January 19, 1999
7 88687 30263 0
Teen – Animated Violence, Animated Blood & Gore
Blood. Sacrifice. Fire.
You are the Voodoo priest Akuji. Claw your way through the vast 3D underworld to exact your revenge on your murderous brother. Savage your enemies with razor sharp claws. Incinerate them with primal voodoo spells like hell blast and spirit strike. Sometimes death is only the beginning.
“If you like your action both dark and magical, Akuji the Heartless is definitely the game to watch for.” – GamePro
- There are no known variants.
- There are no known misprints.
Akuji the Heartless from Crystal Dynamics may not have been on your radar, and if it’s your first time hearing of the title, welcome to the library.
In this action-platformer game, players end up in the role of Akuji, a tribal son who was murdered before his wedding night. With his heart ripped from his chest and cursed by his own brother, our hero is sent to the underworld. His bride-to-be Kesho has been swept away in the madness, preventing the peace their wedding would have provided for their two warring tribes.
As Akuji reaches the underworld, he is met by the keeper of the realm, Baron Samedi. He knows of the dead man’s fate and provides him with an offer he and the player can’t refuse. Travel the abyss removing rival entities as well as performing other tasks. If achieved, the Baron will return Akuji to his rightful place in the living.
Most important is the toll that must be paid. In order to appease the Baron, several wardens of the darkness must be vanquished. In order to do this, tributes in the form of Akuji’s dead ancestors must be collected. There are four heads per stage and each warden requires a set amount to be challenged. Thankfully not all ancestors need to be found, but players will enjoy a hidden end-credits scene if they’re 100% successful.
The placement of the ancestors’ heads is one of the game’s many charms – if you’ll pardon the pun. Their locations come in 4 varieties that I’ve dubbed: Easy, Amusing, I’m-on-to-you, and ‘There’s no way that is how you…SON OF A GUN!’
Easy ones are literally just lying on the floor or clearly on your natural path through the level. Amusing ones are just off the beaten path, a simple side step and a jump usually to snag. ‘I’m-on-to-you’ ones are my favorite as they play off the need to think like a gamer and not like a game player. This may include taking a 90-degree turn during a leap of faith or having to revisit a location once more for it to pop.
The final variant, the “There’s no way…” one is the game’s pride and joy. Because you have to force yourself out of your rhythm to realize their path. This might include not breaking a power-up jar, but instead using it as a stepping stone, climbing the rope rigging of the boat, or realizing that parts of the level decor are also active platforms.
What’s really nice is that if you finish a level and miss any, you can just re-enter and once found, exit back out to the hub level. It’s one of the most player-friendly collecting missions I’ve played in some time and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Based on the same engine as Gex: Enter the Gecko, Akuji’s gameplay is a familiar run-and-explore experience with fighting thrown into the mix. Our heartless wonder has quite the dexterity to him. In the cardio department, besides running he can also climb, blessedly grab ledges, dodge, attack roll, and thrust upward with his arm blades.
If physical violence isn’t a draw, the power-up Voo doo spells found around the levels definitely will be. A wide variety awaits gamers, including homing shots, explosive spells, a zapping orb, and more. I’d like to stop here for a moment and focus on this aspect of the game, as it’s something that needs to be appreciated. Akuji features one of the most balanced, well-tweaked, and thought-out combat animation systems I have ever seen. Every enemy in the game has an exact counter in Akuji’s repertoire. So much so that I found myself rarely using the Voodoo spells – it’s just that intuitive and easy to bounce between the baddies.
Don’t get me wrong, the spells do have their purpose and usefulness, but after two play-throughs, the majority of their time to shine is with the bosses. Or if you get stuck with low health and need to remove a few baddies from afar.
Speaking of the wardens, they’re a particularly fun lot to play against. Leading off with a simple brute-force rival to having the entire level be a boss, the variety is a welcome sight to a genre usually too focused on patterns as their main element. Crystal Dynamic allows for more open-ended attack vectors, letting players mix and match their combat with the magics.
Shifting to the visuals, players are in for a really great time. Crystal Dynamics clearly had fun with level texture work and layouts. No two stages feel the same, and in the final few stages, they become really inventive. One stage sees you inside a labyrinth of lava and spinning saw blades, while the final stage is a shattered sailing vessel. The debris creates the platforms, and the remaining steam engine parts continue working to provide secret areas with very minor puzzle-solving. A rather creative stage re-invents the conveyor belt trope requiring Akuji to traverse on a constantly moving snake body as they both weave in and out of more platforms.
Enemy encounters are also nicely done, with the variety in character designs matched to their varied attacks. Players will find themselves up against grim reapers, floating fire demons, skeletons both walking and crawling, as well as a few creatures and mystical turrets.
