Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor sits atop a pedestal in my mind which casts a shadow so perfect and voluptuous that no current generation title deserves to even stand in it. And so, with the announcement of Might and Magic X earlier this week, came the rush of nostalgia and an overwhelming desire to play the game that exemplified my formative years.
Might and Magic VII falls squarely into the “old school RPG” category. At the very start of the game you are presented with the party creation screen wherein you get to choose four party members from the four different races. Obviously, each race has different potential and is better suited to certain classes than others and so it’s important to try and construct a well-rounded team. This is one of the aspects I’ve always loved about the Might and Magic series; painstakingly building the perfect party as you deliberate over how much Endurance to take away from your Cleric while still maintaining the survivability of your party.
Look at that party creation menu and tell me it doesn't turn you on. I dare you.
I spent roughly half an hour trying to synergise classes and optimise stats and I loved every second of it. Even though you are limited to a select number during party creation, there are 35 different combat, magic and utility skills for your characters to learn and master. Naturally, there are limitations on a character's class and its ability to master certain skills. Despite this, the sheer number means that almost any party configuration will allow you overcome every challenge thrown your way.
Once I was satisfied with Team Hyper Fuck, I clicked start and the familiar cinematic greeted me for all of three seconds before it locked up and I was forced to skip it in order to continue.The premise for the tutorial island is that you are competing in a scavenger hunt to win the deeds to Castle Harmondale and its surrounding lands. The question of how good a job the tutorial is at acclimatising the uninitiated is, frankly, beyond my ability to answer. I instantly reverted to muscle memory as the ugly, jagged form of Emerald Island stared me in the face.
All I know is that there is an NPC who briefly joins your party and explains certain aspects of the game to you. I also know that you can turn off her dialogue which I do every time it pops up and pauses the game the first instance she opens up her informative little textbox to regale you with how a shop works. Even so, the island has all the basic amenities and, with some exploration, you’ll quickly pick up the basics. There are numerous outlets from which to learn skills, shop, and level-up. The island itself is a microcosm of the larger game world, clearly showing you a little of everything on offer later on.
Once you’ve traipsed around the island and found all of the items to win the scavenger hunt you are presented with the deeds to your new land and whisked away from the tutorial. After a clumsy morsel of exposition, you’re placed in front of your castle to begin an MTV Cribsesque tour around your new pad but, shock horror, you’ve been duped and the castle is not only decrepit but also infested with goblins and various other undesirables. So the game begins in earnest as you cleave a path through 2D character sprites to establish castle Harmondale and its lands as your rightful fiefdom by fixing up the place and gaining acceptance from the other kingdoms.
Team Hyper Fuck on an episode of Cribs
It’s a rather flimsy pretext to justify your adventure but one I really enjoy nonetheless. You’ll quickly forget about it as you realise that clearing the castle is no mean feat straight off the boat and so you’ll most likely take to exploring. The world of Might and Magic VII is composed of several reasonably large areas which you can travel to via coach, boat, magic or foot. Each area is littered with useful peasants and offers a handful of quests which range from menial delivering of letters to the kickass slaying of dragons.
In regards to quests, the minimal guidance you’re offered in the dialogue means you’ll spend many happy hours wondering through the large wilderness sections of each area. Of course, when I say “large” I do mean by 1999 standards so in reality they are kind of small. But, as the old saying goes, “size doesn’t matter” and in the case of Might and Magic VII, that statement has never rang truer as they are packed with stacks of loot, dungeons, trainers and wild, roaming mobs.
Most of the areas have several dungeons to offer and, as you advance, they become larger and loaded with ever more foreboding enemies. The progression of Might and Magic VII really couldn’t be any more standard – you earn experience, you level-up, you get better gear and move on to the next challenge. Character development really is everything and whether it was the ability to dual-wield swords or access to another tier of spells, I always relished the next level of skill mastery and the perks that came with it.
Seriously... Look at all those damn dragons
However, it is the peasants of Might and Magic that actually deserve your attention as they are genuinely one of the most interesting game mechanics I've seen in a while. Your party has two follower slots and, for a small fee, you can hire someone to follow you around and offer useful assistance. They will also take a small cut of your earnings which varies depending on what service they offer. In combat they cannot attack or be harmed by enemies but, depending on their profession, they provide you with a perk. Such perks include a better prices in shops, the ability to fix your gear or even cast a flying spell once per day. The reason they present such an interesting mechanic is because they are able to fill the gaps in your own characters skill set and help round out the party without impacting combat or being a liability.
