Genre:   Action, RPG

Developer:    Silverback Entertainment

Publisher:    DreamCatcher Interactive

Released:   2003

PC Requirements:    Pentium III 500 MHz; Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP; DirectX 8.0 compatible 3D accelerator with at least 16MB of video RAM DirectX 8.0; Compatible Sound Card; 128 MB RAM; 650 MB available hard drive space; 4x CD-ROM drive




by Singer

I liked Harbinger.

I needed to say right off the bat that I had fun playing this game, because much of what follows will focus on how the game tripped and flailed and stumbled and bumbled… all the way into my game-loving heart.  If I really wanted to bash the game for its myriad of faults and failures, I could have a lot of fun doing it, but the fact is that Harbinger succeeds almost in spite of itself.  Strange, but true.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Harbinger, you’ve likely heard the catch phrase “Diablo in space”.  I have no problem with this advertisement except for two things – you never really experience space, and it ain’t no Diablo.  Other than that, though, the description is pretty accurate!

Developed by newcomers Silverback Entertainment and published by DreamCatcher, Harbinger does have a LOT in common with Blizzard’s acclaimed action/RPG.  From the fixed isometric perspective, to the painless point and click-fest method of movement and combat, the hack ‘n slash dungeon crawl, linear story, and the wafer-thin RPG elements, Silverback clearly snuck more than a few peeks at the Diablo design documents when creating Harbinger.  Is this a bad thing??  Heck no!  And they aren’t the first to have tried, either.  There’s a REASON Diablo has remained one of the most popular games of all time - its accessible, addictive gameplay - and that’s exactly what Harbinger is hoping to emulate.  Before I get into specifics of how it fared in that regard, let’s look at what ELSE Harbinger brings to the table.

In a welcome break from the traditional fantasy worlds of most RPG’s, Harbinger is a futuristic sci-fi game.  The title is taken from the name of the massive ship that floats through space on a relentless path of destruction under the oppressive control of a malicious Overlord.  Among the “inhabitants” of the Harbinger are races such as the armoured Vantir, the mystical Scintilla, and the insectoid Cimicidae; all enslaved races that the Overlord has deceived into warring amongst themselves to prevent them from rebelling against their own imprisonment.  Of course, there’s also a tiny ragtag band opposed to the Overlord and seeking a means to escape, including you – mercenary for hire and ever-so-reluctant hero. 

Beginning the game, you are free to pick between three different characters – a human male, a robotic Gladiator, and a female Culibine (an alien who happens to be the last of her species).  There are absolutely no stats to fuss over, and no way to determine strengths and weaknesses at the outset.  So, there’s nothing for it but to jump in feet first and see where it takes you. 

Despite the lack of player input on character creation, I liked Harbinger.

Regardless of the character you choose, the game begins in a small “outpost” called Torvus Junction, where you will meet several of the game’s NPC’s, including Torvus, creator and inventor, Ona, an alien salesman, and Leisha, who appears with a chip on her shoulder early in the game.  You’ll also encounter a couple other bizarre aliens called Wik and Silus, and from these five characters you will receive each of your quests. 

The manual claims that “questing” is the central focus of the game, and technically it’s true that you’ll spend your  time performing errands such as retrieving stolen items, making rescue attempts, or corrupting vital technology.  However, these quests are not particularly engaging, and serve as little more than a backdrop for the REAL focus of the game – smokin’ baddies.  Yes, you will spend the vast majority of your time in Harbinger fighting off hordes of enemies through level after level, the reward for which usually being even MORE enemies.  Oh, and occasionally you’ll reach a stage where you accomplish your mission and say, “Oh YEAH!!  That’s what this was all about!”  At which point, you’ll return to Torvus Junction for a fine how-do-you-do and receive your next “quest”.

Despite the laughably simple premise, I liked Harbinger.

