HEART OF DARKNESS / Interplay / PlayStation

The rotoscoped platformer had a nice run in the early-mid '90s, but it didn't end up being a longevous genre. The biggest problem with it was that it was just too difficult to make the games fun and not overly frustrating given the need for sluggish character movement and extreme fragility to accommodate the elaborate animations. Even the genre's best examples, like Eric Chahi's Out of This World (aka Another World), were guilty of a little too much obtuse and maddening try-and-die gameplay.

Heart of Darkness was Chahi's second tilt at it, and it was meant to be a foundational breakthrough game for the genre. Instead it ended up being a warbling swan song. Part of that was due to being overly ambitious; they were aiming for the game to have the most cutting-edge animation possible and a fully orchestrated soundtrack, which ultimately caused the development cycle to take six years and to land the game right in the window in which anything resembling a 2D platformer was being shit on by a gaming media fawning over 3D polygonal worlds. But part of it is just plain due to stubbornness in level design and gameplay, an apparent refusal to learn lessons from what didn't work in OOTW and similar slow-paced rotoscoped platformers.

The setup, which comes in the form of an impressively long animated sequence, is that a boy genius inventor's dog is kidnapped during a solar eclipse. Grabbing his trusty laser rifle, the boy jumps into his mini-spacecraft and flies through a dimensional portal after him. He'll end up fighting a small army of shadow-beasts on an alien planet, eventually linking up with some sort of Jakovasaur resistance and unlocking the power of light so that they can fight back.

The level design is cheap and weird right from the very beginning. It's just a non-stop parade of near-unavoidable deaths, at least the first time you roll through a screen. Even when you know where the ambushes are, crummy sludgy gameplay often trips you up anyway. Shooting is flaky as hell, with the enemies just kinda taking random amounts of hits and sometimes just tanking through shots for extended periods without taking any sort of damage. You have a double-jump, but it's really slow and stiff and does not work while moving - so the only purpose of it is to stand still and jump over oncoming enemies / fire at certain points like Mario jumping barrels in the original Donkey Kong. The gun thing ends up being a moot point before long, as a giant monster eats it at the end of the opening area and you play about 45 minutes of the middle of the game with nothing but your stiff jumping at your disposal. Eventually you get a magic Hadoken power, but it has the same flakiness about registering hits as the initial gun did.

To be fair, the game has made some small concessions. If you die a few times on one particular scene, you might get a patronizing tip on what to do. More useful is the abundance of checkpoints. It's not enough to offset the increased frequency of bullshit, however. Even with shorter jaunts between respawn points, Heart of Darkness is harder than OOTW just because the gameplay is less responsive and you're constantly being pressured by respawning shadow demons.

The in-game artists and whoever the 3D cutscenes were farmed out to also did not appear to at all be on the same page. In-game you're in a bleak, dark alien world reminiscent of OOTW, with violent deaths at every turn. This is one of those rare games where the cartoony enemy forces are totally NOT screwing around; you get a small grace period of a couple of screens where they just kinda grab you when they get close, but after that they very quickly dispatch you in gory ways. The cutscenes, on the other hand, are cutesy and cartoony with "wacky" Saturday morning cartoon noises and voices. It's so weird.

There are some interesting things going on here, like the amount of effort poured into the aesthetic experience and the bizarre juxtaposition of a Spaceman Spiff-like child fantasy with incredibly brutal deaths (and this in a game they were expecting to be a mainstream success!) But none of it is really worth dealing with the awful gameplay and cheap level design.

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