Most game developers strive to pander to the presets of a particular genre. Rehashing the same tried and tested formulas to satisfy mass-market appeal with perhaps a few tweaks to make theirs stand out. There are others however which rather embody and define their categories, creating sub-genres as they do. Amazing Studios’ 1998 classic Heart of Darkness falls into this latter group.
Headed up by industry legend Eric Chahi, Heart of Darkness is a cinematic platformer, a niche sub-genre pioneered by the likes of Prince of Persia and Chahi’s most famous title, Another World. The influences of Another World are clear to see, but Heart of Darkness is still very much its own game.
Heart of Darkness plays within the theme of childhood fears. Players are put in control of Andy, a young boy with a fear of the dark who must go in search of his missing dog Whisky after he is kidnapped to a world of darkness known as the Darkland. The story is by-and-large pretty dull, and the FMV sequences are arguably pretty gross, but where Heart of Darkness shines is in how the gameplay mechanics develop throughout.
After crash landing his spaceship (don’t ask just roll with it) in the Darkland, players are given control of Andy who is armed with a powerful beam gun. By easily dispatches the hordes of encroaching shadow creatures with Andy’s homemade gun, players are given the short-lived experience of being all-powerful. However, in a masterstroke of storytelling game design, Andy soon loses his weapon, exposing him for the vulnerable child he is. From then on the game becomes far more tense as Andy must resort to outrunning and outsmarting his enemies to survive. In doing this Heart of Darkness reveals the power of cinematic platformers as a gaming genre.
Cinematic platformers are an interesting sort, usually making use of carefully linked animations and game mechanics which evolve and adapt with the narrative situation. These evolving mechanics must be combined to overcome puzzles, weaving together outside-the-box thinking, precise platforming and fighting all into one.
Death is linked to a single-shot kill and game sections make use of repeated trial and error to progress. Crushed, drowned, ripped apart, burnt to death, eaten, and plummeting to your doom are just some of the ways the game likes to kill you. Multiple deaths are pretty common and mastery of the strict movement controls are required to avoid the multitude of ways to kick the bucket. In spite of the mild age rating and the obvious childlike slant of the main character and narrative, the game can still be shockingly violent in some of the death animations and will sometimes surprise you in its violent creativity.
Just as with Abe’s Oddysey, figuring out how not to die in a given section becomes a puzzle in itself, and you will likely die many many times before getting any further. If you do manage to progress without sticking your fist through your screen or smashing your controller against the wall, the feeling of self-satisfaction at how smart you are is well worth the mental strain. This is especially true of the final battle sequence of the game which borders on impossible, but feels unbelievably rewarding to complete.
All gameplay takes place on static 2D backgrounds which shift only when a player reaches the edge of the screen, giving each new screen an independent hand-crafted feel. Along with intricate animations, the game has a deeply considered aesthetic in which the environment can become a weapon, or even a trap. A beam of light becomes a weapon against the darkness, or a seemingly inconsequential shadow bursts to life and rips the player to pieces.
With so many cinematic games like Call of Duty so often wrenching control from the player to play out narrative sections which don’t quite fit the gameplay structure, it’s interesting to see that there are ways in which a game can weave together cinematics and gameplay into one. Sometimes enemies must be faced head-on, and other times escaped. Sometimes a tool that worked before is taken away from you and you must figure out another way of achieving your goal. Heart of Darkness doesn’t stay the same for too long and always mixes it up with each new section or screen change.
Heart of Darkness is a risky title for a developer to undertake. Intricately crafted, punishingly difficult in sections, but so rewarding to overcome. A classic, and epitome of a genre targeted at a serious gaming audience who aren’t afraid of a challenge.