Dark Messiah PDF Print E-mail
Written by Doc_Brown   
Saturday, 19 May 2007 18:00
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Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Ubisoft
Official Site and Demo
ESRB Mature 17+ (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity)
PEGI 18+ (Game contains depictions of violence)

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A Drop of Time
How does a game stand out from its peers? It’s the little details, things that aren’t really necessary but add life and character to the game world. Dark Messiah is one of those games. It begins with the tutorial, which from all appearances is set in a series of hallways. However, I’d like to ask you to do one little thing when you reach the sparring area: look up. Though you may not have noticed it, this one room is open; monoliths tower over you, stretching out into the darkness. They didn’t have to do that. But they did.

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Make Haste… A Storm Is Coming
I have to let you know that I’ll be spoiling Dark Messiah’s story. I wonder, though, is it really a spoiler if you can figure out what’s going to happen from the very beginning? In a nutshell, Sareth—the player character—is an orphan sent on a quest to claim the Skull of Shadows, an artifact prophesized to be used by the half-human son of Kha Beleth, the demon sovereign, to free his father. Now I wonder: could the identity of Sareth’s parents play even the tiniest role in these events? Let me end the suspense for you—yes, you are the Dark Messiah. Shocker, I know.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Sareth is, without doubt, one of the most naïve protagonists we've had to deal with in quite some time. He’s constantly asking for explanations, even when the answers are blatantly obvious to the player.  I’m surprised he’s never heard of any of this before, considering the significance of the Skull in the world of Ashan (the game’s setting).  It might have helped if Ashan stood out more amongst the various fantasy universes, but unfortunatley we're dealing with a fairly generic template here.

Although there is potential to really take the idea in some interesting directions, the storyline fails to deliver. In the end, you’re given the choice whether to keep your demonic father imprisoned or release him. The problem is, the epilogue for the “good” ending specifically states that you’ve only delayed the inevitable. I ask you, just what is the point of presenting the player with a choice and then turning around and saying it doesn’t matter? Whether now or later, the demons will escape from their fiery prison. Wouldn’t be much of a prophecy if they didn’t.

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A Matter of Character
There are several significant supporting characters you’ll encounter on your quest. Master Phenrig, your foster father and tutor, is the one to get you on your way. He sends you to the city of Stonehelm to meet Lord Menelag, another wizard, who’s leading the expedition to recover the Skull. Despite not stating it outright, it’s obvious from what they say and how they say it that they’re secretly out to release the demons. And that’s all you get. Menelag is quick to die and Phenrig is simply dropped from the story altogether. Did I mention that story is not Dark Messiah’s strong suit?

Standing in Sareth’s way is the necromancer Arantir, and thankfully he’s one of the game’s more interesting characters. He’s powerful, speaks in a silky smooth voice, and possesses a rather Utilitarianist view on the Skull. That is to say, he’s got noble intentions, but is willing to use any means to achieve them. I think the only knock I’ve got against his character is that we just don’t see enough of him. If the developers had been so inclined, they could have used Arantir to both deepen the narrative and expand on the choices presented to the player.

Which brings us to Sareth’s female companions. Phenrig binds a literal spiritual guide to you, Xana, while Menelag’s niece Leanna accompanies you at several points. Xana’s a sultry demon—oh Phenrig, you!—while Leanna is a wholesome, girl-next-door type, and the game eventually makes you choose one over the other (and therefore your ultimate allegiance to good or evil). More accurately, the one you don’t choose dies. Or even more accurately, the one you don't choose dies by your own hand. I’m detecting a relationship metaphor here…

Leanna, for her part, seems to be suffering from what I call Source Syndrome. That would be the impulse of developers using the Source engine to include a female sidekick (see also: Sin Episodes – Emergence) only since it worked so well for Half-Life 2. But Leanna makes for a pale Alyx, and her character arc is too rushed to be believable. What’s more, if you save her life but choose not to purge yourself of Xana, she completely flips out and tries to kill you. All things considered, Leanna doesn’t do much to endear you to her or, by extension, the hero’s path.

