2018-Nov-20: Might & Magic III: And Now For Something Completely Different

After I finished Might & Magic Book Two, I was pretty determined to take a break from RPGs for a bit. That break lasted about a week. Before October was out I was back at it with Might & Magic III. Sadly this playthrough was dotted with multi-day hiatuses from the game as life repeatedly stole my time. The game experience was basically an eight hour marathon, then five to seven days of not touching it, then coming back confused as to what I was doing and doing another eight hour marathon; rinse, repeat.

Unfortunately this entry won't have any screenshots, or a final map. I managed to softlock myself in the final area; I'll explain further down. As a result the map is unfinished, the world not fully explored. I almost want to either hack my party out of the softlock, or start over with a new party. But I won't, I have many more games on my list to explore.

Might & Magic III is an entirely different beast from the first two games in the series. Having officially reached the era of graphics-heavy DOS games and mouse-driven interfaces, the UI has received a massive face lift. Gone are the textual menus and "press the first letter of this word" hotkeys (though the hotkeys are still there, for fans of prior chapters; just completely undocumented) and these are instead replaced with a GUI that... while serviceable... does not promote fast moment though the game's environment. I stuck with the keyboard which, if you know the hotkeys, can replicate every function of the mouse interface perfectly. I guess it makes sense; your users were not guaranteed to have a pointing device in this age of DOS.

Many QoL improvements followed with the face lift. First, completely gone is the concept of razor walls. As far as I could find, every dungeon of Might & Magic III, and its overworld, uses full-tile barriers. If this is a trend that continues into the Xeen duology, it'll accelerate my mapping immensely. Second, you have an actual spell list in this chapter, as opposed to having to memorize spell numbers (though navigating the list is slow and tedious so sometimes I wished to have the numbers back). Third, practically everything of importance in the world is visible at a distance. This is a first for the series as the prior two chapters would often describe things to you when you stepped on their tile, and give you no clue otherwise of their presence. In M&M3, you can see stairs coming from a distance, as well as treasures, traps, and foes. The graphics have taken a step up from flat walls and floors to textured stone, grass, sky, trees... and the game now has decent (but repetitive) music.

On the note of foes, chapter 3 of the series pulls back from its "up to 250 foes in a fight" stance of Book Two. In fact it changes combat entirely. Foes are now visible on the map, move when you do, and can be shot with your ranged weapons at a distance. When you end up on an adjacent square to a foe, combat begins. From there additional foes can join the fight by walking up to you between combat rounds, but fights are limited to three foes at a time. That, however, does not stop enemies from frying you with shots or spells while waiting for an opening to jump in. Combat also gives rise to probably the biggest anti-pattern in the game's new features: the complete removal of numbers from the main interface. Your heath is represented with a colored gem, damage is represented with a blood splatter of size proportional to the hit, and your spell points are only visible when casting a spell. You can hit "Q" to get a summary of your HP and SP, but your damage numbers are a total mystery.

That last point is the most vexing really. M&M3 also introduced a massive new inventory system with gear coming in multiple materials of differing power, a bunch of new equip-able items like rings and medals, and a ton of items that manipulate stats directly. Being able to see how this translated into raw damage numbers was practically a requirement, and it was left out. I made a major change to one of my party members at the end-game, and still don't know if it raised or lowered his damage. I would however be negligent in failing to mention the goofy faces your party members make to reflect status ailments. It's a treasure to behold and never got old even in the final hours of the game.

That said, insanity and curse are awful ailments with no cure and can randomly kill your party members due to stat lowering below 0. They're a guaranteed trip to a temple and suck and I hope they go away in future chapters.

Starting the game, a few things became clear to me immediately. First was that time was going to be a factor somehow. One of the first NPCs I met offered my characters a week of work for 50 gold, and this could be repeated indefinitely. It didn't seem like a good deal to me even if I could arbitrarily travel through time, reverse aging, etc... but given that this was an offer on hand at all, I immediately began to suspect the game would have an over-arcing time limit. It turns out, to a degree, I was right. A second thing was that there would be a lot more positioning related puzzles in M&M3, especially since traps are visible in the first person view, you were given a strafe ability, and enemies moved in turn with you. Again I was right; a lot of traps and obstacles in the game required careful navigation using all the movement tech available to me including strafing, the Jump spell, and eventually Teleport.

M&M3 definitely has a smoother bootstrap than Book One, and presumably Book Two without an imported party. That's good, because there's no party import here. You start with a fresh band of level 1's, but the first dungeon under Fountain Head is quite tuned for a level 1-2 party and you'll be quite ready for the world at large when you're done. Once outside, the game throws experience at you hand over fist in the form of destroying monster camps. These camps stop the spawning of a specific type of monster in your current map tile, and reward you with many times the experience that you'd get for farming them. It's worth doing as soon as you find them. There is a concern that, once you clear a region, no more foes spawn at all, but the math works out to keep you well-leveled. Trust me.

Unlike Book One and Book Two, the world map here is a series of islands. About half the game takes place on a large land mass to the west, and then the rest of the world is dotted with elemental islands: a desert isle for earth, a volcanic island for fire, a snow-covered island for wind, and a swamp island for water. The main breadcrumbs for questing come from the three castles in the world: one for each alignment. The Lords there-in task you with finding both "Ancient Artifacts" of their given alignment, and the "Ultimate Power Orbs". The former turned out to just be experience boost fodder, the latter turned out to be the jump-off to the main quest, much like the Triple Crown in Book Two and the "five towns" quest in Book One.

