Game Review: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

Released in 2006, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a medieval first person action game. Players take on the role of Sareth a young man under the apprenticeship of a wizard named Phenrig. The story begins with the Sareth retrieving a magic crystal, and then being asked to take it to the wizard Menalag in the city of Stonehelm. From there Sareth is asked to perform many more tasks, meanwhile discovering his own dark past, and his destiny as the Dark Messiah. The majority of the game is focused around the city of Stonehelm, it’s sewars, and a mountain top temple, and a lair traversed to by way of portal.

For some background on Might and Magic. The series first began in 1986 with the release of Might and Magic Book I: Secret of the Inner Sanctum by New World Computing. Might and Magic I was an open-world party-based RPG with all the elements to make a very popular game, and subsequent series. Eight more RPG games would be released in the series, leading up to Might and Magic IX in 2002 which would be the last of the RPGs in the series. The popular spin-off Heroes of Might and Magic, a series of turn based strategy games, evolved from the RPG series. There were various other less popular spin-offs as well. Meanwhile in 1996 New World Computing became a subsidiary of The 3DO Company. Though, each of these games had their own plots, the canon of the Might and Magic universe was fairly consistent, with Might and Magic VI more-or-less being a sequel to Heroes II, and each of the Heroes and RPG games being tied together, although often loosely.

3DO declared bankruptcy in 2003, following which 3DO auctioned off their intellectual property and Might and Magic was sold to Ubisoft Entertainment. Ubisoft announced that they would be developing a fifth game in the Heroes series, as well as another game Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. It was quickly realized that only the brand name Might and Magic would be used, and that both Heroes V and Dark Messiah would not be related to the lore created by New World Computing, instead they would have completely new stories, in a new universe, though, Dark Messiah would be set in the same world as Heroes V. It was to the disappointment of many fans that Might and Magic would not be seeing another RPG, and instead they were being given an action-oriented game.

As mentioned this game is best described as a medieval first-person action game, a fairly rare genre that gained some popularity with the Heretic and Hexen series, but one that has never shown promise, for reasons that will be made obvious in this review. The game itself features fairly straightforward levels, usually linear, but with a few opportunities to approach obstacles in a different way. It is powered by Valve’s Source Engine (the driving force behind Half-Life 2) and alongside that engine the game features stunning graphics.

The graphics and level design are absolutely astounding. While the Gothic architecture alone is enough to impress the most avid of fantasy gamers, the actual concepts are even more astonishing. One of the levels is a mountaintop temple. Which means it is a temple/monastery built on the walls of a canyon. The player will be excited to look across a deep canyon to see buildings hanging from the cliffs of the other side. This serves as a realization to the fact that they are standing in the same types of buildings, and at the snap of a rope, or the breaking of a board, the very spot that they are standing could collapse into the gorge below. Obviously this doesn’t happen all the time, but there is one building that will collapse, and just the thought of it is exciting.

The level design in general is excellent. Even the sewers are well done. Naturally, a sewer might be a boring rehash of various pipelines, but in this game there are goblin encampments built into the sewers which give the feel that the player is more than just wading through waste-water, but that they are in a location that has become a community of monsters. All of the dungeons and underground levels give the player the epic feeling as seen in the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. All are beautifully rendered as well, the game is as gorgeous as any game from 2006 could be. The game doesn’t just focus on the places where the player can stand, but backdrops are designed to enhance the overall feel of being somewhere epic.
This game is proof that beautiful graphics, well designed Gothic levels, and lush environments do not make a good game.

While the graphics are excellent, this game proves one thing: good graphics and level design don’t make a good game. The bottom line is that a game needs to be fun to be good, and this game isn’t fun. The thing that makes this game so bad is the combat, and being that this is a combat-centric game, nothing about this game is fun. Pretty much every moment of the game is frustration, uncontrollable temper-loss, waiting forever for a save-game to reload, and cussing out the designers of the game.