Audio junkies who use headphones will find themselves in love with the subtle beats woven into the tribal-inspired soundtrack. But the greatest achievement here is the three voice actors for Kesho, the Baron, and Akuji himself. Kesho only has a few lines, but they’re perfectly executed. The Baron clearly enjoys his brooding voice, knowing he has full control of Akuji’s fate with every word that drips from his wicked grin.
But it is Akuji’s dialogue, delivered by the amazing Richard Roundtree that steals the show. Every standard level begins with a soliloquy from the main man, and it sets the mood for the specific stage. You can feel the tension in his voice, the laments of later realizations, and the weariness of his journey as the final battle is laid out before him.
All of this comes at a price, however, and that toll will change based on how you play Akuji. The game’s framerate is highly inconsistent when there’s more than just you and an enemy on-screen. It can get better or worse based on how close all of you are to the camera and how the level is laid out. The worst seemed to be when I tried it on a PS2 hooked up via component cables to an LCD TV. It’s not unplayable, but it’s not the smoother experience of say Crash or Spyro the Dragon. The Polymega seemed to deflect most of it well, and real hardware on a CRT matched that experience. I did play through the game twice – once on the Polymega with a PSX Classic D-Pad for recording, and then once on real hardware on a CRT with the analog sticks of the Dual Shock. I have to confess, while I get by fine on the D-Pad, the analog stick did wonders for the game’s hairier jumps. Definitely use them on your play-through.
A minor gripe also comes by way of the Level descriptions. Sometimes they sound crazy cool, and then reality sets in. One, in particular, tells you it’s imperative to enshrine the demons back into the tombs…and it’s just pressing two buttons. Not exactly the underworld-shattering conquest I was inferring.
There is one final matter of discussion, and that’s the ending of the game. Not the final battle, but the actual reward for completing your quest. After 6 hours of amazing Richard Roundtree voice-overs, dark foreboding levels, and the Baron’s own treachery, the ending is…cute.
Like, honest to voodoo, cute. It didn’t ruin the experience, and I genuinely chuckled at the confusing choice of emotion. But after twice finishing it and then going back to reconfirm some things for this review, I’m still left with an empty feeling. Like there should have been a more epic final battle, or maybe an extra level. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I know I wanted just a little more than what I got. With no follow-up ever being made, it’s sadly the last impression the ga
mer leaves with. Thankfully, it really doesn’t impede a third or 4th play-through down the road.
Akuji the Heartless is a fantastic game – one that fends off performance issues with almost perfect combat balance and gorgeous landscapes. But days after completing it twice across two platforms and controller styles, that emptiness still remains. Almost like having your heart ripped out.
On the Game-Rave review scale, it’s a ‘Great’ 8 out of 10.
- Great move vs enemy move balance
- Level design is clever and inventive
- Required item collection is fun
- Framerate can have inconsistencies
- Even after 2 runs, something still seems missing
- Half the voodoo spells go unused
Final Score: 8/10 – Great
Akuji the Heartless is a flawed but great game trapped on the original PlayStation. It deserves a follow-up or even remake on modern hardware.
Video version of the review.
- In the hidden ending (see Secrets Tab), there is a creature that looks suspiciously like a prehistoric equivalent to Gex, Crystal Dynamics’ then mascot.
- Officer Byrd from Judge Judy is the voice of the Baron!
- Richard Roundtree voices Akuij.
- Shares the same game engine as Gex: Enter the Gecko.
- During the final boss fight, several of the blue diamond containers can be found in various locations. Each diamond moves in a way that requires using each of Akuji’s attack moves to break, including using voodoo magic.
- Plot hole (non-spoiler): At the end of the game, Kesho makes a revelation to Akuji that negates part of the original story set-up. This discovery is never finalized or explored in the end scene or hidden ending scene.
These are unlockable content and a Debug Menu for Akuji the Heartless.
- Debug Mode
Pause the game: Hold L2 or R2 and press Left, Up, Up, Triangle, Right, Square, Left, Triangle, Up, Down, Right, Right. You’ll hear a sound to confirm. This gives access to a Level Select Menu. You can turn on cheats, choose from two debug stat screens, and the Level Select. Under the boss-level choices, you’ll find a Map Test Mode.
- Infinite Voodoo Spells
Once you have a Voodoo Spell, pause the game: Hold L2 or R2 and press Left, Triangle, Left, Left, Circle, Left, Triangle, Right, Circle, Up, Up, Down. You’ll hear a sound to confirm. You must repeat this whenever you pick up a Spirit Spell.
Pause the game: Hold L2 or R2 and press Right, Right, Left, Triangle, Cross, Up, Circle, Left. You’ll hear a sound to confirm.
- Hidden End Sequence
If you successfully collect all 52 of 52 Ancestor heads, there will be a hidden ending after the credits. Akuji is seen hunting and doing acrobatics while his wife dances.