Might & Magic X, released last week, is a resurrection of the ancient first-person roleplaying series. It's not to be confused with strategy-RPG sister series Heroes of Might & Magic, or Crusaders of Might and Magic, or Warriors of Might and Magic, or Legends of Might and Magic, or Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, or Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes. Despite the scary number ten suffix and an unhelpful patina of dull lore, you can go in cold on this one, no prior experience of the series required. That was the case for me, and indeed I've consciously avoided tracking what this does or doesn't do compared to the series' past and its rivals in favour of having my own, unadorned reaction to it. Said reaction is below.
I got there in the end, no thanks to Uplay. Also no thanks to having to start the game over, as savegames pre-release were rendered null and void by the release version, which my copy silently switched to during the period I was blocked from accessing it. Video. Games. Also, A POX ON UPLAY.
OK, that's done, now onto the game itself at last - a consciously retro revisit to the tile-based, squad-based, first-person fantasy roleplaying games that were so popular back in the last time that alt-culture was obsessed with lumberjack shirts. There's plot and backstory if you want it, but:
a) speaking as someone new to the series, I found it to be entirely tedious, clumsily written and performed, and whoever frontloaded so much of it onto M&MX seems to have forgotten that amongst the seven billion inhabitants of planet Earth number at least a few who aren't fascinated by the lore of the last nine Might & Magic games.
b) this is a tale of your adventures/misadventures, and any additional framework around that adds very little. Go Be A Hero is more than sufficient.
I did not, I must admit, expect to now be singing the praises of this curious, cheap-feeling roleplaying game. Here, ripped directly from the RPS staff chatroom, is an insight into my evolving thought process during my ludus interruptus over the last week:
Alec Meer: Might bagsie the might and magic x review unless any objections? Embargoed until 23rd January.
John Walker: Please do. I lasted less than 15 minutes in the early access.
Alec Meer: it's also going to have a massively anal fanbase who will violently disagree with any criticisms, isn't it?
John Walker: Of course!
Alec Meer: the might & magic intro cutscene has been running for ten minutes and I haven't understood a word of it.
An hour later
Might and Magic thingy is terribad. Might have to restrict this to Impressions for the sake of my sanity.
Alec Meer: urgh, that's an hour battling Uplay to let me continue playing might and magic today, with no success as yet. So this review ain't happening for tomorrow.
John Walker: Hooray for UPlay! You've tried switching it to offline mode?
Alec Meer: it won't allow it, saying I need to have logged in at least once. I have logged in dozens of times previously, so presumably its latest daily update has reset some tracker there. It eventually blames my net connection for not being able to log in; my net connection is fine.
John Walker: What fun! What score do you give Might & Magic?
Alec Meer: Broken DRM/12. I should probably be grateful I dodge the M&MX bullet as the game seemed so bad, but I do so hate being defeated by tech issues
24th January, pm, after discovering the BT issue and employing VPN shenanigans to circumvent it
Alec Meer: I'm quite enjoying m&mx now.
A weekend and two days pass, Hours of M&MX are played.
Alec Meer: Might and Magic turned out pretty good, btw
John Walker: I was surprised by the reviews I was seeing. Glad it improves.
Alec Meer: yeah, the opening and especially the intro are horrendous, but it opens up later and becomes very tactically interesting.
Which, while it might convey just how much a boy can flip-flop, frankly undersells just how much M&MX managed to get under my skin over the last few days. I didn't expect to be saying that, back in the dim and distant past of 21st January, as this slow, thoughtful RPG has a severely misjudged opening - am-dram babble-cinematic, followed by further babble from an unseen narrator once the game appears to begin, followed by being locked inside a small but bewilderingly-laid out town with very few attractions.
At the same time, I was getting to grips with what I hesitantly call the shock of the control system - square-by-square movement, no true mouselook, using Q and E to rotate 90 degrees: the feeling of a remote control tank rather than a party of musclebound adventurer-sorts. This is, of course, How They Used To Do Things, but initial experiences are jarring when it happens within a fully 3D world. I did adapt to, and even came to love, this system, but more on that shortly.
Throwing in the woeful and repetitive voice acting and low-rent, often ugly graphics which look suspiciously as though they might comprise hastily upscaled models and textures from the last Heroes of Might & Magic game, my initial impressions were that this was a bad quality and oppressively boring affair. The Uplay/BT nonsense was almost a relief - I wouldn't have to continue with this cludgy, backwards thing.
I'm so glad I persevered, because I would be won over, in the manner of discovering that a man whose opening conversational gambit was about the rising price of loft insulation would turn out to be an astronaut. M&M gets good. Really good. It has a great many problems, especially on the presentation front (to the degree that its major USP, being a spangly modern reworking of M&Ms past, becomes almost irrelevant - consciously lo-fi might have been a better approach than this makeshift one. I talk as much of dialogue/speech as I do graphics there), but a rugged and hardcore charm shines through.
It's a dense and broad game, opening up enormously after its miserably ringfenced beginning, and while its total landmass has nothing on your average Elder Dragon Craft, the combo of step-by-step movement and careful placing of high-threat enemies as beatable but extremely fearsome gatekeepers makes it feel much larger than it is.
