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Hexen: Beyond Heretic (PC) artwork

Hexen: Beyond Heretic (PC) review


Hexen (PC) image

Hexen: Beyond Heretic is a first person shooter set in a dark fantasy world. It is the sequel to Heretic, and uses a modified version of the Doom engine. It is the second act in the battle against the evil Serpent Riders, dimension-shifting creatures who are hell bent on conquering and enslaving everything in their path. In this chapter, the second Serpent Rider, Korax, has invaded the human realm of Cronos and cast a powerful spell to transform its human inhabitants into monsters that are loyal only to him. Three fortunate humans have escaped the influence of this spell, and it’s up to them to find a way to put an end to his tyranny.

Honestly, the story is not very deep. You’re not going to get much in the way of exposition here, as Hexen is strictly an action game. It is certainly not an RPG, despite the fact that there are three classes to choose from – warrior, mage or cleric. In fact, the stats listed on the class selection screen, such as “Strength” and “Magic” don’t actually mean much – all three classes basically perform the same, except for slight variations in their movement speed and certain differences in how they use armor and artifacts. The primary difference between them is their selection of weapons, which are completely unique to each class. If you decide to play co-op you will tackle the game together; if not, you’re going in solo. You’re like the “Doom guy,” except with magical artifacts instead of guns. You’re going to kill a lot of monsters and solve some puzzles – That’s it.

Such a simplistic formula can be successful – It worked for Doom, after all – But the problems with Hexen become quickly apparent after you’ve played the first few levels or so. You will notice that the combat, while serviceable, is extremely repetitive. You will fight the same limited selection of enemies, most of which are hit point dumps that take a lot of time and ammo to kill. The best example of this is the ettin, which is the mainstay of Hexen. It is a slow, lumbering creature that wields a spiked mace. It is not very dangerous on its own, but can be trouble when encountered in groups. For the first few levels you will be stuck using your first weapon against swarms of these guys. This weapon does not consume mana regardless of class, but it is about equivalent of the Doom guy’s punch in terms of power. If you choose cleric as your class, you will have a wimpy spiked club that takes six swings to kill a single ettin, and you will need to kill hundreds of these things before you find something more powerful. When you do, you will realize that mana can be rather scarce at times, and you’ll need to fall back to your crappy club to conserve ammo anyway. It’s smart to do this, too, as the ettins can’t really hurt you. They’re too slow, and they can only inflict real damage at point blank range. All you have to do is inch backward as you club them in the face over and over again. This is simple enough, but it is incredibly boring.

Hexen (PC) image

Be prepared to kill hundreds – or perhaps even thousands – of these things before the game is done.

Another example is the “centaur,” a menacing sword-wielding creature that carries a dinky shield. This shield, when raised, makes the centaur completely invulnerable for two seconds, and it does this every time it takes damage. Thus, you will have to hit it once, wait two long seconds, then hit it again. You will have to do this five or so times until it’s dead. Now imagine facing a group of ten of these things at a time. Then, imagine facing a group of ten of them – five times per level. You get the drift.

Despite the monotony of Hexen’s combat, it still has some things going for it. It has a rich and inspiring fantasy atmosphere brought to life by quality sprites and excellent texture work. It also features well-composed midi music (or CD music, if you own the original disc). Some of the levels are also exceptionally well designed. The Guardian of Steel level places you inside an ancient machine of inscrutable purposes. The Castle of Grief is a massive, imposing fortress with countless snipers hiding in its parapets. The Necropolis level is a treacherous graveyard infested with evil spirits who rise from their graves. Hexen is certainly not lacking in style, and its varied level designs help to keep things interesting as you go along.

Hexen was also a step forward in terms of technology. The Doom engine was modified and expanded to good effect here. Your character is able to look up and down, jump, and fly if you have the Wings of Wrath artifact. Some levels feature sliding doors, moving walls, water currents and breakable windows. There are also nice visual touches like fog, lightning flashes and leaves that blow in the wind. Ambient sound effects provide greater immersion. Doom had none of this.

Hexen also featured complex sequenced events. A good example of this is in the Guardian of Ice level, where a key is out of reach on top of an ice pillar. When you place a certain puzzle item into a receptacle, the walls on either side of the room open, revealing lava fonts and two groups of fire imps. Once you’ve killed the imps, you will realize that the heat from the lava is slowly melting the ice, turning it into a pool of water. You grab the key from the pool, then the walls close up again. The water eventually reverts back to ice. These sorts of events were simply not possible with the original Doom engine, and they are pretty cool to see when they happen.

