|Developer:||Arkane, Floodgate and Kuju|||||Release Date:||2006|||||Systems:||Windows, Xbox 360|
Today on Super Adventures, I'm finally taking a look at Dark Messiah of... hang on, where's the 'of'? Everyone knows the game is called 'Dark Messiah of Might and Magic', that's what it's called on Wikipedia, that's what it's called on Steam, that's what is written in the press releases, so why isn't there an 'of' on the title screen? It's not there on the box either, or the manual, or the official website... huh I guess the game really is called Dark Messiah: Might and Magic.
Though 'Might and Magic: Dark Messiah' would've made more sense, seeing as it's part of the Might and Magic franchise. Just saying.
Anyway, this was actually the very first game I ever bought on Steam, way back in July 2012. It's not that I was still holding a grudge after 8 years for all the bullshit I had to go through to install my DVD copy of Half-Life 2... I'd just stopped buying PC games entirely by that point because companies were in an arms race to see who could develop the scariest DRM, and retail discs had become a minefield. Not that I didn't have a Steam library, but at that point it was basically a handful of Half-Lifes, a Humble Bundle or two and Ricochet. And yet it's still taken me until now to play the bloody thing.
Now I'm wondering what was I playing that month that was so much more worthy of my time. Hmm, my site notes say MDK, Superfrog... and Sensible Train-Spotting? I didn't even publish that last one until June the next year, so I don't know what the hurry there was. It's very annoying how my notes don't include explanations for all my bad decisions. Anyway, I'll be playing this for an hour (or more) and yelling out how it plays as I go. In text.
WARNING: EVENTUALLY SPIDERS.
(Click the screenshots to make them bigger).
Half-Life 2 menus? Oh, wait, they've added fancy corners to it; that's totally different and not at all sci-fi looking. I guess it must have been a pain in the ass to make a custom menu in the Source engine, because Zeno Clash and E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy use the default look too.
The game has a different executable that brings up a different menu that presumably has lots of multiplayer related options on it. But I wouldn't know, as the multiplayer game is a separate install and I've no plans to download it.
I dunno who that guy is by the way, but he's not our hero. The PC version pulls a reverse Gordon Freeman and has him as a faceless warrior who talks, but the European version of Dark Messiah: Might and Magic - Elements on the Xbox 360 has him glaring out at you on the cover:
Okay let's see what happens when I pick that 'New Game' option.
“Ten centuries shall the fortress stand. Walls of spirit wrapped in walls of fire. And horned lords shall bow their heads to one not yet born, of the darkest sun. One century of blood and strife. The moon shall darken and none know why. The resting place at last is found, of the seventh who soared so high.”No idea what that was about, but the standard wise old fantasy RPG narrator read the lines with such typical gravitas that I’m fully convinced that this is all very serious business.
“Last daughter of a forlorn line shall guide him into history. Beneath the crypts, prophecies clash. The war of ancient enemies.”Yep, I've still got no clue about what I'm looking at here. I've only played one other game in the series, Might and Magic VIII, and I didn't play it all that long, so my knowledge of the lore is a little bit... absolutely non-existent.
|Might and Magic VIII (PC)|
Not that it really matters what I remember about the classic games, because when Ubisoft took ownership of the franchise from 3DO, they pretty much flushed the old continuity away and started fresh, without the remaining sci-fi elements. Heroes of Might and Magic V introduced this new setting, called Ashan, in 2006 and the replacement realm was only about 5 months old by the time Dark Messiah came out.
Oh wait, it’s ME he's talking to isn't it? I'm the one he's sending out on this treasure hunt. I’m the one who has to go through this old temple, grab the spider artefact from the altar, and then use it to get to the Shantiri crystal. Sounds fair enough.
They're having an actual two way conversation here, though I don't get to choose my lines, and I would’ve sworn that Sareth was calling this guy Master Fenrick if I hadn’t seen his name on the loading screen. This presumably takes place before Sareth gets the amateur facelift from a tiger as he's a young apprentice right now and sounds the part. Phenrig on the other hand sounds he's doing an impression of George Takei; he’s a little off somehow.