Of course, Might and Magic VII was ahead of its time and it implemented the ever popular 'arbitrary moral choice system'. There are a mere handful of choices to be made and only one is of any significance; the mid-game choice between Light and Dark. It’s so fleeting and ham-handed I couldn’t possibly bare any ill-will towards it and, in fairness, the decision you make opens up one of two new schools of magic as well as a different city; Celeste, which is essentially heaven, and the Pit which is equivalent to Hell.
Celeste is pretty pimpin'
Although the two cities are aesthetically different, there aren’t any real perks that come with choosing one over the other. The main difference comes with the schools of magic: Light magic is more defensively focused whereas Dark magic is just awesome and lets you nuke entire villages in a single spell. Oh, and the path of the Dark allows your Sorcerer to become a badass Lich so Dark is clearly the right choice.
That allows me to neatly segue onto the matter of class promotions which are one of my favourite aspects of the game. Each class can be promoted twice and with each promotion comes greater skill potential. The first level of promotion is available to you regardless of your alignment but the second promotion forks depending on which path you chose.
For example, the Druid can become an Arch Druid if you choose Light or Warlock if you choose Dark. Again, choosing Dark is clearly the better option here because you get a motherfucking dragon as a pet. Okay, it doesn’t really do much except buff your Elemental Magic damage and sit in the NPC assistant party window in the corner but still; it is way cooler than becoming an Arch Druid, a task which just involves finding some bones in a tunnel. Exiting stuff.
In all seriousness, the differences between Light and Dark promotions remain largely aesthetic but I don’t really mind. This game wants you to get into character and really play the role of a band of noble heroes or nefarious, power crazed nutters. The choice isn’t a matter of perks and drawbacks, it’s a matter of role playing and that is something I can really appreciate.
There is no greater catharsis than being ridiculously evil simply because the black and red game HUD dictates that you are. Might and Magic VII reminds me of a simpler time; it’s like being a child again, playing in the dirt with stick, making authentic sword fight noises and pretending that the nearby cow is actually a hideous Minotaur.
Polygons and Liches
I suppose what it really comes down to is whether a Might and Magic virgin would enjoy this game? I couldn’t possibly say. I can see so many things right about it; it has a rich expanded universe, old school RPG elements, a plethora of spells and skills, quests, dungeon crawling, a slew of awesome monsters to slay in a rather bizarre, yet weirdly effective, active time battle system, not to mention the worst example of early polygonal graphics to ever grace the world of videogames.
But I can also see why you could find it hard to become invested in this game 14 years after its initial release. The expanded universe can be impenetrable and alienating. The story doesn't exactly grab you by the tits and take you on an emotional, well written or even particularly interesting roller-coaster ride. The battle system doesn’t amount to much more than mashing attack and setting your best spells to automatic and although there was certainly some potential with the combat, it really doesn’t evolve much beyond clicking on enemies while occasionally using a few wildly ineffectual healing spells.
Despite all that, nostalgia is the most powerful drug and I’m glad to see that it still works on me. I’ve lost count of how many times this game has dragged me back and, with each new foray into its world, I expect to leave with my rose tinted glasses cracked and bent beyond all recognition. I never do. Each new dive into the comforting waters merely solidifies my high opinion of this game; it’s got a depth I still can’t entirely fathom and there is always a little something new to learn. Each time I start a new adventure I have a little more nostalgia to draw upon and dammit, nostalgia is all I need.
As I understand it, the world is literally full, yes literally full of great anime shows. Go on, look outside – ANIME! Look back inside – ANIME! See, good anime is everywhere… don’t inhale it though. That being said, I can completely understand why anime can struggle to gain acceptance by a mainstream western audience and until recently, I wrote it off almost entirely. Since my rediscovery of Pokémon back in my first year of university, I've seen almost every episode of the anime series and have been following it religiously for the last two years. However, the Pokémon anime isn't exactly high art and it seriously warped my perceptions of what anime really is.
