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Akuji the Heartless (PlayStation) artwork

Akuji the Heartless (PlayStation) review

"If you were about to be married but suddenly had your heart ripped out in a voodoo ambush by your treacherous brother, who then proceeded to toss your soul into Hades, you'd be more than a little pissed off too. This happened to Akuji the Heartless, and provides the background story for the game. As Akuji, it's your goal to hack your way out of hell, achieving some weird kind of redemption en route, and to take revenge upon the people who cast you down. (See, they don't just call him 'the heartl..."

If you were about to be married but suddenly had your heart ripped out in a voodoo ambush by your treacherous brother, who then proceeded to toss your soul into Hades, you'd be more than a little pissed off too. This happened to Akuji the Heartless, and provides the background story for the game. As Akuji, it's your goal to hack your way out of hell, achieving some weird kind of redemption en route, and to take revenge upon the people who cast you down. (See, they don't just call him 'the heartless' because he's evil!)

Akuji the Heartless is a supremely enjoyable and bloodsoaked 3D platform adventure from EIDOS. It's set in a gothic African-voodoo underworld, and it's ultra-rich in atmosphere and ghoulishness. The focus of gameplay as you explore its levels is the collection of the souls of your ancestors. There are 4 of these hidden in each world - and you need a certain number of these to progress between each subset of levels, known as a vestibule. A skeletal/voodoo priest figure named Baron Samedi tells you what you need to do.

Often the stories and cut-scenes in these games can be elaborate but... you just don't care. The dialogue might be forgettable, cliched, or the good versus evil story just another in a long line. Fortunately this is not the case in Akuji. The man himself is voiced by Richard Roundtree, who played Shaft back in the 1970s films! His voice has tremendous presence, and his mantra-like monologues about retribution, the nature of evil and finding his beloved start to ring increasingly true as you get into the game. Okay, the same could not be said about whoever plays his bride Keisho, whose acting is pretty monotonous. But basically the character of Akuji is very solidly developed. You can see it in his movements, hear it in his voice, follow it in the story.

The worlds are truly striking in their content and variety. Definitely the strongest element of the game is the overall atmosphere, which is what lifts Akuji above the vast number of 3D platform games with similar gameplay elements. Collecting 100 tokens to gain an extra life, timing and judging jumps, climbing, throwing switches to open doors, all of these things have been done before. But not with the trappings of voodoo, the voodoo dolls and sacrifices, altars and components of rituals, and rivers flowing with blood. Your enemies are as disturbing as the environments. There are weird voodoo clowns who spew fireballs and cry 'Oops' whether you're cutting them up or they're cutting you up. Boney oversized scuttling insects. Bleeding masses of venomous plants. Dismembered torsos that crawl about.

The graphics for all of these things are excellent. Akuji's controls and animation are very tight and exude real athleticism. The enemies move in suitably creepy ways. There are many striking environmental effects too, such as the rain at the start of level 2. All the other visual details, from the gory FMVs of sacrifices down to the fonts used, are totally cohesive to the voodoo atmosphere. You don't have to worry about any of that pop-up or fog stuff either.

Akuji is armed with sacrificial blades (as in, they're on his arms) with which he can dice the bad guys. It takes a satisfying collection of different strategies to deal with the many foes. Grim reapers are the basic enemy and only pose a real threat in numbers. To deal with the insects you need to concentrate on offensive barraging attacks. Airborne foes are the real danger, fading out of existence rapidly when you close in, only to sneak up behind you and perhaps blast you off a hundred foot dropoff with a fireball. 1st-person mode is worked well into the combat as well, allowing you to precisely aim machine-gun like bursts of magic at faraway creatures. My favourite spell is the shield of blood, which allows you to absorb the blood spurting out of the monsters you attack as health!

The boss battles are well judged. I have to say that I hate games where, when you reach a boss, it might take you ages to even find any way to damage the boss at all, as the game waits for you to hit upon the single strategy that the creators have decided will work. In Akuji, yes there might be a strategy that will work best, but all of your offensive spells will always work, and there is no enemy invulnerable to your blades. You can try whatever method you like and, if you are skilful with it and persevere, you'll be rewarded with victory.

The environments become very severe to negotiate later in the game and play intensely upon the fear of heights. I genuinely felt like I was thousands of feet up in the air, clinging to the face of a cliff or tower for dear life, experiencing the fear and apprehension probably more so than in any other game I can remember. You will experience the dismal plummet to death many many times, too, before you make it to the end of Akuji. Arguably this is also a sore point in this game, but no more so than in any other 3D platformer. That is to say that sometimes representations of a 3D world on a 2D screen will leave you squinting and trying to work out the distance to jump to the next piece of terrain. When you misjudge one jump many many times over, you'll start getting frustrated. But that's a criticism of this whole genre in general.

Overall, the level designs are excellent, introducing different elements of the game - terrain features, the different enemies and fighting tactics, the different spells - in a well graded manner. There are also hint tablets marked with a question mark that you can attack for the occasional tip. As you cannot keep spells from one level to the next, you don't experience that anxiety that can strike in some adventure games, where you are left wondering if you should save up that big badass spell you found for a harder enemy - you know that you can and should use it now, and have fun.

The soundtrack, too, is nothing short of incredible. I'm not just talking about the sound effects. The strange whoops and cries of voodoo are alien enough, and all the hacking and slashing is very solid and satisfying. I'm talking about the bleak and hypnotic African rhythm-heavy musical themes. Like a good film score, they develop in line with the action in the game, and not just between levels but within them. The game will weave in extra distressing melodies as you fight for your life on the roof of some bloodspattered temple, then pull it right back down to just the percussion as you breathe a sigh of relief having escaped up a ladder. It's all very well done, and quite memorable even outside of the game.

At the core, Akuji has a lot of standard 3D platforming elements. But everything here is fantastically polished, woven round a solid story and overpowering atmosphere. The graphics are sparkling and the soundtrack is also great. Overall - it's exciting, creepy, and disturbing. I've read another review of the game which suggested it should have innovated a bit more in terms of gameplay, to match the more mature themes of the game. But I can't accuse Akuji for what it is not. I can praise it for what it is - a fantastically atmospheric adventure.

-- Akuji the Heartless -- 9/10 --

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (March 07, 2004)

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