Deus Ex-style item belt across the bottom. Well not entirely empty, as I've got a temporary 'night vision' spell.
Man, Sareth is the stompiest first person character I’ve played as in a while. He takes a half second to get moving, and he leans so much when I sidestep I'm worried he'll tip over. It definitely feels like I’m playing as more than just a floating camera with an arm attached, and a glance downwards backs that up, as there's an entire body down there!
The spider artefact turned out to be lying on the table in the next room, so that’s one ancient relic located. Now I can use it to open the door and head further into the temple.
The next lesson turned out to be ‘how to pick up crates and throw them elsewhere to clear a path to what is basically an air vent’. Still getting a bit of a Deus Ex vibe from this one, along with Thief: The Dark Project and Arkane’s earlier RPG Arx Fatalis. And Oblivion.
The game has a very Bulletstorm attitude towards putting enemies next to hazards, but in this my kicks are tied to a regenerating stamina gauge (along with my ability to run), so I’ll never be able to become a Duke Nukem 3D-style whirlwind of feet. But I've just collected a weapon and my melee attacks don’t use stamina, so I can become a whirlwind of swords!
The disembodied voice of my master assures me that a single Power Strike will be sufficient to finish this gentleman off while he's lying on the ground, so I should jump down there after him, hold the attack button for a bit and then release to instant-kill impale him.
Doesn’t he ever miss? Because I’m running low on health here and I don’t have any potions on me. I could try blocking I suppose; probably won't be 100% effective without a shield in my hand, but it's better than being 100% dead.
These humans are part of the Black Guard, mercenaries hired by the Necromancers to find the same Shantiri crystal I'm looking for, or so my master explains. I guess that means I’m allowed to kill them all without feeling too guilty about it.
Seems the hammering the attack button will make my guy wave his sword left and right no matter what I’m doing, but if I hold the attack button, then direction I'm pressing will determine the kind of Power Strike he'll use when I let go. As soon as Sareth pulls his arm up to attack, the next move is banked; I can dance around an enemy all I want while my sword is raised and it won’t affect the attack I’ll eventually unleash upon his ass. In this case I was pressing forward, so he used a thrusting stab move. There’s no lock-on though, so I have to make sure I’m pointing right on target each time, or else stick to hacking and slashing.
Oh, plus there’s no ‘combat mode’ I need to activate first like there was in Arx Fatalis. This is all fighting, all the time.
Well I love the idea of throwing crates at people with my brain, but I can do that just fine with my hands without using up mana, so I’m going to have to go the most effective combat skill: stamina. More stamina means more kicking and I can’t think of any more efficient way to kill.
Anyway the crystal’s right here, so I’m done with this place. I don't even need to find the way back out again as I'm just loading screen'd off to a cutscene.
Still at least Sareth won’t be on his own this time, as he’s going to have a guide called Xana. Though 'one can travel lighter than two', so she’s going to be travelling inside his head. It’s the fantasy RPG equivalent of having a radio I guess.
This is probably be the point where most people would start asking questions, like “who is this complete stranger and why does she have to possess me?” for instance, but Sareth is a complete pushover and just goes along with it.
CHAPTER 1: THE GATES OF STONEHELM.
It turns out that Dark Messiah is never going to turn into a massive Elder Scrolls-style open world RPG, or even the hub based Deus Ex kind. It’s actually a linear journey through a series of action levels.
So after two weeks on horseback, with Xana giving him a running commentary directly into his mind the whole way, our hero finally arrives at Stonehelm just in time to catch everyone else packing up to leave town or get behind the city walls. Seems that the Necromancers are coming, and they’ve brought their relatives. A whole army of their decayed ancestors in fact.
The plan here is pretty simple: get to that chain over there, ignore screaming townsfolk, climb to the safety of the open window. But I didn’t realise that at first, so when the giant monster smashed inside the town, I turned and backed away instead. Right into the moat. I say ‘moat’, it’s actually more of a bottomless pit, but I managed to land on a bit of jutting out rock around the edge and saved myself from a nasty death! The game disagreed however, bringing up a “you fell to your death” message a second or so later and making me reload.
