Remembering the Titans — Might & Magic (Part II)

First five games of glorious Might & Magic franchise have received all the love and praise they deserved. But in the mid-’90s the developers New World Computing decided to put the series on hiatus. Sheltem’s story has ended on an epic note and all the roleplaying juices seemed to dry out. Might & Magic became strategic: Heroes of Might & Magic has been released in 1995, bearing a strong trail of King’s Bounty (another NWC successful game released in 1990) and became the world’s most loved turned-based mind boggler almost instantly. But that’s the story for another time.

Might & Magic returned in 1998, after the years of constant technological advancements as well as an RPG evolution as a genre. It would be a grave mistake to not keep those environmental changes in mind, and NWC had to put their hand on the pulse of time. I am going to spoil you the ending: the return of Might & Magic into the roleplaying genre was phenomenal.

Might & Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven

Might & Magic VI saw the light of day in April, 1998. Flaming meteor tore through Enrothian skies bringing hordes of hellish beasts, whose only desire was a hunger for destruction. After two bloody wars, which were thoroughly illustrated in the first two Heroes of Might & Magic games, a new pestilence came to the land of Enroth: Kreegans. Those devil-like creatures were like a force of nature, an uncontrollable calamity, a space vermin roaming through the galaxy and destroying everything on its path.

The village of Sweet Water was the first to burn in the heat of invasion. Only four heroes have survived the strike, and coincidentally they are the ones who fall under the player’s command. It is up to them to serve the lords of the land, get their approval in the Enrothian Council to seek the help of the Oracle and put a stop to the Kreegan invasion by destroying the enemy’s hive.

A simple but effective plot of Might & Magic VI follows the zeitgeist. In 1998 the game couldn’t get away with just a mere background storyline, which the only purpose is to give a reason for the player to kill a bunch of mobs. So now we have wordy dialogues with NPCs, plot twists, and even two alternative endings: blowing up the Kreegan hive or blowing up the Kreegan hive without destroying the rest of Enroth with it.

Sci-Fi elements are still here, keeping the M&M VI in line with the cyberfantasy roots of previous games in the series. Supercomputers, ancient spaceships lying in eternal slumber, laser blasters and dangerous robotic sentinels: all that comes along with liches, minotaurs, fireballs, and rest of the fantasy tropes.

Cartoonish pixelated graphics remained in the past. The late ’90s were the years of three-dimensional landscapes and photorealism. Mountains, hills, and caves of Enroth now have depth and volume. Moreover, the land is now basking in the glow of dynamic lights: glares of the tunnel walls from a fireball flying by and murky morning mist embracing the mountains take a strong grip upon the player’s heart, aiding strongly to the sense of immersion.

NPCs, mobs, and trees remained 2D, but much of the effort was put into making the pixels as less cartoonish as possible. Character portraits now look less like portraits per se, but rather resemble the photos you take for a passport. Wierd and queer photos they are, but photos nevertheless.

Fortunately, the marvelous feel of participation in a wonderful fairytale or a fable, which previous games of the franchise had been filled with, didn’t evaporate from the equation. The world of Enroth and its inhabitants are as colorful and visually tasty as were Xeen or Terra. Never such a great balance between photorealism and fabulousness has been achieved in the Might & Magic franchise since. Well, not in the world of Enroth at least.

The gameplay formula although remaining faithful to the series in its core, lived through lots of changes. Might & Magic have always preferred evolution rather a stagnation, but The Mandate of Heaven really broke the score with the amount of tweaks and rethinkings of the core mechanics.

First and foremost, the game got rid of the grid system and implemented a freeroam real-time movement, giving the player a taste of pure three-dimensional freedom. Battles have been also shifted to real-time but leaving the player an option to change to a turn-based style if so she prefers. Although, while in turn-based mode your party can’t move, which may turn out to be rather limiting combat wise; especially in those cases, when you try to avoid projectiles.

But in the real-time Might & Magic VI is capable to resemble a first-person shooter sometimes. With an option of tying specific spells to a hotkey, your blob of a party rolls through the land, disseminating arrows and fireballs all over the place, ravaging and pillaging densely populated locations. Add to that the Fly spell and you can pretend that you’re playing some bomber flight simulator.

