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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven

Released five years after Might and Magic V, the sixth entry in the series represented a major overhaul for the franchise in a number of ways.  But does it successfully prove a more captivating experience while staying true to its roots, or was this just the beginning of the end for Might and Magic?

By 1998 DOS was pretty much on its way out and Windows gaming was becoming the new norm.  As were 3D graphics and faster-paced RPGs in general.  Might and Magic was a highly-acclaimed series in its time, but by the fourth and fifth entries it started to wear out and ramp up into ridiculous territory.  This was especially true if one played the extra storyline at the end of 5 when installed on top of 4 - Levels and experience points were handed out like Halloween candy, stats easily reached into the hundreds (HP and MP into the thousands) and combat became rather arbitrary as a result - you either took enemies out in one or two turns or they did the same to you.

So, when Might and Magic VI came out, it was little surprise that a lot would change in its five years of development.  It was the first in the series to be made exclusively for one platform (Windows, which had come to dominate the market by that time), it featured 3D graphics, CGI full-motion-video cutscenes and performance-captured actors for many of the characters, and most surprisingly, it ditched the grid-based movement of its predecessors in favor of more realistic open world roaming not unlike Ultima Underworld or Elder Scrolls, even allowing the player to switch freely between turn-based mode (for more granular options in combat) or free-form action (better when wandering and quickly taking out much weaker foes).  Progression was better thought-out too, with more evenly-distributed stat boosts and equipment throughout and most spells scaling with skills, rather than levels.

New World Computing didn't stop there, of course.  They also took the game's long development as a chance to streamline a number of mechanics, implement a more intricate skill system (again, seemingly drawing inspiration from Ultima Underworld or Elder Scrolls) and dial the general heights for statistics back to a more reasonable scale.  The most prominent example of this is seen right away - your party size is now four (no more, no less) and all characters are now human - there is no longer a selection of playable races.  Not that it made a major difference in the earlier games, but it's a bit of an odd omission after 5 games with it.  One can also bring aboard up to two "hirelings" that grant the party various benefits, though they never fight directly - they take an up-front payment and a percentage of all gold found in exchange for things like repairing magic items for you, boosting skills as long as they're present, or making travel faster.

Classes, skills and equipment are reworked here too, and generally make more sense.  The game returns to Might and Magic 1's selection of six classes, though the Robber class is gone (replaced by the Druid) and its skills are worked into the general skillset, freeing up a slot for a more capable fighter or caster in their place.  Each class starts with two innate skills and two more of the player's choice, and more can be learned throughout the game by paying various trainers throughout the world.  Leveling up and using certain items (Lucky Horseshoes) now grants skill points, which the player can spend from their stat menu to bolster their skills.  Weapons and armor types also now have associated skills, with extra points giving not just bonuses to hit or damage, but other benefits once they reach certain thresholds.  Axes, for example, get bonus damage once you reach Master rank, while Spears will give bonus Armor Class at Expert and Maces will have a chance to stun an enemy at Master.  Similarly, armor is now simplified into four types (Shield, Leather, Chain and Plate) and get benefits of their own - boosting Armor skills will reduce or eliminate their speed penalties, while boosting the Shield skill will double or even triple the amount of protection shields provide.  Sells are now broken up into nine different disciplines too, though each class only gets access to a handful - Druids, Archers and Sorcerers use elemental spells (further divided into Fire, Wind, Water and Earth), while Paladins and Clerics get Clerical spells (broken up into Body, Mind and Spirit).  Two especially powerful schools called simply "Light" and "Dark" exist too, though they only become available late in the game and only a pure Cleric or Sorcerer respectively can access them.

Of course, being a more open-world type of game and de-emphasizing combat to a point ensures that not all skills are based around it.  Other skills do things like identify items, adjust prices in shops to your benefit (a very useful one to get early on and improve throughout the game), give bonus HP or MP, disarm traps and open locks, and a personal favorite - you can finally repair items in the field! (A very welcome addition after Might and Magic 3 and especially 4/5.)  The game now has something of a reptuation system as well, though it doesn't affect affect as much as you'd expect - it only seems to be important for learning and mastering Light and Dark magic.  Obviously, doing bad things (like killing innocents) will lower it, while donating at temples or completing quests will raise it.  It will also slowly decay over time as you rest, so if you're going for a higher level you can't afford to do waste too much time.  One can also beg, bribe or threaten NPCs for information or quick cash at a cost of reputation, though the Diplomacy skill reduces the loss.  There is something of a crude alchemy system in the game too - finding plants and using them on empty potion bottles can create a potion for later use.

So, did Might and Magic 6 prove to be a successful reinvention of the series?  I certainly think it did.  The grid-based system of the series served it well, but with RPGs becoming more realistic and immersive after the advent of games like Ultima, it was only natural that New World Computing had to up their game too to stay relevant.  They did just that, with five years of development time being put to good use - the franchise's sixth game feels more realistic and immersive in design, yet manages to keep the light-hearted dungeon-crawling feel mostly intact despite this.  It looks great for the period, it plays immaculately well even today, and yet is still deep enough to prove a challenge for fans of old-school dungeon crawling, with tons of side-quests and subtleties to its design that will keep you coming back for multiple playthroughs.  Might and Magic needed a major overhaul to survive in the gaming landscape of the late 1990s, and Mandate of Heaven was just what it needed. 

Developer: New World Computing
Publisher: The 3DO Company
Platform: Windows
Released: 1998
Recommended Version: N/A

If you're playing on a modern system, I recommend getting the Grayface patch.  Among other things, it allows you to scale up the game window, utilize mouselook and remap interface keys to your choosing.  That, and a number of other useful tweaks, can be found on the PC Gaming Wiki page for the game.

If you also don't like the slow miss-heavy pace of the game, check out the fan mod called " Chiyolate Fun & Balanced Mod", which makes the enemies more durable, but easier to hit, overhauls the loot system and keeps the difficulty relatively balanced while tightening up the pacing.  Great mod!