SEVERAL QUICK LOADS LATER.
This bit is all very dramatic and scripted, with people getting attacked by ghouls and giant flaming cannonballs smashing parts of the buildings apart, but it's also looking very 2006. The spectacle has been lost with time and I left tension behind a couple of reloads ago.
The game doesn’t really award experience points for killing everything I come across, but it does give out points for getting stuff done and that usually works out to being the same thing in the end.
Anyone got any side-quests for me? Anyone want to chat in general? Is there a shop around at least? Nope, it turns out that there’s very little for me to do around here but kick some boxes open and steal all the pies. I also managed to help myself to a shield and some daggers, so at least I’m not entirely helpless any more.
There's no map, but I eventually found my way to Lord Meneleg's front gate and his niece graciously invited me in for lunch.
Leanna on the left is Meneleg’s niece and pupil, and the one in charge of the expedition to Spider-Skull Island (or wherever) to sort out this crap. Turns out that Arantir, leader of the Necromancers, might be the prophesied Dark Messiah... which is cool, because it means the title of the game finally makes some sense. It also turns out that using the Shantiri crystal to get the Skull of Shadows is apparently part of their scheme to defeat him, and we set sail tomorrow morning.
CHAPTER 2: THE GLEAM OF A COLD KNIFE.
Sareth's main weakness (except for being a weakling who dies in a few good hits) is that he sucks at stepping backwards, so I get surrounded easily unless I fully commit to turning tail and running away. I really need to get it into my head that blocking is good and I should do it more often.
I saw the weak supports and dropped the barrels on their head, but I didn't think to throw a barrel at them or use it to block an arrow. I utterly failed to kick anyone into the spikes leaning against that crate on the right, I did nothing with the crane, and I only booted one of them into the fire because a tutorial message told me to.
Oh damn, I just realised that I can kick boxes just as good as I can asses too, and the floor is covered with them. A crate to the face is a temporary knockdown, setting me up for an instant kill impaling.
This is actually a secret room I located by pushing a suspicious looking bit of stone. I squished the tiny spiders, smashed the crates, then walked over to the chest to collect my reward… and was immediately blown up. Dark Messiah is a real comedian sometimes.
I’ve searched the room, but there’s no obvious tripwires or landmines I can see, so I don’t know what’s up with that. After a few nasty explosions I managed to creep around the outside of the room and get at the contents that way, but then got blown up on the way back. It was a full health potion in the chest by the way. Not sure that counts as ironic.
I kicked a couple of mercs into a fireplace afterwards to cheer myself up, then stole all the bananas and continued on through the house.
You can't really tell here, but these two really went flying when the heavy piece of wood collided with their midsection and they didn't come away from it well. I love how solid the combat is in this, how everything feels like an object in the world and things really react to being hit. If I catch an enemy with a good swipe they’re not just cut, they’re shoved sideways.
Oh, that red glow around the outside isn’t a low health thing, it’s a ‘you’ve filled your adrenaline meter and your next Power Strike will kill a man dead’ thing. It does tint the screen red when I’m really low on health though and that’s annoying because I can’t just hide for 5 seconds and let it wear off. This is all about the health potions.
Yes, I realise that I’m carrying 6 potions right now and could bring myself to full health at any time, I’m just… saving them. You know what these games are like, I could come across a bullshit boss fight at any moment! Though it hasn’t happened so far.
CHAPTER 3: DEAD MAN’S TRAIL.
I keep screwing up here and falling down, but quick saves take the pain out of it. The voice in my head giving me advice on the other hand… well I wouldn’t say she’s painful, but I will say that the voice actor doesn’t seem entirely well matched for the role of manipulative seductress.
CHAPTER 4: ACROSS THE SEA OF BLOOD.
I’m finding it to be bloody difficult to get a good screenshot of this boat to be honest, which is a shame as it's a nice looking ship with a great looking sky behind it. I had to take a swim just to get this shot, though on the plus side at least now I know that Sareth can swim. In fact I'm pretty sure it's the only way I'm going to get inside without suffering a nasty ballista related death along the way.
