Dark Messiah wraps a dull story around repetitive combat. It's not a bad game, but its technical glitches really bring it down.
- Good death animations.
- Numerous crashes and glitches get in the way
- minimal character building and progression
- most of the game's combat is unsatisfying
- storyline is almost completely transparent right off the bat.
The Might and Magic universe dates all the way back to 1986. In those 20 years, we've seen plenty of different games on plenty of different platforms, but most of them have fallen squarely into the turn-based strategy or role-playing sectors. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, from Ubisoft and Arkane Studios, doesn't really fall into either of those categories. Like Arkane's previous game, Arx Fatalis, this is a first-person game. But Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is extremely light on the role-playing, instead focusing its energy on sword-swinging, magic-fireball-shooting action. Unfortunately, the action gets repetitive quickly, and the game's often-transparent storyline doesn't pick up any of the slack.
Dark Messiah puts you in the boots of a guy named Sareth. Sareth's an orphan that's been working as an apprentice under a wizard named Phenrig, and the game opens with a tutorial, where the wizard tells you how to get around as you attempt to grab a large crystal with magical properties. After learning the fine arts of sword fighting, rope climbing, and crate kicking, the wizard sends you out into the world to bring the crystal to another wizard, who has some big plans for it. But you don't go alone. Before you leave, the boss sticks you with a lady named Xana, who is some kind of guardian creature who lives inside your head. This lets her act as the game's Cortana, speaking to you frequently and acting as the game's "what should I do next?" device. The difference between Xana and Cortana, though, is that Xana's quips are too frequent and immediately annoying. The storyline unfolds almost immediately thanks to some specific details that are revealed in the manual and opening pre-rendered video sequence about the prophecy that drives the entire story. It's odd that a game could slip what amount to spoilers into the first 45 minutes of gameplay, but it's really quite transparent, and it's very easy to see where this roughly 15-hour adventure is going. You're given a couple of different choices later on in the game that will dictate which ending you'll see, but they're all disappointingly unsatisfying.
At its core, Dark Messiah is an action game. There are enemies to deal with, and you can take them out with a few different weapon types. Swords do the most damage, though daggers can be powerful if you can sneak up behind enemies and backstab them. The staff isn't as powerful or as fast as the sword, but it knocks enemies over, making it well suited for crowds, in theory. When using a sword, you can also equip a shield, which lets you block arrows. If you want to reach out and kill someone, the game has bows for your use, as well. You can also learn magic spells over the course of the game, starting with the basics like telekinesis and flame arrow, which is a fire spell that does very little damage. The later spells are more damaging and useful, but they don't scale, so that useless flame arrow spell is always useless.
You learn spells and other skills by spending skill points, which are earned by completing objectives. Skill points can be spent in three different categories, and some skills branch off of other skills, so you'll have to increase your endurance before you can increase your attack power. There aren't very many choices for character customization here, but you can try to specialize in magic, stealth, strength, or some combination of the three. Considering that most of the spells in the game aren't all that useful (heal is easily your best bet for most-used spell) and that stealth is never a requirement, spending points to make your physical attacks stronger, while also spending points to increase your mana reserves for frequent healing, feels like the best way to go. The game tosses so many health and mana-restoring items at you that you probably don't have to go all out in that direction, either.
The combat in Dark Messiah is a little deeper than the average first-person shooter's melee attacks. When wielding a weapon, you can tap the mouse button for fast, weak swipes. But you can also execute power strikes by holding down the attack button and a movement direction. Each direction gives you a slightly different-looking attack, but the real bonus is that the power strikes do more damage and usually stagger blocking enemies. As you swing, an adrenaline meter charges up, and when it's full, a power strike will instantly kill an enemy, complete with a few unique and gory death animations, such as beheadings. But in many cases, attacking with your weapons or even your magic spells isn't the quickest way to take care of business. The soldiers, orcs, ghouls, and other creatures you'll face in the game really like to stand near large cliffs and spiked walls, or under rickety wooden lofts filled with heavy barrels. You have a kick attack that is a little too good at kicking guys off of cliffs or into those spiked walls, either of which is an instant kill. The lofts are usually held up by shaky wooden planks, so a swipe of any weapon will crush their supports, sending the barrels tumbling down onto your enemies and killing them. With all of these powerful options at your disposal, fighting enemies in Dark Messiah feels more like a minor annoyance. In some spots, it'll be more efficient to just run past groups of zombies, and since enemies don't drop useful items or give you any sort of experience or skill points, you usually won't miss anything by doing so. But you will occasionally stumble onto some larger enemies, like a big cyclops or a dragon. Those fights can be a little more involved, but the artificial intelligence makes even these guys relatively easy to best.