Feb 06 2014

Review of Might & Magic X- Legacy


A pretty common notion I see on the net these days is that modern-day RPGs are just too damn easy, they’re walking simulators that hold your hand as you gaily romp through the meadows of XP and loot. The commenters who espouse these beliefs go on about how old REAL RPGs asked so much more of you and as such were more rewarding. Ubisoft has heard those cries for a more punishing classic style RPG and put together a new entry in the long dormant Might & Magic series which let you venture bravely through the turn-based and first person lands of Ashan. This new title, Might & Magic X- Legacy, is unapologetically old school and while it certainly breeds the exact sense of nostalgia a lot of those Retro RPG elitists are looking for, it also removes the rose-coloured glasses and reminds us that a little genre evolution is not a bad thing.

Gameplay wise this is pretty much identical to the classic style of dungeon crawling RPG seen in games like the Wizardry series, Legend of Grimrock, and of course the prior Might & Magic games. You build a party of four adventurers of varying race and class to plod slowly through a grid based world full of monsters, quests, and loot. Touching on the classes, they actually set up some pretty interesting variations to the standard formula that depend on a character’s race. Basically each race has its own take on the traditional trio of Warrior-Rogue-Mage and bends it appropriately to their strengths and culture. The Orc mage for example is called the Shaman and in addition to having a tribal feel, which is fitting for M&M’s take on Orc culture, they also have an ability that grants them MP whenever they take damage which plays well to the Orc’s natural endurance. Similarly the skills each class can learn are informed as much by their race as by their archetype; my Elven Blademaster for example (the Elven take on the traditional warrior) could wield earth magic despite the melee leanings of her class. It all serves wonderfully to help reinforce the lore of the M&M universe as well provide a variety of classes that all played differently but ultimately felt familiar and comfortable.

At least you can spend all that backtracking time looking over your stats and assigning your skill points.

At least you can spend all that backtracking time looking over your stats and assigning your skill points.

Moving on from the characters to the world they inhabit, my outlook is a little less bright as this is where some of the faults of the old school style of RPG come in to play; specifically I’m taking about the time it takes to navigate the world and the perilous way it is laid out. The grid-to-grid movement we’ve come to associate with dungeon crawling is also used for navigating the world here and slowly stepping from grid to grid while trying to cross over the plains and meadows of this game’s overworld is infuriatingly slow. Certainly the step by step thing builds a nice tension when you’re in a dungeon and any corner could hide a horrible beast waiting to floss its teeth with your entrails, but in an open field or already cleared out dungeon where you are 100% safe, it only serves to remind you how much faster modern free moving RPGs can be. This is only further compounded by the lack of a proper fast travel system; you can catch a coach to get from town to town but if you’re way out in the backwoods and simply want to quickly dump your junk loot or visit a skill trainer then you need to slowly plod your way back to civilization. Monsters don’t respawn in this game so you can’t even write it off as an opportunity to grind, it’s just mindless backtracking. Now some of you might be saying “well just use that time to explore things extra thoroughly”  and that would be a good idea but unfortunately I can’t hear you because you’ve since wandered into a random cave and been murdered by a god-dragon.

This is the Cyclops I was talking about, I've named him Hubris.

This is the Cyclops I was talking about, I’ve named him Hubris.

That leads me nicely to my other gameplay gripe, the odd and unforgiving spikes in difficulty. Now I understand the target audience does not want their hands held or the world to scale to their relative awesomeness, I get that and I went into M&MX expecting it to cater said audience. However there is such a thing as pacing and if enemies aren’t going to scale then the game should provide a decent ramp up to let us know that bad things are on the horizon; a truly devastating boss should be at the top of a minion filled tower so you can judge your power against his underlings and plan accordingly. M&MX doesn’t do that, instead it puts a cave with an inviting Do Not Enter sign on the door only scant meters away from the first town, enticing all adventurers to wander inside for what they must assume is their first piece of proper non-quest related exploration. Inside that cave, in the first room of that cave, is a big ass cyclops that will kill your party in one hit. Now to be fair the sign out front said it was a cyclops cave, but it’s only an hour or so into the game and this is your first time out in the big wide open world, you can be forgiven for wanting to explore and for not having any reference as to dangerousness of a cyclops. The game does this sort of thing regularly though and forces you to quick-save almost every step as a result. That cave look interesting? Well it’s got a big dragon in it. Decide to turn left in the forest instead of right? Bam, 20 super powerful brigands. Those ghosts who look like the other ghosts you’ve fought are guarding a random crypt? Turns those are “Spectres”, they’re way more powerful despite the fact they’re hanging out in the starting area. I’m not saying this degree of unforgiving difficulty is bad but just taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ending up dead is more tedious than anything. I stopped playing the game at about the halfway point, just after the end of Act II (RPGs are long and reviews need to get to written), and even then I still had almost 300 saves to my file. Save-scumming and slowly feeling out every inch of the world is the only path through this game, it’s very much like Dark Souls in that way and whether that’s a good thing or bad thing will depend on your own personal tastes.

Getting away from the gameplay, let’s talk about the story. The premise is that you are a group of four apprentice raiders (read: adventurers) whose mentor Owen has just died. His final wish was for you to carry his ashes across the sea to the city of Karthal so they may be laid to rest. However upon arrival to one of Karthal’s outlying townships, you find out that the city is in lock down due to some greater conspiracy regarding evil mercenaries and dissidents unhappy with the current state of the empire. At this point any sort of consistent story thread seems to kind of blur out as you get sent on various side quests and watch the plot just completely fall to the wayside. Eventually the main goal of paying your mentor’s remains their due respects is supplanted by the more important quest of relighting the elemental forge to save the world and here your position of blank heroic canvas is cemented. Not that this is a bad thing or at all unexpected, in fact the vagueness only helps justify your meandering and breed the adventurer mindset. Even though the main story does feel a bit thin they do pack in a lot of lore and interesting side characters which makes the world feel quite alive and really helps to drag you into the experience.

This dragon skeleton serves no purpose but I love that it's there.

This dragon skeleton serves no purpose but I love that it’s there.

What makes the world feel less immersive though is the variety of visual bugs that plague this game from top to bottom. The draw distance is terrible and you’ll regularly watch mountains be built before your eyes as you walk slowly towards them. Of course they won’t be filling in smoothly as the framerate is anything but stable; certain enemies and spells will cause the game to become a slideshow and even just walking forward too fast will make things stutter sometimes. There’s also the low texture quality, I had this game maxed out and even then a lot of the textures looked quite muddy up close. Despite the many issues I have with the technical aspects of the visuals here, I actually really like the look of the game overall. The Might & Magic series has always had an interesting take on classic fantasy and that really shows here. A lot of cues are taken from classic Arthurian medieval designs and the end effect is a look that’s half fairy tale and half D&D. They’ve also absolutely packed the world with minor visual flourishes like random little shrines on the roadside or various jars and vases littering ancient dungeons; every room in M&MX looks like it has a story to tell.

Despite its flaws Might & Magic X – Legacy serves as a compelling nostalgia trip and I really enjoyed wandering its dark halls and deeply managing my troupe of adventurers. It’s a game that requires strategy and throws puzzles and quests at you that actually require you to think and pore over past conversations and lore. It was a fantastic experience despite the rough edges but it also reminded me of how far RPGs have come as a genre and why that’s a good thing. In the end I’m giving Might & Magic X – Legacy a 3 out of 5 stars. it’s definitely going to please anyone looking for an old school experience and it presents the M&M world in a more personal way which we rarely get to see anymore, but it’s held back by technical issues and the more cumbersome conventions of the experience it’s trying to recreate.

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