Although the player’s movement is no more limited by the grid system, the world itself became more fractured: Enroth is divided into 15 unique and vast locations. Traveling between them happens off-screen, costs food and can get quite tiresome for the characters, but there are boat and coach providing services for those, who prefer to travel in comfort.

Player’s party consists of four characters this time, and the concept of racial diversity has been thrown away. Forget about elves and gnomes: Might & Magic VI puts only white humans under your command. The village of Sweet Water had quite a homogeneous population, apparently.

There are six classes: knight, paladin, archer, cleric, sorcerer, and druid. Some classes from previous titles in the franchise also have been cut out: you don’t need ninjas and thieves when none of the chests and doors in the game are locked, except for those, which need a plot item to be opened. Consequently, the lockpicking skill was also thrown away from the gameplay.

Apropos of the skill system, well, we have a revolution on our hands here! First of all, all those traveling skills, like mountaineering and pathfinding are gone: probably because of the three-dimensional free-roaming. Swimming was also cut out, but its spell analog was added. Secondly, each type of weapon and armor now has a special attributed skill for it, so even the knight theoretically wouldn’t be able to wield a sword without spending a couple of points on the appropriate skill. Yes, now with each level-up (level-upping is being achieved, as usual, in training centers and costs money) you get a certain amount of skill points, which you have to redistribute.

Thirdly, skills now have a tier-system. There are three tiers: normal, expert and master. You reach a normal tier by just learning the skill; an expert tier is achieved by paying to an expert trainer, whom you have to find first; and in order to be a master, you’ll have to meet certain demands of a master trainer, perhaps even solving a special quest. There are great skill bonuses given each tier, so mastering a skill is pretty worth the hassle. Bow master can shoot two arrows at once, so think about that! You have a class limitations though: some classes are forbidden from not just mastering, but even having a basic knowledge of certain skills. Sorcerers, for example, will never be able to learn chain and plate armor skills; and clerics just cannot comprehend even the basics of fire magic.

By the way, magic is now divided into nine magic schools. There were only two in the World of Xeen, remember? Those nine schools are in their turn divided into three major groups: elemental magic (fire, water, air and earth), clerical magic (spirit, mind and body), and special magic (light and dark). There are eleven spells in each school, some are familiar from the previous games in the series, some are new. The spell bundles remained in the game, but in Might & Magic VI they found themselves a shelter in the light and dark magic schools.

As you may figure, elemental magic is a sorcerer’s specialty (archers may use it too), while clerical magic is, surprisingly, a clerical one (and paladin’s). The only class that can learn both of those is a druid. But it’s a classical case of a jack of all trades, master of none. As of special magic, it’s only for the pure spellcasters: only sorcerers and clerics may learn and master the arts of light and darkness.

Oh, there is a humble alchemy system in Might & Magic VI. There are just three ingredients, with which you can make some basic potions for health, mana and energy (gives a temporary bonus to the stats). But you also can mix the potions, and here it gets more interesting. Mix basic potions to get advanced potions, mix advanced potions to get even more advanced ones. The most powerful potions are black: they give really good bonuses, but at a certain cost, like reducing some of your stats in order to give you a massive HP bonus. Finding the right combinations of mixtures can be a dangerous job: mix some wrong potions together and you’ll get yourself a personal Hindenburg disaster inside your own backpack.

Thanks to all of those changes in the game mechanics, the fact that your party have got smaller is not an issue: there is still plenty of options to construct your special murder-squad, and then replay the game with another. I know some people, that replay Might & Magic VI annually even after more than 20 years since its release and still have their fun, though some professional help would be also advised, I suppose…

Anyways, the option of using hirelings is back. Sort of. You can hire almost any NPC you meet, but she will only give you a certain bonus, and will never become a full party member, like in the Isles of Terra. Some of the hirelings can give a bonus to your stats, some may cast a certain spell daily, some will cook for you, and some will do nothing but just hanging out with you for a good company. Mind though that all of them will take a small percentage of the gold you find in the travels.