The game actually does try hard to provide a meaningful story, yet continually manages to undermine most of its own efforts.  This is noticeable right from the opening cutscene, which is a delightful but ENTIRELY irrelevant depiction of Wik making himself a herp (slug) milkshake.  If that were the tone of the rest of the game, I’d be praising it for its gutsy lightheartedness.  As it is, I must instead complain that it was a lost opportunity to really draw the gamer into the complex story it tries so hard to otherwise create. 

Once you leave Torvus Junction, the plot is revealed in large part by meeting up with a stranger known affectionately as “Smiley”, who just so happens to look like a... well, smiley.  By conversing with him electronically through scattered terminals across the ship, you learn more about the background of the warring factions, the role of the Overlord, etc.  This was a nice touch, but unfortunately it came across as a disjointed tale, particularly as you don’t get the COMPLETE story playing as any one character.  Sure, that may be something of an enticement to play the game as the other two characters, but it’s confusing and feels like being cheated somewhat until then.  In fact, even as a fully revealed narrative, the story ends up being largely wasted; a minor diversion that simply slows down the monster bashing.  I’m always disappointed when such care is taken to establish a detailed backstory, and then see its potential frittered away.  Having said that, though, there were a FEW moments where the story leapt out of its complacency and made me take notice, so all was not lost in that department.

Despite the weaknesses in plot, I liked Harbinger.

Harbinger promises a unique experience for each of the three characters, but that is only partly true.  Each different scenario contains one or two unique quests, but that means that the rest of the time you’re covering all the same ground as you did previously.  Again, while crediting the developers with adding SOME new content, I was certainly expecting more than was delivered, particularly since the maps are not even randomly generated (as in Diablo), which means covering the same ground REALLY means covering the exact same ground.  NO, you’re not experiencing déjà vu… you’ve just done this twice already…

Here’s where I’d like to tell you that the three characters handle quite differently, at least.  No dice.  They do indeed have different abilities, but apart from a few novelties, they end up playing remarkably similar.  The human is the well-rounded character for strength and speed and has the ability to set mine traps, while the Gladiator is stronger but slower, and is able to deploy remote cameras (some of which are armed) to scout areas ahead.  Each of these has ranged and melee attacks, and carries weapons and armour with various slots for special upgrades.  Honestly, I found myself playing these characters in an almost identical fashion, and only remembering to use the specialized items as an amusement on occasion, because it was invariably quicker and easier to go in with guns ‘ablazing. 

The Culibine at least offers a few distinct features.  She wears no protective armour, so is much more vulnerable to attack, but unlike the others, she slowly regenerates her health.  Her ranged attack is the slowest to unleash, so more distance is needed between you and an enemy to unleash it.  Rather than a melee option, the Culibine has a radial attack which affects damage in a 360 degree radius.  She also has slots for special offensive or defensive amplifiers, which are useful in combat, but require a separate type of regenerating power.  I found the Culibine to be by far the most interesting of the three to play, simply because there were more options, and seemed to involve slightly more strategy than the other two characters.

Despite the similarities among the three characters, I liked Harbinger.

The lack of variety is not limited to the character abilities, but also to the levels, enemies, weapons and items.  Harbinger’s method of transportation is through umbilicals and portals, which theoretically allow you to travel to any part of the ship.  Unfortunately, despite this unlimited gameworld, which really could have offered some creative map design, everything looks virtually identical - an endless string of desolate metal ruins.  The hallways, rooms, platforms, machinery, and scattered junk all start to blend together, and even the names make you question yourself… “Hmm, I’m in the outer prison hallway… haven’t I been here?  Looks familiar… Oh, no – that was the inner lab chamber… or was that the upper processing corridor?…“

Aside from the levels looking far too similar, there aren’t nearly enough enemy types populating them, either.  The game claims there are over 65 different enemy types, but many of these are differentiated only by slight cosmetic changes.  Personally, I don’t care if a “Biter” is blue, red, brown or green… it’s still a Biter to me.  However, of the selection we DID get, I was reasonably impressed with the models.

Weapons are equally limited.  Although there were always several for sale, by the time I could afford to buy one, I had already found one of equal strength, and I’m sure I never used more than two or three different weapons the entire game for any character.  I can’t conceive of a reason why the developers would not provide for a more reasonable progression of weapons (and armour, for that matter), which would have created much more interest in leveling up, scouring the various chests, or hoarding items to trade for cash.  As it is, I quickly learned to leave most of the scattered junk alone, as there was simply never anything worth saving up my money for.

Fortunately, the weapons could be altered with various chips designed to modify the type of ammo used.  While plasma is the most common, and causes a reasonable amount of damage to all enemies, there are also EMP, electricity, and disruption ammo types, among others, which have a special impact on certain races (and are virtually useless against others).  Still, given the limitations of inventory size, it was impractical to stay equipped with chips (or Culibine amps) for all contingencies, so plowing ahead with only plasma was frequently my resigned strategy.

Despite the repetitive details, I liked Harbinger.

Stat management is something of a joke in Harbinger.  As in all such games, experience points are earned by defeating enemies and completing quests, but leveling up provides only a very limited opportunity to personalize your character.  Each one has a mere four skill types that can be increased, and all are related to fighting or defensive ability.  There isn’t even a cursory attempt to throw in variables like trap detection (there are none), or line-of-sight improvement (visibility always remains frustratingly limited… and note to developers - when looking forward, I can see farther in FRONT of me than I can see BEHIND me, so please adjust accordingly), or anything else to make the game feel a little more dynamic. 

Despite the lack of any significant RPG elements, I liked Harbinger.

Fighting itself can often be an exercise in tedium, as well.  Until melee abilities (or radial for the Culibine) are built up substantially later in the game, ranged attacks are clearly the order of the day, so fights usually become a repetitive pattern of shooting, retreating, and shooting again.  As each enemy requires several (or many) shots to kill, by the time I finished most battles, I had to run a fair distance just to get BACK to where the fight had begun, and often then be forced to repeat the process until I’d cleared out any and all enemies.   Yes, I realize this is the point of the game, but it still got annoying having to spend so much time going backwards.

This is compounded by the fact that both movement and targeting enemies (not to mention all interaction with people and items) are done through the left mouse button.  This means it’s incredibly easy to accidentally order your character to run headlong towards an enemy rather than fire on him as you intended.  True, the game designates the Shift key as a “stand in place” command, but as you must keep MOVING to avoid fire, standing in place is no more desirable than running in the wrong direction.  It’s a nuisance that should have been ironed out, since combat is the very heart of Harbinger’s gameplay.

Despite my scaredy-cat tactics, I found Harbinger to be one of the EASIEST games to play.  Sure, I died a handful of times, but often only when I KNEW I was pushing my luck (and/or doing something incredibly stupid – don’t ask!)  No matter which character I used, I was often forced to start discarding health “potions” because I had far more than I needed cluttering my inventory.  Even the “boss” battles I generally found to be remarkably unchallenging, as they were all slow and methodical and relatively ineffective, requiring only patience to beat.  If enemies increased in difficulty at all as the game progressed, it was completely nullified by the improved strength of your character, so fighting an enemy near the end of the game felt no different than fighting one early on.  Personally, I didn’t mind the slightly easier challenge, but as there are no difficulty settings, those looking for something harder are out of luck.

Despite the monotonous nature of the combat, I liked Harbinger.

Graphically, Harbinger is appealing enough, if somewhat simplistic.  The backgrounds are crisp and clean, the characters are all nicely rendered, and animations are smooth.  There were several nice touches, mostly involving active machinery like the umbilicals and special housing equipment for several of the bosses.  The interface for each character had a distinct look, which was a feature I appreciated.  Still, I found details to be rather minimal, particularly for a 2D presentation, and as I said, everything looked too similarly dull and drab to really be an attraction.  This gave the overall image a somewhat “dated” look, as if it would have been noteworthy a couple years ago, but merely mediocre today.  There were also some graphical inconsistencies, such as enemies not appearing behind corners as they were supposed to, which meant you could practically walk on top of them before ever being aware of their presence, giving them a nice clear look at the whites of your eyes.

