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Arkane's Dark Messiah is still the best RPG for killing things with your foot

Dark Messiah's protagonist Sareth
(Image credit: Ubisoft)

With Death Loop being pushed from May to September, I've been forced to search elsewhere for my Arkane fix. Dishonored 2, which sits comfortably in my Top 5, seemed like the obvious choice for some immersive sim goodness, but instead I went a lot further back through the studio's oeuvre, to a time when all a hero needed was a really strong kick.  

Dark Messiah of Might & Magic has an almost comical obsession with kicking stuff to death or punting them off ledges. See, this 2006 action-RPG makes confronting enemies pretty dangerous unless you're using sly tricks. If you're being cautious, maybe you'll keep yourself safe with magic, freezing foes while healing yourself, or pick your enemies off from afar with your handy bow. If that sounds dull, however, you can always charge into a melee brawl, and that's when you'll want to bring out the boot. 

Even Dark Messiah's pale, scrawny necromancers can take a major beating, so if you're wailing on them with a sword, you'll be giving your arm a serious workout. Not only are your foes a hardy bunch, they've also got a solid block and a penchant for ducking and weaving. Lose your rhythm or get surrounded and even the weakest of your enemies can slice off that last sliver of health. 

Above: In our Reinstall video series we take a fresh look at old games. So far we've covered the likes of Blade RunnerThe Dig and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. You can also watch the above video on YouTube.

Thankfully, you can get out of trouble thanks to your prodigious foot. A swift kick can solve almost any problem. Knocking an enemy back, for instance, will give you some breathing room and a moment to launch a counterattack, but you can also get a bit more tactical. And lethal. See a guard looking over the edge of a tower? Kick that idiot over. Spike traps are even more satisfying, and surprisingly common—health and safety standards were pretty low in 2006. If you want to prolong their death, you might want to boot them into a fire and watch them burn to a crisp. Everyone is so flammable in this world that you can even push them into a stove and they'll light up like a bonfire. It's great.

And Dark Messiah makes the most out of it. Hardly a single encounter will go by without you getting a few chances to turn your foot into a killing machine. Early on, it constantly reminds you to put this incredible kicking skill to good use. It's one of the first things the game teaches you, and then it constantly reinforces it—there's no chance you'll forget. 

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Dishonored and Prey give you a wide array of powers to let you engineer your victories, but Dark Messiah's kick feels like the purest expression of Arkane's immersive sim design philosophy. Here is this simple, accessible and intuitive ability that you can use in all sorts of situations, on both enemies and the environment. You can kick down flimsy walls to open up a new path, for instance, or knock down some supports, causing barrels and other heavy objects to crush some gormless guards. In a world of magic and dragons, it's reassuring—and a bit ridiculous—that your foot proves to be your most useful tool. 

I always get a serious case of FOMO when I'm playing immersive sims, because I know that no matter what I do, there's always the chance that I'm missing something potentially even better. In Dark Messiah, there are usually a few ways to solve a problem, but with a much more limited set of tools it's usually easy to identify the most satisfying way to overcome any hurdle. It's less open than you'd expect from a studio that's famous for letting you experiment, but the elegant simplicity of kicking your way through problems is almost as appealing. 

Foot-based shenanigans isn't all Dark Messiah offers, though. If you see any ropes and levers around when you're about to start a fight, you're in luck, because it probably means you'll be able to turn the environment into an ally. Cutting a rope could lead to a chandelier falling from the ceiling and onto an unfortunate enemy. Hitting a lever, meanwhile, could open up some cells and provide just the distraction you need for some murder. Sometimes they're heavily signposted, where you're being guided towards these cool moments, but that doesn't undermine their novelty, and you can still keep up the illusion that you're being very creative.  

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

It's worth playing just to check out a piece of Arkane's history, and you can see quite a lot of Dishonored in its combat and AI behaviour. The former is fantastic—tricky, flashy and just tactical enough to make you feel smart for murdering an orc—but the latter is a bit wonky. Enemies communicate and are pretty reactive, just like their modern counterparts, but they're also immensely thick. That's not always a bad thing, mind. Sometimes it's nice to be able to take a wee break after some tough battles, and there's no better way of relaxing in Dark Messiah than standing at the top of a ladder and kicking a bunch of lemmings to their deaths. 

The slapstick comedy makes up for the occasional lack of refinement, and even now it's still just a hell of a lot of fun. Like a lot of Source Engine games, it's aged pretty well, and there still really isn't anything else like it. Beyond Arkane's games, there are shades of The Elder Scrolls, Thief and, of course, the turn-based Might & Magic series, but they create a very distinct combination. 

There's also something to be said for its brevity. It's less than half the length of Dishonored, split into hour-long chapters, ten of them, which are largely linear. It's an Arkane game that you can finish in a couple of afternoons. Dishonored is exactly as long as it needs to be, but being able to enjoy Arkane's top notch level design and excellent melee combat in something a bit lighter and more straightforward is a welcome treat. I jumped in to grab some footage earlier, and before I knew it I was already at the half-way point. And not just because it's brief. The whirlwind pace pushes you along even while the story stumbles, taking you from ancient crypts to cities under siege to ocean voyages in the blink of an eye. And each mission is just the right size so you can justify just one more. 

So there are plenty of reasons to dig this one out. But above all else, do it for the excellent kicking.  

As the online editor, Fraser's actually met The Internet in person, and he keeps a small piece of it in a jar. Sometimes it whispers to him—exclusively with ideas for features.