Might & Magic VI is the first game in the series, that features graphical inventory. Finally, you can see the items you find in all their glory, and even with a right-click see all of the needed information about them. The late ’90s were the age of enlightening! Repairing the items is a chore, though. You can do this only in the shops (while armorer repairs only armor, of course, for repairing a weapon you need a weaponsmith), and if you have the character with a repair skill, then he may work only inside his own inventory. So you end up juggling the items between your characters quite often.

Another thing that annoyed me personally is an eternal grind, which you can’t do anything about it. There are lots of monsters roaming the wilds and dungeons of Might & Magic VI. No, really: there a LOTS of them. In the late game you just travel and mow the mobs by the hundreds. It gets quite boring pretty soon after most of the hordes stop to present somewhat a challenge. Well, nobody’s perfect, eh?

Oh, god, I forgot to mention the music! Might & Magic VI is the first game in the series, where all the musical arrangements have been done by a legendary trio of Paul Romero, Rob King, and Steve Baca. These are the guys behind the wonderful tunes of the Heroes series. So you’ll get a really powerful and immersing soundtrack to accompany in your travels and dungeon crawlings. How about cleansing the dark temple of the Cult of Baa with Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor playing in the halls? Thrilling.

Might & Magic VI had a massive success upon release. And no wonder: it adjusted the traditional Might & Magic playing routine to the demands of the zeitgeist and scored. Although, in my humble personal opinion, the game lost some of the series’ uniqueness along with that. It became more mainstreamy, I suppose, with much fewer puzzles and more grinding combat. There is even a proper boss fight in the end. Still, The Mandate of Heaven remains one of the best entries in the series, and a small amount of its flaws pales in comparison with a horde of its strengths.

Might & Magic VII: For Blood and Honor

Might & Magic VII was released slightly more than a year after its predecessor: in June 1999. While still successful and highly praised, it does contain some troublesome signs of series’ stagnation. They don’t make the game bad, not at all, but if you look at a bigger picture, the first cracks in the titan’s feet may have appeared here, in Might & Magic VII: For Blood and Honor.

The plot is probably the strongest aspect of the game. It continues the story of Might & Magic VI; it sheds the light upon fates of heroes of Might & Magic III; it moves alongside the story of Heroes of Might & Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia and prepares the ground to its addon The Armageddon’s Blade; it presents the player a moral choice, the consequences of which really matter. This story deserves a quick recap, so there will be some spoilers.

So heroes of the Isles of Terra failed to chase Sheltem to the world of Xeen. They got lost in space and eventually landed on the world of Enroth, near the Antagarich continent. There was a feud between them, and they had been divided into two ‘teams’: the good ones and the bad ones, roughly speaking. Each of the teams have found themselves a ruler to serve and began pursuing their own goals. The good ones began to search the way to reopen the forgotten Gates, which can reconnect the worlds and in theory lay a path to meeting the Ancients. The bad ones, on the other hand, wished to fix the Heavenly Forge and get to the arsenal of mighty weapons.

Meanwhile, the Kreegan invasion continues. After the destruction of the Hive, aliens were weakened, but not destroyed: their king still lives and pursues the global destruction. The land itself is burning in the flames of war between different countries.

As you may guess, our new party of heroes is going to fall deep into all this mess. After winning a contest, our heroes were given a whole castle of Harmondale as a prize. It is just a dusty pile of rocks at start, but placed in the neutral lands, over which there are always a struggle between elven AvLee and human Erathia.

The story of Might & Magic VII is quite elaborate one in comparison with the rest of the series. There are two important choices for the player to make on the way, which have tangible consequences. The first one is regarding the fate of Harmondale: would you rather choose a side in the conflict between elves and humans, or you going to apply all of your game-of-throne-ish skills to remain independent? The second one is much more important: would you help the good guys or the bad guys? The last decision affects not just the ending, but the gameplay, the quests given, and even the color of the interface.

