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SummaryA minotaur, a dragon, and a lich walk into a bar...
The GoodThe sixth Might and Magic game heralded a new era for the franchise: free-roaming 3D world, optional real-time battles, and a bunch of other tweaks, refinements, and other great ideas. No wonder that the subsequent installment followed the recipe and copied the formula verbatim. Yet at the same time, the seventh game boasted a more attractive, coherent world design, stronger narrative, and reduced the sheer amount of hostile in-game creatures to manageable levels.
Might and Magic VIII is similar to its immediate predecessor in this respect: it is set in an appealing, aesthetically engaging world and doesn't throw at the player ridiculous amounts of enemies. It also introduces some new features, some of which may shock the series' veterans: at the beginning of the game, the player is only allowed to create one character. The rest of the party must be found and recruited throughout the game world.
At first sight, this kills one of the chief appeals of Might and Magic - fully independent, flexible party management. However, the game is built in such a way that experimenting with pre-made companions becomes at least as interesting as fiddling around with your own homemade heroes. The reason for that is the fact that the customization variety in this game largely relies on the vast choices of classes. You don't create plain fighters and thieves and then train them to become champions and rogues, but experiment right off the bat with trolls, necromancers, and vampires, dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of each class. You'll be quickly overwhelmed by the possibilities and addicted to the goal of assembling the ultimate party. If you know the game well, you can find shortcuts to powerful characters you can recruit early in the game; but, as a rule, the full-fledged warriors offer their services only towards the end of the game, and most of the initial recruits do need you to train them and customize them in any way you see fit.
Might and Magic VIII boasts wonderful flexibility within its open-ended gameplay system. This has always been one of the reasons for the series' greatness. You are presented with a vast world that you explore in any fashion you want, studying it and becoming acquainted with what it has to offer. This installment is no different - from the moment you start the game, you are theoretically free to go wherever you want and do anything you want (that's right - there are two ways to skip Dagger Wound Island, and none of them involves cheating). You can stick to safe areas, follow the game's "script", and do things by the book; or you can be brave and reckless, venturing into dangerous spots in hope of finding a hidden treasure cache or a powerful weapon that would give you the much-needed edge in combat.
The game is full of those little things that I love seeing in RPGs: it has secrets, shortcuts, tricks, unorthodox strategies, weird stuff to try out. The game rewards you for taking your time to know it, promising a more sweeping, fulfilling playthrough every time you replay it. You can laboriously trudge through it, or madly rush into a lethal area and try, against all odds, to get to that level 50 character that would completely transform your pitifully weak party. Might and Magic VIII is, in a way, even more generously open than the previous games, in that it has no obligatory battles at all - which means that you can, theoretically, complete the game without killing a single enemy! It is a great challenge that requires lots of patience, practicing precise timing, and profound knowledge of the game - but, thanks to the Invisibility spell, it is feasible.
Looking at the game's release time stamp, one cannot ignore the fact that its graphics are dated. It's true that an RPG fan should not pay too much attention to graphics, but it does feel disappointing to see enemy sprites in a 3D game at the turn of the millennium. That said, I think that the developers did squeeze every ounce of aesthetic juice out of the old engine. "Ugly" is not a word one would apply to Might and Magic VIII. Every location in it was crafted with care and as much detail as it was possible with the limitations in technology. Each area feels refreshingly and appropriately different. From the cozy glow of twilight Alvar to the spooky creepiness of Shadowspire, from the pristine, ethereal castle in the sky to the ominous lava traps of the fire realm - all those interesting places you'll visit, and many more, are sure to immerse you into the game's atmosphere and make you want to spend more time with it.
The BadYes, it's another variation on the old theme - become an improbable world-saver, unite factions led by idiots who can't unite on their own, do quests such as "bring me item X from dungeon Y" or "kill everyone, because you can", amass seventy trillion experience points and superb chainmails of divine earth regurgitation +53, find grandmaster trainers in advanced esoteric rabbit-breeding, etc. But hey, this is a role-playing and a Might and Magic game, so, personally, I have absolutely no problem with that. It's just that the experience doesn't feel quite as fresh and as exciting as it used to be. Clearly, in terms of bringing new ideas to the table, Might and Magic VIII scores only a handful of points. Then again, "if it ain't broke..."
My only substantial complaint is the overall low difficulty level of the game. For that reason I recommend this installment to all newcomers to the series - it has wonderful gameplay, and it offers many ways to become obscenely powerful. In particular, the dragon class is almost a game-breaker - those reptiles just crush and burn everything in their path, and are easy to find and train to the maximum. I spent a lot of time upgrading my liches and vampires, but there was always the temptation of dumping those weaklings and just recruit three dragons and breeze through the game's otherwise reasonably challenging final stages.