Messiah of Might & Magic
Review by Steerpike
On Absent Conjunctions
Officially, this game is called Dark Messiah Might & Magic,
but the lack of an "of" in there freaks me out. So
I, like most other reviewers, have retitled the game accordingly.
Dark Messiah, along with Nival's Heroes of Might &
Magic V, represents a "reboot" of a beloved franchise
that's been a mainstay of fantasy roleplaying for two decades. The
universe of Might & Magic competes with Wizardry and
Ultima in pure brand recognition and staying power. But the
collapse of franchise creator New World Computing, along with several
very poor development decisions in recent installments of both the
Heroes and plain-Jane M&M games, seriously tarnished
the Might & Magic rep even as new franchises like Gothic
and The Elder Scrolls appeared to tantalize fantasy buffs.
Legends of Might & Magic, a disastrous 2001 foray into
action, was shredded by critics and gamers alike. 2002 saw both
Might & Magic IX and Heroes IV endure similarly
chilly receptions, and New World closed its doors shortly thereafter.
Most assumed that M&M was no more.
Enter Ubisoft, which bought the rights and then promptly handed
the brand off to a pair of European developers. These studios were
told in no uncertain terms to take the franchise in a new direction.
Russian developer Nival (Silent Storm) was pretty successful
with Heroes V, a beautiful and fun game that probably deserves
more positive press than it's gotten. It was the choice of French
studio Arkane to helm Dark Messiah that raised a few eyebrows.
Unlike Nival's proven turn-based strategy background, Arkane is
only known for Arx
Fatalis, a largely forgotten action-RPG, and an awfully
mediocre one at that.
At the end of the day, though, the studio wasn't really a bad choice.
Despite the failure of Legends, Arkane wisely decided to
stick with what it knows: producing an action-RPG with heavy emphasis
on the "action" part, plus uniqueif somewhat overbearinguse
of environmental physics to spice up the gameplay. Dark Messiah
is buggy and hackneyed, but I had a good time playing it, and
it's by no means bad. Though their game is mostly unoriginal, Arkane
deserves credit for heroic attempts to innovate first-person melee
combatattempts that aren't a rousing success but don't exactly
fail either. Dark Messiah is fun if you like this kind of
game, but there's nothing unforgettable about it.
Horribly Contrived of Might & Magic
The rules of clichéd fantasy are few and simple:
1. Follow the X of Y nomenclature system (Forest of Fangorn,
Mines of Moria, Den of Secrets, Age of Heroes, Sword of Sodan);
2. Stick to the standbys (orphans, dark prophecies, potent artifacts,
3. Abuse the apostrophe (the Demon Prince r'G'acb'bsxb'es).
I bring this up because, though Dark Messiah doesn't abuse
the apostrophe, for which I am profoundly grateful because I hate
that, it is otherwise the clichéd fantasy fiction's poster
child. It could be the centerpiece of a college-level course on
clichéd fantasy fiction. It is the example that clichéd
fantasy fiction uses to describe itself to other genres. It's almost
impossible not to laugh at the storyline, which hurls corny standbys
so fast and so furious that at the outset I actually thought the
game was trying to be funny.
Let's see ... you're Sareth, an orphan raised by the wizard Phenrig
to be a sick-deadly warrior/mage/thief guy, who employs you to slink
into haunted temples and grab important artifacts. One day Phenrig
sends Sareth cross-country on a special assignmenthelp his
wizard buddy Menelag find an object called the Skull of Shadows.
Others have their eye on this Skull, which figures into a prophecy
of doom that announces the advent of a world-damning villain called
the Dark Messiah. Phenrig and Menelag want that skull.
Never mind that anyone who's got, you know, a cerebellum will have
Phenrig pegged as a bad guy from the moment he walks into the frame;
compared to some of the other camp nonsense in this story, he's
positively subtle. Hell, another villain has a spider tattooed
on his forehead. That's the kind of cliché we're talking
about here. When I turn to evil, as I inevitably will, I'm going
to have a bunny tattooed on my forehead. That way no one will suspect
me until it's too late.
So we've got orphans with mysterious pasts, dark prophecies, obviously
evil foster parents, powerful artifacts, skulls, and haunted ruins.
Add in the other items not worth explaining: orcs, goblins, a conflict
called "the Blood War," a chesty wizardess in improbable
clothing who falls in love with the protag even though she's only
known him for like an hour, a sword called "Souldrinker,"
enormous spiders, demon chicks, and evil cults. This, my friends,
is the world of Dark Messiah.
