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Might & Magic VI: Review - Here there be monsters...
Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Tue 1 March 2011, 06:43:59Tags: Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven; New World Computing
Written by Varn
Here there be monsters…
I have been told by a townsperson whose name I cannot recall, that the Dark Magic master can be found in a small town called Sweetwater. What at first seemed an absurdly easy task for the power it would grant my party has quickly turned into a nightmare. Over the hill near Sweetwater are swarms of Titans and there is no other way in to the town. I cast the “fly” spell, nervously hover over the beasts while taking massive damage, and drop down to the ground to cross to the next zone. Once it loads, my party survives for about 3 seconds before being obliterated by the giants’ shock attacks. My last save was 3 hours ago and I think I’ve been playing for 6 hours straight, but I can’t be sure. The only indication is the slight ray of light coming through a crack between the blinds. Fighting off sleep, I reload, and try again.
This is but one of many, many reloads. Might and Magic VI is a game that heralds from a time when RPGs were long, challenging and rewarding. A time when RPGs encouraged exploration within a sprawling, detailed game-world; when the developers didn’t care if you figured out where to go or what to do. It is not a game for the faint of heart. Many who begin the game will give up in frustration long before the road to The Hive. Others may find that they have mistakenly created a party ill-equipped for the dangers of Enroth. If you have the patience to keep going you will spend over 100 hours fighting difficult battles and backtracking to find quest items with no real clue where to find them.
You will struggle to level your characters to the point where they can get through the extreme late-game dungeons. You will repeatedly have to retreat back to town to cure insane, diseased, or dead party members. Your weapons will break in the middle of a dungeon, leaving your party defenceless. You will get lost …frequently. You will run out of food waiting for the boat to Bootleg Bay. You will take a wrong turn and be ambushed by enemies five times your level. You will… you get the point. This is a classic RPG in every sense of the word that reminds me why I started playing these games in the first place.
Released in 1998, Might & Magic VI is the 6th game in the Might and Magic series. It is the first game that featured 3d graphics, instead of the traditional 2d used in the previous games. It is somewhat connected to the epic saga in the World of Xeen games in that it occurs after the end of those games. The Might & Magic series, similar to the Wizardry series, is best described as a party-based dungeon-crawler. They are “blob” games where you don’t see your party, other than in the inventory screen, and just see the world in 3d through the perspective of the party. The majority of the game is set in a unique high-fantasy world but somewhat strangely, towards the end-game it also features some science-fiction elements such as robot enemies and laser weapons. Don’t let this put you off, however; although it sounds weird, much of this game – such as the character portraits which are all of real life actors, and the voice-overs - appears absurd. As with any good game however this one is about the underlying game mechanics, which as it turns out are very solid indeed.
The story begins in the town of New Sorpigal, where your party of 4 adventurers somehow cheated death. You have learnt of the appearance of a strange cult and are required to deliver a mysterious letter to Andover Portobello at the New Sorpigal Inn. From there you are told to deliver it to the King at Castle Ironfist. The story then twists and turns into an epic battle to defeat a great evil lurking the land. Yes, it’s cliché, and it’s not going to win any awards, but as with many classic RPGs, the story is there simply as an excuse for you to do much killin’, lootin’, and questin’. If you like your RPG to be heavy on story and romance, I’d suggest you look elsewhere – although there is still a particular quest that allows you to rescue a damsel in distress, if you so desire.
Note: if you are playing this game for the first time, pay close attention to the make-up of your party, and the skills you take (or forget to take). Poor character choices can – and will – cause you significant pain throughout the game. I won’t spoil it for you save to say that you need a sorcerer, and should seriously consider having more than one.
MMVI differs from the previous entries in the series because for the first time you can only have a party of 4 characters, whereas previously you could have 6. To be honest I preferred only having 4 characters as it allowed me to focus in on what each character’s strengths and weaknesses were. I found with the 6 classes in World of Xeen and MM3 I often took an extra 2 characters just because I could, but I didn’t really feel I needed them or cared about them.
