Unfairly considered a disasterpiece upon release, Arkane Studios’s Dark Messiah Of Might And Magic was actually the result of a contract negotiation gone wrong that cost the studio their chance at making a follow up to their cult classic, Arx Fatalis.
In retrospect, Arkane isn’t given enough credit for managing to lure Ubisoft into publishing an incredibly innovative Immersive Fantasy Sim with an emphasis on melee. Dark Messiah had an extremely intuitive combat system with finely tuned camera inertia which instilled a strong sense of positional awareness and visceral momentum behind every cut and thrust of the sword. It’s hard to pidgeonhole Dark Messiah into the same genre as its stealthier slow-paced peers, feeling much more akin to a swashbuckling simulator.
The fantasy components included a magic system built on a prestige-class À la carte menu of powers, often building up to advanced specializations that played with the game’s adrenaline system. Once enough blows had been dished out in combat, you were given the ability to perform a range of finishers, even with magical powers like permanently freezing or shrinking enemies. There was even an obscure mechanic where some secret areas featured blacksmith stations allowing you to forge special weapons from start to finish, giving the player the opportunity to create elemental or enchanted armaments that they may have missed along the way.
Despite being beset with occasional glitches, it is still one of the most gleefully experimental FPS games (I choose to believe the “S” stands for Swordplay) of the past two decades. It tells the player “Yes, you can” no matter how strange the combination of verbs, want to trip up a mercenary on an oil slick, sending him tumbling down a massive staircase into a pile of barrels below? Mix-n-match every class? Want to swing around on ropes crying as you frantically evade gigantic spiders, later taking your revenge with an unstoppable electrified shield? Yes, yes, YES! the game tells you jubilantly.
Part of the charm with the combat is how the difficulty system isn’t based on throwing more enemies at you or increasing damage values. Dark Messiah was a game that kept you on your toes, forcing you to juggle multiple opponents as you study the environment for options to quickly deliver your fatal blow, whether that be a bed of spikes, a conveniently accessible ledge, or a precariously placed chandelier.
The story writing is… not nearly as elaborate or well-crafted. I cannot blame Arkane for being a bit fast-and-loose in their additions to the newly rebooted Might & Magic franchise, especially when forced to do so in the engine husk of their beloved homegrown IP. The game suffers an endless barrage of eye rolling dark and edgy moments and tired tropes, especially relating to female characters. The hammy scripts and hilarious voice acting makes it even more difficult to take the plot seriously, but leaves plenty of room to appreciate it from an endearing guilty pleasure/drinking game perspective.
Thankfully modern critics and players alike tend to look back on Arkane’s obvious foundation building for Dishonored in a much fonder light, serving as an inspiration for first person melee games everywhere. Maybe one day we’ll see a shrewd developer capitalize on their achievements to produce a multiplayer title in the same style and take the game’s playful combat to a new level. It was a captivating opportunity to see the delightful interplay of detailed physics and intimate weaponry that demands the player’s full attention, Dark Messiah proved a memorable exercise in pushing the boundaries of design.
I can’t help but hope that Arkane revisits the formula one day and finally gets the opportunity to do Arx Fatalis 2 the justice it deserves.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice