Game: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic
Developer: Arkane Studios
Genre: Fantasy FPS
Game Version: Patched to 1.02
The Might and Magic name was originally associated with a now long-running RPG series, beginning way back in 1986 and spanning 9 games by 2002. It’s now also associated with the acclaimed series of turn based strategy games, Heroes of Might and Magic, now spanning 5 games and a whole bunch of expansion packs. Dark Messiah bears little resemblance to either of those series other than the title, being instead a first person action game in a fantasy setting.
The plot involves you, in the guise of Sareth, the lead character, heading off to find some thing called the Skull of Shadows. The guy who sends you on the quest introduces you to a woman called Xana who is going to accompany you on the journey. At which point she vanishes and becomes a voice in your head. Yes, it makes loads of sense. I think it was done like that as I don’t think any player could keep from killing her for more than 5 minutes if she had an actual physical presence. She is probably the most irritating computer game character I’ve ever come across. Her only purpose seems to be to make sexual innuendos as often as possible. It makes sense for the character but it doesn’t make it any less annoying. Thankfully, you later meet Leanna, who is much nicer, though she’s hardly a complex character. Around the middle of the plot, there’s a supposed twist that is obvious from about 5 minutes into the game, if not from the title alone. Towards the end of the game, you do get a choice to be either good or evil, but it basically all depends on the last 5 minutes of the game. I took the good ending first time of course, since I’m such a nice person, and then I reloaded just to see what the evil ending was like. There will be some other endings depending on a couple of basic choices you have earlier, where you can kill certain characters, but it will probably be a minor difference to the ending. The game is entirely linear in both story and level design.
Not that there’s anything wrong with linear. Some of the levels here are very well designed. The outdoor levels in particular can be quite impressive. Unfortunately, the game drags in the middle section, with too many dull indoor areas, especially when you’re forced to go through a spider’s lair. It’s incredibly irritating to have to run through a maze of bland corridors fighting endless streams of spiders that constantly poison you whenever they manage to successfully attack. The ending picks up again and is a big improvement, but it’s a shame that much of the best areas are in the early parts of the game.
The spiders, and the zombies (yawn) that follow them in the mid-section of the game are the weak spot for the combat too. Again, this is a shame, because up to that point, the combat is incredible. Given the setting, the combat is almost entirely melee with aid from magic spells, although you do get a bow to use as well. Few games can match the visceral feel of the swordplay in Dark Messiah. It plays out like a faster, more exciting version of the combat in Oblivion, but with far more options available. Part of what makes the combat so effective is the many environmental deaths available for your utilisation, such as destroying support pillars to bring platforms down on top of enemies. Most of these involve the most useful attack in the game: the kick. Kicking an enemy doesn’t really injure them, but it does knock them backwards, allowing you to force them into all sorts of traps. Kick them over cliffs, into fires, impale them on spikes or simply use it to distract them for a moment to let you get your proper attacks in. There are so many options available. Most of the features such as the spike racks seem a bit too conveniently placed, but it never stops them being fun.
The normal melee combat is quite brutal, and you can almost feel the force of the blows as your character staggers back when blocking attacks. The system is simple but effective. Right mouse button blocks attacks, clicking the left mouse button rapidly performs a flurry of blows while holding down the button charges up a power attack. Likewise, holding down the button while a bow is equipped makes your shot more powerful. You also eventually get access to a rope bow too, which allows you to climb up to otherwise impossible to reach places. The game clearly took at least some inspiration from Thief. There’s a reasonable range of magic available too, from standard attack spells to more interesting effects. For example, there’s a freeze spell, which has a couple of uses. Firstly, you can freeze an enemy in place, giving you a chance to knock them down and finish them off quickly. (If you manage to knock an enemy down, if you get to them in time you can drive your sword through them and get an instant kill.) The other thing you can do is freeze the ground in front of you, causing any enemies running towards you to slip and fall down. Perfect for using on staircases. It’s the slapstick comedy version of combat, all aided by Valve’s brilliant Source engine.
