Have You Played… Heart Of Darkness?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

All the way through? I don’t believe you for one moment.

Heart of Darkness was one of those games that I was convinced, over the months and years, that I had to like, had to buy. It would have been the first time that I was truly a victim of videogame press/marketing hype, had it not been for Rise of the Robots a few years previous.

Heart of Darkness was going to be games-as-cinema. The moment games grew up. It was always a little hard to square this with the fact that it was a 2D platformer in a time when 3D shooters were considered the bleeding edge of game technology and artistry. Perhaps it was a little before its time, in its way – there wasn’t yet a thirst for any kind of retro comeback.

In any case, it was the cinematic and animation qualities of Heart of Darkness that caused the hype. Half an hour of CGI cutscenes, seamless switching between game sections and movie sections, character animations supposedly on a par with a Disney film… With Another World’s Eric Chahi at the helm, it also had heritage, in terms of visual storytelling.

But it took years to arrive, and anticipation turned to suspicion. When it did finally arrive, it was nothing more, really, than a platformer. A very familiar platformer, of a kind whose time, one felt, had past. And an exasperatingly hard platformer, to boot. I did not make it far, before The Rage at yet another repeated jump and fail caused me to bounce off it hard.

Looking back at videos now, the animation quality of the in-game sequences shines perhaps more than it did at the time. We are in an age of renewed appreciation for 2D artistry, and there is a level of quality and subtlety to how its characters move and its world responds which is rare even with today’s advanced 2D development tools. It is easier to understand the delays. The pixels are big and some of the character design is questionable, but it still looks good. Almost better now than then, even.

The CGI 3D cutscenes are sadly deeply embarrassing however, both in terms of how outdated they look and their inept, clownishly-performed dialogue.

It’ll never see a remaster, which is for the best, really. But I wonder – a heavily edited and re-playtested version which ditched the cutscenes, streamlined the jump’n’fail and become more of an Inside/Limbo affair – that could work.

30 Comments

  1. Baltech says:

    I remember it fondly. Then again, I barely remember anything specific other than “Flashback with some stupid looking kid”

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    basilisk says:

    Yes, I did play it all the way through. If I remember correctly, it’s actually rather short.

    And yes, the 2D animation was excellent. That’s about it, though.

    • Nosebeggar says:

      Nah man, the game was actually kinda long. I think something around 8-10 hours. I played it all the way through and loved it to death, even though it was hard as fuck.

      The animations (not even talking about the CGI) were top notch and everything i remember about the ending was very cool.

      Also all those death animations shown on a minor made me crack up.
      I liked how shadows on walls were always enemies you had to get rid of by destroying the object emitting them.

      Does anyone remeber that one cutscene in which one of the skypeople fell down and touched the shadows? That shit was creepy as hell.
      link to youtu.be
      17:52, watch it and tell me that this is not nightmare fuel for a child of our generation.

  3. DudeshootMankill says:

    I was a kid and the day after i bought this game i got so sick with the… Mumps? I spend 5 days or so in agony and got like 1/3 through this insanely hard effing game. When i got well again i couldn’t go back to it. For about half a year after that just the thought made me uncomfortable.

    EDIT:
    (it was parotitis epidemica apparently.)

  4. SMGreer says:

    I’ve played it all the way through if you can believe it and it’s really a favourite of mine. For all its flaws, there’s something quite special about it. The ending’s pretty cool too.

  5. Veav says:

    I beat the hell out of this game. And the cutscenes are great for being so clownish. I mean this is as cartoonish as it gets, it’s an interdimensional Commander Keen.

  6. Kamestos says:

    Yes I have. I remember the violent death animations on a little kid.
    I don’t think there is a way to buy it digitally now, I haven’t found it anywhere. It’s a shame.

    • durrbluh says:

      That’s the primary recollection I have of this game: the bizarre disconnect between the goofy “saturday morning special” art and storytelling of the cutscenes, and the graphic death sequences.

      Most involved him yelping as he was incinerated, squashed, eaten, or plummeting to his death. But then there were those that involved some last, desperate struggle before the crackle of his neck being snapped and then flopping limply to the ground, or having shirt-coloured chunks torn out of his torso and eaten while he was still thrashing. I’m guessing that last animation was a bit more graphic pre-release.

      That said, a friend and I rented and completed it during a sleepover, so I feel the difficulty curve is being somewhat exaggerated by this article.

  7. Pizzzahut says:

    Yes I beat it. It was easy. Good game but the ending absolutely sucks.

    • Bent Wooden Spoon says:

      You’ve got to love internet comments. No time at all between “It was hard as fuck, but the ending was great” and “It was easy as fuck, and the ending was shit”.

      • Pizzzahut says:

        Yeah, I just remember finding it a relatively easy romp through a very nicely animated 2D world. Maybe the game was just so engrossing that it kept me hooked until I beat it? Not sure. I did not like the ending though… No one likes that kind of ending.

  8. Baf says:

    I managed to miss the hype and only picked it up when it was remaindered. Thus, I didn’t have your expectations and managed to appreciate it for what it was at the time.

