Review by Hicks233

Reviewed: 03/14/16

Hexen II: A serendipitous soujourn with swords, sandals and sheep?

...Or a high stakes gauntlet of time hopping conundrums ...and sheep?

First off I'd assume they're wearing sandals – who wouldn't want to have sand flow between their toes as they storm through Ancient Egyptian Temples?! Of course it might be a bit less appealing with the squishy, cold, damp ground of Blackmarsh but we'll get to that in due course.

Hexen II is a favourite of mine and has been for quite a few years. Its mix of Quake Engine fuelled first person action and contextually appropriate puzzles remains a winning combination eighteen years after first playing it.

Normally I don't get on with titles that have a heavy puzzle focus. Games such as The Longest Journey or Lucas Arts Point and Click adventures are likely to cause my hackles to rise up in incredulous disgust. It's not that they feature puzzles – it's the logic that they operate on and its seeming isolation from any other world but its own.

Hexen II by comparison has a clear line of progress between the constituent parts of its puzzles and the process required to proceed. While it does require careful observation of you surroundings and does feature one or two locations that may have you scratching your head as you look for where you need to go, for the most part the level design is of such a high standard that it subtly guides you through its locations without you being overtly aware of it. Instead you come to recognise and understand the layouts and how they interconnect in a natural process. Locations become places and not just levels.

The game is split into five chapters, each taking place in a distinct location. Blackmarsh is the beginning and ending area, a medieval setting of castles and cathedrals, dingy sewers and grassy plains. It serves as your introduction as you look to breach a magic barrier and your final test in a confrontation with Eidolon. The Mesoamerican continent of Mazaera gives you a difficulty spike amongst its Aztec/Mayan influenced climes and an overarching objective to open the Well of Souls. The Ancient Egyptian themed land of Thysis has you unite the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt and bypass the Wheel of Ages while the Greco-Roman province of Septimus has you pass the Temple of Mars' trials and gain access to “War”. I forgot to mention that part didn't I… Each continent is governed by one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine, Death, Pestilence and War. Each has its own style of attack, strengths and weaknesses and takes place in its own arena. They act as sub-bosses and a way of measuring your progress through the game and the level of yourg skill.

Progress is an interesting area in itself regarding Hexen II. Before the shift towards the insertion of statistic bound character traits and other RPG elements across genres regardless of need or suitability Hexen II was built from the ground up to subtly make use of an almost invisible levelling system. The player can choose from one of four character classes to play the game with.

A Crusader from Blackmarsh, a well rounded character that is strong both close up and from range, they are a more defence orientated class than the Paladin but can still hold their own. As they level their skills their defence minded bias is revealed with the ability to heal themselves and gain a boost to strength during particularly intense encounters.

The Paladin is an attack oriented class. Slow but strong they hail from Septimus. With the favour of their god they are able to experience immunity to damage as they pound enemies into submission. Due to their favoured god's affinity to water the Paladin also has free movement in bodies of water where other classes would struggle.

The Necromancer resides amongst the sands of Thysis and is the weakest physically but strongest in ranged combat. The ability to steal life from his foes with his sickle and to harvest the essence of foes through dropped Soul Spheres allows the Necromancer to sustain himself. Probably the hardest class to play as due to the necessity of dodging and ranged combat but a satisfying and fun class to play once you've learnt how.

Lastly is the Assassin who grew up in the jungles of Mazaera. A fast, ranged specialist whose skills focus on the advantage of positioning and hiding from view. The ability to back-stab for massive damage and to become invisible makes the Assassin a high risk/reward character and a lot of fun – if an at times frustrating class to play.

As an aside each of the characters has an interesting little biography that gives their personal motivations which you'll find the the manual as well along with some well drawn art know. If you're interested.

Levels are gained through foes defeated in combat, there's adequate opportunity to raise the players level and unlock their skills. As a system it really does feel almost invisible – just the subtle increase in some statistics that you would need to check the character menu to see.

Each class can also use items collected throughout the world. From healing items which can be carried for later use to boosts in power – they function the same across all classes, just wait til you get the Seal of the Ovinomancer and its ability to turn an opponent into a sheep! There are however some instances where the same object will function differently in the hands of each class which adds an extra flavour to the choice of who you choose to play as. Specific pieces of armour as well to give greater boosts based on class. The more of it you have the better but depending on who you play you'll likely be drawn to certain pieces and items more than others.

Once you've made your choice of which class to play you'll be faced with the speed of Quake on which engine Hexen II is built and the use of overarching puzzle objectives to allow access to face each regions Horseman. It's a combination that I didn't think would work due to the break in momentum but oddly does. Each enemy you face is resilient, fast and powerful – making fights a challenge and the subsequent periods of calm where you are left to make progress through the over arching puzzles a welcome respite. The challenge presented may be off-putting for some but I'd urge you to keep at it. Difficulty levels add more enemies to maps rather than shifts in AI so until you are comfortable with the games economy of items and the attacking styles of the enemies you may wish to give the harder difficulties a miss.

The limited methods of interaction – walk over or into an object keeps the game moving where now there would be an individually animated interaction for the sake of the illusion of physical connection and immersion. It's fortunate given the variety of tasks you'll be undertaking. For example – and to demonstrate the overarching puzzle structure; The first objective that you'll have is to gain access to Famine by destroying a magical barrier. Some of the early steps in that process are collecting and grinding a notable figures bones and creating a potion of transmutation with which to destroy a barrier to gain access to a key. To do these things requires travelling between the interconnected maps in the hub system collecting keys or objects with which to fulfil the next part of the puzzles process. You'll be moving back and forth between maps frequently, opening up new sections and spawning new foes as you go. The speed that is afforded by basing the game on Quake's technology and its expectations in terms of movement makes that backtracking less of a chore and instead a swift process, something which could have bogged the game down but happily doesn't.