Xana, on the other hand, is at least better developed. Though she may be a bit of a Chatty Cathy at times, she comes across more convincingly than her pure-hearted counterpart. You’ll even develop the ability to shift into her demonic form after losing all your gear. Unfortunately, you’ll do this perhaps once before reclaiming your weapons and never look back. It’s a shame, too, as it could have taken the game in an interesting direction, but then again that probably would have affected the role-playing elements. Hey! Now that sounds like a segue…

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I Wanna Cast Magic Missile!
Dark Messiah is an action RPG, which means you can take skill points—earned by completing important tasks—and then apply those to various abilities. The player can focus on making themselves into one of three classes—warrior, assassin, and mage—or diversify and take a little from each. However, because this is a fairly linear game the design does not equally accommodate all three choices.   An assassin can’t slip past or silently kill all foes, nor can a mage or archer drop every target with their respective projectiles before said enemies can close range. One way or another, the bulk of gameplay consists of melee combat, making the warrior path the most valid.
 
Don’t let that discourage you, especially considering Dark Messiah has some of the best melee combat I’ve seen for a first-person game. You have both weak and strong attacks, and can learn charging, jumping, and spinning moves as well.  Successful attacks build up adrenaline points that enable you to perform instant kills.  Defensively, you can block many of your enemies’ attacks with your weapon, and even parry their blows (blocking just as they attack) to leave them open to a counterattack. Shields can also be used to protect yourself from otherwise unblockable attacks (such as projectiles), but at the expense of your parry ability.

You can also kick your enemy—most effectively into environmental hazards—or boot a nearby object into their face. You can pick up and throw just about anything, and there are usually weak support beams on certain structures, or ropes holding heavy items up, that you can destroy to bring down some chaos. For the most part these are all very well integrated into the levels, the only exception being the ubiquitous wall spikes. While I can accept them, thematically, when it comes to necromancers or bloodthirsty orcs, they feel a little out of place in the supposedly peaceful Stonehelm.

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It’s a Magical World
Arkane Studios has crafted some impressive levels for you to go marauding in. You’ll spend a good deal of your time in Stonehelm during various stages of the necromancer siege, as well as raid the enemy camp for some righteous retribution. The Skull is located in an ancient temple on an orc-guarded island, and spiders nest within the island’s bowels in suitably nightmarish caves. You’ll also get to visit a necropolis or two, sprawling underground crypts where the structures reach up from the abyss and the dead rest unquiet against you.

Along the way, there are several notable set pieces for your enjoyment. In one, for instance, you must climb to the top of a vast pit by firing rope arrows into the wooden structures dotting the sides. All the while, a steady stream of spiders is skittering down the walls after you. It makes for a thrilling moment. It’s not all perfect, though. There seem to be just a tad too many repetitions to the cyclops/pao kai (degenerate dragons) encounters, and there’s one altercation with a giant worm that just feels completely superfluous. Such boss fights are decent, but could have been better.

At its core, Dark Messiah is about fighting basic enemies, which come in a variety of forms and are pretty smart, too. Cowardly goblins will flee when the battle isn’t going their way, but turn around and try to ambush you when pursued through doorways. Smarter foes will investigate noises and verbally coordinate their attacks as they try to encircle you, much like Thief: Deadly Shadows. In fact, Dark Messiah owes quite a bit to the Thief series, and throws in a few nods to that effect. I even caught a Legacy of Kain reference, which always earns brownie points from me.

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Conclusion
So why am I giving a 7/10 score if I found the graphics sharp, the world detailed, and the gameplay a hoot?  Ultimately, it comes down to the issue of motivation.  Dark Messiah features a relatively bland fantasy setting, no interesting characters to really interact with, and a story that is not the least bit compelling.  While you can muster the urge to press on your first time through, there's very little reason to come back and replay it later.  While it's true that the core gameplay is fun, there's nothing stopping you from getting the exact same experience from the demo.

 

Game Rated 7/10
 

 

 

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