Dark Messiah is a game that got off to…a little more than just a messy start. When it was first released, it was filled with bugs that got the game a rating of mediocre by most. And that’s understandable, the game should be released when it’s ready, not when it’s filled up the ass with graphical glitches ‘n such. And its reputation has been hampered even more by the pathetic port to the Xbox 360 that removes key aspects of the games combat and RPG elements. But Dark Messiah is far more than mediocre. It’s a wonderful action RPG with what I consider to be, the most immersing first person perspective ever.
Combat is visceral, satisfying and probably the best combat to ever come out of the Source Engine. The RPG element of the game allows a nice degree of freedom. There are no preset classes, just a number of skills in skill trees. A number of buffs and new abilities can be unlocked through earning skills points which are gained by completing objectives, these flesh out the environment and combat in a number of ways like the ability to use telekinesis allows the player to open up secret passages by placing heavy statues or the ability to pick locks, both of which are littered throughout the linear environments. Combat abilities allow for a potentially complex arsenal of weaponry that allows a lot of freedom in how enemies are killed. Whether or not complex combinations of magic and melee combat are used is solely up to the player, it can be played as a simple sword ‘n board action game if the player wishes.
I must stress, this game is a combat RPG and there are rare times that enemies can be bypassed, but all enemies must be fought the majority of the time. Combat is the focal point of Dark Messiah.
The game is set in the universe of Might and Magic, and I have no idea whether it’s a self contained story or holds any significance to the universe, but I will say that the story is pretty lackluster. It falls back on twists, a couple shitty dream sequences and random tid bits of lore that spread through books found in the environment that really don’t add much to the story. The main character is ‘Sareth,’ a magicians apprentice sent on a queer quest that eventually tells of a prophecy that you’re meant to end the world and bla bla bla, it’s really uninteresting and is pretty poorly told, but I do like Sareth because his dialogue is pretty nice, I like the writing for him and whoever voice acted for him. I digress, even given the chance of good storytelling in the second level of the game; it doesn’t take the chance and falls flat on its face. But it’s a combat game, and the story is really unimportant and does more than enough to give context to the actions the player is making. It’s bad, but it doesn’t matter.
The combat does matter. And the combat is the most amazing first person hack ‘n slash since Maken X. The weapons are archetypical: sword ‘n shield, bow ‘n arrow and finally the stunning magic. There are also daggers, staffs, a pickaxe and a couple other miscellaneous weapons. The swords are incredible. Swords can slice off enemies’ limbs in a huge variety of ways. Sword blows move or slice enemies depending on their angle and force and arms legs and head can all be sliced off. Attacks can be charged, jumping off higher ground makes for a jumping blow (once the skill is unlocked), and then there’s just the ‘flurry of blows,’ the least effective method of spamming the attack button. Swords basically just grow into higher tiers as you progress through the game, but there are some unique swords, like the ‘earthfire’ sword which lights enemies on fire. I especially love using this sword to fight goblins, as they can be sliced in half and their corpse’s combust and then char.
Bows have to be used strategically, and only three quarters of the way through the game can bows be used as a simple tool of combat. Bows, like daggers, are much more diverse than swords and have a number of properties. One bow does fire damage and is therefore useful against enemies that are vulnerable to fire, another bow does poison damage and can poison several enemies from afar and another bow can freeze enemies or areas on the ground. But bows can’t just be used willy nilly. Vantage points and stealth are both necessary to make full use of bows. Using bows requires accuracy too. I personally found bows to work best with magic. Often times I would make enemies fight for me (using the ‘charm’ spell) and pick off whatever was left. This was made even more viable by the way enemies react to damage. After enough damage is taken, enemies will drunkenly move around the environment and barely have the ability to inflict damage on Sareth. The said example is one of quite a few, as fire traps and ice are even more helpful to bow users due to their effect on enemies. I also used telekinesis quite a bit. I was often able to throw objects near NPCs, have them investigate, and get easy headshots as I stood in the shadows or at a vantage point.
