Since Space Ace et al, this is what we've been waiting for - animation-quality graphics with added game!
This is, perhaps more than anything, the game to really put Core Design on the map. As something to actually play it's good but really rather unremarkable - an arcade adventure in the purest sense, featuring much walking around of rooms, collecting objects to use, solving of little puzzles and fighting the various creatures you come across. Some of the puzzles are good, some are rather annoying, and while generally the gameplay is well paced and designed, it has an "mm, that's quite good" quality about it rather than anything that'll knock you dead. Imagine a simpler, more arcade-friendly Cadaver and you'll be in the right territory. The fairly hefty amount of disk swapping tends to muck up how smoothly it plays too - without a second disk drive this could turn out to be a bit of a pain in the neck.
But of course, as one look at these pages will have told you, this isn't really a game that stands and falls on its gameplay anyway. It has that demo-like "Golly, look what my Amiga can do" quality - if anyone's still inviting sorry 8-bit Spec-chums or the like around to "show them what a real computer can do" this is one of the games you want to boast with. More than anything, it's graphically reminicent of those spectacular Don Bluth efforts (Space Ace et al), but with a proper game attached too - for Core this easily eclipses Thunderhawk as the most interesting, "Hey, look, we're doing games that are as good as anyone's" product they've ever done. Of course, there's good reason for all that Don Bluth-ness - dropping his name was no accidental comment on my part. Graphic artist Jerr O'Carroll spent time working in Ireland at the Bluth studios on some of their feature length cartoons (All Dogs Go To Heaven et al) and you can see a cartoonist's sensibility at work in the graphics here - heavy black outlines to the characters, bright colours, stylised figures (all big feet, gangly limbs and 'characterful' ways of walking) and interestingly lit backdrops. If there's been a prettier Amiga game released this year I don't think I've seen it.
To be fair, though I described the gameplay as unremarkable earlier, I wouldn't for the life of me want to give the impression that it doesn't work - this is more than just a spectacular graphics exercise. There's lots of it for a start - three massive worlds comprising of fifteen or so islands each, each built up of countless rooms. It's not something you'll be in any danger of completing for quite some time. The general level of care and attention to detail put into the project is supremely impressive too - if the puzzling isn't quite of the standard you'll find in some of the old Ultimate games, say, the new FRP element, the addition of interesting sub-games, and the overall correct feel of the project make it equally as satisfying. The Norse myths provide rich and so far relatively unplundered material for computer games, and while Heimdall may play fast and loose with some of the details, the spirit of it all is handled well. It provides a coherent background and atmosphere to the game that similar scale projects from the likes of Psygnosis (with their could-be-anybody barbarian heroes) have rather lacked.
But who, you're probably asking by now, is Heimdall anyway? Well those of you who know your Marvel comics will have some idea - he's one of the most important of the Norse gods, though traditionally a fairly limited one. In The Mighty Thor comics, as in legend, his job was to guard Asgard (the home of the gods) from attack, which he did by tanding on the Rainbow Bridge leading to earth, where his especially keen eyes could keep a watch on things below. A bit of a boring idea really - the ancient equivalent of Alan Tracey, the dull one in Thunderbirds who got to sit in the space station all the time listening to radio messages - and happily thrown completely out of the window for the game. The new idea, says Jerr O'Carroll, is that Heimdall has been born of a virgin on earth in a sort of semi-mortal state - Ragnarok (the twilight of the gods, when the evil forces of Norse mythology gang up on Asgard, and everything is destroyed) is coming, and the gods need to recover various lost weapons for the battle ahead.
Loki, god of mischief, has hidden the sword of Odin, the hammer of Thor and the spear of Frey around the three worlds of Norse mythology (we'll get onto what those are in a bit) - it's up to the newly human Heimdall to recover them. "You're right, this isn't really what happened in the Norse legends at all," admits Jerr, "though to be honest we've found there are so many different versions it's hard to know what's definitive at all. The real reason we chose Heimdall to be our lead character is because we saw him in a book and liked the sound of his name."
The actual game itself then. It's a 3D isometric arcade adventure spiced up with a lightweight FRP element. The FRP comes from the fact that you're treking around with a party of characters. Heimdall's quest takes himself and a group of five from island to island in search of the missing weapons - on each island you get to select which two will escort Heimdall as you search around the place, while the rest wait aboard ship.
