90s gaming would never have been the golden age it was, without Doom. It defined the first-person shooter genre, carved the way for every doppelganger that succeeded it, laid the seeds of online gaming culture with its deathmatches, and made the ‘moral’ voice of every British tabloid shriek with horror at its unapologetic levels of bloodshed. It left a legacy that had PC game developers scrambling in its infernal wake, and I’m sure a number of readers will also remember the many that tried to imitate it with their own variants. 3D Realms produced both Rise of the Triad and the equally enjoyable Duke Nukem 3D in 1994 and 1996 respectively, and even LucasArts got in on the act with Dark Forces, a classic shooter using the Star Wars universe as its inspiration. Despite their efforts to further the ideas of id’s classic, critics and gamers alike still ultimately saw these earnest offerings as examples of emulation over innovation. There’s a reason why the term ‘Doom clone’ was used to describe such titles, before ‘first-person shooter’ came into vogue.
But where some tried - and failed - to build new monuments on old foundations, others were happy to just stick an extension on what already stood. 1994 was also the year that Raven Software, a development house known at the time for its moderate success in the RPG genre, reaped the ultimate of rewards for developing good relations with id Software - they were given a license to use the original Doom engine for their games. One of their initial products from this partnership was Heretic, a game that on the surface looked every bit like a dark fantasy version of id’s own masterpiece.
With crossbows for shotguns and Ice Grottos for Phobos Anomalies, critics could be mistaken for thinking that this was merely the same game with a medieval pallette switch - levels were even broken up into sets of ‘episodes’, much like Doom itself. Fortunately for Raven, it was considered at the time to provide as quality an FPS experience as its blueprint too, leading it to achieve considerable shareware success.
Heretic eventually found its place in retail stores in an enhanced edition that came with an additional (and considerably tougher) two episodes, and a more foreboding subtitle: Shadow of the Serpent Riders. Those who were unable to purchase the game in its shareware format were thus able to partake in its hatchet-burying fun by buying a copy from a store. And many did - it was just as much a shop-floor success as it was shareware. Time however, can be a bitch on the ol’ gameplay quality. And for Shadow, almost 20 years have passed now since its initial release. Being a mere Doom clone (and a genuine clone, if that even makes sense), Shadow could be forgiven for allowing the dusts of temporal advancement to take space among the dark corridors and armouries that make up much of its world.
Instead, though it is a bit worn and rusty, Shadow remains a decent romp for any retro FPS fan, even if it mostly bases that enjoyment from the heritage of the game engine it’s derived from.
The flow of Shadow's gameplay is very much the same as Doom: in a nutshell, your goal is to explore each maze-like level to find the keys to open the doors that will hopefully lead you towards the exit. Of course, you’ll need to use whatever weapons you can find to blast away at the hordes of enemies you encounter, and a few of these beats will feel subtly familiar to the Doom addict. Iron Liches float around like Cacodemons, Golems will charge you much like Demons did, and even the winged Gargoyles move about in a similar fashion to those irritating Lost Souls. Even the plot has some familiar devices - you play an Elven warrior named Corvus whose goal is to free his lands from the despotic clutches of D’Sparil, an omnipotent mage and one of the three dimension-conquering Serpent Riders mentioned in the game’s title. Getting to D’Sparil’s own fortress to defeat him requires you to battle through each episode of levels, with the goal of each episode to reach a dimensional gateway (hmm, uncanny valley), defeat the hard-as-nails boss that guards it (yep, it’s deja vu alright), and then traverse through the gateway into whatever the next plane of existence may hold - which could or could not be Hell itself (okay who are we kidding, creative license is dead).
So far then, so derivative. Fortunately, the various tweaks Raven have made to try and distance its own title from id’s are significant. Surprisingly, this starts with the graphics and ambience of the world itself. Shadow’s world of a brooding, ‘Dark Age’ fantasy world is well realised by the modifications made to the 3D engine. This isn’t just a Doom WAD with Olde World textures; its gothic churches and mystic fortresses often feel like another place entirely. Murky lighting flickers with intent, the morose MIDI soundtrack foreshadows a grisly end, and the sound FX particularly excel - the ominous dripping of water in dark, dank dungeons and the thunderous crackling of magic as you clear a room of nasties with your Ethereal Crossbow compliment the gloomy atmosphere superbly.
Level design throughout the game is also of worthy note. Granted, some levels do have that Doom feel to them, laid out merely in monotonous, labyrinthine ‘find the key’ manner. Others however, really do stand out. The Cathedral in the first episode with its moody clanging bells, stained-glass windows and murals of D'Sparil is a great tone-setter for the rest of the game. The River of Fire in the second episode meanwhile is based entirely around a lava flow with narrow ledges for you to sidle along, showing great creativity for the time and exemplifies just what could be done with id's engine given a few enhancements. Certain levels will even pit the natural environment itself against you, with flowing water and high winds becoming every bit as much of a hindrance as the enemies around you. There is no doubt that Shadow does try to exceed its limitations of its engine, and when it is able to do this, it actually succeeds quite admirably.
But where Shadow of the Serpent Riders really comes into its own is in its power-up system. Each level is scattered with various items that can enhance your abilities, and Shadow allows you to store them in an inventory so that you can use them any time you like, meaning you can handle your journey through each level in a slightly more strategic manner. There are the standard fare of enchantments. Rings of Invincibility make you impervious to damage for a while, Potions will replenish much-needed health - repeat ad RPGium. But then there are the more badass ones, such as the Tomes of Power and the Morph Ovum. Tomes of Power give your weapons a considerable damage boost for a short period of time, while Morph Ovums - curious, egg-shaped artefacts - give you the ability to turn your assailants into dismayed, clucking chickens. Because really, what’s a quality FPS without a quality sense of humour?
The inventory system is certainly novel and welcome, but it does provide a weakness; Shadow is all the easier for it. The game does feel balanced initially but once you begin to stock up on power ups (particularly on the regular difficulty setting or below) it is possible to breeze through certain levels. Save for perhaps the boss fights and particular monster waves, the three episodes of the original Heretic don’t feel all that challenging compared to anything encountered in Doom. This is compensated in part however by the couple of additional episodes to the original three that the enhanced Shadow provides - there is definitely difficulty in those extra two, for anyone looking for a bit of adversity outside of the game’s shareware level set.
All in all then, even though it doesn’t quite escape feeling like a Doom expansion, Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders is a good, and rare example of quality through derivation. Any game that plays and feels like id's legendary title still deserves a look, and Raven deserve credit for pushing the boundaries they were restricted by. For the discerning retro gamer, it's actually a simple decision - if Doom with a fantasy setting is your kind of thing, then by all means, track a copy down and give it a play.
Digital editions of Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders can be purchased from Steam. Physical copies are also still available from independent resellers on Amazon.
Media utilized in article is property of: id Software / Raven Software