There is no option to choose a race – everyone must be a human, but there are a number of classes you can choose from, and the classes you do choose will make a big difference to the speed and ease with which you can finish the game. Basically there are 3 types of character: knight, cleric, and sorcerer. These all seem to be modelled on the D&D characters of fighter, cleric, and mage. Then there are hybrids, in the form of paladins archers and druids. These are characters who have some fighting skills mixed with a (far lesser) ability to use magic.
Having tried both types of character, my view is the pure classes are far stronger than the hybrids. The hybrid classes cannot use physical attacks with weapons anywhere near the level that the pure classes can, and by late-game their ability to use magic is severely hampered. Some of the healing spells from the paladin class can be useful given how frequently your characters get hurt but by late game you need characters who can dish out massive physical or magic damage. Hybrids simply are not capable of doing that, so I do not recommend them.
Knights can’t use magic but will do massive physical damage throughout the game and act as meat-shields for some of the tougher enemies. Your cleric will be able to do a bit of melee damage but will be invaluable in casting buffs and, crucially, healing / curing spells while in dungeons. The sorcerer is a physically weak powerhouse who is designed to do massive damage. sorcerers are also a great utilitarian class, as they have a number of spells that allow the party to get around better, such as the all-important Fly and Water Walk spells. Given the brilliant magic system, sorcerers would become one of my favourite classes.
You also get to choose a couple of skills for your character. There is a large array of skills – one for each type of weapon Eg axe, bow, sword, shield, skills to reduce the price of goods in stores, skills to increase HP, skills to repair, disarm traps, identify items, wear various types of armour, etc. Skill choices are crucial because every skill is useful in one way or another, and you will find it difficult to choose those skills you start out with. Fortunately, skills can be learnt later in game, for a price. But only certain classes can learn certain skills. So for example, sorcerers cannot learn the plate armor skill, and similarly fighters cannot learn any magic skill. The skill system is very good and you are always on the lookout for ways to boost your skills because they affect the game play dramatically.
There is also an attribute system with seven attributes that you can boost: might, intellect, personality, endurance, accuracy, speed and luck. These are all really only relevant to combat – might makes you hit harder, speed makes you hit faster, etc. They also come in to play if you decide to compete in the circus games. Similarly to skills, you will always be trying to boost your attributes because they make a big difference in combat.
Realistically, there’s not that much choice between classes – however there is quite a bit of choice in the skills you take, and the spell schools you choose to specialize in. Most classes can learn most of the skills; there are only a few restrictions, so you can create quite varied characters given how limited skill points are. Ideally I think there would be more varied classes to encourage replays but given the amount of skills, there is enough room for variation so that not every play-through will be the same. For instance, many people boast of taking a party of 4 sorcerers through the game – the early game would be a nightmare but by late game your party could be almost unstoppable.
You can also take two NPCs with you. These aren’t technically playable classes but “hirelings” who confer various bonuses to your party. There are people who reduce the cost of goods, or increase the amount of experience you gain. These NPCs cost a certain amount of gold to keep per week. They are useful but pretty shallow; the only difficulty is finding the right NPC for your needs amongst the hundreds of identical townsfolk in a particular area. One annoying thing was that sometimes you have to rescue someone, and if you had two NPCs you had to get rid of one of them to take the rescued person. It could then be hard to find an NPC with the same skill again, which seemed like an unnecessary drag and a poor design choice.
This game is all about character development. The system is pretty deep and is very rewarding. Your characters earn levels when they reach a set amount of XP, which is earnt by killing monsters and questing. A nice touch to the system is the fact that you can only level up at a trainer. Trainers can be found in various towns throughout the land; but as with much of this game, exploration is very important. The result of this is trainers in a certain town will only train you to a certain level. This means you eventually have to explore to find the next trainer, which can often be frustrating depending on your level and ability to get around. Not only that, but every time you level up it costs an increasing amount of gold, leaving you sometimes having to grind on respawned low-level mobs just to be able to afford to level up!
Levelling up gives you increased hit points / mana, plus some skill points. Skill points can be distributed to any of the skills your character currently has. As noted earlier, you are not stuck with the skills you choose at the beginning. If you meet the right people within towns, they will teach you various skills for a price. You will spend a lot of time trying to find the people to teach you skills because so many of the skills are crucial to completing the game. There is usually little indication about where a particular trainer might be, forcing you to scour the towns for them.
