Might and Magic X hands on: Back on the grid
Might and Magic X: Legacy doesn't waste much time planting its flag in the ground. You've barely stepped into its first town when the first of many quest givers reassures you that "Don't worry, I won't ask you to go kill rats in a cellar." Good, you might think. After all, that's so 80s. But what's the actual assignment?
"Quest: Spiders In The Well"
Well, of course it is...
Legacy is a bizarre sequel. Even with its obviously low budget, feels like it should be a Legend of Grimrock style nostalgia piece from a couple of devoted indies rather than a giant like Ubisoft. At points, it seems almost ashamed to be harking back to the earlier games with actual modern technology on its side, like some grizzled mob enforcer caught ordering a banana daiquiri. "Yes, I'm using Unity to create a real-time 3D world," it mutters sheepishly, "I'm even using... shaders. But it's okay! It's an old-school grid underneath everything! See? And it's still turn-based real time! Forgive me!"
Just as strangely though, its approach doesn't simply hark back to the long faded Might and Magic games, but a style that they themselves gave up back in 93/94 with the Xeen duology. In the decade that followed, the series embraced 3D and free roaming just like everyone else, making this an old-school take on an already old-school RPG series. It's so devoted to it, it keeps it up even when it makes little real sense - specifically, putting 3D world exploration within a grid system. There are reasons grid-based RPGs tended to stick with constrained, locked down areas like dungeons, with even outside areas focusing on dense forests, hedge mazes and ruins that tied into that structure. Here, you quickly have to get used to things like not being able to take a clear ranged shot at an enemy because technically they're still behind a corner, and the goofiness of angry naga running freely through the world before having to take a moment to politely side-step into the middle of the screen for combat.
Legacy's heart is in the right place though, serving up a super-combat heavy experience of a kind we don't see very often this side of Millennium Bug hysteria. There's a reasonable amount of plot, with an intro so long-winded that it's a wonder it doesn't end with the party emerging into Might and Magic XI, a heavy political edge to the specific problems facing the world this time around, and even a few characters around to tell jokes and snark things up. Mostly though, this is less about that side of things as travelling around an attractive enough overworld in search of hidden goodies, delving into dungeons to liberate their residents of anything shiny, and trying not to pick fights you can't walk away from.
That's not always easy, even when you're not accidentally wandering into locations with names like "Dangerous Cave" or taking on quests several notches above your pay grade. While Legacy isn't the Dark Souls of blobber RPGs or anything, it does demand rather more attention than most recent offerings. Enemies like to hang out in groups, and even the earliest ones can deal out a lot of pain - giant spiders (thankfully carrying antidote) poisoning the party so often that it's a wonder they don't end up immune to the stuff by the end of the first dungeon, and Elites scattered amongst regular enemies just to trip you up. It's not simply a question of having the bigger numbers though. Enemies use strategies and respond to your moves rather than simply rolling a damage dice, ensuring that simply slashing away at something like a naga kenshi is a guaranteed one-way trip to the death screen. They get a free hit for every strike evaded or blocked, plus a 20% damage buff for every strike not blocked, and are friends with priestesses who give them a 25% damage shield. These are the guys you fight right outside the first town's walls.
The Bestiary slowly builds up a list of stats and abilities for each creature type, but only as the party learns by killing a few of them. Having a Freemage blow an enemy back a square for instance can be vital for avoiding a nasty hit, warrior classes get skills like taunting to keep the squishy ones out of danger, and a party that tries to run up to a couple of archers is a party that should have been ducking behind a rock instead of working on its porcupine impression. Even playing safe though, there's a lot of resting and wound-licking required, as well as regular trips back to town to stock up and stare at how fast the generous piles of gold collected during adventures soon get whittled away to nothing.
This preview code makes it tough to tell how the balance of key elements like the potion economy will be in the final version, as well as how many healing fountains and other pick-me-ups will be on offer, but it does make it clear that even on Legacy's easier 'Adventurer' mode, the gloves are never even going on. Legacy is a game for people who cut their teeth on early RPGs and still remember the taste of the blood. Other hardcore-friendly features include having to acquire Supplies to be able to rest, not resting making for a tired as well as injured team, and weapon/armour degradation that suggests the local blacksmiths consider tinfoil a fine alternative to steel and mithril. And could really use a slap.
While Legacy's old-school approach isn't quite my thing, being firmly from the Ultima class rather than Might and Magic/Wizardry 101, it's good to see it keep its focus wisely tight. It's a type of RPG that hasn't really existed for many years, in or out of the Might and Magic series directly, and while it's yet to show off any of that series' more memorable flourishes (not least mixing up fantasy and science fiction), there aren't many names better suited to jumping into the role-playing time machine for one more quest.
That said, time has moved on, and having a foot planted between then and now doesn't always do it many favours - a particular bugbear in this preview code being that you have to wait for monster animations to finish playing whether you can see them or not. The release version promises to ease that by allowing them to play at up to 300% speed, but it's still slightly unsettling for a turn-based game to find a way of being overly stop/start in design. Other annoyances included not being able to flee from combat, with the party refusing to take sanctuary in a town before finishing a battle even when on their last desperate breaths, and the general difficulty of avoiding a fight when necessary. Hopefully the final version will be a little smoother in these regards, even if the levelling curve feels like it's going to be more of a problem early on, while the party is still struggling to scrape together their basic spells and skills.
Might and Magic X: Legacy is due out on January 23rd/24th, with a full campaign and modding support. It also features the dumbest question in the RPG genre since "Are you sure you want to uninstall Ultima IX?" (Answering truthfully of course makes for a sadly short and uneventful adventure...)