Saturday, 1 March 2014

Chapter X: Heimdall

It's fair to say that everybody has their dream trip, even if it's just to answer the cliché question "what's your dream trip?”. For me, my very own Shangri-La has always been Norway. I don't remember where this obsession originated. Maybe it was some old post card featuring a lovely picture of a fjord with its snow covered peaks, or some documentary about wildlife that I saw on TV. In 1991 all made sense after playing Heimdall, as I finally had a real, almost palpable reason why I wanted so much to go there.

When this game entered my life Norway was much more than just a country with pretty landscapes. It was the land of Vikings, old myths and general awesomeness. The game sold this concept perfectly with one of the most brilliant and epic introductions I've seen in any videogame. The music alone was reason enough to think about the day that I would front a metal band while this very tune would be the intro to our concerts. As you have probably already noticed, my own avatar was taken from this segment in a demonstration of pure arrogance by comparing myself to Odin.

Too bad you can't listen to the music
I eventually got to have my dream holidays two years ago, shortly after my 31th birthday. Yes, it took a long while, but it was totally worth it. This trip meant so much to me that I even planned to propose to my wife during those holidays. Well that part didn’t go according to plan, mostly because I hadn’t found a nice ring on time, but as for the rest, everything went as smooth as it could be.

And so it was, we rented a car and did a road trip across Norway while visiting many gorgeous sites. Yes, doing a road trip on Norway doesn’t seem as cool as a coast to coast American one, especially when the speed limit is 80 km/h with a zero-tolerance policy and much of the time it’s raining.

Even mighty norse gods are susceptible to nail funguses
But it was definitely awesome. I still dream every now and then of a lake we encountered in the middle of a steep valley full of waterfalls on both sides. The lake had the most beautiful clear turquoise water I’ve ever seen in my life. Me and my wife went near the lake and the river next to it to collect some raspberries which smelled and tasted as jellies. Not only that but the berries looked every inch as perfect as every other detail of this beautiful scene, as they looked as if made of clear crystal.

But enough of this talk about my holidays, this is a games blog after all. It’s very much evident that I feel a big debt towards this game, as it was definitely a part of my upbringing and had a crucial role in the development of my own personality. I don’t play it for a very long time, except of when I launched it last month to take a screenshot for my avatar. In fact, I never even got past the first world because my cracked copy crashed at the end of it. Still, my memories of it are vivid enough for me to know that the game is still amazing, and I’m not going to be one big disappointed by playing it again.

This is suposedly Midgard, the world of man. Seems made up to me
Enough has been said about the intro. Yes, it’s still great after all this time. The character generator process is one of oddest ever seen on an RPG though. Instead of giving the option to roll dice or add numbers to other numbers, Heimdall gives us the option to play through three mini games that represent a viking upbringing. That means drunken axe throwing, pig catching and boat raiding. Yes, it’s possible to skip these mini games, but they add flavour to the game and are quite fun. The results in these mini games are going to determine the pool of selectable characters afterwards, with better results allowing for a selection of better characters.

The aftermath is a totally post-modern haircut
The character classes in the game also offers another twist. While there are the warriors and wizards of old, there are also other novelty classes like navigator and shipwright. I really don’t know what’s their use, but I do remember one game guide in Amiga Power recommending us to have at least one navigator and one character with high runelore skill. And so it was that my band of misfits included a warrior, a berserker, a wizard, a druid and a navigator.

While I did knew beforehand some of the weaker points of the game, I was expecting to tolerate them to get to enjoy most of the game. Maybe I’m spoiled or aging has taken its toll on my patience, but the combat is much worse than I remembered it. On the surface, it completely negates one of the main reasons to have a party in the first place. Only one of our characters fights the opponent (there isn’t ever any more than one), and there’s no reason to select any other than Heimdall himself, since he has got the best stats. Even then, the fights are pretty lousy. While it’s possible to anticipate the enemies attacks to breach through their defences, most of the time they’re just too fast and we’re better off mindlessly attacking and taking much damage in the process.

Besides, the combat downsides are made bigger by the interface problems. The game just requires too much clicking for anything, and much of the time it doesn’t register the mouse clicks. I spent more time managing my party inventory than actually exploring, and I’m not making this up. Matters are made worse due to the fact that the inventory fills up quite fast, and everything picked up after is discarded, even quest related items which are mandatory to finish the game.

Scandinavians were always renowed for their interior design skills
It’s also awkward that joystick is used for exploring the maps while everything else is done with the mouse. I don’t see much reason for the game not to have an all-mouse interface. Yes, some parts like navigating through floor traps would be different while pointing and clicking, but I don’t think it would be necessarily worse.

As for the rest, it’s still quite good. Most islands in the game have their own flavour and theme and are interesting to explore. These were the days before we started to be used to all the padding out in RPG’s so that a sticker saying “more than 100 hours of play time” could be put on the box. This means that the islands are quite short in general, but each screen offers its own set of challenges. As it was common during the time this game was released, most of the puzzles are inventory based, and even though I’m not much of a fan of point and click adventures or these kind of puzzles in general, they are easy enough to not be a hassle. Still, the fact that exploration is always interrupted by lousy fights and baby-sitting our Viking’s backpacks is a major factor in me not having as much fun as I was expecting to.

I've never seen pressure plates puzzles in real life. Don't know why videogames keep pushing them
The great cartoon-like graphics are obviously one of the game’s strongest points, and after all these years it still looks great. It’s just unfortunate that there’s no in-game music, since the intro and map screen tunes are so good.

I know I did write that I wasn’t going to be disappointed by the game, but that didn’t happen. There’s a reason that while I always favoured strategy games and RPG’s, I usually only play arcade-like games when it comes to retro-gaming. Interface related annoyances are common in games as old as this one, but this was one of the most intolerable I came across. I just couldn’t be bothered to even finish the first world. This is one of those games that could use a remake, with a revamped interface and party-based combat system. It could be amazing. Unfortunately I don’t think Heimdall has the following or the popularity to make it worthwhile. Besides, the IP is probably with Square Enix which has much more lucrative series to explore.

If you ever wondered what a cross between a graffiti and a stained glass looked like...
Well, Heimdall didn’t turn out as good as I was hoping. But even so I will always cherish our moments together in the early nineties, and also be forever grateful for making me want to go to Norway.

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