Walking around the island you only get to see the one guy - the character you've got selected - which initially seems like a bit of a shame, though the excellent animation this has allowed for more than makes up for it. Your hero (whoever you've got selected at the time) stalks around the place very purposefully, very characterfully and very - yes! - cartoonily, the animation working just as well whatever angle you're seeing him from. It's certainly enough to make the main hero of Cadaver look like the awkward, ugly, rather bodged job he was. That the memory taken up by this animation appears also to have prevented any of the baddies from moving (save for jumping up and down on the spot) is more of a shame, though (beyond creating a sense of reality) it's hard to see what real improvement their running around the rooms would have been made, especially when the game uses the FRP-style combat system seen here.
Heimdall comes on a mammoth five disks, the first containing a rather gorgeous animated intro sequence to set the scene - it's well worth watching, but as far as the actual game's concerned we can safely ignore it. Onto the next disk then, and we get a character selection screen where you have to pick the crew you wish to accompany Heimdall from a number on offer - there are warriors, druids, shipwrights, navigators and the like, and you obviously want to go around with a good selection of types.
Before you actually do any choosing though, there's a series of three quick sub-games to get through - how well you do on these not only determines the personal attributes of your lead character Heimdall (strength, agility, health, etc) but how many potential crew members you get to choose between (if you do well you may be able to pick from all 30; not so well and many of the better ones will be denied to you).
And so to the main game. For each world you are given a map - you kick off in Midgard (or Earth), where Thor's hammer is hidden, before moving onto Utgard (the world of giants) and finally Asgard itself, home of the gods, for Odin's sword.
All three worlds are made up of a series of islands - you and your people can set sail for any of them you like, but beware: some are a lot more than four days or so's sailing away, and by the time you get there you'll be so weak you'll probably get killed by the first traps you come across. Far better, instead, to island hop in nice easy stages - that way you'll be able to collect lots of spells, weapons and things that'll prove useful in your quest, as well as build up rune law, character experience points and so on that'll prove useful in your quest. The way things are structured, there are a number of sub quests you'll have to manage before you get to the chance to recover any one weapon anyway, and a fair amount of travelling back and forth between islands is likely to prove essential.
All of which, pretty much, leads us to the actual day-to-day business of playing the game itself. This is a mixture or exploring rooms - things are big enough that some map making would prove very useful - collecting items (chests hold food, coins, better weapons and scrolls which contain spells of various sorts), working out puzzles (often of the 'if pressing block A shuts the first pit, and pressing block C opens the second pit, what will pressing blocks C and B do?' variety) and even solving simple riddle-ettes. There are some bits here that Stuart Campbell and those of a similar persuasion will hate - invisible traps opening up beneath your feet to kill your character, say - which means there are plenty of times when you'll only learn what to do or not to do from experience. To my mind this is a legitimate piece of games design, but if you're the sort of person who'll get frustrated by it then, well, you're in for a very frustrating time.
How well you get on with the rest of it really depends on how patient and methodical you are. Some of the more frustrating puzzle elements - there was one vast maze section which took most people hours to complete - have been removed but you could still find yourself running around one small island collecting bits and pieces but being unable to find the way out for ages. The importance of keeping one magic using character safe is obvious - if you've only a couple of dumb berserker-types they may be unable to read the very rune spell which would show the way out!
Basically then, a supremely ambitious and well thought out project, breaking new ground with the visuals, and coupling them to a perfectly absorbing and acceptable isometric arcade adventure (and there are far too few of these on the Amiga). This is a game Core are obviously very pleased with, and they've really every right to be. It looks excellent, it proves to be very playable, there's a vast amount of it, and the presentation and general thinking behind it is spot on. If there's too much disk accessing, and a fair amount of plodding about, well, they're a fair price to play. It's a game that surprises, occasionally stuns - just check out the graphic when you (finally!) manage to recover Thor's hammer at the end of the first section, for instance! - and is sure to be Top 100 bound when we update the damn thing next spring.
Uppers: The gorgeous graphics are obvious, but the lush animation, effective FRP elements, interesting puzzles, vast size and general assured sense of character and place are less so. They're all here in abundance though.
Downers: A fair amount of dull old disk swapping; some limitations caused by lack of memory presumably - the repetition of the same character graphic for a number of characters, the rooting-to-the-spot of baddies etc.
An excellent looking product that succeeds once again at what Core are proving best at - taking an involved and complex game-type and making a faster-moving, more user friendly and lovely looking, erm, thingie, out of it.