes. He then finds a gun, and shoots up a storm with his new-found alien friend.
In Heart of Darkness you play as a loud kid who deliberately travels to another world by means advanced fantasy technology and lightning. He wanders around purposefully with a weapon, shooting silhouette monsters with glowing eyes. He then loses his gun, and has to run from the monsters while trying to find his canine friend.
The main thing Professor Lester Knight Chaykin and Andy have in common is that they're both ginger. Maybe they're related? We haven't seen Andy's dad in the game so far... and it would explain where Andy gets his high-powered future tech from.
Or maybe designer Eric Chahi just hates ginger guys for some reason. Though most likely it's because red is an easily distinguishable colour.
On the next screen it looks like I have to swing across a large gap using a rope... let's see if I can make it!
Repeat the last three screens again. Because they say so.
Well, I can't grab onto the small piece of textured rock at the top of the screen, I can't grab the rope or the skeletal dinosaur tail and I can't climb up the foot.
How the heck was I supposed to know that? I only tried jumping on the spot out of desperation.
If you don't see this one coming though, you deserve it.
A simpering fool (who despite his looks sounds nothing like Cyril Sneer from The Raccoons (external link)) proudly reports that he has captured a child from the human world, and that he is held within this very sack as a gift to his glorious master.
At least we know my dude is okay. Which is more than we can say for the pink fellow.
Do I like this guy or not? I think I do. I think the correct word is 'appreciate'. An ungodly amount of effort went into realising this guy; designing, modelling, animation, writing and acting. Just like everything else in this game so far.
And he's actually funny. He really is.
The first dozen screens were a tutorial on how to use the gun. But then they ate my gun, so they've got to have a whole second tutorial on how to play the game unarmed.
Blub blub blub blub blub.
It's obvious that some swamp monster is going to gobble me up if I don't immediately run into the next screen, and in order to do that I need to wait for the plant to eat that green thing so it'll be distracted long enough for me to jump over it... but the damn green thing isn't flying low enough!
And it's not because this is a looping animated GIF.
I can't think of any games where rope swinging always works the way you want it. Why would they make it possible to let go of the rope before the end?
At least we've covered plants and rope jumping for now. It's not going to get any more involved than that.
Ah, I'm supposed to climb up those twisty branches in the lower right of the previous screen. (It took two people half an hour to figure that out...)
And Andy is thrown onto the next screen, safe and sound. What luck.
On this screen, Master Dark King Dude has sent his silhouette demons after me. I've got to duck under the surface of the water to avoid their strikes. Time it wrong and there's a loud crunch and it's all over for Andy. The Dark Master of Darkness wanted me alive, surely?
Because walking very slowly through a swamp is so much fun, the designers put three of these screens back-to-back with little change between them, and no checkpoints. This was a lot easier when I had a lightning gun. (Not that it's advisable to use a lightning gun while covered in swamp water.)
The plan is to jump into the large green thing to make the small green things appear, which will then escape and illuminate the cave above as well as distract all the plants there.
Start again. Get your ass back to this screen, Andy, then hit the green things' nest and then run like a bastard!
Oh. Stuff you've done on other screens resets when you die. Important note.
There's all kinds of precision engineered environmental sound going on, but I can't help but wish I had something nice to listen to here.
Run, Andy! Duck! Run, duck! Runduck! Duckrun! Run for your liiiiiife!
I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing!
KEEP GOING! RUUUUN!
It was bound to end in tears.
Say, that's a suspicious looking branch to my left there.
My orange friend is called 'Amigo Amigo' and he likes to repeat everything I say. We share another hideously dated-looking CGI sequence together as Amigo tries to give me a lift across the treetops, but a nasty dragon blasts us with a magic fireball and Andy falls to his death... or does he?
Andy uses up another of his nine lives and falls into a vast lake, the one safe spot on the entire lousy planet. If this were anywhere else, I'd be dead.
I can't go up, I guess I'll have go to down. There's only about four screens I can explore down here.
Where's the damned exit?! Nurse, it's happening again!
Get a load of this! Since when can I shoot magic outta my hands?! That's awesome!
Just another day for this young man, I'd expect. Machinist, pilot, marksman, acrobat and now geomancer.
Look at all those animation frames! They already drew two entire sets of animations for with and without his gun, and now he's got a whole new set of frames for using magic. There's two different types of magic you can charge, and the magic charge flows from hand to hand when Andy turns around or changes stance. You can use magic while climbing vines, with unique frames for each hand and each footing. How long did it take them to draw all this?!
According to the back of the box it took five years. I believe them.
I wonder what awaits me on the next screen for me to break in my new magic powers? A five screen long swimming section where I can't use them, you say? Eeesh, I think it's time I took a break.
Heart of Darkness is for people who've already played Another World. It's not the spiritual successor to AW, it is AW.
Or rather, it's not. It's easier. It's possible.
A couple of days after writing all the above stuff, I had another go of the game and passed that swimming section first time. I would've been livid if I couldn't do it, but there's a generously positioned checkpoint half way through it. The only time I ever felt truly frustrated is when there's unavoidable combat against multiple enemies. The game has frequent checkpoints, but they're never half-way through a complicated series of combat screens. If an enemy gets a lucky hit on you or you mis-time a jump across a hazard by a single frame, you have to repeat several long screens.
But when you don't have the gun, the game doesn't throw a lot of enemies at you. It gives you simple, understandable puzzles. Enemies you can avoid. You spend most of the game like this, getting things done, and it's fun, damn it.
I felt like a clumsy fool for never being able to get anywhere in Another World or Flashback, so being able to get somewhere in Heart of Darkness of all things made me smile. A lot.
One thing you might not know about Heart of Darkness was that Amazing Studio, the company that developed it, was founded by Eric Chahi. The game's development was a poorly scheduled, poorly budgeted hyper-snafu that ended with the company folding shortly after the release of the game, and everybody becoming inconsolably miserable. Oh well. At least the game turned out alright. Ish. Apart from the end.
If you've played Heart of Darkness and would like to share your fond memories of being torn apart, eaten whole, snapped in two, electrocuted, incinerated or crushed, leave a comment below!