Hexen II
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Hexen II, starring Gene Simmons.
I think I can speak for all of us in saying that we love our classic games. Nostalgia tends to be kind to everything, but there are still titles that we played growing up which stand up well even today. There are some other ones that we know aren't terribly good technically but have the sheer charm and character (or were so much a part of your life) to make you like them anyway. And sadly, there are also games to which our memories have been too nice - those that we want to be good but on replaying them turn out either to have aged very badly or just weren't that fantastic in the first place. I've been playing through Hexen II again recently, and although it pains me a bit to admit it, I think it's turning out to be one of these.

But it tries, it really does, and I still want to like it even though there seem to be unfair or just plain poor game design decisions at every turn. In the tradition of Raven Software, it's a fantasy game based on one of ID Software's existing engines with a few enhancements - the Quake engine, in this case, expanded to allow you an inventory and RPG-like statistics. In addition, each time you kill one of the various monsters walking, flying or scuttling around the game, you get experience points that eventually earn you a Level Up (indicated by an insanely overenthusiastic "YOU ARE NOW LEVEL 2!" console message with about twenty exclamation marks after it) and more capacity for hit points, mana and special abilities. This game doesn't have health and armor, it has HP and AC - that should tell you all you need to know about the tone of it. Everything makes it clear that even though this looks like a first-person shooter, it's actually an action-adventure Zelda-em-up in disguise.

The Aztec level is composed of Crystal Maze-like platform games.
So as I just mentioned, it looks much like Quake with a couple of graphical enhancements like transparent surfaces (and with the GL version an incredibly disorienting texture-distortion wobbly underwater vision that has to be seen to be believed) and some destructible scenery. Time has definitely not been kind to many early true-3D games, but it's not absolutely terrible to look at, though you need to adjust the brightness quite far to have a hope of seeing anything. It takes some doing to get it out of 320x200 mode, too - you can only upgrade the resolution through a set of command line switches, and having a crosshair and mouselook are very much afterthoughts, needing a couple of console commands or editing of an autoexec file to even activate them. Not that you get a crosshair in the end anyway, it's just a + sign from the normal bitmap font plonked in the middle of the screen. Anyway, those were the days.

The general storyline is that Eidolon, the last of the Serpent Riders (see Heretic, Hexen, Heretic 2) has arrived on Thyrion and laid waste to the four continents that look coincidentally like different historial periods from Earth, and it's your job as a crusader, paladin, assassin or necromancer to stop both him and his servants, who happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Even though there are a few monsters scattered around each map, the emphasis is definitely on exploration and puzzle-solving - something hinted at quite strongly by the way you only get four weapons.

Actually, that's not as bad as it first sounds. Every character's weapon lineup is different, so in the game location where the Crusader would find the ice staff to go into his second weapon slot, the Assassin would instead find a crossbow, and so on. But they all share a common pattern for use of ammunition - a non-mana-using melee weapon, followed by something that uses blue mana, then green, then both together. Except the Paladin, who gets a second melee weapon that can use blue mana to make itself more powerful if you have any available, but I can't remember what the actual effect of it is offhand. So that's sixteen weapons in the game already, and if you include the effects of the Tome of Power (which upgrades all your weapons when you use it, often giving them strikingly different effects) then you could even bump it up to thirty-two.

Spot the secret passage.
But none of that really matters because most of the time you'll be using said weapons to tap on walls repeatedly looking for secret passages. The trouble is that there's only so much you can do with adventuring in the Quake engine - items are picked up by bumping into their rotating icons, and used by standing in the right place at the right time - and to counteract this, the game designers seemed to feel they needed to hide virtually everything. You begin outside a little fortress-like place in which you're meant to notice that one of the designs on a mural sticks out a bit further than the rest of it, and if you don't notice that at this point and batter it to open a passage across the room that eventually opens a door later on in the game, you're going to have a lot of trouble later on when you come to said barred door with no way to open it. Another example is a button hidden under a bridge slightly later on that's the only way of activating a teleporter to get you to a vital area. This game took me well over a year on and off to see the ending (I can't use the word 'complete' for reasons I will describe later), and most of that time was spent running around stuck and belting every wall, floor and ceiling with the Hammer of Justice +5 to see if any of them opened.