Hexen (PC) image

However, the expanded functionality also went overboard at times. Instead of a linear sequence of levels, Hexen has a hub world structure, wherein each chapter is a set of levels connected by portals. This may sound fine on paper, but the developers were really determined to make full use of this. You will have to backtrack in and out of these levels many times, and when you get stuck, you will have to hunt for tiny switches that are hidden in obscure corners of each level. Activating these switches will usually open a door or raise a staircase on another level, but you may not know where. After a lengthy search, you will eventually pass through that newly opened door or climb that newly raised staircase only to find another switch that opens another door or raises another staircase somewhere else. Then you will eventually find that door or staircase only to find another switch, and on and on it goes (cue Benny Hill’s “Yackety Sax”). This is sometimes fine – Doom’s puzzles were similar to this – but the problem is that when you get stuck in Hexen, you will have to scour every nook and cranny of four or five levels instead of just one. While you’re doing this, you will find that some of the ettins have respawned to give you something to do. Killing them the second time is not fun either.

The addition of a jump feature is also a welcome addition, as neither Doom nor Heretic had this, but the developers felt compelled to add platforming sequences, complete with bottomless pits and instant death if you fail. Again, this is fine in most cases, as the platforming sections are generally not that difficult, but they also decided to add randomly placed bottomless pits elsewhere in the levels – sometimes in pitch darkness – for no reason other than to force you to load your last save. Guess you should’ve used that torch you picked up two levels ago, huh? Oh, wait, you used it already? Too bad.

The class system also leaves something to be desired. Each class can only get four weapons, and they are acquired very slowly through Hexen’s 30-level campaign. There are also only two ammo types, which further limits variety. An inventory full of trinkets, such as poison flasks and “discs of repulsion,” provides slightly more options when dealing with foes, but the clunky inventory system can be a pain to navigate while in the midst of battle. There is no way to assign hotkeys to items, so you have to scroll through your list of items manually every time you want to equip a new one. Certain artifacts work differently for each class, but not enough to make the classes feel unique. Having a single class with 12 weapons might have been a better way to design the game, and reducing the amount of useless items would have done a lot to improve the bloated inventory system.

Hexen (PC) image

Hexen still has some pretty awesome moments though, particularly with its boss encounters. The battle against the Death Wyvern is one of my favourites. You encounter this huge, winged creature within a lava-filled chasm, and it screeches ominously while raining deadly fireballs on you. You begin the battle at a disadvantage, shimmying around the edge of the chasm until you find the Wings of Wrath artifact hidden at the far end, and then you can finally take to the air and face the Wyvern on its own terms. The battle with the demonic Heresiarch is also a highlight; he is a spellcaster who can reflect attacks, summon creatures to his aid, and cast several types of offensive spells. The battle with him is long, intense and satisfying when you finally reduce him to a pile of bones and purple goo.

Certain enemies are interesting and fun to fight, too. The Dark Bishops are spellcasters who launch spiraling projectiles at you, and they dodge your attacks with short-range teleports. They have a reasonable amount of hit points and take finesse, rather than repetition, to kill. Similarly, the “Reivers” are the aforementioned evil spirits who rise from their graves. They throw powerful projectiles at you and steal your health if you get too close. They also have a reasonable amount of health, and must be dispatched with prowess rather than monotonous beatings. However, these enemies aren’t encountered until late in the game, and less dedicated players might tap out from boredom before they ever reach them.

Thus, Hexen is a bit of a mixed bag. It is often a slog, punctated by occasional moments of brilliance. It is sometimes referred to as a “classic,” though I suspect that has a lot to do with the fact that there were far fewer FPS games to choose from in 1995 than there are now. The enhancements to the Doom engine were impressive for their time, but they were quickly overshadowed by titles like Duke Nukem 3D and Quake the following year. It is enjoyable enough if you can stand its repetitiveness, and either way, it is an interesting piece of FPS history.

Nightfire's avatar
Community review by Nightfire (December 16, 2019)

Nightfire is a reclusive dragon who lives in a cave with internet access.

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