All of this comes together to create some of the most dynamic battles around. To illustrate I feel it best to give an example. At one point in the game you enter a building from the roof, through an upstairs window, only to discover a group of guards stood around in conversation next to a staircase. I picked up a barrel and threw it towards them, knocking two of them down the stairs. Quickly switching to a fireball spell, I set the remaining guards on fire, burning them to death. Noticing a chain hanging from above, I climbed up into the rafters and watched as a guard came up the stairs to investigate. Shooting him with a fireball doesn’t completely kill him, so I take aim again and miss, hitting the floor beside him. Turned out the floor wasn’t in a very good condition, and the shot caused the floor to collapse under him. I dropped back down from the rafters but it turned out he was one of the world’s most resilient guards and he came limping back up the stairs to continue the battle. Lurking in the shadows at the end of the room I took out my bow and took careful aim, pulling back the bow string and preparing to fire… when he stepped on an unstable section of floor and plummeted yet again, this time to his death.
As an example, it illustrates a few points about the game. It shows the sort of dynamic action that occurs throughout the game, although mostly in the early sections. It also shows the rather stupid AI of the enemies. The guards might be injured but they’ll keep coming. At one point I stood at the top of a ladder which a guard repeatedly tried to climb up, reaching the top each time, at which point I kicked him off. He’d stand up, and repeat the process, again and again, until I got fed up of him not dying from the fall and jumped down after him to finish the job.
Arkane Studios had previously released Arx Fatalis, a first-person RPG game, back in 2002. The RPG elements have mostly been dropped this time round. The only similarity to a role playing game is a system of skill points that you can use to gain new abilities as the game goes on, allowing you to customise your character to a certain extent. These come in three broad categories: combat, magic and miscellaneous. As is fairly obvious, combat is for fighting related skills, magic is for learning new spells, and miscellaneous is for miscellaneousing. Um… I mean, for miscellaneous stuff that doesn’t fit in the other two categories. The combat category just has a small selection of choices to improve your melee and archery skill. Magic is split into two branches which let you learn quite a good range of spells of either an offensive type or a more passive, helpful type. Miscellaneous contains such choices as increasing your mana or health, or obtaining stealth skill so that you can pretend you’re actually playing Thief. The choices do give reasonable scope to customise your character, but it’s possible to seriously cripple your character if you pick the wrong choices, ending up not very good at anything. I found the difficulty could change wildly depending on what I spent my skill points on. Sometimes I’d try to focus on one aspect of my character, only to find I’d neglected another and had no skill points left to use, and had to struggle through until I gained enough to correct the deficiency. On the other hand, once you have the most powerful spells, lots of mana and a rapid recharging mana bar, you become pretty much unstoppable. The final attack spell you get is basically a weapon free substitute for a flamethrower, simply shooting out flames from your hands and setting everyone on fire and giving you instant kills. Well, maybe automatic kills would be a better term, since it’s hardly instant when they run around panicking while burning.
One of the problems with the game when it was released was the number of bugs. I never encountered anything especially game destroying while playing the patched version, except for in one climbing section I did manage to somehow fall outside the level. There were a number of small problems that should really have been fixed before release. There were some graphical glitches, particularly with flickering textures at times when fire spells were readied. There was also a section where a body was chained up over a pit, and you have to pull the pins at the top of the two chains to release the body. The trouble is, shooting a fireball at the chains breaks them, but they don’t seem to have thought of that, and so the body stays suspended in mid-air with nothing holding it up. Things like that should have been spotted and fixed with even a small amount of testing. The loading times are a bit on the long side too.
Dark Messiah is still a game that’s well worth playing. It’s just a shame that it’s let down by a deterioration in level design in the second half, some balancing issues and a few rather basic bugs. The combat for most of the game makes it entertaining, but for every great moment such as the rooftop chase scene in the early section of the game, there’s a cavern crawling with spiders in the later section to balance it off. With a bit more polish, and if the second half had been as good as the first, this would have got a much higher score.
Save System Review: Save anywhere.
Graphics: Graphics aren’t bad, but aren’t especially great either. Despite using the same engine as Half-Life 2, the graphics don’t look anywhere near as good, but the art design for some of the areas is nice enough.
Sound: Voice acting is decent, although Xana sounds as annoying as her personality demands. Sound effects work well and the music is pretty good, but nothing ever stands out too much.
Bugs: A few bugs remaining. Nothing especially game spoiling, but they’re the sort of thing that should have been noticed.
Gameplay: Brilliant combat system and good level design at the start, let down by too many spiders in the later parts of the game.
Storyline: Generic fantasy plot with a twist you can see coming before you even load the game up. It’s actually not all that bad though, and it keeps the game moving, but Xana drags down the score.
Arbitrary Final Score:
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