This is pretty much what I thought anime was until three weeks ago
Although I’d been exposed to, and thoroughly enjoyed, Studio Ghibli productions, I believed that they were merely the exception to the rule. I was under the impression that most anime ran well into 600 episodes and was either a marketing gimmick or catered solely to half-witted toddlers. I can’t say how happy I am to be wrong about that. I know that a certain amount of crushingly terrible anime must exist but look at any medium of entertainment and you’ll find more than your fair share dodgy folks selling you “entertainment brand entertainment” they nicked out the back of a van. It’s just the nature of the industry.
What I find most curious about anime is how it is often seen as a genre by those who aren't familiar with it; something I must admit to believing at one point. As a result of this perception, I feel that many people shrug it off as angst-ridden teenagers with stupid hair and scantily clad pubescent girls all fighting to save the world from some 100 foot tall robot with cat ears and tentacles. Maybe I’m wrong about how exactly people view anime but there is certainly a degree of stigma surrounding it and, honestly, based on aesthetics alone, who can blame them? Just check out the opening sequence to Sword Art Online:
I actually love this intro sequence so much
Sword Art Online was the first “real” anime I sampled but the name and title sequence alone could easily be enough to deter the self-conscious or xenophobic. I was accosted by two friends and told that SAO was ‘the best thing ever’ and I reluctantly sat down to watch the first episode. It didn't take long for it to completely enthrall me and although it had been recommended to me by people I trusted, it was my first experience of an anime and I was entirely prepared for a hellish slog through half-baked exposition posing as dialogue and possibly a seizure.
Although the show isn't perfect, it was the exact opposite of what I expected and its sinister atmosphere, brilliant pacing and expansive world building was enough to show me how wrong I’d been about anime and that if SAO could exist, there had to be more out there. I couldn't have predicted the tension and brutality of SAO and it was quick to show me that it was not the sort of show that was going to fuck about – something I have really grown to appreciate in much of the anime I've seen so far. It pulls no punches and doesn't treat the viewer like a child; instead it expects you to actually pay attention, to understand characters and their motivations above and beyond what the show directly tell you.
Oh Klein, you're such a scamp
So, with my prejudices recently countered, I waded further into the murky waters of anime and fell into the awesome sinkhole that is Neon Genesis Evangelion. As the title sequence began, I prepared myself for a few episodes of stupid, outlandish and immature fun, but my preconceptions betrayed me as the guilty pleasure of this seemingly ridiculously show quickly subsided. It rapidly transpired that NGE was genuinely good.
Yes, on a surface level, it’s a show about children and robots but that is merely a platform for the thematic core of the series. It addresses psychological concepts such as separation anxiety and the Oedipus complex as well as tackling the philosophical and existential issues of what it actually means to be human and how we perceive ourselves and others around us. These themes essentially come back to the Hedgehog’s Dilemma and the challenges of human intimacy.
It’s also the sort of show that could easily be ruined by divulging too much information so I’ll restrain my enthusiasm and just say this – I don’t profess to be an expert on anime but I've been living under the delusion that 90% of anime fell into the Mecha genre and so I wasn't keen to invest myself in anything relating to that genre. I assumed it would be a purely visual catharsis that lacked depth or any real meaning. I believed that Mecha anime appealed only to the lowest common denominator and maybe most of it does, but not this.
Once again, the title sequence is pretty deceptive
I've still only really sampled some of the more respected anime but each time I've had my expectations flipped on their head and laughed at for being so silly. Death Note was another of those highly recommended animes and yet, despite what SAO had taught me, I had my reservations. From what I've gathered, Death Note is hugely popular and I’m sure I don’t need to say much about it except that I only sat down to watch it on two separate occasions and the only thing that could stop me was the possibility of losing my job if I stayed at home watching Death Note instead of actually showing up.
I dread to think how much erotic fan fiction has been written about these two…
At this point I’m tempted to just say Cowboy Bebop and knock off early but I should probably expand on that a little because this particular gem fills me an intense joy just thinking about it. I fell in deep, romantic love with this show as it dragged me into its weird spaghetti western, film noir, sci-fi majesty. Perhaps the reason I love this so much is because of its slightly westernised sensibilities which I naturally find more relatable but I feel that is only a minor factor of my admiration.