Skills start out at “normal” level and can be developed into expert and master level, once you have the prerequisite number of skill points in a particular skill. The higher levels give you increased proficiency in the skill, so Eg master repair allows you to repair almost anything no matter how damaged, whereas Expert only allows you to repair items damaged to a certain level. The higher skill levels also dramatically affect how your spells work, which I will discuss later. The only way to gain expert or master skill is – you guessed it – by talking to the right trainer and paying the fee. The kicker is, expert teachers are pretty hard to find, but master teachers can be damn near impossible to find. You can talk to people in the towns and if you get lucky, they may have a conversation topic that will point you in the direction of a master trainer. But usually you stumble upon the trainer by luck rather than because you know where you’re going. Further, even if you know where the master trainers are, often they’re in remote, dangerous locations that are very hard to reach unless your party is tough enough to get there without dying.
There are also opportunities to develop your characters into more advanced classes throughout the game. So for instance a sorcerer can eventually become a wizard, and can become an even greater class after that. You don’t simply get this title once you get to a certain level however. You will first have to find the person who gives you the quest to become an arch-mage, and if you can find them you will invariably have to complete a particularly difficult quest. If you manage to do all that then the new class title brings increased hit points, magic power, and also eligibility for certain skills and spells; Eg you can’t master any sorcerer spell skills until you’re a wizard. Plus it’s just damn cool to see the new class names, many of which are unique and unexpected. These sorts of little touches really make character development worthwhile, to the point where you can’t wait to make the next level to see what your character is going to turn into and become capable of.
Castle Kriegspire is full of Minotaurs and Drakes. Apart from having insanely high hitpoints, it seems that some of these beasts are immune to various forms of attack. On top of that, the Minotaurs break my weapons with alarming frequency. It’s going to be a long night…
The game is basically 60% combat, 40% exploration. A lot of time is spent in dungeons or overland areas fighting massive hordes of enemies. It’s not as bad as Wizardry 8 because enemies generally die much faster, and the turn-based combat in this game is far, far quicker. Enemies do respawn, but only after a significant portion of in-game time has passed: I think it’s around 6 months, which is something like 15-20 hours or so in real time. This means you almost never run into enemies you've previously killed until you can absolutely destroy them with ease, and it's then useful as you can quickly kill an army of low-level monsters for some cheap XP and gold.
Combat is a fairly simplistic combination of real-time and turn-based. Essentially you are in real-time mode until you hit enter, which results in a somewhat absurd sound being played and a hand being displayed in the bottom right-hand corner of the combat screen. The combat then proceeds as turn-based, with each of your party members getting a number of attacks based on their skills and attributes and the enemies then taking their turn. However, you cannot move in turn-based, although enemies do. You have to go out of turn-based mode, move in real-time, and then go back in to turn-based. It’s a little bit odd, but it does the job. I recall many a mad rush out of turn-based in a vain attempt to retreat from a horde of monsters that were in the process of demolishing my then feeble party.
A lich. Don't laugh at his silly hat; his status spells and high damage will quickly overwhelm your fledgling party.
If you are a fighter there’s nothing to it. You press a single key to attack with all of your weapons, so if you have a bow and a sword equipped both will be used consecutively. If you hit there will be blood on the enemy on the screen; if you miss a sound indicating this will play. Similarly, with magic, you can have one spell set as the “quick-cast” spell, which will cast upon a single key being pressed. If you want to cast a different spell you have to bring up your spell-book, double click the spell, and target the enemy. It’s slow and cumbersome, and in long battles you’re better off just spamming the same quick-cast spell over and over if you can get away with it. Usually as a cleric however you have to keep opening the spell-book to buff, heal, cure, etc. and this can really become annoying after a while. There’s no option to have multiple spells on hotkeys, which is a bad design choice.
The feedback on your characters during combat is pretty entertaining. The real-life character portraits will change to various facial expressions to indicate their status effect, Eg being hit, diseased, insane, unconscious, etc. They will also yell things such as “Help!” or “Healer!” when really badly hurt. It’s pretty funny but can also be frustrating at times. When your party is being slowly killed off, hearing their screams for help can really get on your nerves as you know a reload is likely imminent.
