Dark Messiah of Might & Magic


Overall, Dark Messiah is a decent enough game, but not for something based on a popular game license and an award-winning game engine. It's an amusing distraction, but that's all, and while it deserves praise for some of its more interesting elements, it hardly deserves top honors.

Dark Messiah is the latest installment in the Might & Magic series of PC games, although aside from the subtitle there's little resemblance to anything that's come before, from either a content or a gameplay perspective. I recall playing the original Might & Magic (and the sequel, M&M II) on my Apple IIe way back in the day, hastily sketching out maps on graph paper to keep track of where I was as I got attacked by Acidic Blobs and Leprechauns and the like, all of it displayed in stunning 2-dimensional monochrome green.

From a gameplay perspective, this is a far cry beyond what once was, although it's not that much of a stretch from, say, Half-Life 2, which uses the same Source Engine. Dark Messiah's plot, however, leaves a little bit to be desired, walking the same road that's been walked before in many respects, with several "surprises" that you can see coming a mile away. That is, if you can see the game at all.

Dark Messiah's launch was plagued by bugs and snarls.

Dark Messiah's launch was plagued by bugs and snarls. A large number of people were unable to play the game at all, and just about everyone who downloaded it from Valve's Steam discovered that all the sound files for the second chapter of the game were corrupt, which meant that instead of dialogue all you heard was a horrid hissing sound. Numerous complaints were lodged on the official forums, with gamers of course tending towards hyperbole, declaring this the worst launch ever (it was not; that award goes to Anarchy Online). To their credit, Ubi and Arkane reacted fairly quickly to the issues, and resolutions for most bugs were quickly posted; the sound file issue, for example, can be fixed by verifying and redownloading the corrupt files through Steam.

Reaction from those who've played the game through have generally been positive, with mostly glowing reviews from the major game websites (with some notable exceptions). My own opinion of the game is considerably more mixed.

Combat Options

Dark Messiah's main selling point (for me, at least) was the degree with which you could interact with the environment and your opponents. While not completely destructible, the environment does contain plenty of boxes, crates and barrels that you can throw around, smash into bits, and set on fire. However, the lack of consistency mars the thrill somewhat when you gleefully set fire to a stack of barrels but the wooden floor they're on remains untouched by flame. More predictably flammable are the flasks of oil strewn about the game; these can be hurled onto the floor to create patches of flame (more about that in a bit).

As for combat, your opponents can be dispatched in one of five ways, generally. The most obvious method is to use a melee weapon (the game offers over a dozen) to bash them around, which generally results in a spray of far-too-copious blood. Various key-and-mouse combinations offer different sorts of Power Attacks which can disarm enemies (figuratively or literally), skewer them, or knock them back. You can also opt for a more stealthy approach, using the quicker but less powerful daggers (there are perhaps half a dozen varieties) or you can stand back away from your enemy and pick them off with spells or arrows. Pleasingly, the game allows you to utilize all four tactics interchangeably, as you spend Skill Points on three trees (Magic, Stealth, and Combat) to power yourself up as you see fit. It has been argued that the best bet is to choose one tree to max out rather than trying to be a generalist, but I managed quite well in the game using the latter tactic.

So: Melee, Stealth, Magic and Archery. What's the fifth tactic? Kicking.

Kicking & Burning & Drowning, Oh My!

One of the more unique things about the game is that you can kick your enemies. This causes only minor damage, but more importantly it knocks the enemy backward. You can generally kick five or six times in a row before becoming fatigued, but that's almost always enough to kick an enemy into (or off of) something deadly. Examples? Most of the game's levels are set in areas that sprawl not only horizontally, but vertically, which means that nine times out of ten, your foe is standing within kicking distance of a cliff. One or two quick boots and the enemy falls to his death. There are also plenty of areas with water, and evidently no one taught Orcs how to swim, because kicking an enemy into water results in their instant death.

... it seems that any enemy will die shortly after being set ablaze.

Enemies are also highly flammable, and although the game repeatedly reminds you that various enemies are weak against lightning, or flame, it seems that any enemy will die shortly after being set ablaze. While it is quite novel to set an enemy alight, then watch them stumble about screaming and setting their friends on fire, it is a bit silly once you realize that just about everything will die if it catches fire. In one noteworthy instance, an Orc champion challenges you to honorable hand-to-hand combat; a few flasks of oil and some fire traps laid down ahead of time, and he's a goner inside of 20 seconds.

The game is also riddled with a ridiculous number of what can only be described as walls of spikes. These appear in dungeons, in city markets, in churches, in libraries, etc. Kicking an enemy back into spikes kills them instantly, just like fire, water, or cliffs do. It's a valid tactic that the game encourages, but at times the prevalence of spikes is about as silly as the prevalence of saw blades in Half-Life 2.

