By ArbitraryWater 4 Comments
After the start of this year being nothing but the new and shiny, it’s time to talk about old games. Again, for the first time. I mean, it’s only been like 3 days since I posted that Fire Emblem blog, so other than me saying that “Endless Space seems pretty cool from the first game of it that I played (it took 8 hours)” but also “Fallen Enchantress does not give a very great first impression, more details to follow?”, I can’t exactly give you any accounts of a more modern fare. That’s fine with me. I need to get back on the old-game train, and the first stop on that train is a little game that took me at least 4 years of on and off playing to finish. That’s right kids. It’s Might and Magic time.
As stated in my previous blog, Might and Magic lies alongside Fire Emblem and Resident Evil in my personal pantheon of franchises that I revere and adore, perhaps irrationally. Where Fire Emblem is tactical turn-based-strategy at its finest and Resident Evil is… a lot of things, Might and Magic as it was made by New World Computing can be grouped into two categories: The hack ‘n slash-y series of RPGs dating back to 1987 and the Heroes of Might and Magic series of (tactical) turn based strategy. There are also a few spinoffs released, all of which deserve zero mention as anything other than totally awful (Amusingly, Clash of Heroes is probably the single best M&M spinoff to ever be made, but that’s under Ubisoft, so it probably doesn’t count as far as this discussion is concerned.) We’re talking about the former today. While they’re both party-based first person RPGs with goofy senses of humor and a tendency to mix Fantasy and Sci-Fi, Might and Magic is a lighter, far less mechanically dense series than its main counterpart Wizardry and that in turn has made it far easier for me to play most of the games in the series. While Wizardry 7 still frankly intimidates the hell out of me (Though I am considering playing through it over the summer), with even less said about the preceding 6 titles, every Might and Magic game from Isles of Terra onward are playable and accessible. Sure, the visuals of VI-VIII have held up extremely poorly, and Might and Magic IX is a half-finished mess that still manages to achieve an astounding level of competence (More on that… eventually.), but as a whole you’d be hard-pressed to find a series of RPGs from the early to late 90s that are as easy to understand and relatively old game bullshit-free as M&M.
World of Xeen is worth mentioning for at least two reasons: On a personal level, It’s easily the oldest game of this kind that I’ve finished (at least until I get around to finishing Might and Magic III and/or Wizardry 7 by 2015), beating out the original Fallout by 4 years. It’s also the only game I can think of where it is actually two seamlessly integrated titles that you can switch between at a designated area. And indeed, that two-game nature of WoX should be noted, because the games themselves are entirely self-contained and can be played individually with only the only real thing lost being the post-game content where both halves of the world are united. I also mention this because I think Might and Magic V (Darkside) is a better and more interesting game than Might and Magic IV (Cloudside).
But perhaps I should back up a bit for the uninformed. World of Xeen is comprised of the second and third games using the engine built for Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra. You build a party of adventurers by rolling some virtual dice and picking some classes and then are unleashed upon the grid-based first person world. Skills are learned, loot with prefixes and suffixes is obtained (predating Diablo’s use by 5 years, though the frequency isn’t such where it can be called a loot game) and spells are cast. There is also a lot of fighting, but whereas Wizardry goes full turn-based random encounter, Might and Magic lets you see your foes, engage them at range if your guys have bows or spells and so on while on the map. This all leads to a breezier, less agonizingly slow CRPG experience, and while there is depth to be found in the combat until the end when you just kinda steamroll everything in your path by casting the same three spells and having your frontline dudes attack 14 times with their Obsidian Battleaxes. It’s also a lot about exploration. While there isn’t real nonlinearity in World of Xeen, at least not the same way there is in Might and Magic VI, you can still explore (and are very much encouraged to explore) every corner of the world if you have the skills (Swimming, Pathfinding, Mountaineering) and the strength to fight whatever gets in your way, with a few optional side-dungeons and encounters here and there. Dungeons have their fair share of puzzles, the best and most awesome example of which is an entire floor of a dungeon being a massive crossword puzzle (at which point I said “Alright video game, you’ve proven your worth”) I’m not going to pretend I didn’t cheat on some of them, my laziness as a person playing this game in the 21st century showing through, but they’re all clever and for the most part quite solveable. Oh hey, here’s a video that I recorded like 4 years ago that shows something like that.
Ah, that’s all well and good but we’re still talking about what are essentially two separate games. Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen came out in 1992 and is probably the way to start out, at least on a first playthrough. It’s pretty gradual with the RPG power curve and follows the structure of “Get x Megacredits to unlock the next dungeon, at which point you find that dungeon and earn some more Megacredits.” It’s made of pretty standard fantasy stylings, and the max level for characters is something like 20. There are some pretty good dungeons, the initial set of Dwarven mines being of note for being really big, but Darkside of Xeen (1993) is a step up in almost all ways. It’s still kinda linear, in that every town requires a pass and every dungeon requires a key, but the world is a lot weirder. The sky is orange, the monsters are more elaborately designed, and the soundtrack is moodier. The developers also went far crazier with their dungeon design and the power curve. When you got a million experience in Clouds of Xeen, it was announced in all caps as A MILLION EXPERIENCE. In Darkside of Xeen, the game throws free levels, +20 to stats, and millions of experience by the truckload. Remember how I said I finished Clouds with my party around level 20? I finished Darkside with my party averaging around level 60 (and the combined world content with some of my characters being around level 100). You start getting so much experience that the only real limitation to how utterly broken your party can be is the amount of gold you have to level them up, which you also need because of how tough most late game enemies can be. The dungeons are similarly cranked up to 11. Aside from the aforementioned crossword puzzle, there’s the insertion of vowels in sentences, cryptograms spelling out the names of Star Trek characters (something that would be used again in Might and Magic VI) and that part where you have to use the numbers made by the level geography to answer math problems. You know, old school video game stuff. Admittedly, I may be exaggerating Darkside of Xeen’s superiority, I finished the cloudside years ago and some of it is admittedly fuzzy. Still, I don’t think I’m exaggerating by much when I say that the darkside is easily the superior half of World of Xeen.
Regardless of which one I think is better, it still stands that I find this game to be amazingly accessible. Sure, the UI is obviously kind of crusty and unoptimized, but you can control everything with the mouse if you so desire and the graphics are still charming in their cartoony VGA-ness. While I’d still say that Might and Magic VI is the main draw of the 6 pack on GOG, I can confirm with blog-level certainty that World of Xeen isn’t a half-bad investment of time either (really though, the only questionable additions in that pack are the first two, but that’s mostly due to age and not necessarily qualitative, according to people old enough to be able to tolerate CRPGs released in 1987 and 1989 respectively. There’s also Swords of Xeen, some sort of fan mod, but I don’t know enough about that to give any sort of definitive answer one way or another.) I’ve spent enough time ranting though. End of story? If you like old RPGs that aren’t all about “story” and whatnot, give this one a look. Yeah. Old games are back, bitches.