Another thing that I noticed this time round is that the puzzles... well, to put it simply, they make absolutely no sense within the plot or goal of the game. The first world is particularly guilty of this, because you don't find out what you're actually supposed to be doing until well into it - the eventual goal is to defeat the Crystal Golem so that you can get past the barrier that's tied to his existence. But to even get anywhere near this, you have to do a selection of incredibly random things. Shortly after the game begins, you skip happily into what looks like a wizard's lab and find a book on the table. "You need the Bone Dust of Loric to complete the spell of mythril transmutation", it says. That's a nice and clear objective, but who, for example, was Loric and why are his bones so special? Come to think of it, why do I need to make this potion of mythril transmutation in the first place? Later on you find out that there's a mythril wall you can't get past at the bottom of a castle moat, but once you're past that, why do you suddenly need to find the altar of the Brotherhood of Hunger (secret passage, only accessible through hammering on a wall with a slight seam in a house later on) and seek out "sand, glass and grindstone" to see through an arbitrarily-placed magic barrier?

Even mundane things seem artificially protected - in order to dig up a key early in the game, you logically enough have to find a shovel. But the only shovel to be seen in the entire castle area is the most well-defended shovel in the universe, only accessible through a secret passage that you have to open up by jumping across the beams on the roof of a stable and pulling a lever within, and even when you get that open it's defended by a golem. The whole thing makes no sense at all - without any character interaction beyond the odd dying note left by someone whose vital organs are now generously distributed around the room, you never find out the reason all these places and unlikely magic hindrances you're running back and forward between even exist, and by the time you get to the Egypt level and are seeking out the Sceptre of Lots and Lots of Darkness from the Pyramid of Lots and Lots of Evil, you've forgotten what you were originally supposed to be doing entirely (also being distracted by the nagging thought that you might have missed a tiny wall switch a few maps ago, and some bits of the Egypt level just need you to bump into the right wall to get things to happen).

However, despite the lost feeling of the mediaeval levels and the labyrinthine design of the Aztec levels (like in Quake, there is no automap, but the levels in Hexen II are far more complex and non-linear, meaning that you really need to draw a paper map as you go if you want to have a hope of not going utterly insane), I did somehow make it up to this Egyptian world without any help from a guide - this is something of a spectacular achievement for me as far as adventure-type games go, and even if I do say so myself, even more impressive in this particular overdramatic game of Spot the Difference.

Take a look at this. You'll be seeing it a lot.
But then I hit a barrier. Not a literal one like the ones that I'd got past every time before, but a wide open space that contained something far worse. At this stage of the game, you're trying to collect four canopic jars from around the game world, and there's one clearly visible in the Ancient Temple of Nefertum just over a bridge. This particular bridge is made up of nine tiles arranged in a grid, and elsewhere in a neighbouring map, there are three remarkably similar-looking grids on the wall with bits of them coloured in. So obviously there are three possible combinations to try, and one of them will be the right one. This should be simple, shouldn't it? Shouldn't it?

I'll get you, Michael Gummelt.
I think it's no exaggeration to say that my brother and I spent days repeatedly trying to get past this tic-tac-toe game of doom. None of the three given combinations worked. Neither did any other possible combination when I went through them all. In addition, you can't just hop over the tiles because there are invisible barriers in the way between them and around the sides (which seems an incredibly artificial way of getting the puzzle to be an actual obstacle, while I'm on the subject). Varying the time spent waiting on each tile before continuing had no effect on the outcome. Neither did staying in between the tiles long enough for them to rise again behind the player. Doing the opposite of that and dashing over all the tiles in your sequence as fast as possible was even less helpful. We checked and double-checked that painting on the wall. Suddenly one of us had a brainwave and we tried doing them from top to bottom instead of bottom to top. That didn't help either. We just had to mindlessly keep trying the three combinations we'd been given and hope that somehow, one of them would eventually work.

And one of them did work in the end - after we'd lost count of the number of different techniques and bizarre superstitions we'd attempted, one of the given combinations suddenly produced a "Sequence completed!" message instead of either dumping us outside with a "Nothing seemed to happen" message, or dumping us outside with no message at all - two events that seemed to happen roughly randomly when the game decided the combination was wrong, which usually happened once we'd got to the end of the bridge but sometimes happened at random in the middle just out of spite. So with that canopic jar in our bag, we ran away from it as fast as possible.