Wrapped around this game engine is a pretty straightforward story. Boy meets girl, boy meets another girl, girls get catty, boy turns out to be the son of the devil. That might sound like a spoiler but it's pretty well telegraphed right from the start (to say nothing of the title of the game). The story is interesting enough, but it generally treads ground that's been trod before, right down to the part where you lose all your equipment and are forced to fight with nothing but a crowbar... I mean, your bare hands. There's a few twists in here that try to make things interesting, but falling back on standard tactics is often easier and more powerful than using the plot points the story throws at you.

None of this is helped by the fact that there are a few ridiculously powerful items in the game, the worst of which are the Rope Bow and the Lightning Shield. The former allows you to shoot ropes into anything made of wood, giving you access to areas higher up. This is all fine and good, except there's no limit to the number of ropes you can shoot, so you can fill a level with ropes and then play Tarzan, forever out of reach of the monsters below. The Lightning Shield is an indestructible shield that electrocutes your attackers every 10 seconds or so. Again, nothing wrong with it in theory, except for the fact that you can crouch behind it pretty much for the entire game (once you find it) and let your enemies cook themselves in lightning, which they will cheerfully do.

Overall Design

From a design perspective, the game is pretty stunning, and it's worth it to take a few moments to look around and enjoy the scenery. When you can, that is. There are several poorly (or excitingly, depending on your point of view) designed levels which force you to run and jump through quickly, without thinking or looking. As before, excellent in theory, but in practice only frustrating, since you end up having to redo the same level dozens of times after taking a wrong turn, or falling off a cliff, or running out of time.

The variety of monsters in the game is also somewhat lacking

The variety of monsters in the game is also somewhat lacking; there are perhaps a dozen that crop up 95% of the time, and aside from a few boss monsters that require special attention, they can all pretty much be kicked, burned or drowned rapidly. Several areas of the game rely on the lazy design mechanic of eternally spawning zombies, too, meaning that you can never entirely clear a board of foes before running through.

As a whole, the game is enjoyable, but certainly not as much as Half-Life 2 or the far more open-ended Oblivion. While some of the mechanics are interesting, and the scenery is nice, it's questionable whether or not it's worth the $50 for what amounts to about 15 hours of gameplay. Even taking into account four alternate endings (which are all pretty similar, in the end), you only add in maybe another 2-3 hours of replay value. All the "alternate ending" choices happen in the last hour of the game, and replaying from the start is pretty pointless, unless you really feel compelled to play the entire game using nothing but daggers.


The game's multiplayer mode could have saved the day, but alas, this was not to be. Prone to crashing and freezing, the game most resembles something like Team Fortress 2, allowing players to take on one of five roles (Archer, Assassin, Warrior, Priestess and Mage) on one of two teams (Human or Undead) to face off in Team Deathmatch or Capture-the-Flag style combat with up to 32 players. This sounds exciting, but in practice it's pretty ridiculous.

The only thing that could make it more silly is Yakety Sax.

Melee combat in multiplayer games like this is often relegated to people running around with crowbars or shovels and beating newbies about the head, and switching the weapon to swords or daggers does not improve the experience. Ultimately what you get is 32 people running madly in circles trying to avoid each other's wildly gesticulating arms, with the occasional fireball bursting nearby. The only thing that could make it more silly is if Yakety Sax were playing in the background.

Several of the classes and skills are lifted straight from TF2, including the Assassin's ability to disguise himself as an enemy (though unlike TF2, you can't pick a class to mimic), the presence of Priestess Healers (Medics), and the ability to poison your enemies. Archers are particularly doomed, however, since unlike most Deathmatch games they can only shoot single arrows quite slowly; they must play the role of snipers rather than regular gunners, and sniping is difficult when nobody stands still for more than .5 seconds.

Even the game engine is misused here. Not only was the multiplayer version of Dark Messiah designed by a completely different company, but it bears very little resemblance to the single player game on any front. The skills and classes are different, the weapons look and feel different, and the game engine behaves differently. There is no kicking, no walls of spikes, no skewering... Even the sword clashes are gone, with every exchange between two combatants sounding like a couple of yardsticks behind slapped together rapidly. In all, it's an appalling experience.

Overall, Dark Messiah is a decent enough game, but not for something based on a popular game license and an award-winning game engine. It's an amusing distraction, but that's all, and while it deserves praise for some of its more interesting elements, it hardly deserves top honors.

Official website
Wikipedia page

thanks for the review, found it useful.