Might & Magic: Dark Ages

Might & Magic series entered the new millennium with a limp. The Day of the Destroyer, the eighth game in the series has shown severe signs of stagnation and was met rather coldly by the public, which expected a rise to a new quality level from the beloved franchise. Furthermore, the Heroes series were also walking in circles, being caught in a loop of trying to stretch further the massive success of Heroes of Might & Magic III. In the light of the tough financial situation of the franchise’s publisher 3DO, the next game just had to be successful. So much was at the stake, that New World Computing’s two separate teams had been working simultaneously on both of franchises.

Again I will start an article with a spoiler alert: it all ended pretty bad.

Might & Magic IX: Writ of Fate

Might & Magic IX was released in March 2002. It was meant to be a refreshing reboot showcasing the beautiful future of the franchise, even without Jon van Caneghem being involved in the game-making process. The whole new world, new setting, modern game engine. A fresh start. But when under pressure, there is always the breaking point. Writ of Fate shows what happens when you assume too much pressure upon the game development.

The world of Enroth died in the flames of the Reckoning. Remember all those green plains, snowy mountains, and dry deserts you’ve roamed in Might & Magic VI to VIII? Poof. Gone. Welcome to the three-dimensional lands of Axeoth.

LithTech engine acquired by 3DO had shown excellent results in the past, continually evolving and modified: it was forged by Monolithic for Blood 2, and later was used in No One Lives Forever, Alien vs. Predator 2, F.E.A.R., and most lately in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

New World Computing worked with LithTech 2.5 (Talon) while developing Might & Magic IX and failed to realize its potential. Writ of Fate looks fairly dated for 2002: the world of Axeoth is bleak, grey, sharp on the edges, and claustrophobic. Forget the vast open spaces of previous games, they died in the cataclysm along with the old world. Traveling through Axeoth is like walking through a narrow corridor, with dull and boring mountains serving as walls.

Character models are so ugly, that the enemies simply fall through the ground when killed, ashamed to leave their angular bodies for a player to look at.

Yes, I know that the game is 17 years old. Surely you can’t anticipate breathtaking 3D visuals here. But you know who else is 17 years old? The Elder Scrolls III. Morrowind has been released just a couple of months after the Writ of Fate, probably putting some final nails to its coffin along the way.
Ironically enough, the game’s setting falls in line with another entry in The Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim. The story of Writ of Fate unfolds on the Axeoth’s northern continent of Rysh, which was heavily inspired by Scandinavian culture. For most of the game, you’ll be busy with running errands for several yarls, helping unite independent clans of Rysh into a mighty army. There is a heavy influence of the Scandinavian mythology on the plot, with the mortals being mere pawns in the gods’ games. Moreover, the main plot twist in Writ of Fate is that from the game’s very beginning, you’ve been lied to by a local equivalent of Loki.

Cyber-fantasy roots of the series were somewhat abandoned in Might & Magic IX. Axeoth’s gods aren’t cybernetic guardians like Corack and Sheltem rather actual gods with no connection to the Ancients. Rare are the instances when the game builds any lore connection to the past entries in the series. For example, Nicolai Ironfist, whom you can meet along the journey. But those instances feel not more than a service for old fans to giggle over.

Consequently, Might & Magic IX seems faceless and devoid of the series’ iconic individuality. Thankfully, it still plays like a good old Might & Magic, and even adds some really nice ideas into the familiar formula.

First-person view, a party of characters, leveling-up costs money, cities, temples, trainers. The core have remained adamant but got wrapped into a peculiar new veil.

There are four characters in your party, each created individually with four races to choose from: human, elf, dwarf, and half-orc. As for the classes, there are only two at the start: a might-based fighter and a magic-based initiate. Each of those classes is up to be promoted twice as you play. Each time it happens, you have to choose one of two subclasses your character is going to evolve into. For example, a fighter will have to decide whether to turn into a mercenary or a crusader. The next choice, in the case of former, will have to be made between a gladiator and an assassin, and in the case of later, between a ranger and a paladin. The same scheme applies to an initiate.