First and foremost is the universe itself which is explained in the style somewhat reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's technique i.e. not at all. The creators built a world and simply put you and the characters in it – they don’t force exposition down your throat, going into intricate detail about, for example, the hyperspace gate incident; they merely allude to the fact it happened and that the effects were rather adverse. As a result, the universe feels organic and alive, and that it will continue long after your brief stint there has ended.
The world comes to life in a natural manner as you gradually explore it along the crew of the good ship Bebop. The richness of a universe is always one of the most important factors for me in any sort of fiction and Cowboy Bebop certainly delivers in that department as it perfectly melts together different cultures in a way that seems plausible in our future and manages to Frankenstein various genres into a single entity, thereby creating its very own.
Perhaps the thing I have grown to appreciate most about anime is how it able to transcend cultural boundaries – the divide between eastern and western culture is a significant one. Yes, we have seen a fairly substantial amount of Japanese culture permeate into our own over the last twenty or thirty years through the medium of videogames but, to me any way, they still feel Japanese. Susan Napier points out in her book, Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, that anime is often referred to as ‘stateless’ by many Japanese commentators which, in this context, relates to how anime is not necessarily tied down to a single cultural identity.
If one is to look at Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, it becomes clear that although both are technically an anime, they are the result of a cultural fusion between east and west. The same goes for many Studio Ghibli productions which, although produced by a Japanese studio, take their inspiration from western sources and subsequently create the most wonderful cultural hybrids. This is why I love anime and no matter what the rest of the world thinks about it, I know it can brilliant.
Demon’s Souls, not only being impossibly difficult to pronounce, also presented a rather substantial challenge to players and, above all else, was a radical cult hit, exceeding all expectations and shipping approximately 720,000 copies (admittedly, there are probably actual cults with more members than this but still). The moment I heard about Demons’ Souls I was instantly intrigued by it – I’d been told very little about it aside from the unforgiving difficulty which is what attracted me the most. However, it passed me by as I was a filthy, jobless student back then (things haven’t changed much) and I didn’t have a PS3.
A few years later though, I had fallen into a menial job which gifted me with enough money to buy a genuine Perpetual Firmware Updates 3 and I was able to wrestle a copy of Demon’s Souls from my flatmate. After a mere thirty hours of getting my ass handed to me by obese wizards wearing top hats, my brain being devoured by hideous octopus men and becoming a little too familiar with a certain Archstone courtesy of Old King Allant, I had bent the game to my will and made it my bitch – the challenge was a welcome one, yes, but as it turned out, it was not the game’s strongest feature.
Demons’ Souls provided an incredibly oppressive and disturbing experience which permeated all aspects of the game, from NPCs and enemy design to environments and item descriptions. In fact, survival horror sweetheart of the year, scratch that, of the decade, Jasper Byrne (go and play Lone Survivor if you haven’t already), is a huge fan Demons’ Souls and Dark Souls and if he loves it, who are you to argue? This game isn’t just a “dark fantasy”, it isn’t just a mercilessly difficult RPG, it is a survival horror experience that will chew you up, spit you out and leave your crumpled, phlegm-covered corpse come crawling back for more.
So yes, I loved Demons’ Souls and so you can probably imagine my delight when I finally got to sink my teeth into Dark Souls and my further climactic joy when Dark Souls II was announced at the Spike Videogame Samuel L. Jackson Advertisements Thing. That being said, it cannot be denied that Dark Souls is by no means perfect – it has its flaws and, they can be pretty glaring flaws at that but the core design values remain solid despite a few technical faults.
This is a game that was built on a lower budget than most but the developers didn’t let that hold it back. From Software was able to create a world with more depth and intrigue than many of its RPG counterparts through a clever use of minimalist plot and a narrative and lore embedded into item descriptions, environments and tangential dialogue. Dark Souls uses its simplicity to create a sense of mystery which gradually unfolds over the course of multiple play-throughs, tantalisingly exposing its secrets to you piece by piece like a high class prostitute unwrapping tiny morsels of a tasty steak.