Aiding you in your quest is Xana, an unbelievably bitchy voice
in your head (she actually has a body of her own but left it behind
on account ofseriously"one travels easier than
two"). Xana's job is to motivate the obviously virginal Sareth
with overt promises of sexual gratification, to be delivered upon
once she gets back into her own body. Unfortunately, Sareth is so
dense that he doesn't recognize how obviously evil she is, and he's
so milquetoast that he wouldn't do anything about it anyway. People
hate playing stupid, wimpy characters, so this is annoyingbut
not nearly as annoying as Xana herself. The writing is bad, the
actress is worse, and the situation leaves little margin for interpretation.
She is so ridiculously over the top as to telegraph a "surprise"
that takes place at the end from her very first moment with you,
and she's so meanspiritedly sluttish that you'll hate her with a
blind, all-consuming passion despite her promises to, ah, do stuff
The story is ... bad. I mean real bad, like Robert Jordan bad or
Heavy Metal magazine comics bad. But if you can look past
that, and most gamers are so used to sucky writing that they can
with no problem, there's a pretty fun game here.
One thing that's worth noting is that Nival and Arkane took their
instructions about reinventing the series quite literally. While
most previous Might & Magic games shared the same general
sprawling universe and mythology, both Heroes V and Dark
Messiah take place in a completely new world with its own backstory.
While most of this is as badly written as the game's primary plot
thread, some of the new content presumably offers potential for
future M&M franchise titles. Maybe we'll find out what
that Blood War thing was all about.
... But No Cigar
Arkane licensed Valve's Source enginethe power behind Half
Life 2for Dark Messiah, and they use its luscious
graphics and outstanding if overenergetic physics to great effect.
Source is still a fantastic codebase for making good games, and
it'll remain one of the top dogs until Windows Vista ships and we
see the first of the DirectX 10-powered renderers that will follow.
The use of Source also means that you can purchase and download
this game over Valve's Steam network, which is how I did it, but
it's also available at retail for the same price if you prefer.
Theoretically, you can choose to play through the adventure in
a number of waysas a blades-swirling warrior, as a stand-back-and-hurl-fire
wizard, as a stealthy knife from the darkness, or as some combination
of the three. The level design, not to mention the prescience and
ferocity of some enemies, strongly encourages the heavily armed
approach, but you'll probably find yourself dabbling in magic and
stealth as well, if only to experiment with some of the other skills
that Sareth can learn. You gather skill points for completing tasks
(the game is linear so progress is pretty much set; only the choice
of how to fight your way through is up to you), and you can spend
them on a variety of combat, magic, stealth or utilitarian skills,
most of which do come in handy at some point or another.
The real star of Dark Messiah is the first-person melee
combat, which almost proves that such a model can work. Thanks
to the Havok physics integrated into Source, sword- and knife-play
feel pretty visceral, and actions like blocking and power attacks
come quite naturally. The best addition to the system is the ability
to kick your opponents, to stagger them or knock them back. Unfortunately,
Arkane got a little carried away with the kicking, and so there's
almost always a bottomless chasm or a bonfire or a spiky thing to
kick your enemies intomaking it a gimmick rather than a natural
extension of tooth-and-nail combat. You could actually kill nearly
every enemy in the game by kicking them into, against, or off something;
the enemies paper their walls with spike boards and love standing
near yawning abyssal trenches. The other problem is perennial to
Havok: kick someone and they go flying like forty feet.
It hasn't been done perfectly yet, first-person melee combat, but
I think it will be. Though the kicking scheme comes off as comical
rather than part of an orchestrated beatdown, it's a clever new
addition to a melee combat system that is pretty well handled in
other ways. It's fast and requires that you move and block a lot,
weapon reach is a major factor, the landscape is part of the battleground
and power attacks are imperative if you hope to win. I also like
the ability to perform gruesome finishing moves when your blood
is up. Next time, let's add more intuitive physicality to fights,
things like shield bashing and bull-rushes, plus a handheld combat
camera a la Gears of War, and we'll see something really
Another thing I'll give Arkane props for is that it includes the
same "body awareness" we saw in Thief:
Deadly Shadows. Sareth is not a floating camera like
the protagonist of most first-person games; he's got hands and feet
and everything, and you can see them. It really helps you immerse
in the game world, to look down and see your feet. I frankly can't
believe how rarely this is implemented in first-person games.
