Potentially controversial opinion time: I don’t like Might and Magic:Legacy very much.
That I ended up not liking it surprised me as much as anyone else. Legend of Grimrock came out a couple of years ago and did the first-person tile-based dungeon-crawler thing (gosh, that’s a lot of hyphens) very well, successfully proving that this unashamedly old-school concept could work when resuscitated and being given a fresh coat of paint. This Might and Magic reboot is shooting for the same goal, albeit with a different approach: where Grimrock focused on puzzles and exploration in a single massive dungeon, Might and Magic prefers to do pseudo open-world gameplay in an outside environment populated with monsters and dungeons. There’s barely any puzzles in the game and the ones that are present are extremely easy1, and so the focus shifts onto the game’s combat. Fortunately for Might and Magic its turn-based combat system is leaps and bounds ahead of Grimrock’s real time safety dance. Unfortunately for Might and Magic everything else that feeds into the stock RPG combat loop is not so much broken as it is dated by about twenty years.
This is – in my opinion, anyway – Might and Magic’s greatest failing: it’s attempting to resurrect an ancient gameplay concept, just like Grimrock, but its approach is to slavishly copy every single feature and mechanic that went into that old concept in the hope that having a perfect replica will lead to a repeat of the original’s success. It’s only because this particular offshoot of the genre has been utterly abandoned for a decade or so that Might and Magic gets by at all on novelty value; I like a lot of the things it does purely because I haven’t seen them done in quite this way before. I wasn’t sure how well the tile-based approach would work in an outside environment but it’s actually pretty effective. Everything is abstracted and scaled down so that towns are only fifty-odd squares apart, but the crucial sense of exploration and place that the first-person perspective provides is very much intact and the map designers have been quite good at sprinkling secrets and points of interest around the place. There are monsters that can be seen lurking in the distance and if you want you can go over and fight them, even if you’re ten-odd levels below them and get murdered horribly. Might and Magic does put some scripted blocks on your progress during the first act, but once you’re done with that the only limit to your exploration is your ability to cope with the enemies you’ll encounter along the way. But about that…
…yeah. This is where Might and Magic’s low-budget nature catches up with it. It’s not bad-looking and aside from some horrifying pop-in when wondering around the world map it runs decently, but the only reason it looks even half as good as it does is because of its wholesale theft of assets from Heroes of Might & Magic/Dark Messiah. Building and animating characters is clearly not one of the developer’s strong suits (as evidenced by there being very few original models in the game) and so I wouldn’t normally begrudge them filling in this gap by purloining stuff from other titles in the series. However, because they’re basically stuck with what’s in those games with no way to really change it themselves Might and Magic ends up reusing models a hell of a lot. Like, a hell of a lot. To the point where there’s often two or three of Leanna standing around in a given town. I can let that go because town residents are nearly all generic NPCs anyway – and the ones that aren’t get a nice hand-drawn portrait when you’re talking to them to distinguish them from everyone else – but when it comes to the monsters and enemies you fight this constant reuse of assets is nigh unforgivable.
Here is the problem. During Act One of the game you fight milita and rogue mages, which use the militia and rogue mage models. Then later on you’re supposed to fight militia captains and elite rogue mages, which use the militia and rogue mage models. After this you fight blackguards and dark sorcerers, which use the militia and rogue mage models (albeit painted black). It’s a similar story with spiders, ghosts and undead; there’s almost no way to distinguish between the easy version of the enemy you’ve been slicing through for the last hour and the ubercharged version that’ll often one-shot your spellcasters, making it impossible to gauge how difficult a given combat encounter is going to be without physically going up to an enemy and letting it punch you in the face. Combine this with a difficulty curve that’s absolutely merciless, even on the easiest difficulty setting, and you have a game where you quicksave and quickload a hell of a lot. Any given fight will often take at least two or three tries to finish, even if you use cheesy tactics like backing into a corridor and making enemies come at you in single file. Might and Magic is the most trial-and-error game I’ve played in quite some time, and not in a good way.
Anyway, about that RPG combat loop I mentioned earlier. The way RPGs have done it since the dawn of time is:
1) Fight enemy.
2) Kill enemy.
3) Get XP and loot
4) Repeat steps 1-3 until you can level up and buy bigger weapons.
5) Repeat steps 1-4 with a bigger enemy.