But even though by blind luck we got over that bridge eventually, this was the game-ending event that made me give up. Not feeling like dealing with any more of the Egypt level despite the fantastic music, I used the NOCLIP cheat to sink through the floor of the hub room and go to the next world myself. (As it happens, it turns out I could have completed it easily from where I was if I'd been a bit more observant in another map, at the altar that flung me back across the room whenever I went near it. I could have gone underwater instead to avoid the invisible barrier, hammered on the left wall a bit, silently opened a passage at the other side of the level, found that and gone through to collect the last of the four canopic jars from there, then travelled to the afterlife and aligned the sundial to free the Staff of Nefertum from the very start of the world. That would then have allowed me to turn the zodiac dias in the present day as well as 1000 years in the past, therefore aligning it to both equinoxes at the same time and fulfilling the Prophecy of Set. Sounds obvious now I say it.)

The rest of the game is reasonable enough, although this is largely because I had put God mode on by that point and the tiles puzzle had taken so long that GameFAQs had been invented during the time we tried to get past it so I had a guide to see me through. But that nine tiles puzzle always nagged at the back of my mind - I knew there must be some better solution to it that didn't involve sacrificing a raven or pointing your computer in the right alignment with the moon before starting. But I never found it - every guide on the Internet, even the one on Raven's own site, just advised you to keep trying until something magically happened and you were allowed past. Other guides had their own theories about it, but none of them knew for sure.

Last year, after I hadn't thought about it for ages, the lead programmer for Raven Software, Michael Gummelt, suddenly appeared on the Clickteam forums. Naturally I got him talking about his involvement in Hexen II and its most infamous puzzle - the topic still exists here, and we continued it over private messages. I hoped that finally, we would get an answer.

If I recall, the one that was the right one depended on what path you took through the temple. i don't think he (Brian) intended you to know, for sure, which one was the right one. It was just an overthought puzzle that made a lot of people stop playing, unfortunately... :/

So basically, he didn't know either (and also, you'll notice, tried to shift the blame on to Brian Raffel). When no guide on the Internet knows what to do, and the man who wrote the blasted thing can't remember how to get past it, something is definitely wrong. And it looked like no-one would ever know for sure what the game was thinking... but thanks to himself, who put forward a theory that I put to the test a couple of days ago, I now know the secret.

Basically, part of the set of invisible barriers that I mentioned earlier involves having an invisible teleportation field just behind the last row of tiles to stop you from leaping over them and getting the jar that way. This invisible teleporter is meant to turn off when you get the combination right, but they put it a bit too far forward, meaning that more often than not you accidentally step into it while going over the last row of tiles even if your combination was correct. When this happens, you're thrown outside with no message, and the puzzle will be in a weird unstable half-finished state that will fail you at a random point in the future. This is the bit that misleads everyone. The puzzle has only reset itself correctly when you get the message "Nothing seems to happen" when you're teleported outside, because that's the result of a different teleport that triggers when you put the wrong combination in and it's recognized as complete but incorrect.

So in conclusion, all you have to do is crawl/walk very slowly over the last tile that you're going to step on so that you don't hit the badly placed defensive teleporter before the game turns it off, and if that rejects you with the message, just to go back and try one of the other combinations. Using that technique I'm now able to get past it consistently. To be honest I was rather disappointed that the solution was this simple after years of not knowing what was going on, but it's completely baffling until you realize the game bug that makes it quite so accidentally difficult. Once you understand what it's thinking it's easy, but then, you could say this about everything to do with computers, and I have a job trying to get the things to do what I tell them to. I had had a suspicion that there was a difference between getting the message and not getting it, but I had never been able to work out what it was.

So now, thanks to his heroism, I'm now legitimately on the last of the four worlds, which resembles the Roman empire, but beyond that I honestly can't remember anything about because I God-moded and noclipped through the whole thing before. But this time I'm going to finally complete it, because no matter what it throws at me, I'm confident that there's nothing in it nearly as bad as those nine tiles.