Version tested: Xbox 360
Finally putting Dark Messiah to rest at 2.15am this morning was a mighty relief. Apart from being tetchy and desperately in need of some sleep, I was grateful I wouldn't have to endure another day of draining exasperation. For its considerable flaws and its ability to wind you up, you'll want to kick Dark Messiah: Elements into the inky abyss.
Yet there's so much to love about Arkane's brutal fantasy-action RPG - not least the humour coursing through the veins of every undead encounter. The ability to be so routinely violent helps you keep your head when others are, inevitably, losing theirs in great globs of blood. It's a game of simple, repetitive and often wicked pleasures: booting unwary enemies to their doom; into the abyss, against a wall of spikes or flame. If none of those are options, then you can always see if you can slash a rope and send a massive stone statue tumbling onto their heads, or dispense some lightning justice into a pool of water and electrocute the whole lot.
Despite its RPG leanings, Dark Messiah: Elements is an unapologetically linear, story-based affair, set over ten medium-sized chapters, and in some ways all the better for it. Like a more focused, action-oriented take on Oblivion, it strips out most of the padding associated with fantasy RPGs and just lets you get on with the business of fighting an awful lot of ugly monsters in a plethora of familiar fantasy haunts (think dungeons, sewers, castles). Admittedly, the story isn't exactly its strong point (thanks to wooden voice acting and uninspired dialogue), but you can't help smirk at, for instance, the way the game plays evil brunette Xana off against wholesome, simpering Leanna. Xana's jealous reaction is good value even if you do spurn her rather predatory advances. All the stuff about you, Sareth, going after Shantirir Crystal and the Skull of Shadows is pure fantasy fluff, but innocuous enough.
In terms of the gameplay, how you go about death-dealing is, to a large extent, up to you, despite the way the game initially funnels players into selecting one of four available character classes (Warrior, Mage, Archer, Assassin). For example, selecting a Mage gives you the ability to cast fireballs and lightning, but doesn't preclude you from using a sword, combining attack methods like a Warrior Mage hybrid. That said, you can't wield a shield as a Mage, so you might end up casting protection spells, while your inability to use a bow might encourage you to blast enemies with fireballs, rather than arrows, or play around with telekinesis. Playing as Assassin, you sneak around plunging daggers into enemy backs and pushing them off precipices. It's certainly a game that promises numerous different experiences to suit everyone from the patient, stealthy type to those that just like to smash things up and roar (speaking of which, you should've heard Tom's furious Turok sessions - the office shook).
Playable exclusively in first-person, the first thing to note about the new 'Elements' version of Dark Messiah: Elements is how well the controls have translated onto the 360 pad. The basics, like aiming and firing, work fine, whether dealing with projectiles or one-on-one melee battles, with right-trigger to attack, left to defend, and both held down at once to pull off the ever-useful kick. The more expansive use of skills and special abilities is handled with remarkable fluidity thanks to the 'quick switch' d-pad system. Delving into the actual menus lets you select one-off items, such as health and mana potions, and configure the quick-switch mapping to your own requirements.
Within an hour or so, once you start to level up and gain new abilities, the whole quick-switch/menu system becomes a regular companion, making inherently quite complex actions and choices simple. The more you play and the more you start to understand the weaknesses of each enemy type, the easier it becomes to settle on favourites, and the more enjoyable the combat becomes. Few games have ever managed to pull off such sickeningly satisfying first-person melee/magic/sword combat, so to combine so many varieties and make every one of them enjoyable is creditable. Although it's about to be bettered in melee terms by the upcoming Condemned 2, there's still an enormous amount of satisfaction to be gained once you get going and have an array of skills and items available to you. That feeling of having so many effective options to choose from at once, for me, elevates the game above some of its issues - even if, ultimately, it takes a good few hours before that becomes apparent.
In fact, such is the extent of Dark Messiah: Elements' problems, it'll be a miracle if you get that far. Good (ish) news, though: Elements is a classic example of a game that starts off mediocre, dips into the realms of outright rubbishness, then soars unexpectedly out of the mire to become bafflingly engaging. The opening levels are dire (and formed the basis of the dreadful demo released before Christmas); beginning with a clunky, charmless demonstration of your ability to kick people to their doom, before descending into murky dungeon monotony then moving onto a Cyclops chase level so badly optimised it made onlookers wince.