Fun fact! Originally it was planned, that the canonical ending would be letting the bad guys win. Thus in the Heroes of Might & Magic III: The Armageddon’s Blade there was planned to introduce a new faction: the Forge, which contained zombies wielding all sorts of sci-fi weaponry, like blasters and rocket launchers. Alas, the fanbase of the Heroes series was much wider and larger than of original M&M one, and it didn’t bother with all this lore of the universe, apparently. It was an outrage of such magnitude, that New World Computing had to scrap the Forge and change it with the Elemental Conflux, making a good guys’ victory in Might & Magic VII the canonical one. Well, at least thanks to the Gates some of the Enrothians survived the Reckoning at the beginning of Heroes of Might & Magic IV. But that’s a story for another time.

When I said, that the plot here is probably the strongest aspect of the game, what I meant was that all of the rest haven’t much changed since The Mandate of Heaven. The same engine with a tweak to further support hardware acceleration made the traveling feel more fluid, but aesthetically something had happened here in Might & Magic VII. Something not good.

The world became less colorful: it’s bleak, it’s grey, it’s visually boring. I don’t know, maybe that’s how the Antagarich was designed with all of its swamps. Still, even its most bright locations pale in comparison with those of Enroth in Might & Magic VI. Also, look at those portraits! Straight from uncanny valley. Compare them with eclectic deliciousness of ones in The Mandate of Heaven. Nuff said.

At least the music is still great.

Gameplay remained pretty much the same, expectedly: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Still, there are some minor changes implemented, which slightly improve the formula. Might & Magic VII decided to re-embrace the racial diversity; so elves, dwarves, and even goblins are now welcome at your party. The ranger and the thief classes have returned, and a whole new class added to the rooster: the fistfighting monk.

It was made possible to move in the turn-based mode, which had added quite a lot of depth to the combat. I am still questioning myself, why hasn’t it been featured in Might & Magic VI. Well, it’s better late than never.

There have been a new tier added to a skill system: the grand-master, which grants really powerful bonuses once achieved. The alchemy system became slightly more complicated with more ingredients to mix and more potions to brew. There’s even an alchemy skill now, so that’s a thing.

Magic schools remained mostly the same, with only one major change. Dark and light magic are now mutually exclusive: the magic which you will be able to master depends on whom you would choose to support in the endgame.

Landlording your own castle is also quite nice. The idea was partly implemented in the Clouds of Xeen, but in For Blood and Honor it feels more complete and rewarding. Oh, and dare I not forget the Acromage!

Might & Magic VII had its own card mini-game sixteen years before the Witcher’s Gwent. Just solve some early sidequest, find a deck of cards, and on you go: every Antagarich’s tavern will gladly host a game of Acromage for you.

The rules of the game are simple, though need to get used to. Each of two players has a tower, a wall, three resources (bricks, gems and beasts) and a hand of six cards to their disposal. Each turn you play a card and try to win, achieving one of three conditions: reaching a certain high for your tower, stacking a certain amount of resource, or destroying the rival’s tower. There are three types of cards, each according to a resource it spends while at play: gem cards affect mostly the towers, brick cards affect walls, and beast cards deal damage. Each tavern on the continent has its tweak to the rules, so there is no universal strategy of winning.

People loved Acromage. You had not just to choose how to win, but also to guess what victory condition your rival had chose to pursue. The mini-game stayed with the Might & Magic series for one more title: Might & Magic VIII; and even was released as a stand-alone game. Alas, Acromage didn’t stand the test of time on its own, and mostly remembered as a great addition to the worlds of Might & Magic VII and VIII.

But apart from that, Might & Magic VII didn’t bring much new to the table. It made some accurate tweaks to mechanics, deepening and polishing the gameplay; but deprived the world of Might & Magic of its magical atmosphere, making it bleak and faceless.

There was a need for a new revolution in the series. Unfortunately, the future attempts at innovating the Might & Magic formula wouldn’t turn out as successful, as in the past.

Might & Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer

Might & Magic VIII was released in March, 2000 and the grievous truth became unhidden: something is rotten in the world of Enroth. The praise of yesteryear didn’t repeat itself, and the game received mostly average scores. Let’s see what went wrong here.