That simplified example of a sequence of events is only part of the process you'll need to go through to complete that region's objective but gives an idea of what to expect. As you move through the game's locations the objectives do become more complicated and rely more on reading your surrounding and the supporting texts that are left in the world to guide you. Just to forewarn you there is a spike in puzzle difficulty when reaching Thysis which caught many a player out, it does provide what was a quite clever shift in the game but still be warned it will gleefully look to trip you up.

Along with the puzzles the enemies also become – unsurprisingly, subsequently harder. “Elite” versions of existing enemies join an ever increasing roster of foes. Their ability to block, dodge and strike with speed only increasing. The Golems in particular have a variety of types shared between regions but I'll leave you to find out about them yourself. Your own arsenal will increase also as you can gather four weapons, the last requiring its two pieces to be collected and combined before it can be used. Four weapons may sound quite paltry but using the Tome of Power, an equivalent to the Quad Damage power up from Quake allows each weapon to have an alternate fire to be utilised that can be both dramatically powerful or wildly different in its application. It'll help give you an edge but has only a limited duration.

Managing your supplies, health and mana will be an ongoing concern but given the speed of movement and progress you'll not have a great deal of time to overthink this and instead will find yourself falling into a natural rhythm, anticipating what you'll need to use and how liberally you can make use of it.

As mentioned before there are moments where the game's momentum shifts down a gear and allows you to take a moment and take in the game's impressive (for its time) and varied architecture – usually when there is a larger obstacle or puzzle to be faced – a particular favourite for me is still the catapult and the woolly friend who guides your way. Larger mounted ballistae/crossbows can also be taken control of which has the effect of breaking up the rapid dodge and counter-attack rhythm of the games combat. They tend to be focused on destroying larger obstacles but can also be used on opponents.

You'll know if you're going to like the game within minutes which can be something of a double-edged sword. Its relentless nature and willingness to throw obstacles at you can potentially lead to frustration if you're not in sync with its demands and exceptions. Conversely that consistent adherence means you'll unlikely have reason to have your view changed if you don't get on with this play style. Its combat can be unforgiving and it's possible in some cases to back yourself into a corner if your health and supplies are too low. You can look to get yourself out of that jam but it'll require some skill. The fights against the Horsemen are something of a different matter. It's tempting to seek a strategy to deal with them, to make use of the tools available to you and to attempt to fight smart. Trust me on this. Don't bother. Mash the Tome of Power and grind them down – it'll save you a lot of headaches and allow you to get back to the meat of the game – the fast combat and fitting puzzles.

I haven't touched much on how Hexen II looks or sounds as it doesn't particularly draw attention to itself – it functions without fanfare and supports the games mechanics. The rolling skies and chunky, dark aesthetic of Quake pervade. Thysis injects some colour into proceedings with a vibrant palette and dramatic locations influenced by Ancient Egypt but for the most part you're going to be looking at deep, dark and grimy. Shadows lure you in while torches flicker and crackle. The howling winds are broken with the cries of the dying and the howls of your enemies. Hexen II's presentation is still solid all these years later creating a foreboding world spread across a range of settings. It succeeds where Quake failed in having a distinct identity. Quake's more troubled development would make this understandable but doesn't detract from Hexen II's achievements in this regard. One point where there is a split is with the games music. Making use of a clear and vibrant CD Audio soundtrack it stands out compared to the lower quality sound effects present in the game. It's not massively jarring but either an increase in the sound quality or a shift to a more atmospheric and “Quake like” soundtrack may have brought the two elements into greater harmony.

I'd imagine that Hexen II would be something of a culture shock for players nearly twenty years later, its challenge and dogged stubbornness clashing with the tendency now to adjust to the player's whims and pat them on the back with abandon. If you feel like a challenge though and like the sound of a hub system of diverse locations through which to storm though as focused player classes then give it a whirl. If it clicks for you then you'll likely have a personal favourite for some years to come.

It's this that I think is the crux of the matter when looking at Hexen II. It hasn't aged, so much as it did and continues to do its own thing. Your biggest challenge is going to be coming round to, accepting and embracing its way of thinking.

When looking at DRM the game is available via Steam yet can be ran from its own executable. The original retail edition as far as I'm aware has no DRM constraints either though you'll want to have the disc in the drive for the game's music.

Modding provides a mix of work for the game. Your first port of call though is likely to be a source port to provide added functionality and compatibility for recent operating systems. Personally I use and can happily recommend jsHexen II. A raft of technical improvements and a combined comprehensive texture overhaul make it an excellent package. There are other source ports available – have a poke around and see what will suit your system and requirements. There are scattered maps and model replacements, menus and texture packs available too that you may wish to explore. You'll likely want to check retro FPS community hubs to get a good idea of what's available for the game as well as to find player communities if you are interested in taking advantage of the games multiplayer capabilities.

So with the sand in your shoes and blood on your sword what are you to make of it all? Hexen II has stood the test of time for me and provides the same challenge and enjoyment that it did when first playing it. It's been kept up to date through modding allowing for compatibility with recent operating systems and still has a dedicated following. It's not the most welcoming title however. It's quite content to chew you up and spit you out – however if you're prepared to learn to play the game on its own terms or are already comfortable with a Quake type experience then dive right in and you'll find a refinement of Quake's FPS gameplay matched to a satisfying and well thought out puzzle layer.

By Gamefaq's standards it would be an 8/10 to match a great description. With a new player class and a Sino-Tibetan theatre added with the Portal of Praevus expansion you'll have a good amount of content and challenge to get through. Whether or not you choose to depends on if you're willing to leave Thyrion to Eidolon and his generals. You wouldn't want to do that now would you?

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Hexen II (US, 08/31/97)

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