    The thing I remember the most about it is the way it handled player power. You start off with a huge laser gun, which makes enemy encounters easy, but this is taken away from you early on. You spend some time basically helpless, but then you get some alien magic that lets you throw throw little green fireballs around. It’s not as good a weapon as the laser gun, because it doesn’t fire continuously, but you get to upgrade it a few times, building up your power as a reward for progress in the game. Finally, in the last chapter, you quite unexpectedly get your laser gun back, just in time for an intense sequence that would be impossible without it.

    The essence of that — start off very powerful, lose that power, build your way back up to it — has become a pretty common pattern in games, but I think this was the first time I had seen it.

  9. int says:

    Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

  10. Grim Rainbow says:

    I remember after you died, the game reloaded you to the last checkpoint almost right away. That did help a lot.

  11. Shazbut says:

    Great game. Love the helicopter attack sequence

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    Dorga says:

    for me, at the time completely outside of the buzz, it sat confortably alongside Oddworld, as an incredible adventure, the protagonists of which I became very attached to. Almost ten years ago I signed up on GOG just to buy the other game from the Heart of Darkness guy: Another World.
    I see Rain World as their successor; they were drawing bits from an incredible world before your eyes, and your mind would connect the dots. In Rain World it’s all there. That is progress.

  13. terrytorres says:

    The most astounding part of the game is the very last playable screen, the Heart of Darkness itself. It’s not only the scariest moment of the game from an aesthetic perspective – pulsating shadows and ambient whispering – but it’s also terrifying mechanically. It’s this amorphous gauntlet of creeping dangers, and they’re telegraphed so subtly, you feel like a genius when you time your strikes correctly.

    The Game Grumps have the clip the best expresses my terror and exasperation.

    I imagine how a lot of people could be turned off by, well… the game’s entire goofy framing device, and the rubbery, exceedingly French CGI. All of the silent storytelling that occurs while playing the game, I mean, it’s just as good as Another World.

  14. Pfhor says:

    The death animations from that game haunted me for a good while.

  15. frag2k4 says:

    Believe me or not but yes I did finish it, I remember well rushing to grab my 3d (red and blue cardboard) glasses for the final cut scene.

    It was the most frustrating part when having spent hours going through the gauntlet of violent yet bloodless deaths (and the immortal shoe) firing Ki type energy balls to finally get back my plasma cannon then fight across a platform with hundreds of shadows while the boss tosses fireballs at me from the background.

    This game still haunts me even after all this time, the wall worm deaths are easily the worst way with Andy’s helpless flailing legs before the spasm and sucked into the hole.

    The cut scenes as I rememebr them were also good (and the very brief nudity that made me chuckle from the comment about the ‘wrong dream’).

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    I played this the whole way through and really enjoyed it. The cinematics were great (especially for the time) but I do remember the game itself being outdated technically when it came out because they took so long, though it was still gorgeous even with its giant pixels. And yeah the art direction and animation really holds up. It was definitely a difficult game to beat.

  17. Chewbacca says:

    Really enjoyed the game as a kid but never finished the last segment on the bridge because you had to do this sommersault several times with a weird button combination that only worked every third time for me. That was really frustrating. Especially because you never had to use that before.

  18. Marclev says:

    Wasn’t this a sequel to Flashback?

  19. Barchester says:

    I really wanted to buy this game, but my best mate convinced me to buy Final Fantasy VII instead. I’m eternally grateful he did.

  20. Bobtree says:

    Yes, and I completed it. I don’t rage.

    It did take ages to finally release. Lovely game, despite its low resolution.

  21. floogles says:

    No no no, not a standard platformer. This was kin to Another World and it’s sequel Heart Of The Alien, in style and mechanics.

    The CGI scenes were terrible, and there was a weird cutey-Disney vibe, and some super hard sequences.

    But, I did finish it, have very fond memories of playing, and if you enjoyed Another World go and play it now.

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    Phasma Felis says:

    Played it and beat it in one sitting. A fairly long sitting, admittedly.

    It was frustrating, but extremely more-ish if you like Prince of Persia-style platformers.

  23. ansionnach says:

    I played this on hard and found it satisfyingly challenging and compelling… until the last few screens, which I couldn’t get past. This was only a couple of years ago so I still have it installed and waiting for a long, rainy weekend.

    I’d recommend it, especially to those who liked Another World and Heart of the Alien. Another triumph for Chahi as far as I’m concerned. Even though Heart of the Alien isn’t a Chahi game and it’s the one that commonly gets derision from those supposedly in the know, I’d recommend it to all you Sega CD owners out there. I’d always wondered what had happened to it after all the previews as it never got a release on the Mega CD (I think).

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    sylmarien says:

    Actually one of the first games I ever really finished. I wasn’t even aware of the hype at the time as I was way too young for that. I remember it fondly and especially the end which I actually liked too at the time. I can’t remember if it was hard or not though, since I was around 8 or 9 when I played it.

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