Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven
Whew! Arriving at the end of this epic game is like returning home after a long, long holiday. Whilst I have regrets that the journey is over, it's also very, very good to be back. And it's going to take a while to return to normal, too, as I'm still drowning in the paraphernalia of survival. My desk is knee deep in notes to remind me of the location of some person or place or other and, though my records began with some semblance of organisation, my diligence petered out after a while. Now it's a shambles and the smudge rings from copious cups of coffee defy any attempt to decipher some of the scribble.
This 6th Chapter in the Might and Magic series isn't set it the familiar Land of Xeen but has moved across to Enroth which, I believe, features in the Heroes of Might and Magic strategy games. I've never played Heroes but I was quite comfortable in Enroth. You don't, in fact, need to have played any of the previous games to feel the same because the manual and the short introductory sequence do a decent job at setting the scene.
All is not well, of course, Enroth is under threat from an ancient enemy and the land is beset by demons. King Roland has disappeared whilst in pursuit of a missing Lord, and Queen Catherine is detained far away at the funeral of her father. This leaves young Prince Nicolai alone and vulnerable with provincial bickering rife and a mysterious religious sect spreading its evil across the land. It is timely indeed that your party arrives to lend a helping hand.
It is your destiny to save the land and to begin with you must assemble your party. Here you can take a predetermined group of four adventurers or you can design your own. This initial part of the game has been simplified, which was a little off-putting at first, but in the scheme of things it saved me a couple of days play. In this episode your party is confined to humans rather than taking other species such as elves and gnomes, and the character classes are limited to a choice of Knight, Paladin, Archer, Cleric, Sorcerer and Druid. Each class comes complete with basic attributes and a couple of skills, but you are given the opportunity to add two more skills and to tinker at the edges by distributing fifty extra attribute points to begin crafting your characters.
This is only the beginning ... character management plays a major role on this journey. Although you initially have limited choices, as you progress through the game you will find teachers to add to your repertoire of skills or to improve the ones you already have. This aspect of the game I thoroughly appreciated, and it can become quite complex; deciding which weapon to specialise in and which skill to develop. These skills cover the usual array such as identify item, disarm trap, repair item, merchant and meditation. Of course there's also magic, nine disciplines in all, including Earth, Fire, Water, Air, etc., each with a total of eleven spells. Plenty to choose from and plenty to agonise over when it comes down to distributing points and buying spells, weapons and armour.
To gain levels in this game you must once again seek out a Trainer to mould you into shape. This costs money, and so do the numerous instructors who will teach you new skills. As well as general training there are also new levels of proficiency to attain as each skill has two additional levels, Expert and Master, and gaining these levels will bring different bonuses, depending on the skill. With weapons it may be faster recovery time or it may allow for two weapons to be wielded during combat, or it may increase the efficiency or strength of various spells. Although there is potentially a lot of goods and services to buy I found that money was not so much of a problem on this adventure as it was on my past journeys though Xeen. You still have to work to get it, but along with the numerous quests with financial rewards, there are also regular bounties to take care of to earn a little cash, and each area regenerates periodically so there are always more monsters to dispatch and relieve of their possessions. Chests, too, will replenish their goodies.
Trust me, there's a lot of combat in this game. Every new area has a hoard of baddies who are out to get you and combat can be executed in real-time or turn-based mode. Pressing the 'Enter' key will toggle between them ... I guess the choice is up to you. I found the turn-based combat very satisfying and easy to control even though you are at a slight disadvantage as you remain stationary whilst your foes have the freedom to move.
Movement is controlled solely by using the keyboard arrow keys so you do have to rearrange your desk for comfort. I didn't find this a problem, but it does help to have a large desk area. Other actions such as casting spells and wielding weapons have both mouse and keyboard control so there is some scope to pretty much find your own equilibrium even if you can't reassign keyboard functions. In a nutshell, I have no complaints, but there are probably enough keyboard-only functions and mouse-only functions to have some players complaining bitterly.
As for the game screen itself, it's a familiar arrangement with character portraits below the playing area and various icons to display the time/date, map, etc., and to access options and saving and loading. It's all very intuitive and the manual explains most things in detail. What you can't find in the manual is accessible in the game itself and there's a 'read me' file on the disk that's worth a quick glance.
Enroth is comprised of a number of regions, all of which have one or two towns and an assortment of dungeons/castles to explore. Travel is made easy courtesy of regular coach transport and shipping schedules, not to mention the miracle of instant travel spells ... well, almost instant.
Of course, along the way you'll collect a list of quests to complete, some of which are related to the main plot whilst others merely top up your coffers and improve your skills and reputation. And you do need to pay attention to your 'reputation' because it plays a part in acquiring a couple of magic disciplines and also governs whether or not the locals will acknowledge you. If you are too 'bad' then you may be snubbed, but being too 'good' can also have its drawbacks.
And speaking of locals, Enroth is populated by many helpful citizens. A bit of fraternising never goes astray as you can pick up lots of information during conversation and even invite along a hitchhiker or two. In this respect, although your new companions refuse to dirty their hands and get involved in combat, they can help out in many ways such as picking locks, repairing weapons, enhancing spells or just plain feeding you. It's fun sorting out the pickings and deciding whom to associate with to your best advantage. The utility value of some Enrothians is so high it's worth overlooking their physical similarities.
Along with a map, this game also has a notebook that automatically records the quests you undertake as well as a sprinkling of other information. It's very handy but, as I hinted earlier, it doesn't relieve you of note taking. In this respect there is a lot of information you must collect for yourself, particularly transport schedules and the locations of important places. Whilst I am not adverse to keeping a journal of my own (it can make a journey more engrossing), I did find it tiresome recording exact locations, especially of town landmarks or teacher locations. Being able to make notes on the maps would have been a great help and a great improvement to the game.
So if you don't diligently keep records you can spend a lot of time looking for that elusive teacher you met up with last week, but all in all Enroth is a pleasant place to visit even without 3D graphics. This perceived 'lack' didn't perturb me in the least as the various terrains look and feel different and the music and sound effects are just fine. I loved the crunching of my footsteps in the snow and how they changed to a clipping sound when I traversed a paved roadway.
Puzzles, well I've left them to last because they don't feature highly. There are a few buttons to press and a couple of 'light' brainteasers such as working out a sequence of buttons to open a passageway and chasing up a series of inscriptions to decode a coded message; but this is about the limit. As anyone who has played the previous titles will know, this series is combat intensive ... in fact it's relentless in this episode, especially with the periodic regeneration of locations. It's a game that's likely to grip you right from the beginning and keep you mesmerised for a good long time. However, as to whether or not it retains that magnetism likely depends on your tolerance of 'action'.
There is a story here, too, but it's not really pronounced enough to act as a pivotal point. It just sits in the background, ticking away. This lack of a strong plot is also a feature of this series as the list of quests you undertake can pretty much be fulfilled in any order, although there are a few exceptions here, especially towards the end when the plot kicks in more strongly. It's all to do with the perennial problem of choice and freedom versus structure and storyline and how one seems to necessarily trade off against the other. It's not the story; it's the journey, the combat, the individual quests, and that urge to build your characters that will draw you to this game. So if that's your cup-of-tea then you'll thoroughly appreciate this one. I did, although my blades did get a bit dulled towards the end, and I wasn't tempted to take up the option and continue my travels in Enroth after the story was over.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 1998.
All rights reserved.
Win 98/NT, Pentium 90 (P166 recommended), 16 MB RAM, (32 MB recommended), Video Card: PCI, 1 MB VRAM, supports DirectX. 4X CD ROM, 200 MB hard disk space, sound card.