In 1998 Raven Software released what would be a genre-defining, revolutionary title, one that virtually no one has heard of nowadays except hardcore fanatics and “classic” PC gamers. Heretic II was one of the first games to combine 3D with a third person viewpoint, allowing developers to explore radical new gameplay mechanics such as gymnastics, swimming and environment interaction. This made exploring the fantastical realm of Parthoris a rewarding and engrossing experience that would quickly be imitated by many other titles in the genre. When you add to that what, at the time, were mind-bendingly luscious graphics, including visceral gore and never-before-seen textures, Raven Software brought dark fantasy adventure to a new level. But why has Heretic II been forgotten? Why is it now a footnote about developer innovation and not a celebrated classic such as Final Fantasy VII or Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall?
I played Heretic II a few years after it first came out; I was only a kid. My mother and father are beautiful people who encouraged my creative side and indulged my love of computer games. I had already fallen in love with the world of Tolkien, and so a game like Heretic II, which oozed with influence from epic fantasy literature as well as the choose-your-own-adventure books of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, was right up my street. We had an old Compaq ’93, which we shared. It just scraped the requirements to run Heretic II.
“I had already fallen in love with the world of Tolkien, and so a game like Heretic II, which oozed with influence from epic fantasy literature as well as the choose-your-own-adventure books of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, was right up my street”
Heretic II’s story continues from where the first Heretic game left off but also works as a standalone title. What’s interesting about Heretic from a narrative point of view is our central protagonist is not actually human: Corvus bears distinctly elven features and descends from a high race that lives in the town of Silverspring. He is an outsider, which is a common trope of fantasy (and gives the game its title), exiled from his people for an unspecified crime. Heretic II starts when Corvus returns from his exile to find the town of Silverspring ravaged by a plague that drives those it doesn’t kill insane.
Fighting these plague-infected townspeople (along with scores of other enemy types) was a unique experience, combining melee and magic. The interplay between ranged combat, defensive spells and melee attacks in Heretic II is still one of the most unusual combat systems I have ever played, but also one of the most innovative and fun. Imagine Quake meets Elder Scrolls and you might be starting to get an idea. More powerful weapons such as the Hellstaff have limited charge. You also have a mana pool for defensive spells and potions. Bizarrely, it was one of the first games that really hammered home ammo conservation to me – perhaps because its Doom and Quake roots (it uses the Quake II engine) are very much in evidence despite the wondrous fantasy aesthetic. As you progress through the game you escape from the town of Silverspring and start a journey across a diverse landscape including temples, sewers and jungles.
I’ll be honest with you now: I never quite completed it. I was very young and incompetent at video games. Also, due to the age of our computer, the save function didn’t always work, so I lost huge amounts of progress. What I remember though, from the hours spent playing the opening levels over and over, was the sheer thrill of the combat (enemies jumping at you from every doorway), the atmosphere (governed by a stellar soundtrack and what we might now call Dark Souls-esque level design), and the sense of artistry seeping from every pixel. Heretic II had a lot of influences, but it felt like someone’s creative vision too, a labour of love to make a dream real.
And in this way, Heretic II was “epic”. Not just because it had a huge map and sprawling, complex levels. Not epic just in size. But in intention. It wanted to tell a legendary tale about someone who’s life and home was ripped apart. It wanted to dazzle you with vivid colour, gawp-inducing landscapes, frenetic combat just as the poets of old dazzled you with language, imagery and style. It wanted to throw big creatures at you that looked like they’d ripped out from some immaterial realm where subconscious nightmares and real animals blended. I like fantasy, but I love dark fantasy, and Heretic II hit the nail on the head when it came to the more twisted possibilities of a universe in which magic exists.
“Heretic II was ‘epic’… It wanted to dazzle you with vivid colour, gawp-inducing landscapes, frenetic combat just as the poets of old dazzled you with language, imagery and style”
There are many reasons that this epic got lost. One is that it never got a console release, which limited its audience, especially in the days prior to when even an average laptop could cope with the majority of released games. It might also be to do with the fact Heretic II was not quite old enough to retain the nostalgia of its predecessors such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time but not modern enough to compete with the Xbox/PS2 golden era of offerings, such as Shadow of the Colossus.
There has been an undoubted resurgence of interest in retro gaming, even to the extent we are soon to be able to acquire re-releases of the NES and the Commodore 64, but Heretic II came along after that era and so is missed off. There is a comparable loss in the world of literature: Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, is a masterful poetical epic, but sadly, nowhere near as well known as its predecessors, the Greek and Italian epics such as The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, or the epics which came a few hundred years later, like Paradise Lost. There is a sense that falling in the middle ground is fatal for longevity. We remember Beethoven because he was perhaps the first romantic composer; we remember Tchaikovsky because he came at the end of the romantic composition era. Who were those dudes and dudettes in the middle? There were a few we recall and value, but there is a sense many more get lost between the book-ends of history.
Speaking of which, history often decides what is worthy and what isn’t. The forgettable vanishes, and sometimes, even the commercially successful works disappear after a short time. The real tragedy, however, is when something truly brilliant gets lost in the malaise and haste of progression. Even I lost Heretic II, in a way, despite playing it all those years ago. I moved on to new games, and though I did look back once in a while, I never had the heart to pick it up again and finish it.
There are thousands of games to play right now: next gen, shiny and new. Who has the time to think about Heretic II, a lost epic from 1998? Well, I do. And “I’m not the only one” to quote John Lennon. Type in Heretic II to Google and you’ll see a smattering of glowing reviews and YouTube playthroughs. Finding a copy of Heretic II will prove much trickier than finding reviews, however. The discs are rare and expensive and it has no presence on Steam even though the original (and much inferior) Heretic is in the Steam library, along with the Hexen titles, which were part of a spin-off series. The problem with this is that without an easy way to play the game Heretic II will well and truly fade to become history, a mere footnote. Part of the reason other more popular titles have endured is through re-releases and trustworthy emulator downloads (which is legal for games older than 25 years whose copyright has not been renewed). So, here’s to hoping a bold gaming company (Raven Software are alas no more) hear my cry and re-release Heretic II, because it deserves to live on, not just because of a nostalgic childhood connection or even because of what it did for gaming, but because it’s a lost epic, and sometimes, we have to fight to stop them being forgotten.