Review of Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (2023)

Compared to their pen-and-paper counterparts, the evolution of computer role-playing games has been laughably non-existent. I know this has already been pointed out by several people on RPGnet, but I might as well join them.

Even as the first computer RPG's were appearing, the paper games were already making leaps towards greater realism, more options, and complex storytelling. Do I even need to go on? In short, pen-and-paper role-playing games became--most of the time, anyway--a monument to complexity and originality in entertainment.

Compare this to the computer role-playing games, where--even today--almost all of them are still derivative of AD&D, if not outright clones. In fact, that's how computer gamers know it's an RPG: does it have character levels? Does it depend on endless combat to entertain? Does it start falling apart once logic is applied to it? Well, then, it's an RPG. This isn't to say that CRPG's aren't addictive, entertaining, or even well-plotted, by any means, only that I find them shallow and forgettable compared to the real thing.

I realize that programming has limitations, but the real problem here is failure of the imagination. The vast, vast, vast majority of CRPG's are 99% recycled swords-and-sworcery--there might be a cute twist here or there, but otherwise every idea is bastardized from Tolkien and world mythology and then blended together. Even the fantasy worlds that make some attempt to avoid this (like Final Fantasy VII or the Ultima series) are either barely adequate(Final Fantasy) or deadly dull (Ultima). With the barely-arguable exception of the Fallout series, I'm tempted to believe that the greatest and only innovation in computer role-playing has been the advent of graphics.

If you can accept these limitations, though, you'll find Might and Magic VI to be an enjoyable and absorbing distraction. Sure, there are still classes and levels. Sure, realism has taken a hike and it isn't coming back. Sure, of the 57 monster types, there might be four that aren't in AD&D's various Monster Manuals. But once you get past that, an otherwise colorful and well-executed game presents itself. The Might and Magic series has always offered vast worlds with endless things to do, and this installment is no exception.

Like most modern CRPG's, this game features a main storyline that you can pretty much blow off, working on side quests indefinitely without advancing the plot one millimeter. And the odds are you'll be ignoring it anyway, because there are dozens of unique dungeons to visit and pillage--so many that I can't even remember everywhere I've been--and nine out of ten have little to no relevance to what you're supposed to be doing. Furthermore, you can'tturn around without someone offering you some new trivial quest, especially in the beginning. You won't be finishing this one in a week...unless, of course, you have absolutely no life and no sleep, in which case you probably already own this game.

The first thing of note is that Might and Magic VI offers you choices before you even leave the store--in addition to the "normal" edition of the game, there's also a limited edition, which I bought. I don't know what comes with the regular edition, but the limited comes with a cloth map, as well as holographic CD-ROM's that can be used to impress small children and college athletes. More importantly, the limited edition also comes with Might and Magic I-V, which (even at an asking price of 65 bucks) makes it a bargain for anyone who has never played a Might and Magic game before--you can ask any computer role-player how good Might and Magic III-V were. You even get the maps for these games, which raises them above the level of being totally worthless.

Perhaps the best operative phrase for Might and Magic VI is "Functional, but not mind-blowing." I found that this phrase could be applied to the interface, to the graphics, to the characters, to the magic system, to the story, and--naturally--to my impression of the experience of playing it.

As an actual game, Might and Magic VI is reminescent of Daggerfall (or "Cloneworld," as those with standards prefer to call it). As in, it's a full 3D world where you can look or move in any direction and the towns are clustered with mindless, easily-murdered townspeople you can talk to. Of course, it's also a lot different from Cloneworld. It isn't dynamic at all, which means that all the quests and locations are pre-written and thought-out instead of randomly generated...which means that every location and quest will be different and interesting instead of something you've already seen and done dozens of times before with different names inserted. You can also recruit almost every townsperson. They won't be a real party member who can fight, carry loot, and die, but most have a useful function, usually a bonus to one of your skills.

One outstanding difference is that, even after dozens of hours of playing, I have never encountered a single bug in this game. Believe me when I say that this is far more than you can ask from the computer gaming industry and its release-profit-fix-it-later philosophy of marketing. After enduring such excrutiatingly problematic games as Cloneworld, Fallout II, and Final Fantasy VII, this kind of smooth and professional effort was about as refreshing as being allowed to swim after walking through hell.

The interface is about as good as can be expected, especially since the industry has been all but swallowed by the moronic demand for real-time combat in strategy and role-playing games. Point, click, occasionally read something, right-click if you need help or descriptions--controlling the game might take even a dim-witted person all of five minutes to learn. The only real problem comes with combat. By default, you fight in real time, where you will quickly die from not having any real control over what your characters are doing, but, thankfully, you can set the game to turn-based at any time.

Unfortunately, this too is fraught with problems. For one, there's the intensely insignificant inconvenience of, oh, not being able to move at all. Yes, you can still attack and cast spells while in turn-based, but only everyone else can move. Not you. Which means that if you want to flee, or if there's some distant monster attacking with spells that you have to get close to, it'sback to real time. This wouldn't be that bad if switching to and from turn-based didn't automatically remove your characters' "ready" status (real-time or turn-based, each character requires time to recover after every action before acting again). So expect the monsters to get a lot of free shots against you.