Dark Messiah also takes advantage of some of Source's newer
technologies, including high dynamic range lighting, which realistically
renders extremely complex lighting algorithms such as those predicated
by sunlight or the effect of your eyes struggling to compensate
for bursts of intense brightness followed by deep shadow. HDR is
jaw-dropping when used correctly, and its implementation here is
among the best instances yet. Play of light and shadow are exquisite,
as are the water effects so well handled by Source. You'll need
the mother of all video cards to run the game at top rez with all
the candy on, but it's worth it.
The art direction, also, is mostly superb. Arkane did a great job
with the gloomy subterranea of Arx Fatalis, and they do a
great job with the world of Dark Messiah. Almost every surface
in the game is very shiny, like it's coated in gelatin, but I guess
developers are still excited about the technology that allows them
to do that. And since you spend a lot of time in forsaken temples
and necromancers' lairs in Dark Messiahplaces where
I imagine most things would have an evil glisten to themI
didn't really mind the excess.
Overall level design and gameplay, though, are somewhat uninspired.
This is especially true beyond the halfway point, when you've pretty
much kicked someone into everything you can possibly kick them into
and realize to your dissatisfaction that there'll be nothing more
to see. I am reminded of the design and play of Quake IV or
Sin Episodes, games that are neither good nor
bad, but simply and ultimately forgettable.
Or You Could Have Done this Before You Shipped It
Dark Messiah downloaded my patches automatically over Steam,
and its stability has improved dramatically in recent days. At first,
however, the game was so impossibly buggy that even reaching the
main menu was a crapshoot. Level load times took minutes, crashes
to the desktop were infuriatingly frequent and minor glitches like
tearing and collision problems abounded.
Since Arkane was quick with the patches and said patches seem to
have greatly improved the game's stability and performance, I'm
not going to knock off points for this. However, boxed-version buyers
should be aware that they're going to need to download some software
updates in order to enjoy a stable gaming experience.
The multiplayer portion of the game is rich and involved, offering
a number of game types and a variety of strategies for victory.
Unlike the single-player game, where you can theoretically play
as a mage or thief but in truth always wind up as a fighter with
Rockette powers, in the multiplayer arena all classes are integral
team members and kicking is a hell of a lot harder to do with finesse.
Unfortunately, much of the instability I encountered while playing
was in the multiplayer space, and I simply wasn't able to devote
lots of time to this part of the game experience. I apologize for
that; however, what I did sample tells me that Dark Messiah offers
unique and fresh multiplayer options that are worth checking out.
Wrap-up of Might & Magic
I was set to give this game a Middlin' score when I started writing,
but the truth is I'd mostly be doing that because the story is so
absurd and Xana is so obnoxious. These are major issues, but they
do not relegate the game to two-star doldrums. I had a good time
playing Dark Messiah, I put a solid twenty hours into it
before I finished, and there's a chancesomewhat remotethat
I might one day go through again. I guess the best advice I can
give is to wait until this game is $39 rather than $49, and you
probably won't be disappointed.
Randy Smith consulted extensively with Arkane on Dark Messiah,
and it shows in nearly every aspect of the experience. Randy
came from Looking Glass, where he was a level designer and then
senior designer on the Thief games. After that, he served
as project lead on Thief: Deadly Shadows at Ion Storm, and
he is now working on a secret project with Steven Spielberg and
fellow Looking Glass alum Doug Church. He is one of the industry's
most highly respected experts on stealth-based design and use of
emergent play techniques to expand player freedoms.
In fact, I give Randy credit for everything I liked about this
game. That's not to say that Arkane was somehow second fiddle in
its development, just that there's a whole lot of Randy's fingerprints
to be seen here. Arkane's previous offering, Arx Fatalis, shares
many general similarities but lacks Dark Messiah's energetic,
if somewhat ill-fated, attempts to bring physics, stealth and a
variety of combat options into the mix of a game that may not live
up to all of its potential but still delivers the goods where they
Release Date: October 25, 2006
Four Fat Chicks Links
Windows XP (only)
AMD Athlon, Pentium 2.6 GHz (3.2GHz recommended)
512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
128 MB DirectX 9-compliant video card (256 MB recommended)
DirectX 9-compliant sound card (PC audio solution containing Dolby
Digital Live required for Dolby Digital audio)
DirectX 9 or higher (included on disc)
4x or faster DVD-ROM drive
7 GB free hard disk space
Windows-compatible mouse and keyboard
Multiplayer: Broadband Internet connection with 64 Kbps upstream
or faster. Installation of Steam software required for multiplay
Where to Find It
Links provided for informational purposes only.
FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into
by any party(ies).