Sound quality was one of the game’s stronger points.  The voice acting, although not extensive, was done well across the board, and dialogue even had some nice touches of humour.  Harbinger’s music was subtle, but eerie, and did a good job of conveying the proper atmosphere for the game.  Sound effects were all nicely presented, including the various enemy and weapon noises.  Again, however, there were a few drawbacks.  For instance, in several areas that included generators which produced a faint hum, all other noises were completely drowned out, which led to battles in virtual silence.  At other times, my characters were running through what could only be described as purple “goo”, and yet footfall sounded identical to running on the metal floors.  Neither of these examples is a big deal, of course, but still something that shouldn’t happen in a professional product.   

In a stunning departure from its Diablo role model, Harbinger offers no multiplayer option at all.  Unfortunately, this will seriously affect the replay appeal of this game for a great many players, and it seems hard to believe Silverback and DreamCatcher would allow such an omission.

Other minor gripes include the pathetic aiming ability of my characters.  And yes, I mean my characters, not me.  I could literally be standing toe to toe with an enemy in the latter part of the game, with my ranged skill maxed out, and still miss point blank four or five times in a row.  That’s not right.   One design choice that I didn’t like was the tiny inventory.  Sure, I understand the philosophy behind limited inventory, but not only did I find this one undersized, there was no way to quickly organize it, so it was continually necessary to manually shuffle items around to fit larger items in, and since most of the quest items were huge, it was often necessary to do so.  Perhaps even that wouldn’t have been so bad except for one horrendous, spirit-crushing incident…

Apparently, at one point of my inventory shuffling near the end of my human campaign, I must have accidentally DROPPED a vital quest item, and proceeded without realizing it.  Once I discovered it missing, I was incredibly disappointed to realize I would need to go on a treasure hunt to find a needle in a haystack, only to become royally  ticked that for the first time all game, the umbilicals would not let me reverse my tracks!  In other words, the game had effectively created a dead end for me about 10 minutes from the endgame.  Nice!!

Despite these little quibbles and one excruciating heartache, I liked… well, hang on – no, I’m STILL steamed about the dead end.

So why DID I like this game that clearly has so many holes??  Mainly because it succeeds at its most basic level.  Harbinger is an incredibly simple, point and shoot action/RPG that draws you in one enemy, one click at a time.  It never feels overwhelming; never asks more than “just a little bit more”.  Story?  Sure, it’s there to add a little window dressing where necessary, but for the most part it’s a matter of story-shmory.  Just bash and dash, baby!  … See?  The game is so simplistic even my mind is turning to mush!  But you know what?  My brain works hard enough the rest of the time – sometimes it’s nice just to let loose a little, and Harbinger rolls out the red carpet for just such an occasion.

Harbinger doesn’t measure up to Diablo in almost any category of direct comparison, but it succeeds just enough to capture the right degree of that game’s addictive nature.  Add to that an under-utilized science fiction setting (even if it fails to properly capitalize on the infinite creative possibilities), and you’re left with really the only game of its kind.   Beyond that, aside from a few unfortunate freezes, the game ran smoothly for me unpatched, and the save-anywhere feature is present and accounted for (not always a guarantee these days).

Anyone looking for a deep, engaging RPG experience had best move right along, because you won’t find that in Harbinger.  Anyone hoping to see a title topple the almighty Diablo at its own game will be disappointed.  In fact, anyone hoping for a polished product that raises the bar of quality will be equally let down here.  But for anyone (and I KNOOOOOW you’re out there!) who might be interested in a refreshingly simple, stress-relieving, action/RPG romp through the corridors of a spaceship of doom, Harbinger is the game for you. 

Final score: 73%

Played on: 

Win XP

Pentium 4, 2 GHz

512 MB RAM

GeForce 4


This document may not be distributed without express written permission of the author and the content may not be altered in any way.

For questions or comments on this review,
Please write to: Singer

design copyright © 2003 GameBoomers Group

 GB Staff Reviews Index