Speaking of, literally thousands of objects in the environment can be picked up, either physically or through telekinesis, and be used as a weapon. These objects span from rubble to tables to corpses. And little things like bottles, jars and vases are all there too. The environments have a lot of detail and it feels very authentic without having any superfluity. Everything, from cured hams to large boulders can be used.
The freedom of choice that the RPG element provides is just a lovely backer that adds pacing, variety and complexity to the combat. It’s a mechanic that works really well with the combat and doesn’t get in the way with tacked on dialogue options or any other shit that’s been lazily pasted onto RPGs of late.
The staffs are probably the weakest and most uninteresting weapons in the game. They’re pretty unnecessary, but if you feel your wizard needs a staff, it’s still there as a bludgeoning tool. Beating the crap out of enemies is still pretty fun, but not nearly as satisfying or special as swords.
The daggers are similar. They are more useful due to their damage and effects (lightning for enemies that are vulnerable, poison etc) but a weapon I only felt cool using after I read Vinland Saga. I really loved using daggers in ‘adrenaline’ mode, because they can be thrown at enemies, and getting them in the throat is really cool.
The adrenaline mode I spoke of is pretty incredible. While executing an attack, the game goes into slow motion and the player is able to truly revel in combat. Adrenaline is gauged in a bar that is filled up as enemies are hit, and unleashing it makes for a unique attack depending on what type of weapon you are using, and there are about 3 for each type. I won’t go through all of them, but the picture should suffice. The adrenaline mode is well paced, and pretty similar, but in a certain aspect better than the slow motion in FEAR. It’s paced so it can’t simply be abused, but it runs out if you aren’t in combat (not likely) or get hit by enemies. It’s there to be protected, enjoyed and used wisely. Enemies can also be stacked in adrenaline, taking out up to three at once. The blood, limbs and usually fleeing enemies that are left are pretty awesome. And yes, enemies do flee. In addition to physically weakening, humanoid enemies will flee if they have been intimidated by what has been done to their former allies.
And finally, there is magic. Magic is what The Elder Scrolls wish it had. When you use magic in Dark Messiah, you are a god-damn wizard, and you will tear shit up. There are basic spells that heal Sareth and make a magical barrier around him, so on, but then there’s elemental magic. Elemental magic includes a miniature fireball which has its movement controlled, a fireball the size of a bowling ball that knocks enemies to the ground and a flamethrower that comes out of Sareth’s finger. There’s also lightening, ice and (although it’s a potion, it’s worth mentioning here) stone skin. The elemental powers are really well animated. They look stunning and add a cosmetic touch to the roleplay element, but don’t do anything new. The problem I found with magic is spells are also provided in scrolls. Scrolls that are everywhere. And can be found for almost every spell. These scrolls truly and sadly completely undermine magic as a viable skill path. It doesn’t make magic any less fun or immersing, but almost ruins it as a gameplay mechanic. I say almost because magic is still really useful to mix with other forms of combat.
Magic isn’t just helpful with archery, using it with swords is also great. I’ll get straight to the point with an example. A used an ice attack on the floor to make it slippery, a vampire knight sprinted at me only to slip on the ice, as he did so I entered adrenaline, took out my sword and he slid onto it in slow motion and was kicked off of it. Ice is probably the most useful attack, fire and electricity are helpful to melee characters in bringing down harder enemies. Telekinesis is pretty fucking cool. In adrenaline, NPCs can be shrunken and stood upon in adrenaline while using telekinesis. Or they can be picked up and thrown at other enemies. Quirky and satisfying.
DID I MENTION ENEMIES CAN BE KICKED INTO THE SPIKES. Because the game really wants you to do that.
Yeah, kicking enemies into each other or off cliffs is pretty fun. Nothing special, but fun.