The combat is awful. The player is awarded skill points throughout the game, with which they can upgrade various skills. There are basically three types of skills the player can upgrade: combat, stealth, and magic. No matter which style the player chooses to focus on, they will be disappointed. Magic is almost useless. Sure there are some powerful spells, but they take forever to cast, and so a player can get maybe one shot off, and then they’ve got to start running backwards to get the next shot off. Even then they are lucky if they actually hit their opponent with the spell they cast. Further, when Sareth runs backwards he is about as slow as a slug, so the enemy is going to catch up with him and beat him to the ground. If you want to run away, you have to turn around, run for the limited amount of time that you actually can run, then turn back around and hopefully the enemy is far enough away that you can get another shot off without being killed.

Sword and shield combat is just as bad. Enemies are too tough. One of the mechanics behind the game, was to use physics to kill enemies. That means that you fight in such a way to get enemies near a loose piece of architecture, then you whack the architecture, perhaps a wooden plank with some barrels on top of it, with your foot or sword, then something falls on the enemy and kills them. Alternatively you can coax your opponent so that they are between you and a set of spikes on the wall, at which time you kick them into the spikes and they experience instant death. There are also many opportunities to kick enemies over the edge of a cliff. There are many problems with this style of game-play, the first being that once you get into a combat situation, you are going to be focusing on dispatching the enemy, and running away as necessary, so you are unlikely to see what type of architecture you can use to your advantage until after the enemies are already dead, then you think to yourself “oh, I could have knocked that over”. The next problem being that you face too many enemies at once, maybe you can get one enemy lined up just right to kick them into certain death, but when you are facing five at a time, your pretty much screwed.

The last option you have is to take enemies down with sword and shield, but the sword just doesn’t do any damage. It literally doesn’t do any damage, when you hit an opponent with the sword, or any other weapon, they always block it. You have to do power swings to do any damage, which take forever to charge, and even most of the time those get blocked. Soon enough you find yourself dead and reloading your last quick-save, yelling at the game about how bad it is. Later in the game, and once you have enough skill points, you can get better at cutting through an enemy’s defenses, but this comes far too late, and it still isn’t fun.

Maybe you developed a part magic, part combat character, in which case you think you would be able to cast a spell that causes the enemy to be stunned or frozen, then use your weapon on them. In theory this should work, except that switching between weapons is a pain in the behind. You see if you want to equip a weapon and shield you must equip the weapon, then the shield, there is no way to equip both at once, and the whole inventory system for equipping and using items is so bad, that if you were to freeze an enemy with a spell, by the time you switch to your sword, the enemy would already be back on it’s feet. You see you have to switch to combat spells to use them, thus sheathing your weapon and shield.
Sareth cannot see what is below him, because he refuses to move his shield aside.

The truth is that this game goes too far with it’s level of realism. In real life combat would be difficult, but in the video game world it isn’t fun. The game makes every step that Sareth takes as realistic as possible. The camera bounces around like crazy, when you look down you see Sareth’s body, not to mention that if you are carrying a shield you can’t look down at all, as all you will see is the shield. You need a shield if you want to survive. You have to put the shield away if you want to enjoy the visuals, but you will not be enjoying the visuals, because you’ll have your shield, and you won’t put it away because of the frustration of switching between inventory items.

The final boss is the most anxiety you will experience. After excruciating combat where even the most simplest of enemies has caused countless shouts of greef, the last thing you want to do is fight an enemy that is even tougher. Well, perhaps the satisfying thing is that it isn’t that tough of a battle. You fight a Wizard and his summoned dragon, but it is surprisingly not that hard. As long as you have enough potions. Is the ending worth it, though? No, it isn’t. This game is not worth playing at all. The only reason anyone would play this is if they were a hard-core Might and Magic fan, but even then, since it isn’t connected to the original lore it can easily be skipped, as well as it should be.

Medieval first person combat has never worked. First person action games have always been best served as shooters. Anytime heavy hand to hand combat is involved the game is bound to have problems, and this game is no exception. There is a reason why there aren’t very many games of this type, they aren’t very good, and no one has figured out how to make them good.

Rating: 4/10

Alternatives: None worth playing, but if you want medieval try a full-fledged RPG such as Oblivion.