Sadly part of that is down to backtracking through areas long-cleared of enemies, though after far too long fast travel systems of a sort come into play, and occsaionally you will turn up undiscovered pockets of enemies or find that a recently-acquired divine blessing has opened up new paths. So the pacing's a bit off, with a touch too much dead time, but the Metroidy satisfaction of gradually finding ways past earlier impasses and then seeing whole new tile-mazes sprawl before me kept me determined to push on, even as I whined pathetically to myself about the inconvenience of retreading my own footsteps for the two-dozenth time.
The tile-based movement system also means that every step matters enormously - this is the kind of game where one wrong tap of A or W might embroil you in a fight you can't win, or where quest text saying something like "nine steps from the sea" means something very specific. In a way it's adventure as a puzzle, assembling a turn-by-turn path through a danger-filled environment in pursuit of a bespoke solution. It's perhaps tempting to compare M&MX to fellow retromancer (©Kieron Gillen) Legend Of Grimrock, but it's more a quests-from-overworld-hubs game, not a dungeon-run. Though there are plenty of dungeon runs in it, but even the most trap-filled ones don't have anything like the elaborate puzzle-nature of Grimrock.
I was in command of a party of four fantasy archetypes - Dwarf warrior (my tank), Orc warrior (my DPS), elven archer (my ranger and healer), human mage (my, er, mage). Each, as the words in parentheses suggest, play a very specific strategic role rather than just being part of the general fracas. Learning precisely how to use these guys and their developing powers quickly became critical, as M&MX is merciless to anyone who relies on spamming the heaviest attacks.
My greatest regret in M&MX - other than not using a VPN at the first sign of Uplay trouble - is that in my uncertainty about what I was headed into I went with the default party rather than designing my own. This prefab four is a little too vanilla for my tastes - no-one felt special, and I didn't feel there was much room to tailor them to my tastes and playstyle. So, just a warning. Either way this is very a game you learn on the job, with very little handholding, so expect graft and punishment while you work out what's what. That's part of the charm, though.
The foundation of the charm is slowly pushing outwards, a brew of experience and experience points enabling you to gradually reach new areas, expanding the amount of world available to you and infusing you with the satisfaction that only comes from truly feeling like you're a better adventurer rather than simply a graphical frontend stuck onto some incrementally increased statistics. Statistics play a big part, but they are very carefully chosen and nurtured as you devise specific roles and specific goals for each of your heroes. A new weapon or skill is a very big deal that can dramatically change your capability and your strategy, not simply a temporary fix before the craving for the next new toy sets in.
This is probably the sort of comparison that will incite fury in The Faithful, but what M&MX most puts me in mind of is the earliest days of World of Warcraft, back when I felt I was slowly conquering the world through exploration and cunning (as opposed to the later days of chasing specific builds and specific loot). I can get to that tougher zone and past the big 'orrible thing lurking near its entrance if I try this or try, try again; I can wonder and shiver at what terrors lurk just beyond the horizon; I can feel a big fat sense of pride if I somehow survive something my character(s) didn't seem quite ready for.
And, like so many of the best RPGs, I feel like someone carving my own quiet destiny rather than some hulking hero with the fate of the world resting on his battle-scarred and probably rather sweaty shoulders. Nothing especially uncommon in any of that, but it all pulls together well, and in way that's much more true to the cautious, exploratory routes of Dungeons and Dragons than the breathless, kill-crazed mania of roleplaying's latter-day descendants.
It also has D&D's edge of unfairness, occasionally unleashing long queues of monsters in a wearying onslaught that all the health and mana potions in the world couldn't have prepared me for. Part of me wants to cry "that's rubbish design!", but the other wants to boast "ah, yes, but I actually managed to survive that time three goblins popped out in front of me, two shaman behind me, two Jaguar Warriors from the left and then four more goblins from God knows where after all that. I. Am. Amazing!" Which, I suspect, makes it good design.
Everything here is programmed, a vast spiderweb of triggers, but it manages to feel random, stumbling from fight to fight like some enormous bar-brawl. Only with spiders and earth elementals rather than tattooed bald blokes called Geoff and Lenny. This is a game about always, always staying alive by the skin of your teeth, and whatever tension is lost to the mechanical movement and the uneven pacing is restored by that essential sense of fragility.
Presentation is the main issue here, and my suspicion is that M&MX hasn't enjoyed a particularly generous budget in that regard. It's an uneven experience, populated as much by frustration as it is by triumph, but it feels technically solid and is appropriately enormous and secret-filled. It's a framework for adventure, and I wanted that more than I realised. I do wish its producers had gone "screw it, let's go full text rather than burn time and money on a tiny handful of crap gag-laden dialogue that we'll play over and over again", I wish it wasn't populated by NPCs who offer pointless and entirely unexciting lore-balls but perform no other function, and I do wish it opened up right away, earlier Elder Scrolls-style, instead of starting off as a charmless prison by any other name.
But those are now, to me, issues of the past rather than the present - a present where I am very happily continuing to play a game that last week I was convinced I detested.
Might & Magic X: Legacy is out now.