Sareth, a young hero on the planet of Ashan, is thrust into a struggle between several competing factions for a mighty artifact, the Skull of Shadows, his use of which could determine the fate of the world. Arantir, a dread necromancer, wants to use the Skull to help him rule the world, whilst another faction favours destroying it or using it to re-imprison an ancient force of implacable evil. The choice is in Sareth's hands...
It's difficult to pin down exactly what kind of game Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is. It has an inventory system and you gain skill points as the game progresses, which you can use to increase your effectiveness at combat, magic or stealth. It has a main storyline, but also a couple of optional side-missions at various points. Yet it isn't really an RPG. The game is thoroughly action-based, there are a few cut-scenes and very little in the way of hub or open areas where you can do jobs on your own. So it's more of a hybrid RPG and FPS.
The game uses the Source Engine, previously used to power Half-Life 2 (and, since then, games like the Left 4 Dead and Portal series), and like Half-Life 2 the game is based around a gimmick. In Half-Life 2, you had a gravity gun which you could use to, for example, pick up a tumble driver and fire it at velocity into enemies' faces. It was a fun gimmick, especially since if you tired of it, you could ignore it and continue to use guns.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic also has a gimmick. It's called 'your foot'. Essentially you can use 'your foot' to 'kick' enemies, often into handily-placed fires or walls of spikes (which are, inexplicably, legion in the game, even in ordinary people's houses) or off ledges. Unlike Half-Life 2, this gimmick is not optional. Kicking an enemy is sometimes the difference between a fight lasting five seconds or ten minutes.
Combat in Dark Messiah is hard, frustrating and annoying at anything over the lowest difficulty rating. You tend to die if you take three hits from the enemy, whilst they keep coming after sustaining dozens of blows, even small goblins. Keeping your shield up (or sword in parry mode) and knowing when to riposte blows is vital to ensure victory. That is, if you refuse to kick them to death using the omnipresent environmental hazards. Once you've gotten used to the oddities of combat, however, the game becomes far more enjoyable.
Level design is frequently ingenious, overcoming the Source Engine's frustrating 'load every ten steps' feature by making maximum use of vertical space, with ascending or descending house floors and tower levels (often with a handy empty middle bit you can kick people down) being intelligently used to ensure maximum carnage with minimal loading. There's also huge spaces with clever ways of traversing them, sometimes recalling the Jedi Knight series, and intermittently the Prince of Persia games (particularly your character's ability to grab onto levels and haul yourself up, which is very weird in the first-person viewpoint). Graphically, the game is reasonable, though both character models and particularly animation are a bit weak compared to the two-years-older Half-Life 2. Environmental graphics and particularly lighting remain strong, however.
The storyline is fairly weak and predictable, and your NPC helper for most of the game is pretty useless (she's no Alyx Vance, that's for sure). Also, despite being set in the same world as Heroes of Might and Magic V (and presumably the same universe as all the other Might and Magic games), there's little to no cross-over with the other titles, making the use of the Might and Magic franchise name questionable.
Overall, Dark Messiah is a very oddball and conflicted game. On the one hand, the environments and level design are particularly strong, and combat, though sometimes frustrating, can be satisfying once you've mastered the various sword fighting combos, blocks and, of course, the use of your Mighty Foot of Insta-Death. On the other hand, the storyline is not particularly compelling and the NPCs are extremely thin. Yet it remained interesting enough for me to finish the game and, since I only paid £3 for it in a Steam sale, was also reasonably good value for money.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (***) is a reasonably enjoyable game with enough problems to put off the easily-irritated. Those who persevere with it will - eventually - find much to enjoy. The game is out now in the UK and USA.