Combat is difficult and does require a great deal of patience. The hordes you will face initially aren’t that hard; there’s just tons of them so it takes a long time to clear them out. When I say tons, I mean small armies. But later in the game you will face massive amounts of enemies that are both very strong and also leave your party in status-effect hell. Dealing with a party where 3 are paralysed and one is insane is very difficult in the middle of a battle, and usually necessitates returning to town to get healed at a temple and coming back to the dungeon. Clerics by mid-late game can heal most status effects but often they themselves get affected and half the time during a hard battle they’re unconscious or dead. In the early stages of the game healing can be a long and tedious process due to clerics lacking the required spells and an inability to teleport but later on, once you get the Lloyd’s Beacon spell (which allows you to teleport around to pre-set locations), it’s not that bad – assuming your characters aren’t all dead, that is. You can resurrect them as long as one is alive but it is very expensive.
The lack of level scaling does makes combat a lot of fun in the end despite the fact it can be tedious at times. This is where MM6 succeeds and games like Wizardry 8 fail dismally. You may have struggled to kill those cultists in the beginning, but come back 10 levels later and you will completely destroy them with ease. This gives a real sense of progression to your character and is something every RPG should feature, in my opinion. There would be no point to the combat if all you did was face ever-increasingly difficult enemies that level with you, but fortunately this game gets it right.
Your weapons and armour all take damage and can break. If you don’t have the skill or ability, you will have to pay massive amounts to get them repaired in town. Some enemies also have the ability to instantly break your items, and half-way through a dungeon this can often cause a reload or a long trip back to town. Further to that is the fact that you have to eat to be able to rest, which adds some more complexity. Resting does cause you to get your hit points and spell points back, but you can’t rest “when there are enemies nearby”, so you can’t rest in the middle of a dungeon. Even if there’s no enemies nearby in a dungeon, sometimes resting causes them to respawn and attack you in your sleep – with half of your party being asleep for the first few rounds of combat, you can quickly be overwhelmed. This obviously makes dungeons a much more difficult and scary places than they usually are in modern games.
Ultimately the combat is quite enjoyable but given how much of it there is and how hard it can be, it would probably be considered a negative if it weren’t linked so well to the excellent exploration and progression aspect of the game, which saves it in my view. That is, you are rewarded well for slogging through the hard battles through a stronger party and better loot, and this makes it all worthwhile.
A big part of the game is the magic system, which operates on a Diablo-style mana point system. There are many different schools of magic – earth,fire,air, water, etc. Each school has a large number of spells. You can only learn spells if you have the skill for that spell school, which as noted is bought from a trainer or learnt at character creation. You then learn the spells through spell-books. You can buy some of the spells, but some of them can only be found on high-level monsters or in dangerous, far-off towns. The good ones are always very expensive. In the early game fortunately you can just buy a single scroll to use, which is useful particularly if you can’t afford or find a spellbook for the all-important Fly spell.
The spell book for the school of fire; all spells are available. This is something you don't see until late game -
I used inferno to particularly good effect against various single enemies with high HP such as the red dragon.
Getting a spell skill to expert or master is significant because it can change the way a spell operates. For instance, mastery of water magic allows you to cast the spell Town Portal and choose which town you want to travel to. Before master skill it just ports you back to the last town you were in. This is a huge change to the game as you cut your travel time down by a massive amount. It makes dungeon crawling easier too as you can easily get back to town to heal, repair, sell items etc. Similarly, if you’re an expert at air magic, you can fly for 10 minutes of in-game time, which is very short, but as a master you can fly for an hour, which is quite reasonable.
Some of the spells are really fun, too. Many of them can cause massive destruction, and as with the weapons they all feature unique descriptions which are very fun to read. Of particular note is the Fly spell – which has only been copied in a few games since, mainly Morrowind – which makes travelling and spell casting quite entertaining. For instance - dungeon entrance blocked by hordes of fighters? Cast fly, go up as high as you can above them, then rain down Meteor Shower or Starburst on them to kill in comfort with a view to boot.
The spell schools are also varied enough that you have a choice between which to specialize in, adding a small amount of potential replayability. Many of them feature mass-damage spells, and are not necessarily inherently better than the other schools. The magic system is in my view very good, particularly given the challenge and cost of getting the better spells and the reward from finally gaining mastery in the various spell schools.