Thus, you have several promotional paths for your character to choose from. To sum it up, might-based characters’ choice is either going all-in on close combat or diluting it with some spellcasting. Magic-based characters, on the other hand, have three options: elemental magic, spirit magic, or becoming a druid that is a jack of all trades but master of none.

The skill system remained unchanged with one minor exception. Now you can buy any skill in the book store exactly like you buy spells. Yeah, there are no magic guilds in Might & Magic IX, but there are two types of book stores: one for skills and the second for spells. Maybe the idea of a public library would be more time-saving and convenient, but those northerners have their own way of things…

Magic system has changed a lot, and I believe the change was for the better. There are only four magic schools in Writ of Fate: elemental, spirit, light, and dark. Unlike in the previous games of the series, magical schools aren’t segregated from each other, rather intertwined together: spells no more belong to a certain school. Your spellcaster has to be proficient enough with both elemental and light magic schools to cast a basic Torchlight, for example. Heal demands knowledge in both spirit and light magic, and The Lloyd’s Beacon demands from your spellcaster to master three magic schools at once: elemental, spirit, and light. Such burden has been laid upon the spellcasters to make their progression more balanced. Gone are almighty sorcerers of the previous games in the series, flying in the skies and bombarding stars upon their feeble enemies.

Actually, you may forget about flying at all: there is no Flight spell in Writ of Fate. Nevertheless, your blob of a party can jump, swim, and even climb ladders. All that thanks to the game engine, originally built for an FPS. Expectedly, platforming elements have been implemented much more smoothly than in Might & Magic VIII.

Traveling became much easier, and that’s not just because the world became smaller. Your characters don’t need to eat anymore, so you can rest as much as you want ultimately for free. For the fast-travel, you have ships for your service and the good old Town Portal spell.

Technically, you can hire up to three hirelings, but in practice, one of those slots will be mostly occupied because of the plot reasons. Some hirelings give your party nice bonuses, but their main primary use is in combat. They fight alongside your characters, and the only difference is that you will never be allowed to scrabble about their inventory.

Thanks to the LithTech engine, real-time combat became more engaging: enemies try to move constantly, maneuvering over and trying to get around from your rear. Nevertheless, switching to turn-based combat gains you full control over the battle, making you hard to surprise. You have an option to arrange your party in formations (almost like in Wizardry 8), deciding who will stand in front and who will remain in the back.

The most annoying thing I find in Might & Magic IX‘s combat is the audio-visual response upon hitting enemies. Each time your character attacks, there is a scream, and there are loads of red crumbs burst into the air, which represents the blood, I suppose. Whether your character actually dealt the damage, or not, it happens either way: scream and red crumbs. There is no visual difference between hit and miss. Always keep an eye on the log messages at the bottom of the screen: this information is much more accurate.

Might & Magic IX could have been remembered as an average game, but not without some exciting ideas to be worthy of being played for. Unfortunately, Writ of Fate has been riddled with bugs upon release. Items and NPCs were missing, quests were unsolvable, chests were refilling, etc. So the game entered history as a raw buggy mess. The version you can buy on GOG.com, though, has these problems mostly solved, thanks to the fan-patch being applied, which rids the game of the most annoying bugs.

New World Computing had the time to release only one official patch, and shortly after that, 3DO went bankrupt, dragging all of their development studios along. Company assets were sold, and the rights for Might & Magic franchise were obtained by Ubisoft for cheap 1.3$ million. French publishers showed their will to continue the development of the Heroes series, but the fate of the RPG series has been uncertain for almost 12 long years.

Might & Magic X: Legacy

Since the acquisition of the Might & Magic franchise, Ubisoft has made a goal of the purchase very clear: making money out of Heroes of Might & Magic series (for some time, at least). There have also been quite a successful 3D Action attempt with Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, but no plans for the main series revival were insight. Until the release of Legend of Grimrock.

