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.