Well, like I promised last time, today’s review is from a GOOD action PC game and it’s also one of the first games produced by a famous game developer. I’m talking about Blackthorne.
Blackthorne (AKA Blackhawk in Europe) is an action/platform game developed by Blizzard and published by Interplay. It was originally released in 1994 for DOS and SNES/Super Nintendo. It was ported the next year for the SEGA 32X and the following year for Macintosh and the PC-98. It was re-released in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance and in 2013 for Windows.
But as always, let’s look at the covers first:
Wow! With famous comic book artist Jim Lee responsible for this cover art, Blizzard wasn’t pulling any punches when promoting the game. It features our protagonist, armed with a shotgun, posing as the badass he is. With an equal badass title logo, this would be one of the best covers I’ve ever seen, if it wasn’t for the lack of background. Although I kind of like the red colour on our protagonist.
And yes, this is the type of cover I would like for the gamebox (this is the jewel case cover). Featuring a proper background and even one the enemies you face on the game behind the protagonist. Although some might say that this looks more like a comic book cover than a computer game cover, I think I prefer this one.
And apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so, because almost every other cover had the coloured art version, like this one:
Yes, this is the full cover art and it’s probably the reason why the SNES/Super Nintendo version is the most famous version of the game.
But for the Game Boy Advance re-release, another cover by a different artist was used:
It’s not bad and the lines look better, but as far as content go, it’s no different than the original cover. They should have used the back cover instead:
Now this look badass! And featuring one of the reasons why this game is famous: the not-looking back shot! Not very practical, but it does look awesome!
But enough talking about the covers and let’s boot this sucker:
In the title screen, you have the badass logo featured in the covers and the traditional options menu, plus a Practice level which is basically a tutorial to learn all the necessary moves needed to play the game and if you select New Game, you’re treated to the game’s intro.
The intro, despite being somewhat small, explains everything you need to know about the backstory: in the world of Tuul, the evil Ka’dra’suul (who look a lot like the orcs from the Warcraft series) led by Sarlac, wage war on the human-like Androthi (again, just like in Warcraft). But as the Ka’dra’suul are raiding Androth’s royal castle, King Vlaros asks the court wizard, Galadril, to sent his infant son Kyle to Earth. But 20 years later while hitchhiking, the now adult Kyle (calling himself Blackthorne) is sent back to Tuul, where he must avenge his father, rescue his people and defeat the evil Sarlac armed only with his boomstick. And if you wish to know more, the manual expands upon the backstory and reveals more about the protagonist.
Like I said before, you start the game armed only with a shotgun (with infinite ammo), but you can pick up other items like bombs, potions, keys, etc. from enemies or other Androthi you encounter throughout the levels. You can also upgrade your shotgun and raise your health bar in some specific levels. You go through 17 levels divided in 4 areas. In each level, you need to get keys, bombs and other items to open doors and barriers in order to progress to the next level, beating all kinds of enemies and avoiding traps along the way. But everytime you start a new level, you lose all the items you gathered in the previous level (meaning you have to get them all over again) but at least your health bar is recharged back to full.
The combat system is a bit more strategic than most action games. You can dodge attacks simply by pressing yourself against the background (you’ll notice this as Blackthorne gets darker), but your enemies can also do the same. So basically, most combat revolves around dodging attacks until you get an opening to attack. Patience and quick reflexes are the key to victory. You can also run past most enemies but some of them carry items necessary to solve the environmental puzzles. And the enemies get progressively harder and harder, but at least your shotgun and your health bar get upgraded throughout the game.
And the difficulty also grows exponentially as you progress, but I only found the game starting to get hard from the 2nd area forward. Luckily apart from the upgrades, you also have infinite lives, so you can try again and again, although everytime you die, you need to restart the level all over again (which can be a drag if you die near the end of a level).
But the gem in the crown is the mix of action and platforming which is very reminiscent from other titles like Prince of Persia, Another World or Flashback. It’s very fluid and fast-paced (but perhaps not as much as the titles I mentioned), but then the combat sections slow that fluidity to a halt (although an experienced player can combine the running and the dodging with the back shot to keep it somewhat fluid). Yes, Kyle can use a back shot by stretching his arm backwards, without looking or aiming. Very useful (and badass looking) when you’re in the middle of two enemies but not very realistic.
Another great aspect of the game are its graphics: all the levels are very detailed and beautiful, with a fantastic color palette, from the backgrounds to the gothic aesthetic in the last area. And the animation is equally superb, especially during the cutscenes and Kyle’s idle animations (which contribute to the overall atmosphere of the game). Despite the DOS version having a small resolution, the artstyle is top-notch and it doesn’t shy away from some light gore, like blood and exposed wounds.
The level design is very well made and apart from some later levels, you won’t need maps to figure your way around them. Although you might have trouble in some screens figuring out where you can climb up to an upper screen. Although the levels aren’t too big (although you might have to take some long routes in the later levels), the game itself has quite a proper length, mostly due to the puzzles and figuring out where all the items are (and some hidden areas here and there).
Also there is a good variety of enemies from the aforementioned Ka’dra’suul (that come in different colors and respective ranks of difficulty) to other beasts. But I wish the game had boss fights at the end of the last level of each area, apart from the final boss, that is. In fact, when you watch the cutscenes, you might get convicted of the contrary.
For such an hardcore action game, you might expect an hard-rock soundtrack, right? Well, the soundtrack is actually a bit subdued in contrast with the action on screen. The initial levels have some upbeat themes but as you progress through the game, the music gets more ominous and nerving, but each theme suits its level quite well. I actually found the music a bit relaxing and not a bit distracting. It contributes a lot to the game’s atmosphere. And the sound effects are equally good (especially some enemies’ grunts).
And like I said in past reviews featuring action games, the controls are probably the most important feature for such games and Blackthorne has very responsive keyboard controls. But here lies the game’s biggest flaw: both the original DOS version and the re-released version aren’t compatible with any joystick or gamepad, especially if you’re playing in a native DOS computer. It’s technically possible to remap the keyboard controls with a gamepad if you’re using Dosbox, but I couldn’t do it with the re-release version that comes bundled with Dosbox.
So, in conclusion, Blackthorne is probably one of the best action/platform games ever made for the PC, despite being eclipsed by other classic titles in the same genre (like the aforementioned Prince of Persia or Flashback). Still, it’s a very solid game with great controls, gameplay (albeit only through keyboard), graphics and animation. Needless to say that I recommend it for any action game fan!
I haven’t played any of the console versions but I do know that the SNES/Super Nintendo version is probably the most famous one (mostly due to the fact that you can play it using a gamepad!), although the gore is censored. But the Sega 32X version might be the definite version due to its superior graphics and an extra area with 4 more levels. But I did play the Mac version which has a bigger resolution and better graphics than the DOS version and a very similar gameplay.
I’m sure you’re already searching through digital stores for this game, but what if I tell you that it’s completely free? That’s right! In 2013, Blizzard re-released an updated version bundled with Dosbox at Battle.net free of charge! What are you waiting for? Go and get it!
And that was the review. Whew, that was a lengthy one! But I did promise to review a proper action title. So I hope you don’t mind if for the next review, I choose a game from a totally different genre. And it’s one of my personal favorites too. Until then, practice your no-scope back shot and keep on playing!