The recent film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels are clearly responsible for mainstream media’s renewed interest in Medieval fantasy. From a wealth of films that have come out of Hollywood to a surge of fantasy-themed video games, it’s clearly not a genre lacking in attention. In October of 2006, Ubisoft took a stab at the genre with an RPG/FPS hybrid game, loosely connected to the Might and Magic franchise, called Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. While showcasing some brilliant graphics for its time, Dark Messiah was roasted by most critics for having a complete lack of direction and overly repetitive combat, and also for providing gamers with a plethora of infuriating bugs and glitches.
Fast Forward to February 2008 and Ubisoft has returned with this same Dark Messiah game, only this time for the Xbox 360 and sporting a nifty new subtitle – now known as Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements. Unfortunately, this new version and subtitle add absolutely nothing new to the original game except a sub-par multiplayer experience and a few more letters to the front of the game’s packaging.
Dark Messiah’s story involves a young adventurer named Sareth, apprentice of the mage Phenrig, who’s on a quest to locate and procure the mystical artifact known as the Skull of Shadows before the “bad guys” get their hands on it. Along the way, Sareth will confront orcs, goblins, giant spiders and the occasional damsel in distress: namely Leanna, Sareth’s love interest. There are plenty of story developments and plot twists during Sareth’s quest, but the majority of them are completely obvious well before the cat’s let out of the bag. There are a few choices you can make to alter the game’s ending, but none of them are very revelatory. Which ever way the story turns out, you probably won’t care too much.
Alas, speaking of apathy – that’s for sure how you’ll feel not too long after you’ve powered this game up. Not only does the game rehash all of the original PC game’s problems, but Elements’ base-control mechanics are flawed to their very core. Your character has an unnatural gait about him, to the point to where just trying to walk in a straight line can sometimes get you killed. There are pitfalls abound, and even falling a short distance will result in your early demise. And when you take into consideration that the developers expect you to successfully pull off a vast amount of poorly handled first-person platforming, it should come as no surprise that you and the load screen will become very familiar with one another.
By far, the game’s biggest culprit, in the form of cheap deaths, is the Rope Bow. After you pick up this item during the game’s fourth chapter, you’ll come to many areas where your only way to proceed is to make proper use of this diabolical contraption. To operate the Rope Bow, you must locate a wooden plank or platform and fire an arrow directly into it. A rope will then drop down, which you can climb and leap from to reach higher up or lower ledges. While it may sound easy enough to use, the Rope Bow also presents many, many (and many more) problems. Sometimes you’ll climb a rope you’ve placed and then somehow get stuck into or against a wall. Usually, the only way to remedy this situation is to drop to your death or hit the pause button and load your last checkpoint or saved game. There’s also the issue of properly lining up your jumps, while leaping from one rope to another. You must move and turn very slow and cautiously, lest you’re eager to get up close and personal with the cold, hard pavement below you. Hence, once the Rope Bow is in your possession, saving frequently becomes a necessity and not an option.
Sadly, the combat doesn’t help to improve upon Elements’ gameplay. You’re able to choose between normal slashes or charged strikes, by tapping or holding down the right trigger, but, ultimately, there’s no real variation to the combat. If you’re looking to pick up some of the game’s extra Achievements by utilizing the game’s paltry kick maneuver, you can waste a lot of time trying to line up and kick one of your foes into an environmental obstacle, such as spikes or fire, or kick them over a cliff ledge. But it’s much easier to just keep slashing away with power strikes until you lob their head off. While playing as a mage or archer, you can use ranged combat, but the aim is rather slippery and since the enemy A.I. pattern is to run directly at you upon sight, kamikaze-style, you’ll have to switch to melee attacks most of the time anyway. However, the worst is the assassin’s stealth feature. Not only will most enemies hear or spot you before you get close enough for a hearty backstab, but during portions of the game where you’re outside in brightly lit areas, your stealth powers are rendered completely useless.
Adding the proverbial cherry to the top of the mountainous garbage heap that is Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements is a nasty list of glitches and bugs. During my time with the game, I was lucky enough to have my game completely freeze multiple times, to miraculously fall through solid platforms and have myself suddenly die, on various occasions, for no apparent reason whatsoever. In one of these instances, I dropped from one ledge to another that was a mere leg’s length below me, and as I touched down on the surface, my character let loose the familiar scream that you normally hear as you plummet to your death. My game kept running, momentarily, as I was still alive, but then the screen went black and informed me that I had died. On another occasion, while fighting a large boss, the creature’s body fell forward onto me after I had landed the killing blow, and by way of some monstrous clipping, I became stuck inside of its body. I had to restart my last save and fight the boss over again. During an escort mission, the chap following me tried to climb down a ladder that I was trying to climb up, and when he reached my position on the ladder, instead of climbing back up, he decided to turn suicidal and leap to his demise – forcing me to load my last save.
Whenever I play a game that’s so bad it makes me want to hurl, I usually look for some sort of redeeming quality, and, every once in a while, such a game will find redemption by offering up a well-rounded multiplayer experience. However, Elements is not one of those games. All you’re given are the staple FPS multiplayer match modes, i.e. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Assault, etc. One of the largest problems you’ll face trying to play the game online is the fact that there’s hardly anyone online actually playing it. Usually, this is a clear sign that everyone else has come to the conclusion that such a game isn’t worth your, or anyone else’s, time.
If my review hasn’t spoiled your opinion of this game yet, wait – there’s more! Elements is easily one of the ugliest games on the 360, to date. I have played the PC version, which released a year and a half ago, and it’s clearly superior, visually. How they managed to pull off such a feat is beyond me, but this less-than-mediocre game is marred by bland, ugly, repetitive textures, and it has an outrageously awful lighting engine. Most of the time, the game appears too dark. But if you try to turn up the brightness from the options menu, the game’s visuals start to look heavily washed out and dull (more than usual, that is). Not only do the game’s environments feel recycled to the nth degree, but you’ll fight the same few enemy types, over and over again. And they all have very minimal to no visual differences. It’s almost as if you’re fighting the same few creatures in an endless time loop of doom. When you add that to the fact that all of the enemies have mind-numbingly odd, herky-jerky animations, there’s no denying that this game offers up a goblet of pure graphics sewage.
On the game’s one and only bright side, the music isn’t entirely bad and the voice-over cast mostly does a handy job. Some of the unimportant characters, such as “Random Soldier B,” sound like they’re reading from a script with absolutely no emotion, but the main cast of characters are voiced with skill and panache. This doesn’t help the game in any other area, though, so it almost seems like a wasted effort.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements tries to deliver a grand adventure of epic proportions, clocking in at around 12-15 hours of play. Unfortunately, the only thing “epic” about it is how epic of a disaster the game truly is. While billed as an RPG/Action-Adventure title, the game’s RPG elements that were available in the PC version, such as placing stat points and choosing skills, have been completely stripped; which is ironic, considering the game’s subtitle. Besides the occasional Achievement hoarder, there won’t be many people inclined to stay the journey until the story’s end. There are too many bugs, too much repetition, and way too much time spent staring at the abnormally lengthy loading screen. I can only recommend this game to fantasy enthusiasts, and even then, strictly as a rental. Everyone else is better off leaving this Dark Messiah burning in hell.