And you'll be seeing a lot of monsters. Outdoors, you might turn a bend or climb a hill and find at least 20-30 monsters rushing to attack. Of course, it's not always _that_ many, but sometimes it's even more. The dungeons rarely stick that many on you at once, but there will be something in just about every room and corridor, so you'll still be fighting almost every step of the way. And, needless to say, the dungeons have a much higher ratio of really nasty things--most of the outdoors life are really pansified forms of life, at least before you get to the last maps, where groups of titans, dragons, and devils wander about. There is likely, without exaggeration, more combat in Might and Magic VI than there has been in any CRPG ever.

And, before you ask, yes, all the monsters are just that--things to be killed for fun, experience, and loot. Has any non-Roguelike CRPG ever had it differently? As usual, the creatures give no real sense of ecology, history, or detail, and--beyond names and appearances--no hint of personality or relevance, either.

The appearances are quite nice, however--not just of the monsters, but of the game in general. Two graphics engines were created from scratch for this game, and though reviewers didn't exactly drool over the graphics, I personally think the programmers did an exceeding job. Might and Magic VI is a sharp and colorful game, and it certainly holds up well compared to other CRPG's, even the much-overrated Final Fantasy VII. Its dungeons, in addition to being fully three-dimensional and often truly vast, show a variety of environmental styles, and I remember many of them almost as though I had been there myself.

There are only a couple of sticking points. Polygon-based monsters and people would have been nice, but this is a minor complaint. And, of course, the same two images are used for the male and female townspeople when they wander about...this is even less variety than in Cloneworld (for a minute, I almost thought I was somehow playing that game again--needless to say,that waste of time is not something I want to be reminded of when playing other games). Lastly, your character portraits are pretty ludicrous, even if they _do_ change according to their condition. It's beyond me as to why they couldn't have used portraits like the ones from the Heroes of Might and Magic series (which were cartoonish but still excellent). Even the NPC portraits (which pop up when you talk to them) were much better.

Speaking of characters, get ready to choose from six entire character classes. Yeah, this doesn't sound like a lot, but the system works surprisingly well, probably due to the high level of customization involved--your characters have skills which they improve as they level up, and careful allocation of skill points is almost more important than level-building. Most of the skills simply provide bonuses to certain actions, but each skill also has teachers who can grant "expert" and "master" tags to a character's skill, boosting its effectiveness further and often providing other benefits.

This gives the combat system surprising complexity, as all the weapon skills have these special effects--bow Mastery allows you to fire two arrows at once, for example, while staff Mastery grants a chance to stun. This system works well for the game's magic, as well. Each magic skill governs an entire category of spells, with skill points providing the basic power behind each spell and expert/master ratings allowing faster recovery or more complex effects. I'm not saying character creation here is as good as Cloneworld or Fallout, mind you, only that it works.

And so it is with the story, too. Like I said before, there's a plot, but it doesn't really matter. As with most CRPG's, the meat of Might and Magic VI is looting and character building, and you'll spend far more time doing these than figuring out what's going on. In fact, you'll probably be twenty hours into the game before you even remember that there _is_ a plot and goal. For those who have to know, the story begins with a cue from War of the Worlds: some meteor smashes down in some remote part of the kingdom, and out of it comes demonic creatures. You figure it out.

Anyway, the good, popular, benevolent king vanishes in battle, disasters systematically afflict the kingdom, and the people talk about the king losing the divine right to rule. So, oddly enough--what, you already guessed who has to fix all this? The stage set, you set off to get the permission of the six lords of the land to see the Oracle, who of course will--what, you figured that out, too? All that out of the way, the game begins with your laughably weak band of level 1 adventurers (you would think that, just once, disaster-stricken kingdoms would think things through just enough to enlist someone more experienced, or that the dark lord bad-ass boss monster would come and kill you _now_ before you have a chance to get to 150th level).

I could write the rest of the game's plot in three sentences, and I have a definite impression that I spent more effort writing this review than the programmers spent on the actual story. That's probably for the best--given the length of the game, an involving, detailed plot would become tiring and unmanagable in short order (like the Final Fantasy games, actually), and you'll have enough trouble remembering everything anyway, even with the game's autonotes. Again, what is offered won't blow your mind, but it works.

So, overall, what do we have? Might and Magic VI could hardly be called the next level of CRPG's, but it does the job it set out to do. It's an old school CRPG, and it certainly keeps to the spirit and charm of the Might and Magic series, while adding new, clever touches. It doesn't address the limitations that have always bothered me about CRPG's, but I was surprised at how fun and involving it was anyway. Could Might and Magic VI have been better? Yeah--do you want the list? Would I turn down an evening of real gaming to play it? Hell, no.

Is it a good game? In my ranting opinion, yes. Needless to say, not everyone will agree (hopefully, I have given you enough information to determine that now), but, personally, I don't regret buying Might and Magic VI, and I certainly don't regret playing it.

Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

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