Dark Messiah of Might & Magic is a 2004 first person fantasy game about crawling through dungeons, hacking and slashing, plus occasionally finding secrets. There’s some role playing in there too since the protagonist gets skill points in predefined moments of the game and can spend them on select skills – magic, stealth, bow-shooting, sword-swinging and similar methods of monster-hurting.
The game has a story too. I even liked it at the beginning – it’s a reverse of the usual “avatar of good raises to defeat the evil.” Here you are a dark messiah, preparing to bring death upon the world. The anti-hero also has two sidekicks – Leanna and Xana – who play the role of an angel and a devil. They whisper into your ear advice and promises. It’s all an incredibly fun setup that unfortunately leads to an utterly lackluster ending. One of the reasons for that is the thin plot – not much happens throughout the game – and the other reason is the protagonist. He doesn’t have much of a personality, his brain activity is barely existent and he maybe too naive.
However, unlike many first-person heroes he has a body. When you look down, you see his hands, his torso and even his legs. The guy interacts with everything and everyone without being a disembodied sword-holding hand floating in front of the screen. And all that because the developers treated the combat of the game with utmost care. Melee is visceral and meaty, weapons have a visible impact. Your body language is important because it creates a dance of destruction at the center of this gaming experience.
That’s the best part of Dark Messiah. That’s the part that makes it such a gleeful romp. I was merrily stabbing monsters in their ugly backs and cutting them apart, running circles around terrifying giant jumping spiders, kicking orcs off the cliffs and throwing goblins into the fire. And I had much too much fun while doing all this. I’ve read reviews that suggested it gets stale and repetitive but that wasn’t my impression. There were always new and exciting ways to dance the danse macabre with my warrior rogue.
The responsibility for that bear in part the creatures of the game. They may be a visually-generic bunch – the orcs are clearly heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings in their apparition and equipment while dragons, goblins, cyclopes, zombies, knights and necromancers look merely typical – yet despite all that they all have quite a lot of character. Just lurking in the shadows and listening to the complicated discussions on the merits of goblin cuisine was a pleasure, and all the quips during combat where equally nice on the ears (the goblins wanted to eat them and argued who should have dibs on my eyes).
The hunt for long lost artifacts and monsters takes place in the underground lairs and tombs which are fantastically designed. There are both vertical and horizontal travel, many well-hidden secrets and cool but deadly traps. I’m not much of a dungeon fun because it’s usually dark and samey in those but Dark Messiah managed to make it interesting. The graphics are certainly helpful too. They may be a decade old but some of the shadow and light play is still spectacular.
I played the PC version of the game. There is an X-Box 360 edition too and it’s supposedly worse because the game doesn’t control with a gamepad as well as it does with a mouse and keyboard combo. But the PC version has it’s own faults too. All the movies are recorded and shown in 4:3 aspect ratio which means large black bars on both sides of the screen on modern monitors. Luckily, there aren’t many of these cinematics and their quality is dubious but that doesn’t change the fact it’s annoying. I’ve read that the game had a fun multiplayer too. Unfortunately, the servers for that have been turned off by now. Ah, the modern times. Also, there are bugs. The game crushed a couple of times on loading screens and it always exited with an unexpected error when I wanted to quit. The former was rare and autosaves plus quicksaves helped in dealing with the problem, and the former wasn’t really detrimental in any way. It was actually amusing – the game couldn’t believe that I was leaving! The error symbolized the disappointment in the player leaving the fantasy battlefields for the real world.
How dared I!
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a flawed gem. It’s a missing link between Arx Fatalis and Dishonored. Arkane Studios really perfected first-person close-quarters combat between the three games. They haven’t yet managed to create an engrossing story, and I sort of doubt they ever will but that’s secondary because the gameplay is their main objective and the result is incredibly well-cooked. The game is linear but allows for exploration – if you want to look, there are secrets abound. It’s relatively easy to get through the story using one weapon or one spell too, but equipping every single things you can get your hands on is infinitely more amusing. After all, the controls are in the hands of the player, you shape the fights, and only you have the power to steer them to the bloodied underground tunnels of fun! Yes, it’s that sort of a game.