The combat plays off the environments nicely. The key to taking advantage of the environment is the rope bow. This bow can make climbable ropes off of any wooden surfaces. It’s really helpful for stealthy characters and making fast getaways, but also for finding hidden areas and sometimes is the only way to get to an objective. The rope bow is especially helpful in archery. The environment is helpful for an archer not only through the rope bow, but if the archer has chosen to focus on stealth, they can hide in shadows. It’s no Thief, not even Crysis, but it’s very helpful and viable.
The physics of the Source Engine have also been taken advantage of through some fairly useful contrivances. Conveniently weak pieces of wood that support a platform covered with empty, killer-barrels is just one of these contrivances, along with jars filled with oil. I rather enjoyed using them, improvisation is a useful mechanic that most certainly is not tacked on or just a gimmick, though it’s made pretty obvious that these items purpose is to kill, they’re usually placed in a natural manner at least.
Finally, what else is important about the environments? What inhabits them! The best enemies are the humanoid ones. Well, all but ‘dogs’ and zombies. The ‘Black Guards,’ Orcs, Goblins, Necromancers, ‘Vampire Knights,’ and…(I think that’s it) are the best enemies. They’re the smartest, most satisfying to kill and, personally, coolest enemies. The rest of the enemies, although providing variety to the gameplay, really don’t suffice in combat. Each of these enemies varies largely in attributes, but not necessarily fighting style. Intelligence, speed, strength, defense and weaponry are all different, and it really shows. Humans are much smarter than Orcs, but Orcs are much stronger than humans. Vampire Knights are very fast, but open their defense as they charge. Necromancers can summon the dead and heal themselves, but are quite weak. Each of these enemies are pretty good looking. I don’t know who to give credit to due to the game’s setting, but whoever designed them did an excellent job and they're all very well animated, modeled and textured. I enjoyed killing each and every humanoid (with the two said exceptions) in Dark Messiah because of the AI, the enemy design and amazing damage model. Limbs are never sliced off too often or too few, no one limb is sliced more than another, enemies char after being engulfed in flames and react maniacally, blood stains everything and shields are splintered after a certain point. Combat. Is. Glorious.
Oh and there are also Cyclopes that that can be killed. I believe there are 5 strewn throughout the game, along with some dragons that breathe lightning. The Pao Kai (lightning-breathing dragons) were pretty uninteresting to me. The Cyclopes offered some nice choice, as 3 of them have a risk vs reward mechanic. The 3 Cyclopes can either be fought for skill points, or ignored for safety and whatever resource budget one might keep. The fights are pretty poorly balanced though. Once a bow and arrow can be effectively used or the lightning power is unlocked, killing the Cyclopes is a matter of spamming attack then charging up when their eye is vulnerable, making them pretty trivial sources of skill points.
I feel like I’m tacking this on, but I really want to mention, Dark Messiah has a perspective with the same ‘detail’ (pfft) as a simulator. I snicker due to the simplicity of this perspective. It’s perfect. When the camera looks downwards, Sareth’s body is revealed. There are a number of sets of armor and clothing, from master thief outfit to a wizard robe to a set of plate armor, and all are really nicely modeled and a joy to look down upon, same with the stone skin potion. It literally turns the skin to stone, and Sareth moves incredibly slow and makes noises like that of heavy stone crashing against ground, but has no physical damage inflicted upon him. It’s quite cool, and I would have loved to see similar, but it’s excellent for what it’s worth. The fact that games are coming out in the first person perspective in 2011 without this perspective is pathetic. It’s simply immersing. I want to feel like more than a floating camera, and Dark Messiah really does this. The game also has a perfect field of view, and Sareth realistically holds weapons at his waist instead of having it slapped against his face like most FPS have guns slapped against the player character’s face.
Dark Messiah is far from perfect. Some enemies aren’t fun to fight, but they serve their purpose. There is still a glitch or two that has yet to be ironed out, but the technical never gets in the way of the game anymore. The RPG element isn’t perfectly balanced, but really well balanced and the perfect addition to combat nonetheless. Other than that, beautiful combat, perfect perspective, great environments and a wonderful assortment of weaponry. And did I mention it’s one of the best looking games on the Source Engine?