Sunday, May 10, 2009

Herc's Adventures-PSX- Big Ape Productions

What do you get when you combine one part Lucas Arts adventure game, one part Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and one part action RPG? Herc's Adventure's, a quirky little romp through ancient Greece, that's what. Developed by Big Ape Productions, this Lucas Arts title was released in 1997 for both the PSX and the Saturn. This was one of those games I remember loving as a kid, often quoting bits of the opening cinematic to myself at random times. But, so often the memory plays tricks on one. So does Herc's Adventures electrify like Zeus or smell like Hades?

Let's begin with a story of old. It is the end of winter, and spring is just beginning to spread its way across Greece. Hades, however, has a plan to stop that. And I think, just this once, I'll let someone else do the explaining. Besides, Hades put it best when he told Zeus, "I have Persephone. There will be no more spring, no more trees, no more flowers, no more food. Without spring, all of Greece will perish. My power in the underworld will grow supreme as I rule a nation of the dead." Zeus' forces have been slaughtered. There are only three players left on Zeus' side of the board that are capable of standing up against Hades' power: Hercules, Jason, and Atlanta. But will their strength be enough to find the Golden Fleece, assault the underworld, and bring Persephone back before the lack of food starves all of Greece?

As you can tell, the set-up is pretty bleak, but luckily, that never brings the humorous nature of the game down. The graphics are actually quite gorgeous, with brightly colored backgrounds, well animated sprites, and a great attention to detail. Enemies are both humorously and well designed. But most importantly, or most surprisingly, the game retains in gameplay the exact visual styling that was shown in the opening FMV. That's a nice touch, especially in the early PSX era when most games in game sprites only vaguely resembled the person they were designed from.

Speaking of which, the characters during gameplay are actually expressive, reacting in pain when hit and in fright when Zeus or Hades appear to encourage or antagonize. But what impresses me the most is that the enemies are given this same attention to detail. Cyclops' maintain the same look of blundering stupidity even when hurling you into the ground. While enemies solders, once defeated, run from you in their boxers until they collapse from panic and fatigue.

One of the biggest achievements in the game is that there are no breaks in the action, once the game loads, it is loaded. There is rarely an end of the screen, and areas meld seamlessly, save a few bit of slowdown, between one another. This small thing removes from the player the minor annoyance that load times would add to the game's exploration based gameplay.

And what I mean by that, is that there is no hand holding in this game. From the moment, you are dropped down on the mountain as what ever ancient hero you deigned to be, it is up to you to figure out where you are supposed to go.

Like in Metroid or an exploration based Castlevania, there are hidden nooks everywhere containing some little treasure, and often there are no clues that the path was there or that an item had been hidden behind those trees. These, of course, aren't pivotal to the plot, but they do a good job of rewarding players that actively explore the land around them.

To continue with the Metroid analogy, there are occasionally paths that are for a time blocked off. And there can be one of two ways that this can happen.

The first is a door, requiring either a standard key or a god key. Standard doors, usually, only hide items, weapons, coins, or the occasional cow. God doors, on the other hand block off sections of the land you haven't yet proven yourself ready for. These usually require completing a task set by one of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or by defeating a tricky monster or two.

The other thing that can block your path is your players own strength. Each of the three players behave a little bit differently. Jason is the fastest, Atlanta has the ability to attack at a distance easily with her bow, and Herc is the strongest. This strength is represented by the blue bar on the screen and effects not only what you can lift, but how long you can lift it. Certain spots in the game will be blocked by large boulders or weights that require the player to have gained enough strength to pass. Strength can be gained fairly easily though by visiting the training booths that are in most major cities, so a diligent player will likely not be impeded by the giant boulders placed in their path.

Speaking of training booths, the stat progression in the game is mostly dependent on these booths. A man weight lighting will charge you a few coins to increase the maximum amount of the players power, while a man whacking himself in the head with a board will increase the characters toughness or health. Other ways of going about this are by finding dumbbells or hearts that have been littered around Greece. These give smaller increases to overall strength or health than the booths, but they don't usually cost anything. However, they tend to be well hidden or locked within a small, magic shrine, which only gives up its goods if a certain task is completed. These tasks are never specified but are always nearby. Most of the time, it requires simply hitting a target a bit off the path, but sometimes requires a bit more effort, or at least a small portion of your weapons.

I have explained the the things that I believe make the game feel like Lucas Arts adventure and Action RPG, but I haven't yet touched on what makes the game similar to Zombies Ate my Neighbors. And while I could attribute it to feel, because the game does feel like the next game in that series (Especially once you meet the martians in Egypt). I would prefer to basing this on the weapons and items.

In Zombies Ate my Neighbors, the player was wholly dependent upon whatever weapons and items that they could scrounge from their environment. But that wouldn't work in an action RPG where backtracking for goods is not only rewarding, but vital. To aid in that, each character has a basic attack that can be used at all times. However, much like the water pistol, this attack is exceedingly weak and will do little to protect the player from anything but the weakest of enemies.

Instead, the player would be wise to fight with the weapons and items they can scrounge from the surrounding area. Yes, that system that was the very foundation of the combat in Zombies Ate my Neighbors made its way into the game, and it is every bit as rewarding. Of course, the difference is that these tools are based on ancient Greek mythology and zany wackiness rather than monster movies and zany wackiness. Another difference is that these tools replenish once the player has gone from an area for a long enough time, so it is possible to go raid Sparta, collect some coins, and return to Elis for strength training and health restoring gyros over and over again. This lessens the difficulty of the game slightly, but not enough that it would hinder the enjoyment.

The voice acting in the game is pretty solid, especially for an early PSX title. There are no voices that really stand out as stellar, save maybe Hades. But even his can sound a bit too soft at times. The sound effects in the game are good and goofy and generally do a nice job of conveying exactly what they need to.The music is also quite good, ranging from soaring epics of the opening area to the eerie quite of the the edge of the world.

On the whole, the game is very good. There are a few problems though. One being that save points are few and far between. This isn't something that would be accepted in this day and age, but it was the norm when it came out. Thankfully, these scribes never move from their locations, so a careful player should be able to manage it. Another problem is that the player is never told how many lives they have. Once dead, the player appears in the underworld and must battle their way out. With each subsequent death, the player is pushed farther and farther back, until they end up in a locked room with the words game over on the floor and Hades laughing maniacal. If Zombies At my Neighbors holds a place in your heart, than you owe it to yourself to track down a copy of Herc's Adventures. But if you just want a whimsical romp through ancient Greece, well... why haven't you bought Herc's Adventures?

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