This retro-blobber darling proved to the publishers that there was still a public demand for an old-school RPG fun. So Ubisoft, though very cautiously, decided to give the Might & Magic a try. German studio Limbic Entertainment, which previously made a DLC for Heroes 6, was crowned as the developer; in March 2013 the game was announced; in August 2013 the first beta-version was made available; and finally, in January 2014 Might & Magic X: Legacy saw the light of day.

With Axeoth being scrapped, Ashan became the new world for Might & Magic. Completely devoid of cybernetic space operatic elements, the world of Ashan is what you may call a high fantasy: dragon-demigods, order-chaos dichotomy, and overall epicness of the lore. On the one hand, Ashan’s lore is more thoroughly written than any of the previous worlds in Might & Magic series, but on the other hand, it is quite conventional and feels much less original.

Anyhow, the game begins when your party of raiders (in Ashan, those are adventurers, whose motives are not mercantile but honorable) arrives at the Agyn peninsula to bury the ashes of their deceased mentor in his home-town Karthal. But Karthal turns out to be engulfed in flames of civil war, so the heroes end up in Sorpigal-by-the-Sea to regroup and begin their journey from there.

Sorpigal. Yes, you may cry now. It is the first of many many more references to the more celebrated past of Might & Magic series. Imagine the game leaning over with a cunning smile, whispering to your ear, “Hey, remember The Secret of Inner Sanctum? You’ve started in Sorpigal there, right? Oh, and remember The Mandate of Heaven? You’ve started in New Sorpigal there, right? So here you go! It’s exactly like the good old days! Remember?”

The fanservice is aplenty: Maximus, Crag Hack, lord Kilburn, Falagar, etc. Might & Magic series were known for juggling the same names for fun, but in Legacy, the nostalgia soup boils over the top. In one of the early conversations, one of the NPCs rambles about different Sorpigals, hinting to some kind of Might & Magic multiverse. Still, it never goes anywhere further than a mere nostalgic reference.

The story itself, though, is quite well written. Ashan’s political intrigues are quite engaging, NPCs usually have interesting backstories, and your journal now has a separate lore department, which rapidly fills up with episodes of Ashan history, myths, and elven poetry. There is much to remember from the Agyn peninsula story and setting: a love story between an imperial paladin and a dark elf, goblin cook, samurai nagas, etc.

On the other hand, the plot feels much less epic (especially for a high fantasy setting), for you neither save the world from Sheltem’s megalomaniac ideas of total destruction nor deal with the planet-devouring race of space devils. In Might & Magic X, you merely try to prevent the revolution that threatens to partly engulf the empire of the good guys.

Such a relatively modest plot adds to an overall impression that the game somewhat lacks in the matter of scale. Might & Magic X fails to implement the most essential aspects of the series, which is the option to roam free and travel all across the open wide world. Instead, the map opens up gradually, following the plot. It feels very inappropriate for a Might & Magic game to restrict the player’s freedom so much.

But on the other hand (get used to it, this game is like a ping-pong of emotions), fabulous bright color palette have returned into the series! It seems refreshing, especially after the bleakness of Writ of Fate. Unfortunately, Ubisoft decided to not spend too much money, so the graphics, while tolerable, have nothing to write home about. There is a problem with long distances, which often look blurry; the landscapes often lack details; lots of assets came straight from Heroes 6 and, originally, were made to be looked at from a perspective. Therefore some of them seem unpolished from up close. Still, though, Limbic have succeeded in compiling an overall enjoyable enough aesthetic for a game, nevertheless all of the limitations. The dungeons especially look great.

Emotional ping-pong continues and intensifies when we look closely at the game mechanics. I haven’t yet decided whether I like this game or not, and hopefully, writing this will help me make my mind.

Might & Magic X has expectedly made an effort to revive the past, returning way back to the old pre-Enrothian days. Once again, the land is divided into tiles, everything you do is turn-based, and the world is albeit small but wholesome (theoretically, at least, when you forget about shackles of the plot). My nostalgic soul wholeheartedly welcomed this return to the roots, but not everybody would agree with me on that. Anyhow, it would be a mistake to call Might & Magic X a regressive game, for there are tons of changes into the core mechanic of the series. Some of them even are quite interesting.

