This game really, really wants to be another game. You could say it wants to be Thief or Bioshock or Morrowind and you’d be right each time though, of course, you’d also be wrong. Dark Messiah wants to be an experience, much like a movie is an experience. You go into the theater, you sit down, and the story happens to you.
Now, that’s not quite the same as a game since a game requires you to be actively involved in playing it, but Dark Messiah is the closest I’ve come to experiencing a movie in game form.
Game. Movie. Experience. Enough with the repetition of words already. Here’s a picture:
What you’ll notice from the screenshot above is simply this: the game is beautiful. It looks and feels like a real(ish) world, and the environments are big and complicated enough to seem real, rather than just foreshortened mazes meant just to provide the appearance of reality (i.e. the facades in old westerns that were just the fronts of buildings). The game is a joy to play because of how responsive it is, and because of the care that has gone into its design.
So there are all those games I mentioned above that Dark Messiah cribs from. From Thief, for example, you have the arrows, the hiding in shadows, and the sneak attacks. The link is made obvious when you find a Master Thief suit of armor that is initialed with a G (for Garrett, the star of the Thief games). From Bioshock you have the ability to upgrade various skills as you go along, the skills you choose influencing how you overcome certain obstacles in the game (unlike many RPGs, you receive experience in Dark Messiah only from completing objectives, not from killing enemies, though sometimes the two are inseperable). From Morrowind there is the fantasy setting and the sense that you are in a large, open, living world where your actions have consequences. That, in fact, is a lie.
The game that Dark Messiah most closely resembles is Half-life. The opening puts you on a horse approaching the city of Stonehelm and you are, well, not in control of anything, much like Half-life put you on a train through the Black Mesa complex for the beginning of that game. In both situations, the game uses this time to introduce you, visually, to the world you’ll be inhabiting and to set a tone for the overall game. And, okay, okay, yes, that’s Half-life-esque, but is that all?
No, no it is not.
Dark Messiah, like Valve’s trend-setting game, is very linear even though it does its best to prevent you from noticing that fact. Frankly, Dark Messiah’s best is not very good. You know where you’re going at all times because, quite simply, there is no other way to go. There are a few areas where you can choose different paths, but those “paths” are different ways of solving the problem at hand rather than true alternate routes. In addition, Dark Messiah also has a number of set scenes and encounters. They are more interactive than those in Half-life but not by much, and the goal is the same: to get you invested in what you are playing by giving the sense that the world around you is living, not static.
Like in Half-life, your character in Dark Messiah is chosen for you: an apprentice named Sareth. Unlike Half-life, your character actually speaks and has a personality, an aspect that only increases the sense of movieness. This prevents one (namely, me) from getting fully involved in the game as I would if I were the character, but playing through a story that’s been fully imagined does have some advantages, the most obvious being that the story can actually be paced quite effectively. And, for the most part, Dark Messiah is.
Of course, there are some issues I have with this game.
The story, for one, is not all that great. It’s not all that bad, either. In fact, the main problem I have with it is that the story, the meat of it, is just not all that much there. There is a world-spanning threat that you, and you alone, can stop, but there’s not much of a sense of danger. In the small aspects, the world is created nicely, with minor characters that make an impact and a real sense of immediacy towards fighting this goblin or avoiding that trap. But the story as a whole lets down, especially the endings. Oh boy are they underwhelming. There are four different ones but, essentially, they are interchangeable and have quite a bit of recycled art and dialogue between them.
The other major issue I have with Dark Messiah is this: spikes. In particular, the fact that every area – whether it be a major town, a long, unused necropolis, or an island housing an ancient temple – is littered with what appear to be spiked bedframes. The reason? If you position your enemies correctly, you can kick them onto the spikes for an instant kill. Well, okay, but is this a position your regular citizen finds herself in every day? This overabundance of regularly scheduled deathtraps is why 1UP.com renamed the game “The Adventures of Sir Kicksalot Deathboot in the Land of the Conspicuously Placed Spike Racks”, a moniker I wish I had come up with first.
You know, three years ago, when this game was released.
Dark Messiah is not a great game, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed playing it, despite all its quirks and flaws. The game is akin to a pulp novel – a quick and engrossing read that doesn’t stay with you too long. I think I purchased it for about $7 at Half-Price. I recommend, if you like quick and dirty entertainment, that you do the same.