When 3DO develops a game engine, it sure likes to get its money's worth. Might and Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer is a perfect example: The hack-and-slash RPG looks and plays just like its two most recent predecessors, despite the fact that it features some fundamental design changes and gameplay enhancements. Consequently, Might and Magic VIII will only appeal to hard-core fans of the series who haven't yet grown weary of the repetitive gameplay that was introduced in Might and Magic VI and recycled in Might and Magic VII.
Might and Magic VIII is set in the land of Jadame, and the plot revolves around a mysterious crystal that has risen out of the ground in the centrally located city of Ravenshore. After the crystal's appearance, gateways to the four elemental planes have opened up in Jadame, causing cataclysmic destruction in the nearby lands. You begin as a humble caravan guard, and your first task is to escape the Dagger Wound Islands, which have been cut off from the mainland by an opportunistic pirate band intent on cashing in during the post-cataclysmic confusion. Beyond that, you must uncover the secret of the crystal and find a way to stop the elemental forces that are tearing Jadame apart.
In the first major break from previous games, you begin Might and Magic VIII with only one character. You can eventually control a party of five, but you must find and recruit your companions along the way. The other major change in Might and Magic VIII is that you can choose from a variety of races and classes not previously available. In addition to the basic cleric and knight, you can start out as a vampire, dark elf, minotaur, troll, or necromancer. As in previous games, each character type can be promoted via a specific quest for each class. Another significant new feature is the addition of dragons as playable characters, though they can only join your party after the game begins, meaning you can't create a dragon character from scratch.
Despite the modified party structure, the basic gameplay formula remains unchanged: You wander the countryside, fight vast hordes of monsters, accumulate lots of experience, gain many levels, learn and refine skills, and repeat. Though the game generally seems less reliant on having to slay hundreds of creatures as in Might and Magic VI, there are times when the number of monsters you'll face is simply ludicrous, especially toward the end of the game.
Dragons are especially useful to have when there's a lot of fighting to do. And since you have the option to recruit a dragon fairly early in the game, you'll almost immediately improve your combat effectiveness by a huge margin, which diminishes the challenge of the game. Between its devastating basic attack and its ability to breathe fire, your dragon will carry you to victory in almost every battle. And since you can quickly boost your dragon's skills to the point where it gains the ability to fly and can carry the entire party with it, you can easily pass areas through which you would have otherwise spent hours hacking and slashing. It's this gross game imbalance that makes dragons in Might and Magic VIII problematic. When you have a dragon in tow, combat becomes repetitive and tedious even when you're up against difficult foes, especially when the rest of your party is handy with ranged weapons.
Another game-balance problem is the extremely powerful invisibility spell, which is available to masters of the air-magic skill. So long as you don't bump into or attack any monsters while the spell is active, you can wander right on by your enemies and accomplish your quest goals without interference. Invisibility can greatly shorten the end game in Might and Magic VIII, where many of the quest dungeons are small and built around a destination you must reach, rather than an ultimate battle you must win.The skill system in Might and Magic VIII works well, as in the previous installment. It places a number of restrictions on character classes in an attempt to preserve the game balance, or to counteract the impact of having a dragon in your party. For example, you can't make all of your party members grand-master archers, but you can train most characters to at least use a bow. Some of the restrictions are annoying, such as the cleric class' inability to attain grand-master status with a mace, but the skill system is generally well implemented.
The only truly aggravating aspect of the skill system is that you must visit expert, master, and grand-master teachers who are scattered across the game world. Combined with the need to level up via training at specific locations, the never-ending search for teachers makes you feel like an errand boy, which can become tedious in a hurry, especially when each member of your party is eligible for several different skill upgrades at once. You'll get the sense while scurrying from teacher to teacher that you're doing so simply because the developers wanted to make the game longer. Many of the quests in the game also feel like busywork.
A quick glance at the screenshots for Might and Magic VIII will tell you that the graphics haven't changed much. It uses the same 3D engine and fuzzy 2D sprites to illustrate every monster and most environmental items. Some of the 2D sprites look better than others, such as the cyclops and the fire elementals, but they're still flat and make the game look very dated.
What's even more distressing is that the game has a few jumping puzzles, which can be very difficult to negotiate because of the engine's limited viewing area and the unresponsive keyboard controls. If the designers considered jumping puzzles to be a vital part of the game's design, then they should have at least enhanced the 3D engine to accommodate them.
The game also has a frustrating combat bug that leaves your party powerless against monsters that get too close in a melee. Once a creature gets near enough that its sprite runs off the top and bottom of the screen, your characters' melee attacks suddenly become useless. Might and Magic VIII also suffers from a number of other bugs, including random lockups that necessitate frequent use of the quick-save option. However, reloading after a quick save occasionally shuts down the magic system completely, so none of your characters can cast spells.
Might and Magic VIII can be fun to play in spite of all its problems, as it manages to retain most of the same addictive charm of the previous two installments. However, for newcomers to RPGs as well as gamers who're already tired of the recent Might and Magic games, Might and Magic VIII's old graphics engine, repetitive gameplay, bugs, and relative ease will be too much to overlook.