Now, the big problem RPGs have is that step 1 is only partially dependent on how skilled the player is. Their character’s maximum power level is built into the system by design; the core mechanic of the game is focused around killing small things until you can increase that power level and take on progressively bigger things. If you aren’t high enough level to kill a given monster then all the buffs and consumables and lucky combat rolls in the world aren’t going to help you. If it’s beyond your capability to kill it then you’re best off leaving and coming back later when you’re higher level. It’s a fairly straightforward mechanic, so much so that games like Diablo base themselves entirely around it with great success, but the catch is that there needs to be some sort of safety valve in case a player isn’t very good at the game, builds their party suboptimally or otherwise reaches a point in the game’s storyline where they’re blocked from progressing further by the level difference between their characters and the monsters they’re facing.
Said safety valve is a very simple one, albeit one which has been adopted and abused by just about every other genre under the sun these days: grind. By always giving the player the option to kill crappy low-level enemies you ensure they will never get themselves into a position where they’re stuck with no chance of continuing further into the storyline. It might not be much fun for the player, but making an already existing element of the game repeatable in this manner is an incredibly simple fix to a very serious design flaw. If a player can grind their level up they can eventually overcome any shortcomings they might have in personal skill or party compositions through their sheer power.
I don’t usually spend a paragraph and a half of my reviews outlining game mechanics so fundamental I thought that their existence was pretty much taken for granted these days, but you can probably guess why I’m mentioning it: Might and Magic doesn’t have any respawning enemies, and hence no grind. If you don’t include a self-correcting mechanic like grind then you have to absolutely nail your game balance so that players progress through the game in exactly the way that the designers intend with no room for error – except because the people playing your game are going to be squishy, fallible human beings who will do extremely strange and unexpected things when faced with your apparently perfectly-pitched game experience2, there is going to be an awful lot of error. Taken in conjunction with the punishing difficulty curve – which is balanced towards players who know how to build their parties and who are making full use of spells, consumables and buffs – it’s all too easy to get stuck in Might and Magic with no apparent way of beating a tough encounter. There were too many occasions where I’d get destroyed in two hits by some innocuous-looking enemy and wonder if I’d somehow missed an area somewhere, since this was the only way I could account for my party’s apparent low level. There’s also no character respec, meaning that if you do build your party suboptimally – and while Might and Magic does have an excellent system built around dumping points into a myriad of passive skills, because there’s so much choice it’s very easy to put points into the wrong thing – there’s no way to get yourself out of that particular hole.
It’s this hole that I’ve found myself irretreviably stuck in after fifteen hours of battering my way through unwinnable fight after unwinnable fight. It’s not that they’re truly unwinnable, you see. The one I’m stuck on right now, I imagine that if I went to a merchant and bought a bunch of Scrolls of Water Protection I could probably scrape through it by the skin of my teeth, but after going through this crap for the tenth time in a row – where I had no real idea what would be needed to win the fight before I actually started it – I’ve completely lost interest in continuing further into the game. I’ve run out of smaller monsters to kill. My initial class choices turned out to be distinctly underpowered; ranged weapons are practically useless so the Ranger had to be converted into a crippled dagger-wielder (after I put about 15 points into the Bow skill), while the Orc Barbarian’s class bonus and two-handed weapon bonus are bugged and do not work. The Rune Priest’s Fire Magic dragged me this far into the game, but I’ve started to run into enemies with significant amounts of fire resistance and he doesn’t have any other magic that’s really worth a damn. My party is underpowered and apparently underlevelled; every fight is frustratingly hard now, and that frustration has grown to the point where I’d rather go and play something else than continue on with Might and Magic: Legacy. I’m hardly a lightweight gamer, so my assessment is that if a game has let me get into this position of being so irrevocably stuck that my only option is to restart the whole thing – and let us remember that Might and Magic is not a short game, and that I was two-thirds of the way through it – then that game is fundamentally flawed in terms of design. I’m not saying that you’ll definitely fall into this pit too if you play it, but the risk is there; Might and Magic is a game that has no compunctions about wasting my time, at least, and my time is far too valuable to waste these days. So I’m moving on. So long, Might and Magic. You had (or resurrected) several good ideas, but I really don’t think you had to bring the bad ones along as well.
- With the exception of the riddle chest where I apprehensively typed in “Palimpsest” thinking “Nah, this is way too obscure to be the answer,” only to have the thing unexpectedly pop open. ↩
- And believe me when I say I have seen player behaviour so weird I thought it had to be a robot because no sane human would act in this fashion. ↩