Adding a subtitle hasn't improved Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. This tardy Xbox 360 port of the first-person action RPG that premiered on the PC in late 2006 remains solidly third-rate even with the word "Elements" strangely appended to the original name. Arkane Studios and Ubisoft may have taken well beyond a year to presumably spit-shine everything for the game's console debut, but the mind-numbingly repetitive combat, bland story, and awkward level design haven't been changed much at all. Only revamped multiplayer modes of play offer anything new, and they're pretty weak and offset by control and visual issues that make this 360 version of the game much worse than its PC predecessor.
At its heart, Elements is a straight rehashing of the PC edition of the game. The solo campaign again tells the tale of Sareth, who is wandering the lands of Ashan trying to find the long-lost Skull of Shadows for his mage master, a rather sinister piece of work named Phenrig. And also once again, this story is so poorly told that you can't summon up the will to care about any of the characters or particulars. Everything is hacked together, from the ludicrous goo-goo eyes made between Sareth and his sidekick Leanna to the capital-E evil of bad guys such as Arantir. The only interesting conceit is your attachment to a demonic entity called Xana, and she's such a dumb caricature of a jealous woman that her catty comments will offend even the most hardcore chauvinist. Furthermore, all of the dialogue is delivered in hammy drive-in movie tones (why exactly are medieval knights calling you "pal"?), and the bare bones of the plot are so poorly presented that it's hard to figure out what you're supposed to be doing. You get the feeling that Arkane Studios was going for a grim swords-and-sorcery saga à la Conan but could never settle on taking the whole thing seriously or playing it up for laughs.
At any rate, you likely won't be doing any chuckling while toiling through the campaign's nine chapters. Although they're mercifully brief and let you save Ashan from dark, stinky demons in about 10 hours, they're also so tedious that it seems as if you've been stuck on the couch for more like a solid week. The biggest problem is, again, Elements' schizophrenic identity. This isn't really an RPG or an action game. Role-playing fundamentals have been tossed in seemingly just to lure elf aficionados, considering that they don't add anything to gameplay. So even though you choose from the usual warrior, archer, mage, and assassin character classes at the start of your adventure, and then proceed to level up and collect the usual ever-cooler swords, armor, scrolls, and potions, there isn't any depth. A single class skill is dished out automatically every time you gain a level, and most of these are autopilot buffs to core stats such as strength and stamina. This is actually a step down from the skill system in the PC version of the game, which at least let you spend skill points in strength, magic, and stealth categories, and somewhat personalize Sareth.
Combat is equally undercooked, so you can't simply forget about the RPG omissions in favor of just hack-and-slashing it up. How you fight varies somewhat depending on class, but repetition is a huge annoyance regardless of whether you're slinging fireballs or twirling a sword. All you ever seem to do is pull the right trigger to attack until bad guys explode in spouts of blood. Warriors and assassins have access to a trio of combos with the downward blow, charge, and whirlwind melee-attack skills, although you really don't need to ever bother using them. The number of enemies never reaches true action RPG proportions, either, which means that you steadily slog your way through tiny groups of mostly unthreatening goons. Even the odd boss monster is pretty easy to handle, due to the presence of some gimmick or other that enables you to take down the big foozle in no more than a couple of minutes. Lack of enemy variety is another problem, in that the game throws the same foes at you over and over again. The first few levels are so stuffed with dark-armored blackguards that you feel like you've interrupted some kind of convention, and even when new blood arrives, you get nothing but fantasy-ghetto archetypes such as goblins, orcs, zombies, and spiders.
Virtually all of the changes made to Elements for its new life on the 360 only compound the game's existing flaws. Controls are extremely awkward. You lumber around like a dump truck, turning and backing up so slowly that these maneuvers should be accompanied by beeps. Distances are skewed so badly that it seems as if your sword is a good 10 feet long, given that you can pretty much hit enemies from across rooms. Jumping is even more of an annoyance because this distance distortion makes it impossible to tell exactly where you are. Good luck getting through the third chapter's chase sequence--where you leap across rooftops--without getting incredibly frustrated.
Technical issues are another story. The original PC version of the game was no looker, but this may be the ugliest game powered by Half-Life 2's physics-heavy Source-engine ever produced. Textures are flat, and every setting is so dark and murky that it's hard to pick out any details. You can adjust only the brightness and contrast, too, not the gamma, so you're really given a choice between scenes so muddy brown that you can't see the hand in front of your face or scenes so washed-out that you might as well be looking at your TV through cataracts. Loading times are another pain. The only saving grace here is that you don't get killed often enough in most levels for these 30-second loads to be a serious irritant. Finally, the game is a bit buggy. During our time with the game, the primary control buttons froze up at least three times, a situation in which you could freely move Sareth but couldn't access any functions or even retreat to the main menu to save the game. You have to drop out to the dashboard and restart the game to bring these functions back.
Multiplayer modes are being billed as the biggest additions to the 360 version of Elements, but they're just as disappointing as the rest of the game. Virtually nobody is playing the game online, as can be witnessed by the pitiful leaderboard scores. Of the multiplayer modes of play, only crusade has any promise, considering that the other deathmatch and blitz options are just as dull and dated as you might imagine. At any rate, nobody seems to be playing crusade anyhow, even though it has some appealing ideas; you can battle over multiple maps and reduce respawn tickets by holding control points similar to the Battlefield series on PC.
It’s unfortunate that despite the poor reception that the PC version received, the Xbox 360 version of the game didn’t turn out any better, and is actually worse in several ways. If you’re looking for an action-packed hack-and-slash game, you may just want to move on to a different game worthier of your time and money.