[18 March 2008]
It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday night and you raid the fridge for a snack and casually flip on some cable TV for some channel surfing action before bed. Inevitably, after passing by infomercials, old M.A.S.H. reruns, and celebrity infotainment news shows, you find that movie. The really cheesy ‘80s flick (some call them ‘guilty pleasures’) that manages to be wildly entertaining despite its flaws. It’s got a dumb, illogical story, cringe-inducing dialogue, and community theater-level acting, but you love it anyway. Well, at least, you love it when you’re half delirious/drunk in the middle of the night.
This scenario sums up the experience of playing Ubisoft’s Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements on Xbox 360, a terrible game that ends up being addictive, trashy fun anyway. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between Dark Messiah and camp classic Conan the Destroyer: namely, the swords and sorcery setting, wooden acting, and ridiculous plot. Unfortunately, there’s no Andre the Giant or Wilt Chamberlain in Dark Messiah, but that’s nitpicking.
Dark Messiah really hasn’t changed much from its original appearance on the PC in late 2006. It’s a fantasy-themed first person shooter with the vaguest hints of a role-playing game. Of course, in the PC version, the player had more control over the hero’s growth. Killing enemies and getting through objectives earned skill points that you could use however you liked. In Elements, however, the level-up process is almost completely automated. You are given a pre-set power for leveling depending on which of four basic classes you’ve chosen to play as at the beginning of the game: warrior, archer, mage or assassin.
Each of the classes plays slightly differently from the others, giving the game some replay value, but not all classes are created equal. The sword swinging, melee-happy warrior is standard stuff, the mage has a few interesting tricks up his sleeves, but the most amusing classes to play as are the archer and assassin. The assassin is a personal favorite because about a third of the way through the game, your stealth power gets to the point where you can sneak behind enemies and kill them silently in one bloody blow. It adds a little excitement to the regular fighting, which mostly consists of mashing the right trigger a lot. To its credit, Ubisoft also tries to change up the mayhem by occasionally letting you kick enemies off cliffs, push them into spikes, send them into deadly booby traps.
The plot of Dark Messiah also plays like the PC version of the game. The story is centered around Sareth, an apprentice for a mage named Phenrig with a strangely modern day West Coast accent. Phenrig dispatches you to the city of Stonehelm to accompany an expedition trying to retrieve some sort of mystical crystal. After finding the crystal, Sareth is tasked to bring it to an associate of Phenrig’s, the Wizard Menelag. Menelag and Phenrig (the names in Dark Messiah might as well be plucked from some sort of random Fantasy Name Generator) are both hankering for a second artifact called the Skull of Shadows. Sareth thus must get his hands on the Skull for reasons that are only marginally clear. Lots of other plot developmenty-type things occur, but as a whole, the story is chock full of instantly forgettable fantasy clichés involving orcs, evil cities, questionable parentages and such.
The curveball thrown into the mix is that the consciousness of a slutty demon woman named Xana is inserted in Sareth’s mind. When not purring not-so-subtle double entredres such as, “You know what they say about a man’s front gate…” she’s jealously commenting on Sareth’s growing romantic involvement with Leanna, the young niece and well-bosomed pupil of Menelag. There are not many games I can think of out there with a strange, O.C.-like love triangle between a warrior, a wizard’s apprentice and the disembodied voice of a demon girl.
Xana isn’t the only source of unintentional humor. Though the setting is some sort of medieval land, half of the voice actors sound like they were rounded up from the college bar down the street. Others come off as nerds using the same appalling British accents they conjure up to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s hard not to laugh when an evil knight spots you and yells “Hey pal!” as if he was a New York taxi driver trying to get you out of the street.
Unlike a pulpy B-movie, however, not all of Dark Messiah‘s foibles are charming. Collision detection with objects, enemies and friendly NPC’s are suspect. Sometimes when fighting, it appears that the knight/orc/gnome is 15 feet away, but yet you can still hit the creature with your sword. Also, three times in my 15 hours of playing Dark Messiah, I had to go to the dashboard and reset the game because I was stuck in environments or the game completely froze up. This might be acceptable on the PC, but it’s not acceptable on a stable next-gen game console. You might also encounter strange quirks like losing the game automatically for throwing an empty mug against a wall while guards are watching you.
All in all, Dark Messiah is by no means a great game. Compared to a classic like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, it looks shoddy by comparison. Nonetheless, if you’re in the right mood—the same kind of mood that you might need to be in to watch Conan, Roadhouse, or any movie starring Coolio—Dark Messiah might be worth a spin.