A side aspect to the magic system is the alchemy system. You can make a huge amount of potions from various herbs, and you can mix potions to make more powerful ones. You can even make potions that permanently increase attributes and bestow powerful buffs. Playing around with them and learning how to make the really good potions is pretty fun and as with most of the game, very rewarding because the good ones are very powerful.
Exploration + RPG’in
I am asked to find the King’s son, and after some investigation I learn he has run away to the circus. I investigate further and learn that the circus can be found at Bootleg Bay. After struggling to find the right ship that goes to the Bay, I am dumped on an island miles away from the island where the circus should be. Finally after walking over miles of water infested with sea monsters I arrive at the correct island. It’s deserted. I give up on the quest, assuming it’s bugged, only to learn hours later into the game that the circus moves around depending on the in-game month. This is just one of the many little touches that marks a truly great RPG.
The exploration aspect is where this game truly shines. This is why you bother to level up, so that you can kill the monsters who are blocking your progress to the area you couldn’t get in to before. The world is huge, and essentially all of it is completely open right from the start of the game. You can try walking to some of the more dangerous areas from the get-go, but chances are you will be killed well before you get there.
Nothing is level-scaled, so you can run into extremely dangerous monsters without warning. Similarly, you can get fantastic loot right from the start of the game if you know where to go, and are lucky enough not to be decimated by monsters on the way there. This is one of my favourite features in RPGs as you are always looking forward to some new, mysterious locale. You know there’s a certain place on the map, and you can walk there and see it from the distance, but it’s just too dangerous to actually go there and start questing.
As with everything in this game combat is tied to exploration, so it is rewarding despite how tedious it can get. Some areas, like the Mire of the Damned, simply can’t be navigated if your party isn’t strong enough. The undead that freely roam the countryside are extremely strong and will absolutely shred your party within seconds. Additionally there are some towns that are OK once you get to them but are surrounded with dangerous creatures, such as Free Haven, which is surrounded by Fire Archers who are lethal to a new party. You either have to fight your way in or try to run past the enemies, which is possible but difficult. And much of the best loot is at the end of very dangerous dungeons, which really makes the slog worth-while.
Loot is plentiful and also linked to exploration. There is a huge array of different magical items available. You can buy a large number of them in stores but the good items will usually only be found in dangerous towns that are hard to get to and some of which aren’t even marked on the map. They will also be very expensive and almost unaffordable until much later on in the game. This is one of the first games that used the paper-doll type system of inventory, and everything you equip shows up on your character, somewhat hilariously in the case of polearms, where your character’s arm looks like it has been broken off and is holding the weapon upside-down… you can’t describe it, but can only experience it in-game. The best items are artifacts, basically uber versions of weapons that can only be found in the most dangerous dungeons in the game. These are great as every weapon has a description similar to Fallout or Baldur’s Gate, and it is quite enjoyable to read the description of new weapons particularly artifacts which have quite epic descriptions.
There are hidden quests, some of which span the entire world map, and one of which consists of figuring out a massive riddle. There are important NPCs who can only be found in remote areas of the world. The different areas are unique and interesting, featuring different architecture and different dungeons. The quests are however mostly extremely basic – consisting of “find this” – but often finding the item can be very hard as you’re not told where to go or where to look for it, and that challenge makes the quests much more interesting than those where you know precisely where to go. Some quests, for instance, require you to find a person who is captured within a dungeon. Given the complexities and multiple levels of many dungeons, finding the person can be almost impossible and it is very rewarding when you finally do.
The dungeons are another big reason to play the game. They are huge, complex, difficult to fight through, and interesting. They feature traps, riddles, puzzles, hidden switches, secret rooms, boss fights, etc. Within some dungeons you will find items that activate other quests you wouldn’t have ever known about if you didn’t go to the dungeon. Another interesting feature of the dungeons is the way they are themed – Eg the Tomb of VARN is a massive pyramid in Dragonsands that consists of genies and Anubis-type creatures. Other dungeons are just insanely difficult, such as Castle Darkmoor – the castle itself removes all your parties’ protection spells and the multiple levels make the automap almost worthless. The floating eyes within the castle do massive damage and smash your party with status effect spells, and without buffs the castle is a nightmare. In my view this is how dungeons should be – the thought of doing them alone should scare you so that getting through them is a real reward. In a game like Oblivion, I was scared of going into a dungeon because of the sheer boredom of another copy-pasted bunch of small rooms; in this game the sight of a new dungeon is both exciting and also frightening. You know you are in for a hard slog.
