(It should be noted that the version of Hexen I’m reviewing is being played from Zandronum, an emulator for old Id Software games that not only allows the game to actually play on modern systems, but also subtly spruces up the graphics, modernizes the control scheme and makes multiplayer an option. This, of course, changes the game significantly, and I will address it, but it is important to know going in. Also, I did most of my playthrough on the second to highest difficulty.)
Hexen is a first person shooter released in 1995 from Id and Raven Software that uses a modified version of the Doom engine, allowing more powerful graphics and mechanics. Hexen emphasizes exploration, puzzles and a dark medieval atmosphere as much as the hardcore twitch combat of Doom and it’s direct prequel, Heretic. What’s most notable perhaps, is Hexen’s take on level design. While Doom had a surprisingly sophisticated level design, where every map was a puzzle requiring 1-3 keycards, Hexen adds a greater hub world that connects a series of levels together, making these levels an interconnected megapuzzle full of shortcuts,secrets, crossovers and a satisfying sense of cracking open a world, very similar to another often overlooked but very important gem of a game.
So visually, Hexen is undeniably primitive. Still using the Doom engine, the graphics are just 2d pixels on a 3d world which becomes obvious (and hilarious) anytime you look up or down at a monster. It also suffers quite a bit when it tries to emulate a wilderness area. Rivers, waterfalls, canyons and caverns all look less natural than an equivalent representation in Minecraft. That being said, I love the way this game looks in spite of the limitations. The color palette is mostly muted earthy tones with small bits of brightness. But this is muted less in the style of Call of Duty (bright colors are for sissies!) and more in the style of Dark Souls where the colors conjure a rotten, dangerous world long past it’s prime. A world that can’t be saved so much as avenged.
This feeling is also helped by the aesthetic design and architecture of the world. There is a distinct Gothic design to the several cathedrals and fortresses and few nature and residential parts with a lot of little details. Books, food on the table, pottery, statues, and stained glass windows all hint at the former culture that resided here. Even the monsters are mostly former inhabitants, each still hanging onto (almost parodying) their former class structure in society.
Your character is also a part of that old dead civilization. You choose between one of the three social stratas for your character class that sound suspiciously like classes from Dungeons & Dragons; Fighter, Cleric, and Mage. The Fighter is of course the melee beatstick. He does easily the most damage in the early game and is also the quickest and toughest (he almost moves too fast). He falls off the hardest in the mid and late game, however. The mage naturally more cautious. He has the weakest but only ranged starting weapon with his other weapons tending to have more power and utility later on. The cleric is straight up the right answer. Only slightly less meaty than the fighter and slightly less strategic than the mage, the cleric also has the best endgame weapon that basically shoots bombs filled with angry ghosts. Aside from the weapon and stat differences, many items in the game react differently to the characters. A flechette (vial of green liquid) can act as a grenade, a timed explosive or a poison gas mine depending on who uses it.
Unfortunately, actually playing the game is the one aspect that has not aged well at all. The control scheme still behaves as though a mouse is just an optional curiosity. You move forward and back, turn left and right with the arrow keys. You also look up and down with the page up and down keys. Of course that’s assuming you can get it to work on a modern system. Fortunately the fans of these old games are still quite active and have developed emulators for Doom specifically and all of the old Id software games in general to run beautifully on modern software with mouse look and all. Utilizing GZDoom or (my preference) Zandronum, Hexen not only ages well, but is stiff competition for any modern shooter. The framerate on my rinkydink laptop consistently hovers around 400(!) as the you jump and sprint like an antelope. You unleash satisfying and brutal magic on legitimately threatening monsters who try to box you in and overwhelm you like satanic checker pieces. This game is defiantly meant to be played on the harder difficulties, especially when playing with the mouse and/or the awesome co op mode.
With only a slight face lift, Hexen is not only a fantastic shooter on par with any modern game, but perhaps the most well aged, refined, and fun of all the old Id shooters. The single player is filled with a fast, satisfying and brutal challenge(on the higher difficulties) not unlike (again) the Souls games but also has plenty of thoughtful cerebral challenges in the megapuzzle that is the game world. While the PVP modes are a little barebones for the modern age, Coop mode is fantastic. If you can get a friend or two to play this game with you, Hexen is maybe the best LAN party game this side of Left 4 Dead2 or Payday 2. If your a fan of shooters, classics, the Souls games, or anything with a strong D&D vibe to it, Hexen is a must buy.
PS If anybody is interested in seeing more about Hexen, how it meshes with Demon’s Souls, and how they’re both heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, I’m mixing all three in a ridiculous stewpot of a tabletop game I’m playing with some friends. I’m writing our adventures down here if anybody is interested