Oh damn, where’s my Deus Ex quick bar gone? I was going to point out that there's a new icon on it, as I've just unlocked my HEALING SPELL. Yep, I have infinite healing now, seeing as my mana (slowly) regenerates. Though I run the risk of having to put up with the voice in my head giving me increasingly exasperated hints the longer I wait, so I’d rather chug down the occasional mana or health potion and get on with things.
SOME SWASHBUCKLING LATER.
Now that I have the power to heal myself, I’ve started to work towards getting the skills needed to wear some of this gear I’ve been finding, like this Wizard Robe. It doesn't seem like it'd be a perfect fit for the fighter I'm building, and I’m not all that bothered about having Magic Affinity 1 or +10 Mana, but +1 Armor is a definite step up from the 0 defence I had, and well worth spending a skill point to acquire. Well, assuming that it does anything.
I’m also starting to lose all hope that I’ll ever find a shop, so I’m going to start throwing away some crap and maybe organise things a bit better. I’ll put all the magic scrolls I’ll never ever use in the top right, and my shields up in the left. Apparently these shields are the only objects with limited durability, but I haven’t managed to break one yet. I barely even use the bloody things, as they don't automatically equip when I draw my sword.
CHAPTER 5: THE TEMPLE OF THE SPIDER.
It’s not all semi-good news though. Now that Sareth has another contender for his affections, I’m forced to listen to Xana’s jealous commentary and sniping, while Leanna remains blissfully ignorant that there’s a succubus stuck in his head that hates her. It wouldn’t be so bad, except they’re both pretty one note characters, they're obviously setting me up to choose between good and evil, and it seems like I’ll be stuck with them for a while.
It’s not a huge issue, as I can just tell her to hang back, or maybe even try something crazy like sticking close to her instead of running off into the ruins holding a barrel over my head. She's got healing magic so it's in my interest to stick within range. But I’ve gotten used to AI sidekicks being a benefit instead of another concern, and having the decency not to die on me without at least giving me a chance to run over and drag them back on their feet, and I could do without her around. One really can travel lighter than two!
Anyway, now that I’m at the temple of the singular spider I just have to find the place to stick this crystal and collect my skull and we're done here. I’m sorry, I know this quick look at the first couple of hours is turning into more of a ‘let’s play the whole damn game’, but I feel like I'm still waiting for a crucial piece of the gameplay to turn up. I mean it's still giving me tutorial messages!
Now this definitely changes things, because the game is not short of wooden beams. I can use this to make shortcuts, the game can use it to hide secrets, and I'm almost certain I'll eventually end up stuck somewhere for half an hour because I was too dumb to look upwards.
SOME TEMPLE RAIDING LATER.
It’s okay, they can’t hurt me if they don’t bite me. Though they’re all crawling right at me, and if any of them does bite me, they’ll poison me and bring my health down to 5HP. So they're a bit like a poison headcrab from Half-Life 2 then, except my health doesn’t come back by itself afterwards, and they’re perfectly capable of hitting me for 5HP on their own.
Okay I admit, it's possible that there weren’t actually all that many spiders down here originally. I may have gone around the level and lured some more of them down to get a better screenshot. I mean you can never have too many giant spiders, right?
Fortunately rope arrows are limitless, and now my regular arrows are too because I just found an infinite ammo quiver in a secret area up here. It's that kind of game you see, where the well hidden secrets are just a little easier to find than the well hidden way out.
I tried shooting him in the eye with my infinite arrows, but that got dull after a while so now I'm shooting him with fireballs instead. I wasted a Skill Point to set my hand on fire earlier so I might as well get some use out of it, and if I'm lucky killing the thing might get me a few back.
Oh c'mon already! This isn't even a boss fight as he can't possibly hit me from in there, so his stubborn refusal to die is just wasting both our time. It's my own fault though really, for choosing the cautious approach instead of wading in there with a sword and doing this properly. I also kind of got over-eager and knocked down some stuff I could've used on him, so that hasn't helped.