There are four characters in the party, each has to be created by the player. Humans, elves, dwarves, orcs—you know the drill. The class system has changed again, though. There are 12 classes overall, but they are divided equally between the races. Each race has three classes within a common scheme: a might-based class, a magic-based class, and a mixed class. Elven character, for example, may become a blade dancer (might), a druid (magic), or a ranger (mix). Whereas the human character may choose between becoming a mercenary, a mage, or a crusader, respectively. The same pattern applies to orcs and dwarves.

Parallel classes of different races aren’t equivalent to each other: an orc shaman will never be able to reach the same magical proficiency as a human mage. Unlike the latter, though, the former won’t become useless without mana, thanks to his natural skill of crushing enemy skulls with a club. Consequently, you get a fairly decent freedom of choice at creating a party: there is much to think about and consider.

All of the character skills in Might & Magic X are strictly combat ones: weapon skills, magic skills, passive bonus skills, and active warfare skills for warriors. The latter are ‘spells but for warriors’, with mana usage included. Despite the return of the tile-based movement, skills like mountaineering and swimming have still remained in the past. Crossing a river, for example, is possible only after you get a blessing from one of the demigod dragons. Those blessings, in their turn, are given strictly by the plot reasons.

Furthermore, forget the lockpicking, disarming traps, and identifying items. Those skills all gone. You still may identify an item with a specific spell, though, or by paying a storekeeper. As for locked doors and chests, they open only when an almighty plot commands.

Training centers have abandoned their level-up business and teach skills now. It means that we have a classical free RPG level-up system in a Might & Magic game! Kill a bunch of mobs, gather enough experience points, press the button, and tweak your stats as you see fit. This system feels intuitive anywhere else but is hugely unusual for the Might & Magic series.

The toolbar is another thing never seen in the series before. Each character of your party now has ten quick-access slots, which may be filled by anything you want—a skill, an item, or a spell. The inventory is a joint one: everything goes into one common bag of your communist party. If you find the bag insufficient for storing all your junk, you may purchase a packhorse. Although it will occupy one of the hireling slots.

The hireling system, by the way, is pretty much the same as in Might & Magic VI, VII, and VIII. The main obstacle here is, once again, the plot, which likes to occupy one of the slots—or even both—with NPCs, needed to complete a quest. Those NPCs also give nice bonuses, but palpably limit the player’s freedom of choice.

There are seven magic schools: light, dark, water, fire, earth, air, and primordial. Each has ten spells, which become available gradually, depending on the character’s proficiency. Four available on the basic level, additional three become available to experts, another two to masters, and the last one—the most powerful—may be cast only by a grand-master. Unfortunately, all of the spells are rather generic. The iconic Flight and Town Portal are not to be found, but The Lloyd’s Beacon remained, at least.

Overall, the game mechanics of Might & Magic X are somewhat lacking in depth and variability. Magic schools are too similar to each other; there are no interesting skills, which may increase replayability; rough plot limitations diminish the feel of an open world; shallow gaming systems make the game pretty easy.

There is an exception, though. Bosses may get pretty challenging, especially for an unprepared party. Also, the puzzles have returned, so you may expect some non-combat challenges like in the old days.

All of that pros and cons ping-pong makes Might & Magic X a problematic game for me to judge. Some of its design decisions make my heart melt, while others leave me baffled. But in conclusion, I can’t say that Might & Magic X: Legacy is the worst game in the series. It is undoubtedly better than Writ of Fate.

Unfortunately, the game hasn’t shown great market success. A lonely DLC has been released, providing a huge tough dungeon to fight through, and then Ubisoft seemingly forgot about it. Limbic returned to the Heroes series and moved on to Tropico 6 later.

What waits for Might & Magic franchise in the future is known only to the Ubisoft execs. But even if not everything is lost for Heroes, we’ll hardly witness the revival of Might & Magic role-playing series soon, if at all.

Might & Magic: The Golden Age

Might & Magic: Popular Days

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