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Blackthorne (Sega 32X) artwork

Blackthorne (Sega 32X) review

"Kolibriís only real contender to the ďBest 32X GameĒ crown."

Weirdly, before talking about Blackthorne, it seems Iím going to have to talk about Another World.

Iím okay with that, because I love Another World, even if it was one of the early influences for that ostentatious ďgames = artĒ argument that sometimes crops up. Designed by Delphine Software for the Amiga and Atari ST, it was a very cinematic affair, ensnaring its protagonist on an alien world, and then compelling you to suffer the same fate. It was a computer game that didnít really want to be a computer game, forcing you to learn about the four million ways its alien planet could murder you, then putting the onus on figuring out how to survive solely on you. No button prompts, no heads-up display, not even any way to communicate with the very hostile alien forces that routinely zapped you into a crumbling skeleton. The player was required to share the same plight as his digital counterpart in whatís gone down as a landmark entry in virtual storytelling.

You might want to believe that Delphine Softwareís next game, Flashback serves as its sequel, but youíd be wrong! It was actually a little known game called Heart of the Alien released exclusively in North America for the SEGA CD, and developed by Interplay, who had been responsible for the obligatory home console ports of Another World. Heart was (and still is!) probably one of the best games youíll never get around to playing, and it infected Interplay with the thoughtful cinematic platformer bug. They teamed up with Blizzard and Paradox, and thus came Blackthorne.

Released initially on the Super Nintendo, Blackthorneís later 32X port threatens to be the best entry within the systemís cruelly circumcised library of games. Itís a plodding, pondering action platformer, not so much concerned with twitch-based battles and pixel perfect leaps (though certainly not above employing them) and more about the slow exploration and taming of an alien planet.

So, the planet Tuul has been overrun by the pesky kaídra, who are wholesale slaughtering and enslaving the andorthi. A hero is needed, and one is found in the unlikely human mercenary, Kyle. Armed with a shotgun, he sets out on a surprisingly cerebral path of liberation. In keeping with its inspirations, Blackthorneís not a run and gunner, nor a frantic platformer; itís strategic and measured, trying to give meaning to every decision you make.

Even some of your most simplistic actions take more time than you would initially expect. For example, in his murder quest across an alien planet, Kyle has to make use of his robust platforming skills. But in order to undertake such tasks as running jumps, or pulling yourself up ledges, you need to make sure your trademark shotgun is suitable sheathed. Essentially, this means Kyle has two modes; unarmed he can traverse the landscape with a lot more freedom while, armed, he can shoot things in the face.

Firefights are so much more than press B to win; mindless blasting will lead to nothing but a lot of clumsy deaths. Instead, you need to use your surroundings to your advantage; by pressing up, Kyle can take cover in the background, rendering him untargetable from enemy gunfire. But the same option is open to all, meaning that a lot of gunfights mean peeking out of cover long enough to pump a few pellets into the exposed flesh of your foes, and disappearing back to avoid a counterattack. It doesnít make you invincible, though; sturdier adversaries might risk a belly full of buckshot to advance on your position. If someone catches you cowering in cover, youíre just a broken neck animation away from the game over screen.

Itís a complex game; sometimes, overly so, and the sheer weight of commands taxes your humble Mega Drive pad at times, throwing out unnatural button combinations to do seemingly simple tasks such as scrolling through your inventory. But I donít begrudge it a sense of ambition. Blackthorne wants to be more than just bouncing around hoarding collectables, offering setbacks such as friendly fire if you decide to have a shootout over a gathering of bound slaves. Because mowing down the NPCs youíve been specifically sent to save should be considered a bad thing. Especially since theyíre not overly keen to just stand by and get slaughtered; some of the sturdier slaves will help you in your running battles. Other survivors will provide you hints on how to progress or give you gifts like healing potions or key cards. Or weird sentient grenades that roll up walls in order to blow up those really tricky-to-reach enemies.

Itís not a seat-of-your-pants ride; itís methodical and deliberate and not content to be any one single thing. It introduces 2Dís take on cover-based combat decades before it became the shiny new standard. It offers a Metroid-lite amount of exploration and backtracking once you obtain the means to revisit previously sealed away areas. You need to find bombs to destroy doors; you need to track down keys to activate glowing energy bridges; you need to track down a remote control wasp so you can destroy a generator that powers a force field keeping you out of a heavily guarded room that can power dormant anti-gravity platforms which allow you to finally access an area right at the start of your crawl previously and mockingly out of reach.

Someone somewhere had some love for Blackthrone which received a number of puzzling ports. A Game Boy Advance version build from the SNES strain snuck its way onto the market several years later, while the DOS/Mac strain is kept alive by Blizzard, who now offer it as a free download through their portal, But none of these versions stack up to the 32X strain, which boasts moodier, darker graphics as well as a completely exclusive icy tundra stage. Itís a shame that the best version of a criminally overlooked game was on a console few people had heard about and even less had bought, and all of the companies involved failed to build on the strength of their sleeper triumph. Interplay soon lost the thoughtful platformer bug as their efforts were instead directed towards being really angry about losing the Fallout IP. Paradox, who did an amazing job with the 32X port, were gobbled up by Midway and given just enough time to make a poor wrestling game (TNA iMPACT!) before being prematurely closed. Blizzard just got on with popularising MMOs, those bastards.

So sits Blackthorne, a game that probably deserved better, sporadically rediscovered by people trawling for new World of Warcraft updates. It remains a robust and genuine example of what the 32X could do when compared to the 16bit platforms of the day. A remarkable port, produced with genuine love and developed with talent and graft. Itís a shame barely anyone played it.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (August 06, 2018)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Masters posted August 06, 2018:

Nice review. I might especially appreciate it, since I was a huge fan of Another World and Flashback both. I was always interested in Blackthorne but never gave it a shot. The opening was just about to be too much ado about games that are not Blackthorne and then you got on with it, so the preamble is useful and escapes being too long by a narrow margin. The final two paragraphs are great. And also, "graft." I learned a British word! I suppose that makes me "chuffed."
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EmP posted August 09, 2018:

You already put an extra 'u' in the right words, so it's only fair and right I start teaching you the slang.

Thanks for the comments and sorry it took me so long to reply. bee bouncing a lot of little things around on my end and a bunch of stuff I could have sworn I've done remains undone. You could do yourself a favour and give both Heart of the Alien and Blackthorne a go and I doubt you'd be disappointed. Though you should also totally review the Flashback remake. It would amuse me.

Thanks for reading. Appreciate it.

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