Version tested: PC
I have a busty woman in my head, talking in an over-provocative voice telling me to do things I really shouldn't. At least in this, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic is terribly familiar.
But away from that, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic is familiar in a refreshing manner. It's a linear, fantasy first-person action-role-playing-game, with the stress on the "Action". It's completely accessible, while full of things which have only been occasionally done at worst, not done in ages more often and not done at all at best. There have been comparisons to Oblivion in casual net conversation, based upon screenshots with swords, which are worth mentioning if only to reject outright. An audience more familiar with Arkane's previous work has approached it as a demi-sequel to Arx Fatalis, which is closer, but will just leave you disappointed if you play it. However there is a resemblance here. Where Arx Fatalis was the French developer's knowing tribute to the initial Looking Glass Software (née Blue Sky) triumph of Ultima Underworlds, this seems more of a riff off Thief: The Dark Project. There are sections which seem to be terribly knowing nods towards the exploration/thief action of the late, great developer's work, except with a lead character who has the customisation straight out of System Shock 2 inserted. Imagine a character who's infinitely more capable of rending his opponents limb from limb than terribly cool, terribly puny Garrett, and you've got its measure.
Well, most of its measure. In your string of ten linear (or mostly linear) levels you gain experience points and equipment, which allows considerable personalisation of your character down three statistic trees. These basically amount to combat, magic and stealth/various skills, with more abilities unlocked as you progress along each tree. The latter makes the option of being jack of all and master of all attractive until you get particularly addicted to back-stabbing/decapitating opponents/setting people aflame, depending upon your inclination. Combat skills generally increase the damage you do with melee or ranged weapons, magic ones open up new ways to unleash things Man Was Not Meant To Know on your foes and the stealth ones let you try and turn the whole game into Thief IV (with generally useful health, mana or stamina bonuses available along the trees).
While all have their attractions, in terms of actual visceral entertainment, everyone's going to get involved with the melee combat. It takes Oblivion's left-click to attack and right-click to block approach (including the holding for special moves) and takes it to a whole new level (copyright videogame marketing material since 1992), primarily allowed by the physics of Valve's Half-Life 2 Source engine which powers it. When it's a game about physical hitting, it's entertaining enough, but it's also one about environment. Fighting on a ledge? A side-slash or a kick can send someone flying off. If it's a low ledge, follow up and stab them to death while defenceless. If it's a high ledge... well, just listen to the scream as they disappear into some abyss or another and look for your next victim. Pick up barrels, and lob them at the opponents to confuse. Look at the scenery and work out how to set a death-trap in motion by slashing at a rope. Kick someone towards a row of spikes attached to the wall. And when magic gets into play, it gets even more ludicrous.
Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, your name is swashbuckling.
There's a problem with this, but it's a transitory one. I visited Arkane during development, and when one of their designers gleefully demonstrated kicking a mob of orcs, one at a time, off a ledge screaming, I asked whether they wondered whether making such deaths so easy would make someone resort to them constantly. Why take a sword into battle when you'd be better off bringing a big, sturdy boot? He just shrugged, and - in a more roundabout way - explained that if that's what people want to do, more power to them. At the time I made a runic scribble in my notebook which roughly translated as "Hmm. Not convinced".
Except, now I am. Yes, you spend a lot of time taking people out in ways other than six inches of steel... but that's fine. In fact, that's hilarious. The source matter, as much as the ludicrous quasi-Tolkein source back-story may imply, isn't actually Dungeons & Dragons as much as a Hollywood serial adventure. And how many times did Errol Flynn actually run someone through rather than sending them careering by clever manoeuvring? Exactly. I went far too quickly from rolling my eyes to enjoying the dumb-ass joy of running in circles around an enormous swinging pendulum while being chased by a mass of orc guards, trying to make them get hit by it in a keystone cops with a GTA-bodycount manner. While there are a lot of serious gaming mechanics in Dark Messiah, it's primary devotion is fun, and lots of it. With your growing power as a character as you progress, the more gimmicky ways of slaying lessen in importance. A high-level warrior doesn't need to kick his enemies into walls of spikes. He carries the only spike he needs around with him.
There's a fair few rough edges, however. While the actual combat between humanoids is a brilliantly executed melee, the second you start dealing with the large monsters, the game's options just fall away. When fighting a guy with a sword, you have a full array of tactics. When fighting a Cyclops... well, you just have to hit it in the eye until it's stunned, then run it through the eyeball. While not actively bad, rarely has the big-boss structure been as uninspiring.
The plot's another weaker part, a cheerful morass of fantasy clichés. A Dark God. An Artefact. Mix according to taste. When Looking Glass managed to create a fascinating fantasy tale, they fail totally here. You also can't help but think the appropriation of the Might & Magic licence was actually a waste of time. Surely anyone who cares about it will consider an action-RPG game like this to be a betrayal of its trad-RPG/turn-based roots? And anyone who actually comes for an action game will just think "Dark Messiah of Might & Magic" a ludicrous name for anything. The supporting cast are particularly weak. The aforementioned busty-woman inside-your head is the most obvious plot-twist in history while your "good-girl" character guide goes from meeting you and deciding to confess her love to you in a number of conversations that'll fit on your hand. Seriously, lass, I know your Dad's dead, but slow down. You don't even remember my name. I feel all slutty. There are also some issues with some mechanics (the poisoning is particularly weak) and level flow - the game occasionally tries for a many-approach ala Thief: The Dark Project, but keeps it too constrained, forcing you to try and work out what way you've actually got to go.
In fact, this semi-exploratory, semi-linear approach is the second game to remind me of The Lost City levels in Thief in recent times, with Call of Juarez doing similar stuff. In fact, there's a lot here which reminds me of that, except a little better. Worth noting in passing, the resultant score is an artefact of the of the ten-point scale: Call of Juarez was a "low" eight and this is a "high" one. But both are good, and both worthy of your attention.
If you give it, it'll pay you back. You won't remember Dark Messiah's busty-woman character guide, but you will remember the sheer joy of mutilating the orcish, undead and assorted monstrous hordes in a variety of imaginative ways. When mass slaughter is as imaginative as this, it can't help but be memorable.
8 / 10