One of the advantages of remaining within casual driving distance of your parents when you inevitably leave the nest is that their home can act as something of a storage facility for things that you just haven’t had the need to keep in your own house. While it took my mother less than fifteen minutes after I moved out to convert my old bedroom into her home office, I still have a closet (and a bookshelf, and several dresser drawers) there full of my old junk. Every once in a while, I think of something else I’ve left there and now desire again and have to hunt it down.
The other weekend had me in just such a position, sifting through boxes of my “valuable” property to find a couple copies of a card game I’d stashed away. While I was trying to locate them, I came across a stack of 3 1/2″ floppy disks. There, mixed in with long-forgotten archives of writing from high school and a few AOL trial disks (with their labels bearing the word “PORN” in black marker), I discovered a copy of Blackthorne.
While I could not remember ever buying it and was fairly certain it had not been a gift, I did recall the game. It had been remarkable to me for its fluid animations and graphical design. The thing that I most associated with it, though, was cold-blooded murder.
Intrigued? Hit the jump for more.
In the same year that they would launch the series which would elevate them to gaming super-stardom, Warcraft, Blizzard released the much more quietly received Blackthorne. Described as a “cinematic platformer,” the game features mechanics which could easily draw comparisons to Jordan Mechner’s classic Prince of Persia. While they do share the same basic style of control and level design, the similarities end there.
The player controls Kyle Blackthorne, lost prince of the Androthi, who was sent to Earth from his home planet of Tuul until such time as he could regain his throne from a demonic entity named Sarlac. The story is cliche, to be certain, and fairly sparse. The vast majority of the narrative is described in an opening cutscene, where we see the circumstances leading up to his escape followed by his return twenty years later. Additional updates from the perspective of the villain appear as transitions between the game’s four areas but they contribute very little and the tale is ultimately forgettable.
While the plot may be lacking, the designer’s dedication to the setting is quite admirable by contrast. Throughout the game are many friendly Androthi, either bound in servitude or acting as a resistance force that actively attacks enemies on their same screen (with the victor seemingly determined at random). In addition to netting you some helpful items, talking to them provides a little bit more insight into the world. Most of the responses are canned and can become a bit repetitive, but they are a nice touch and help the player identify more with what’s going on around them.
Then again, you could just kill them all. An interesting design aspect of Blackthorne is the ability to kill friend and foe alike. This, if you’ll pardon the expression, utterly blew my mind when I first played it. I will not deny the maniacal glee I took in firing off a shotgun blast to the face of an ally after they rewarded me with a healing item. The death animations were so enjoyable that I would kill everyone I came across.
To facilitate all of this violence, Kyle begins the game armed with a pump shotgun. He can fire his weapon either by the boring, old method of just pulling the trigger or by blindly pointing behind himself and looking like a badass doing it. As you progress, the weapon becomes replaced by upgraded versions with an increased rate of fire.
Combat with enemies isn’t as easy as slaughtering the Androthi. That probably has something to do with them being armed as well. When encountering hostiles, Kyle can take cover in the background and avoid their fire. Most of the bad guys can do the same, however. Killing them becomes a matter of timing where you must correctly judge that they’ve finished firing and hit them before they duck back into the shadows.
This method of fighting is really satisfying for about the first hour of play. Eventually, it can become a little repetitive and frustrating, especially in the late game where the foes patterns become more erratic and have less obvious cues as to when you must strike. Enemy variety is not particularly broad and while some do employ different weapons or tactics, these breaks from the standard combat scenario are too few.
When he isn’t killing things, Kyle is a competent athlete. His acrobatic prowess extends to running, jumping, crouching and rolling. The controls are very responsive to input, but hindered a bit by the character animations. Turning around or standing up from a crouch can feel like an eternity, particularly if you have an enemy firing on your position.
Using these skills, Kyle must traverse sixteen levels before the final confrontation with the demon, Sarlac. In addition to a steady supply of minions, they’re riddled with deep pits, hidden passages and traps. And, in most cases, you have to traverse the length of a level multiple times in order to reach its end.
Items you pick up along the way, either from the corpses of your enemies or given to you by Androthi rebels, become a crucial aspect. Most levels feature forcefields that must be turned off to proceed, either by using a key or destroying a generator, and bridges you must activate with another, different key. Other obstructions require that you use a bomb to clear a path.
The result of this design is that levels often feel really long and take on a bit of a puzzle aspect. Since you are limited by the equipment you can scavenge and there are a limited number of items, it’s entirely possible to wind up trapped with no recourse other than to start the level again from the beginning. It isn’t likely, so long as you can remain conservative in your use of bombs, but that the scenario can happen adds a little something to the experience.
Another situation can arise, however, which is more troublesome. Kyle has a limited number of items that he can carry. While it’s very unlikely, the inventory can become clogged with equipment, healing potions in particular. Since there’s no means by which to drop an item without using it and potions cannot be used if Kyle’s health is full, you could be faced with the issue of choosing which of your precious few bombs must be sacraficed to make room for a necessary key. It is a rare but terrifying moment to realize that selecting the wrong thing could force you to begin a level from the start.
This is a fine game, overall. It doesn’t hold a candle to Blizzard’s other puzzle/platform series, The Lost Vikings, but is a solid effort. And, should you make it to the final level, there is a challenging final battle waiting for you which is highly satisfying to complete.
Blackthorne was ported to the SNES and Sega’s 32X add-on for the Genesis. It has also been re-released on GBA as part of the Blizzard Classic Arcade series and should be fairly easy to track down. If you should happen upon a copy for a under $10, it’s definately worth a look.