Another aspect to exploration is simply how hard it can be to get around. Many areas can’t be reached by foot due to geographical barriers or dangerous enemies blocking the way. There is the option to take a caravan – however these only go to certain places on certain in-game days. There’s no way to know what day they go where other than trial and error. Similarly, there are boats that go to certain areas but they are also linked to the in-game calendar. You may initially only find out that certain places even exist by accident. Further, within Bootleg Bay are a number of dungeons that can’t be accessed without a Water Walking or Fly spell. This makes it all the more rewarding when you finally get those spells because the game then changes into a much easier, smoother experience.
Thankfully for games of this time period, there is an automap. It can be quite useful for single-level dungeons, but once you hit the multi-level monsters towards the end of the game it fast becomes useless. You will have to rely on sight, memory, and maybe a paper map to survive the end-game dungeons.
The exploration coupled with the lack of level-scaling makes the game really enjoyable and is something not really seen in modern RPGs. Even if you hate combat and the lack of story, it is worth playing the game just to see what a real RPG should feel like, if nothing else. There is even a quest involving the circus, where you can win prizes that can be cashed in for powerful items at a far-away “resort” if your characters are strong enough to win the various circus games.
However, note that there are no “choices and consequences” within the game in the sense that there are multiple endings to quests or dialog options that change which faction likes you. The only choices you have are which skills to get, which magic schools to master, and which dungeons you will complete, with the consequences being easier or harder combat and better loot. This is an RPG in the old-world sense, that is you kill stuff and level up so that you can kill harder stuff or stuff that you couldn’t kill before. You won’t really feel like you’ve changed the world, other than the fact you may make inaccessible places accessible by clearing out all the monsters. But you definitely feel like your party has changed, quite dramatically by the end of the game.
On that note you can’t really converse with NPCs at all – if you click on one, you will get two to three conversation topics that NPC will discuss. These usually consist of which town a particular trainer can be found in, or some random bit of lore about the town they’re in, etc. Sometimes they give you hints for a particular quest. It is very basic and most of the time you won’t click on NPCs at all unless you’re looking for a particular type to hire. This is somewhat disappointing given the brilliant NPC interaction seen in games such as Wizardry 8: this game really pales in comparison in that sense.
Music & graphics
The graphics are pretty atrocious by modern standards, and I think they were bad even in 1998 when it was released; remember that Baldur’s Gate was released around this time. The game uses 2d sprites for all the NPCs, and to most people they probably look really bad. To me however, they have a certain old-world charm and many of them look plain frightening. I always found it fun to find new enemies because they all look very unique, and there are hundreds of different types of enemies. I do not think the graphics are that bad that they make the game unplayable as they may do in some of the older Ultima’s, for instance. The sprites are animated and similarly, many of the animations make the enemies seem suitably foreboding.
The music is very good. One track plays as you enter an area, and some of the tracks are very nice and atmospheric. It is definitely a game that should be played with the music on. I also enjoyed the ambient sound affects and to this day recall the sounds of the harp-strings playing when you level up, etc. Some of the combat sound effects are also very ambient – when you walk in to a huge cave and hear the sound of hundreds of goblins groaning, it’s pretty intimidating given your party is only level 3.
This game strips down all of the unnecessary elements many RPGs feature these days and simply focuses on building characters, killing enemies, dungeon crawling, exploring and looting. I may be wrong but in my view these are the hallmarks of an RPG. It does most of these elements very well, and crucially, imparts the feeling that your characters are truly growing stronger with each enemy they kill. This feeling of progress is something that many games fail to impart these days and really makes the game very enjoyable. Anyone who is an RPG fan should play this game and give it a shot; maybe you will be one of those rare people who actually makes it to the end.