Day of the Destroyer sends us to the third continent on the planet Enroth, called Jadame. Although it’s populated by dark elves, minotaurs, vampires, lizardmen, and other typically ‘evil’ races, Jadame has always avoided wars and turmoils, unlike the rest of the continents in this world. It was a rather peaceful place, actually. Until the man came, shooting lightnings from his fists, erupting volcanoes with only a thought, and generally being very mean. He builds a huge red crystal in the town of Ravenshore, and stays inside it, while the continent drowns in chaos.

The dude is Eschaton, the Ancient’s cyborg, part of the preprogrammed protocol of the world cleansing following the Kreegan invasion. Ancients apparently hated the Kreegan so much, that they were ready to burn worlds a whole, just in trying to stop the devils’ from spreading further in the galaxy. The fact, that the Kreegans have been stopped already by the brave Enrothian heroes, doesn’t bother Eschaton much. He’s a robot, he doesn’t care. So the player has to stop him, uniting the continent, rushing through four elemental planes, sinking a whole pirate fleet, and solving a bunch of puzzles on the way.

The setting of Jadame paints the world of Might & Magic with fresh colors. Visiting Minotaur cities and troll villages feels rather exotic, even by today’s RPG standards. But the story itself feels rather weak in comparison with two of the game’s predecessors. There are two ‘important’ choices along the way, which though in their consequences don’t really have much of an effect on the gameplay, nor on the game’s ending.

If the game took a step back plotwise, it remained standstill regarding the graphics. Same sprite figures, same poor textures, same low polygonal forts and mountains, same very limited draw distance. Mind you, that Might & Magic VIII was released the same year as Deus Ex. So all the beating the game took for its looks from the critics was rightly deserved.

And that’s a shame, because, again: the Jadame’s setting is marvelous. It had all the chances to bring back the colors and revive the visual magic of the series. But alas. The game have tried to innovate in terms of gameplay though, and it also didn’t go very well.

In Day of the Destroyer, up to five characters may be in the player’s party, but only one of them can be created at the beginning of the game. In fact, you have only this one hero, and all the rest are hirelings, you meet along the way. Some of them demand your main hero reaching a certain level before they join, some want you to solve a certain quest. There is no more option to hire NPCs for passive bonuses.

The character class system is all over the place here. There are eight classes overall: knight, cleric, necromancer, dark elf, vampire, troll, minotaur and dragon. Refreshing, eh? Your main character may be anything but a dragon, and there is a reason for that: dragons are unmeasurably powerful, so the game tries to challenge you at least at the beginning, until you have the chance to hire one of those flying lizards.

Class promotions, as well as secondary skill system, remained mostly the same, with an exception of special class (or rather racial) abilities. In fact. those are additional spells, unique for a certain class, such as a vampire’s life drain, for example.

Those special abilities and an option to hire damn dragons to the party make the game ferociously imbalanced, and the combat turns into unchallenging grind too early in the game (relatively to previous games in the series). So some non-combat challenges have been added into the game: like platforming sections, for example. Jump over the chasm here, jump onto the moving platform there, that sort of stuff. It just that the jump mechanics have remained here the same since Might & Magic VI, and it was used there just to save your party from occasionally getting stuck between the textures. So yeah, those platforming sections are quite a pain in the ass.

The interface have been renovated, mostly through getting rid of the side panel. It made it more clean looking indeed, though it still felt outdated and clunky by the time of release.

You can play Acromage in the taverns, and there is no boss fight in the end: just an old-school puzzle to solve. And there’s pretty much everything new you can tell about Might & Magic VIII. The rest of the game systems remained unchanged.

So on the dawn of the new millennium, Might & Magic series has been showing some vicious signs of stagnation. Day of the Destroyer was the last game in the series, which was developed with Jon van Kaneghem’s personal involvement, he is going to distance himself from the active development in the future.

A couple of years later, Might & Magic IX has tried to raise the series to a new level and break the chains of stagnation. We’ll see next time, how it managed with it.

Spoiler: pretty badly.

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