The oppressive atmosphere coupled with the very low number of friendly NPCs creates a sense of being so helplessly alone. You are whisked away from the decaying Undead Asylum and planted into the last bastion of a long dead civilisation. What is perhaps most haunting about the world of Lordran is how it avoids the cliché of a society ruined by a cataclysmic event which rendered its inhabitants into snarling and grotesque creatures. No, the tale of Lordran is one of genuine tragedy; a world which slowly decayed centuries ago, abandoned by the gods, the denizens are ghoulish beings that have been left to fester as they die a thousand times over until they lose their minds and turn hollow.
Even the developers leave you crying and alone, providing only the most basic instructions and quite happily letting you wonder off in the wrong direction to a quick and unsightly death straight after the “tutorial” level. These elements create the sense of crushing loneliness which Dark Souls revels in and utilises to effectively craft an unforgettable atmosphere which will slip the surly bonds of the game and creep right into your subconscious mind as you are repeatedly scorched, poisoned, stabbed, hacked and crushed to death. The sense of isolation and the intense difficulty create the perfect blend; these aspects become synonymous, ‘the difficulty isn’t a club the designers bash you with, but the palette with which they paint the experience’ (Chris Dahlen, Save the Robot). The difficulty is the core of the game and the environments, characters and art style create the magnificent structure built upon those foundations.
Isolation is the recurrent theme in Dark Souls and no matter what, you will always be alone in Lordran. Yes you can touch the glowing white soapstone which offers a strange sense of warming comfort in the cold, bleak landscape but any relationship you forge with another player will be fleeting as they rapidly fade from existence in the jubilant wake of victory. In this respect, Dark Souls presents somewhat of a paradox in regards to the sense of loneliness – the ghosts of other players haunt the world, illustrating that you are, in fact, not alone and that other people are facing the same trials are you. However, this sense of empathy and cooperation is quickly sundered when YOxXDarkSwagSniper69AssassinXxLO invades your world, subsequently eviscerates you and, as ‘You Died’ slowly melts onto the screen, you feel betrayed and alone once more.
From Software seamlessly merged the multiplayer and single player into one cohesive experience, preying on the inherent malevolence of mankind. As your character dies you go slowly insane along with them as you are both helped and betrayed by your fellow man. Do you trust the promise of ‘phat lutes’ scribbled on the floor in crayon and leap into the darkness? Or do you walk away and risk missing out on all the hot, steamy, treasure action? It wasn’t long until I began to instinctively distrust the glowing orange graffiti that litters Lordran but, every so often, my cynicism would fade and I’d instantly fall prey to the malignant whimsy of another player; the vicious cycle would beginning anew.
Even so, a deceptive message of this sort offers no discernible benefits, except perhaps the approval of other likeminded trolls who would positively vote your message up, granting the author Humanity and the message a semblance of credibility. However, I highly doubt that such an unlikely prospect is what encourages these deceptions; but more a sense of knowing that someone, somewhere, will have fallen for your nefarious scheme. In fact, it was such a thought which would often give me comfort as I ran once again through the mobs towards the Bed of Chaos, or up and over the rooftops of Anor Londo as the Silver Knight archers impaled me from afar with, what I can only assume, were the smuggest of grins upon their faces.
Even the friendly NPCs, like your fellow players, have motives and thought processes which only they can understand and, like you, they are destined to the cruel fate of the undead. As a result, the NPCs of Dark Souls all straddle the boarder of lunatic and friend; the subtle nature of their character manages to create memorable personalities as their jovial asides or nihilistic retorts give you just enough to feel a weird sense of attachment. Some will provide you with services; others come lurching out of the darkness as a Black Phantom, only to reappear just outside the next boss door with a picnic basket and a letter of apology. For the most part, each has their own small story which all too often ends in tragedy.
The jolly and inept Siegmeyer of Catarina has a special place in my heart; his glimmering oblong presence was always a delight. He is an eternal paradox, appearing always one step ahead of you yet perpetually barred from progress by an insignificant obstacle. Be it his husky frame preventing him outrunning some boulders or his sheer lack of foresight leaving him stranded in Blighttown, Siegmeyer’s ineptitude gave me someone to empathise with as we blindly hammered our way through Sens Fortress and beyond. That is why I waved to him upon every chance encounter, why I rejoiced when he appeared at Firelink Shrine and why bowed to him as he faded from my world in Lost Izalith. His few minutes of screen time told me all I needed to know – Siegmeyer, the man, the legend, the onion (don’t tell him I said that).
