Dark Messiah of Might and Magic
There’s an awful lot to be said for a satisfying combat mechanic. Taking time and care to build a versatile fighting style and varied armoury – with some original features thrown into the mix to spice things up – can really help, especially in those games with a focus on melee weapons. It saves them from becoming monotonous click-fests by forcing the player to call upon a diverse assortment of techniques and items in order to surmount the challenges they’re presented with. Unfortunately for Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, there’s also an abundance of other features to be taken into consideration when creating a videogame in the twenty-first century. Try pacing, script, storyline, level design, testing and coherence for a rough idea of what’s required of any modern release.
To its credit, Dark Messiah never pretends to be anything other than a down and dirty hack and slasher, and barring the tacked on role-playing elements, it’s effectively the same competent tune played ad infinitum. First impressions are mixed, but the combat shines through even in the very early stages. Handling the different weapon types is a joy, and nigh on every piece of equipment simply feels right to wield. Attacking and blocking are assigned to the mouse, with the audiovisual feedback lending each strike just enough impact so as to seem exaggerated without ever descending into the comic book histrionics it so easily could have. If not quite ingenious on its own, the addition of a kick button is a brilliant one when seen working in tandem with the Source Engine’s capable physics model. Booting orcs from ledges and stairs or into pits or spike traps is both hilarious and consistently entertaining, and completes a nicely rounded first person melee solution that is very well constructed. So well constructed, indeed, that it appears to be the game’s saving grace, but the good work evidently lavished upon this piece of the play experience merely exacerbates the cracks of the whole.
Imagine the enemy encounters in Dark Messiah are blocks of Lego, with colours representing the location or situation in which they take place. Obviously there are many different combinations, but we’ll preferably end up with something fairly complex and consistent. Ignore the instinct to attempt this. Instead, stick the bricks together in a straight line, randomly picking blocks from the pile and adding them on. This is exactly what Arkane Studios appear to have done. Dark Messiah forgets that structural integrity and freedom aren’t mutually exclusive – even those who dislike Grand Theft Auto or Bethesda’s recent efforts will attest to that – and its biggest failing is the crippling linearity. The core gameplay would have been well suited to more open stages, and there are only so many times one can be fooled by the same five environmental kills in dark caves or castles. Neither, however, are the objectives particularly clear, and the atrocious writing and incomprehensible plot don’t help. Traipsing back over the same territory in the search for an arbitrary switch is no substitute for compelling and inventive use of the tools at hand.
This yields a massive contradiction. Though there is patently the intent to form a nicely structured, narrative based experience, Dark Messiah falls flat on its face, but when it tries to be an enjoyable action game its repetitious and limited stages drag it down. It’s restrictive, yet confusing all the same. What’s wrong with a simple objective marker? The over reliance on kicking foes can also serve to impede any scope to draw variety from the rest of the clever fighting system.
There are a slew of other issues besides these combat impairing flaws. Although the levelling is a nice touch, the skill trees and sheer volume of items would be far more at home in an actual RPG, and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic finds itself both too restrained and lacking in length to make prudent use of either. The Artificial Intelligence is also unexceptional at best, with most enemies no more than stress toys that occasionally try to fight back – and to little effect. They’re so painfully predictable, and there’s an evident unawareness of the contingency factor which creates the best AI; block, block, block, stab, block, block, kick, stab, block. After ten hours, it’s beyond wearing.
A review of Dark Messiah wouldn’t be complete without mention of the bugs endemic to any player’s experience of the game. There’s such a proliferation of problems from the boot screen onwards that it’s hard to stick with until the end. Freezes during load times, substantive graphical glitches, inconsistent sound effects, environmental mishaps, modeling problems, missing contextual actions and more thrive within the unstable framework in place. Given the Source Engine can power the entirety of the solid and smooth Orange Box, it’s difficult to understand how it could have gone quite as wrong.
Dark Messiah’s great action is plagued – and eventually spoiled – by ill-advised design choices. It’s a system befitting of the best PC games, but the fruits it bears are rotten at the core. There’s a fun fighting videogame with a nice medieval twist to be uncovered beneath layers of unfortunate hindrances, it’s just a shame it’s so arduous to access.