After Might & Magic IX loads, a hackneyed voice narrates a background story much like one heard a hundred times before. The kingdom of Erathia has had a long and storied history, seen the rise and fall of many empires, and suffered more than its share of troubles. And now it's time once again for your party of adventurers to shape the future of the land.
Unfortunately, instead of scenes of grandeur with massive armies clashing, glistening palaces of gold, or the visage of a magnificent banquet, the narrative is accompanied by nothing more than a series of relatively crude drawings on a tapestry, illustrated by torchlight. While the design decision is obviously intentional, it hints more at a rushed product than anything else, which seems to be the case with Might & Magic IX, although the game certainly has moments of inspiration.
Unlike previous titles in the series, the menu screen is noticeable for its complete and total lack of sound. The void continues during character creation, but when the voice acting does kick in, it's uninspired when compared to the delightful emanations from titles such as Wizardry 8 or even Might & Magic VIII. Statistics use customized CPRG nomenclature, with attributes of might and magic replacing the traditional strength or intelligence.
The revised skill system is still recognizable from earlier games and is still a strong point. Each of the two beginning character classes, fighters and initiates, have a pool of starting skills (all have dual rankings) and can select two additional skills from another list. A set number of points is initially allocated to each skill with escalation factors built in for promotion to each new rank, while further specialization is offered by trainers, turning characters into experts, masters, and eventually grandmasters.
Classes are designed similarly, with a branching tree of training available to both fighters and initiates. Fighters can follow the Path of Might to become a Mercenary or Crusader, with eventual promotion to assassin/gladiator or ranger/paladin respectively. Initiates in the Path of Magic become Scholars (mage/lich) or Healers (priest/druid). Might & Magic VIII experimented with this bizarre array of player races, but the system seems more logical here.
The tutorial does a reasonably good job of explaining the inner workings and provides a bit of entertainment as well. Once underway, the action quickly takes a mildly tedious turn, as you find your characters shipwrecked on a mysterious set of very small islands, where a horde of skeletons and vicious dragonflies make escape from the island difficult. Unfortunately, it also begins a plot point, which is actually one of the most ludicrous elements of the entire game. An NPC, Forrad Darre, joins your party with little explanation other than "I want to get off the island" and can't be dismissed like other NPCs in the game.
While not apparent in the beginning, Darre suddenly adopts an incredibly important and ludicrously unexplained part in the main storyline near the end of the game in a way that will undoubtedly anger more than a few players. In fact, character interaction throughout the game is relatively frustrating, from uninspired dialogue choices to bugs that have characters ignorantly repeating default statements even after you fix their problem ("Please find my dolly!" "Here's your dolly, little girl." "Please find my dolly!").
After meeting the initial island's challenges, gameplay becomes more rewarding. Might & Magic games are notoriously non-linear, as the entire world is usually open for exploration from the beginning, an aspect that holds true in Might & Magic IX. It means you can just as easily get to a dungeon 15 level before your characters are equipped to handle it (either by might or magic), but you'll gain greater experience and rewards if you survive.
The uninspired and seemingly dated early visuals in Might & Magic IX improve greatly as the game and adventure progresses. Important locations like the Lindisfarne Monastery and the ruler's castle in Thronheim are nicely detailed, and the afterlife city of Arslegard encountered near the end of the game has a fantastically designed grand hall.
The architecture as a whole is quite pleasing but other graphical aspects are lacking. The best models in the game look fairly good, while the worst border on terrible. An even bigger problem is the extreme inappropriateness of the models in various situations -- the same model is used for a peasant in one town, the Spear Master in another, and the ultimate Grandmaster of Dark Magic in a third. How one innocuous looking peasant girl can be so unbelievably skilled in the ways of evil, not to mention in multiple locales at the same time, is mind-boggling and negates any suspension of disbelief. This inattention to detail speaks volumes for a blatantly lazy design process.
Sound is a definite mixed bag as well. New World Computing is to be commended for the excellent music that's accompanied the series since its inception, as virtually every song is real quality, with more than a few memorable tunes from Might & Magic IX. In contrast are the poor and simplistic sound effects that make it nearly impossible to determine what's happening during combat. Hits and misses sound the same and monsters don't seem fierce enough. Combat consists of little more than clicking frantically on everything on the screen, though the optional turn-based mode makes it livable, with the occasional spell doing seemingly arbitrary amounts of damage. Too often, a poison spell with a damage rating of 20-60 will frustratingly invoke only one damage against a virtually helpless bandit.
Magic has always been a big part of the series, but many of the crowd-pleasing spells of previous games, like "jump" or "fly," are inexplicably missing from Might & Magic IX, presumably to facilitate the new 3D engine. No longer are the many elements of outdoor map screens contained, and cities now have their own map screen. Apparently, the designers didn't want to deal with the headache of making miniature versions of each city from an overhead perspective.
Might & Magic IX is an average design effort that suffers from rushed production (the "save game" screen is primarily made up of huge blocky text and boxes) and a flawed engine. It's a considerable departure from the previous games in the series, which were released virtually bug-free and widely regarded as full of "heart and soul." It's safe to say that if the product line continues to decline, the fierce fan base behind the series will dwindle as well.
Graphics: The quality of the graphics varies wildly, with some laughable (half-orcs look like hunched over old men with orc teeth) and others relatively crisp (vampires, lich, and most other undead creatures). The architecture is nicely rendered with suitably sturdy and regal castles and pleasing houses in the background. Despite the occasional excellently designed locale like the floating city, most are barely above average.
Sound: The dismal sound effects and generally poor voice acting are unfortunate, but some of the tunes are memorable. It's too bad the voice acting isn't on a par with the professional musicians used by New World Computing.
Enjoyment: While the popular Arcomage mini-game from the last three titles in the series is gone, a couple of carnival-related mini-games are available at a couple of locations. The same feeling of advancement and wonder associated with finding new items, dispatching monsters, and clearing out dungeons is still intact, though there's not as much variation as in prior games. The niggling bugs (none game-breaking) bring the overall mood down.
Replay Value: Playing a second time through is highly unlikely, unless it's to beat the game with a different set of characters. While gameplay has moments of fun and interesting encounters, particularly the uniquely designed Chasm of the Dead dungeon, repeated play would only emphasize the game's weaknesses and frustrations.
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