There was a period in time when the side-scrolling action-adventure was a dominant computer game genre. Computer side-scrollers were differentiated from their console counterparts by relying more upon puzzle solving than button pushing, with two games - Out of this World and Flashback - being prime examples of the genre (a complete list would also have to include the Prince of Persia games, the Dark Castle games, and even early efforts like Karateka, Conan, and Bruce Lee). The genre returns to its roots with Amazing Studios' Heart of Darkness, a simple and frustrating little chunk of a side scroller.
The only recent game to which Heart of Darkness can be compared is Abe's Oddysee, but even that comparison comes up a little short. Abe's was pure puzzle solving; Heart of Darkness is a mixture of action-oriented puzzles and puzzle-oriented action. As such, it can really only be compared to Flashback and Out of this World, a not-so-surprising fact considering that Amazing Studios is made up of numerous people who worked on both of those games. Like its predecessors, Heart of Darkness is made up of a series of static screens. In each screen there is a small puzzle, or piece of a larger puzzle that will encompass several screens. The puzzle can be as simple as jumping over a crawling beast or as complex as figuring out how to activate some mechanism that will open a door several screens away while keeping an ever-increasing number of enemies at bay.
As I said, it's frustrating. Many will find it far too frustrating, but Out of this World and Flashback (both generally acknowledged as great games) were equally as hard. Heart of Darkness will test your reflexive ability, your timing, and your eye-hand coordination. But more than anything, it will test your patience. You'll repeat segments over and over and over again until perfecting them, and then you'll die on the next segment and have to do them over.
What's most impressive about Heart of Darkness is its environment. Story-wise, it's not much different from one of those movies about kids and their associated monsters that became a dime a dozen in the wake of ET. You play Andy, a little boy who has lost his dog during an eclipse. More directly, the dog was lost to the eclipse, snatched away to some nether realm of darkness and shadow. Andy, though, has a hat made out of a colander and some lights, a toy gun that shoots lightning, and, best of all, an airplane - so everything should work out fine.
OK, so the story isn't that great. But once Andy gets to the nether realm, the art and enemy design is fantastic. The enemies are mostly shadowy, simian-like creatures, which are entirely black except for their glowing green eyes. Other enemies aren't just shadowy, but actual shadows - and you'll have to knock out the object creating them to get past. It creates a truly hostile, frightening world, and more importantly, the designers are able to reuse the same enemies in many different ways to keep the progression challenging.
The graphics themselves are almost the game's best point. At a higher resolution, they would be beautiful - the incredibly lifelike animations and detailed backdrops are pretty marvelous. Unfortunately, the low resolution keeps things a little blocky, which puts a damper on the obvious care put into the art. Said low resolution is the only clue that the game has been in development as long as it has (anywhere from five to seven years according to various sources); the game itself is quite short. The sound is always appropriate, and the music, sparse as it may be, is a dramatic score performed by the London Philharmonic Symphony.
Apart from the difficulty, there was only one other frustrating factor to Heart of Darkness: the end. It simply didn't feel like an ending. The game (or at least the story) sort of just stops. Sure, there's a big cinematic at the conclusion (and it's important to note that the cinematics are quite impressive), but it doesn't feel like a satisfying conclusion. There is, however, a great little surprise after the credits if you manage to sit through them.
Heart of Darkness isn't a bad game. It's a bit short and a bit frustrating, but it's always moderately fun and occasionally very fun. Those who played Out of this World and Flashback will probably be more forgiving of its shortcomings and will undoubtedly feel some sense of nostalgia as they work their way through Heart of Darkness. Others will probably see a game that could have been incredible had it come out four or five years ago but now is just a somewhat nice-looking fairy tale with a vague story and the strange effect of causing people to tear their hair out, clump by clump.