Returning once more to the environments of Dark Souls, I am continually (and pleasantly) surprised when I look down from a location I’ve visited dozens of times before and I notice a minute detail in the grim landscape that makes it instantly recognisable as somewhere I’ve been before or a place I am soon to visit. The world of Lordran is labyrinthine, each new location offering a new vista of the last or a foreboding preview of what is to come. Perhaps my favourite example of this is whilst en route to Gravelord Nito - you break free of the darkness which clings so closely, you look across the endless chasm shrouded by mist and view the giant, gnarled trees which protrude from the murky depths and it strikes you – the view before you is the perversely bleak yet strikingly beautiful Ash Lake, with its white sands and dark clean water, almost as foreboding as the Abyss itself.
Dark Souls has a continuity of locations unlike any game world I’ve seen – even in Skyrim, as you climb atop the tallest mountain for the most beautiful panorama, that is all you really see, a pleasant surrounding environment of minimal significance. You can’t look back and grin at the challenges you have overcome nor can you gulp down your fear at the sight of what you are soon to face. Lordran is a world that was constructed for its inhabitants, not you. You are merely a visitor to this land, your time spent here will be fleeting and eventually you will put down the controller and leave Lordran for good, but it was never there for you. From the depths of Lost Izalith to the golden heights of Anor Londo, Lordran does not feel like a game world constructed to entertain you but rather a genuine world that was once vibrant with life. Each location feels like it could have once served a purpose other than providing a challenge for you, whether it is a simple parish town or a deadly gauntlet to keep the proletariat from dirtying up Lord Gwyn’s keep, every location in Dark Souls once served a purpose to its now putrid populace.
The sense that Lordran was once a much more than an obstacle is what gives such power to the even the most seemingly insignificant details. The flooding of New Londo is hardly referenced or talked about at any length within the game but you know it was flooded to contain the Darkwraiths and you know that thousands of people died but so what? We’ve seen stuff like this a thousand times in videogames. While the story of New Londo is the same as many others, it is the execution which makes it so visceral.
The ruins themselves are bathed in a calming blue light which is quickly juxtaposed by the hollows in the final stages of insanity and the blood curdling howl of the red eyed Banshees, still clutching desperately to the remains of their drowned children. The descent into New Londo escalates in morbidity after you drain the lower levels and are greeted with the sight of bones piled meters high – it leaves the tragedy of New Londo staring you dead in the eyes as you trudge through the darkness and on towards the Abyss, the cause of all this subterranean misery.
All of the sorrow found within Lordran can be attributed to Gwyn, former Lord of Sunlight and now merely the Lord of Cinder, his fall being an allegory for the decline of his kingdom. The once shining realm now a crumbled wasteland, a realm he sacrificed himself to maintain – a futile gesture in the unforgiving world of Dark Souls. The Kiln of the First Flame his prison and final resting place, the scorched and desolate ruins providing the perfect area for the solemn encounter. As you fade through the fog, the melancholy music seeps through the speakers, and Gwyn glides effortlessly towards you, his dingy cloths marred with the ash of his hubris.
The fight with Gwyn is a true test of your mettle, a gladiatorial duel between two great warriors. Eventually you’ll win, you’re the chosen undead after all, right? It’s your destiny to succeed Gwyn and link the fire once more, to perpetuate the dying age of Light rather than allowing it to subside and the age of Dark, the age of man, come to be. The more you play Dark Souls the more the futility of your actions becomes apparent. You’ve enkindled the flame before and you’ll do it again; you’ll perpetuate the doomed era and the curse of the undead will begin anew soon enough. What exactly are you trying to save? Lordran? Lordran is long dead and nothing you do can save it now. Darkstalker Kaathe tells you that ‘Lord Gwyn trembled at the dark. Clinging to his age of fire and, and in dire fear of humans, and the Dark Lord who would one day be born among them, Lord Gwyn resisted the course of nature.’ Gwyn is now a mindless husk haunting the site of his failure and should you link the flame, this is the fate that awaits you.