From the opening cutscene I’m already confused. Flaming fantasy text and a booming voice over recites an incoherent prophecy, a Sauron impersonator spills blood to summon a flaming demon and then I’m dunked into the opening level (some kind of cave) being ordered around by a disembodied voice as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps one needs to be versed in the Heroes of Might & Magic lore to really grasp what’s going on here, but I’m not and I didn’t. The plot gets more intelligible but never much more interesting. Despite twists, the plot is banally predictable and the characters are one dimensional. But whatever, how does it play?
Dark Messiah is a first-person fantasy RPG from the same team that would bring us Dishonored. Game time will be divvied up into healthy portions of combat, puzzle solving and exploration. If you’ve played an Elder Scrolls game you’ll be on familiar ground, though the game is linear, level-based and relatively short. The soundtrack is passable but forgettable, and sometimes seems unfitting. The graphics don’t hold up so well today and have the early-source flaws of simple lighting and flat-looking textures. That said, some of the visual design is nice, I especially liked colourful architecture of the ruined temple. Despite linearity, levels are chock full of secrets, some of which only accessible with certain builds, tempting replay. An innovation that I cannot praise enough is the “rope bow,” a tool that allows you to plant a climbing-rope on any wooden surface. Clever positioning allows you to reach higher spots, shimmy carefully down to lower spots, or simply forge new paths where none existed. Coupled with superb level design (that would continue into Dishonored) this allows for some incredible free-form stealth and exploration, and it is an ingenious way to make secrets really feel secret rather than rail-roaded level features.
There, now the formalities are out of the way, let’s talk about what Dark Messiah is really about: physics. While physics engines are ubiquitous these days, in RPGs they are (Fus-Ro-Dah aside) usually just there for cosmetic purposes and have limited actual gameplay application. Here, physics are a combat staple. In Dark Messiah, almost any background object can be picked up and flung at your enemies, and the game has a dedicated kick button. You’ll discover early on that enemies can be kicked into wall spikes (a ubiquitous interior decoration in the world of HoMM) or pits to kill them instantly. But that’s obvious. Why not grab a pot full of oil, toss it at a guy’s head and set fire to the oil as it spills out? Or use ice magic on the floor to make it slippery, causing the advancing enemies to faceplant and go rolling down the stairs? Every new battleground chock full of lethal toys to experiment with. The blend of elemental powers, weapons and environmental features in Dark Messiah’s combat will evoke comparison to the more critically acclaimed Bioshock which came out a year later- although for my money the latter never felt this hilarious. Despite its grim and moody tone, fighting in Dark Messiah often has more in common with the Looney Toons, and that’s not a bad thing.
As fun as it is, (and it is) this physics-based fighting system actually seems like an unwise choice. Let me explain. Especially early on, kicking and tossing are way overpowered. At the start, damage done by throwing a crate at an enemy is- and I say this without hint of exaggeration- about equal to 15 sword strikes to the face. Kicking is, as I already mentioned, lethal when used correctly. Spending hard earned skill points so that you have a 2% higher chance of scoring a critical hit (something that I actually did) is a laughably empty gesture when the next band of orcs you fight all happen to live on a precarious cliff face.
The slapstick brawling makes the old RPG systems feel obsolete, and they only really catch up near the end of the game. On top of that, the physics system was painfully fickle with me. I died to silly bugs almost as often as I did to real enemies- getting stuck on a piece of rubble, dying because I committed the sin of standing on a chest while opening it, etc. I even “died” a few times with my health bar clearly displaying a positive value. Bugs like this can be forgiven, but in Dark Messiah it happened regularly enough to be frustrating.
A part of me wants to give this game a higher score. Dark Messiah is not mediocre, it’s a gem with big fat flaws. I give it this number in the knowledge that many would rate it lower and many would rate it higher. If you’ve already played Dishonored or Bioshock and pretty much any medieval RPG, you’re not missing anything by skipping Dark Messiah. On the other hand, if the thought of booting a boatload of zombie and goblins to their deaths is irresistible to you, these days you can probably grab Dark Messiah at a price you won’t regret. Try it, you might get a kick out of it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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