I'm definitely feeling good about focusing on sword skills over magic or archery now though.
Wait, why am I even out here? I was supposed to be using the Shantiri crystal in the spider temple, and this obviously isn't part of it. I guess we're taking the scenic route around.
Right, I've looked it up and it seems that all I have to do is:
- Put the metal bar in the pot.
- Turn the wheel to move the pot into the furnace.
- Use the bellows a few times to get the fire going.
- Turn the wheel again to swing the pot back and and pour the metal into the mold.
- Pull the lever to cool the blade with water.
- Grab the blade and put on the furnace to heat it up.
- Place the red hot sword on the anvil and give it some good hits with the hammer.
- Take the blade over to the handle maker and put it together.
There’s apparently another place like this earlier in Stormhelm, and that one comes with an instruction book, but I somehow managed to walk right past it without realising. I haven't been finding an abundance of alternate routes, but sometimes the most obvious path isn't the only way to get around in these levels.
But who even cares any more, because I am done with this place! All I need to do is grab the ominous Skull of Shadows and I've completed my first job. I think that'll be a pretty good place to turn the game off.
CHAPTER 6: THE ALTAR OF THE SKULL.
Still, the place looks cool; especially from up here on my sniping ledge. I saw the wooden beams above me and fired a couple of rope arrows with my rope bow to climb up here, so that mechanic is working out as you'd want it to. Shame that sniping with the regular bow isn't all that. Maybe I can topple some jars on their heads or something.
~ HUGE ENDING SPOILERS ~
Okay I didn't actually get around to quitting, so I eventually reached the ending and now I have some comments I want to make on it. You see it turns out that there's actually multiple endings depending on a couple of choices the player makes in game, with the final decision affecting the fate of the world. The shocking twist being that Sareth eventually grows enough of a spine to make decisions for himself.
After a player makes the final decision the narrator turns back up again to read some of that Dark Messiah prophecy from the intro, and a CGI clip plays showing the consequences of the choice.
There's a little more to the video clips than that: your chosen sidekick either gets hit by magic or they don't, and the final antagonist says a different line or two, but basically you choose what you want to happen, characters acknowledge your choice, and the game just ends. It's really crying out for 10-20 seconds of something to give a hint about what happens next and give the characters some resolution.
~ ENDING SPOILERS CONCLUDE ~
When I put Dark Messiah: Might and Magic on I was expecting a game about kicking people into spikes and off cliffs, and I did not come away disappointed. The game absolutely revels in physics. If you throw a barrel at someone and knock someone over, they can then fall into someone else and knock them over. When you break a vase you're not just smashing it, you're sweeping it aside with your blade! It has some top tier sword combat, and the magic and stealth abilities open up new options, but the game is at its best when it stick you in a playground with a bunch of toys and lets you go wild.
It's at its worst though when you're in a dark maze of hallways looking for the way out, or a switch, or a wooden beam, or anything. There's no map, no quest markers, nothing to send you in the right direction, and this is fine most of the time, but every now and again I hit a dead end that took a long frustrating while to get out of, especially near the end. It didn't help when the bloody lever I needed was in shadow.
The ending's a bit of a let down, but so's the plot in general so I wasn't all that bothered. There really isn't that much going on here besides moving artefacts from one ancient temple to another, and the characters... put it this way, if a succubus ever offers to climb inside your brain just say no. But some games are absolutely determined to make players sit through and experience every minute of their clichéd story, every nuance of their charmless hackneyed dialogue, with the promise that it's all leading up to something. Dark Messiah on the other hand is pretty laid back with it. Care or don't care, skip what you want, it's fine with it either way.
I wish the game had a chapter select actually, so I could go back and replay some of the more interesting gameplay sections with my end-game character skills, and maybe get a higher grade or something. It's a very linear action RPG, the kind you play through once and then forget about, and they've missed opportunities there to squeeze more life out of the levels. It's still a good game though I reckon, more fun and straightforward than the awkward Arx Fatalis, and is probably worth a look.
SUPER ADVENTURES WILL RETURN.