For a Might & Magic game, you get this quest relatively early and this remains the main thing to do for most of the game. Thing is, you don't find a single orb for quite some time; or at least I didn't. I explored dungeons around Fountain Head, gained power, gained loot, and found multiple locked dungeons that required colored keys. It was these dungeons that stored most of the orbs, as well as a series of "Holographic Cards" that served no immediate purpose, but I recognized them to be important so I kept them. The keys turned out to all be in other, easier dungeons-- and also on hirelings when you recruited them for some reason. I got duplicates of some of the keys in this manner, though I never found the Black Key for the Tomb of Terror in-world. That one was on the Robber hireling I brought in to pad out my ailing Thievery in the face of only having a Ninja in my party.

Between the early dungeons and the locked ones, I explored the world. I found the desert isle which contained buried treasure that also unleashed some of the most horrific foes in the game: Vulture Rocs. These enemies give the term "Out of depth" a whole new meaning in that I was unable to take them at all until the very last moments before end-game. Around the Fire Isle there's a similar situation with sunken treasure and crabs that bodied me instantly. In the north east I discovered the frozen island and Castle Dragontooth: the home of the Evil Lord. Trying to explore this island triggered an avalanche that instantly killed my party; I made a note to come back later and never did. To the far south there's a pair of islands with Castle Blackwind and Greywind: the manors or two wizards locked in undeath following a war over a woman. Solving this puzzle gave me access to a major stat boost every year, a fountain that taught me every spell in the game, and a decent chunk of experience.

After a series of explorations, resurrections, level ups, and what-not I hit level 20 and gained a healthy cache of Obsidian equipment: the best in the game. Equipped as such I was pretty much able to take on anything in the overworld and enter any dungeon I wished to at least feel out its difficulty. At this point I began to notice a problem, as I hinted at earlier: age.

You see, certain spells age your characters, certain traps do too, and fighting ghosts results in a lot of aging as their attacks inflict it on your party. Some of my characters were pushing 60, and their stats were beginning to fall as a result. Thus far I'd found no way to reverse this. Rejuvenation was not a spell I had (and remember I'd learned every spell from the fountain in Blackwind). Reviewing my notes, I'd heard reference to a fountain of youth raised from within a pyramid on the mainland. Until now I hadn't bothered to go there because its key was locked behind a Might check I couldn't pass, but now I had the strength, so I went and grabbed the key and dove in.

The pyramid led to an underground tech area; the first hint of the world's sci-fi nature in the game. After some bumbling around I found not only my first power orbs, but the device to locate the fountain. In activating it it literally raised a new island up out of the ocean and on that island was a fountain that restored my party's age to natural levels. By that I mean it removed all the unnatural aging from undead and spell usage; it did not revert natural passage of time. I do not believe there is a way so, in that manner, there is a time limit on the game. Eventually your party will grow ancient with irreversible aging and die from stat loss. I guess at that point you could bank your cash, pool your gear, and make a new party and power-level them on the few infinitely spawning foes in the game but... why? For what it's worth my game took less than a decade in-game so meh.

From here I finished up the six keyed dungeons, resulting in six Holographic Cards and about 15 power orbs. Delivering these to King Tumult of the neutral faction continued the plot. I presume the magic number was 11 due to a clue in Fountain Head referring to "Ten plus one". In doing this, the Good and Evil castles were destroyed (hope you looted them), and I was given yet another key card. From here the only clue I had left was a pyramid in the Isle of Fire leading to my final challenge. In typical Might & Magic fashion, I went from clueless to end-game in one hop. As a side note: following the equipment issues from Book Two, I made my party an even split of all three alignments this time, but not only was equipment not alignment-locked, but giving Tumult the orbs made my entire party neutral; hah.

In getting all these orbs, finding features in dungeons, exploring the castles as I found artifacts, and other general stuff, my levels ballooned from 20 to 60. I was quite strong enough to take absolutely anything in the world, including Vulture Rocs and the Hydras on Fire Island. Content from here on out was actually a joke; I ran through every dungeon just murdering everything in sight. I'm unsure if I did things in the wrong order or this was intended, but I hit "god tier" pretty hard and fast. I also discovered in the Tomb of Terror a quartet of events that gave 20 levels to any one hero, in exchange for setting all their stats to 3. I used all four of these on my front-line Barbarian, boosting him to a ridiculous level of 145, then used a renewable source of stat-ups in Arachnid Cavern, and some +Might items to get his stats back up from laughable; but he would finish the game with 3 Intelligence. Such is the way of things. He hit like a hurricane and got 36 attacks per turn. I'm happy with this.

All those levels actually raised another problem in the game: gold. With most areas able to be completely cleared and some having no source of renewable enemies at all, you eventually run out of places to get cash. The massive marathon of leveling drained my bankroll, which had been mostly built up by huge rewards from the three Lords and their treasure chests. I imagine if I'd gone on much longer I'd have run out of cash-- but then again I had an average party level of 80 and that was well more than enough to just tromp on utterly everything so maybe cash isn't so much a worry. That said, there's a way to get a massive influx of cash every year, if you want to forego getting stats from that yearly reward instead, so you can't really permanently run out. I do imagine if a player lost a party to old age and had to start over from level 1 half way through clearing the world, they'd have an issue.

Entering the final area turned out to require three things: the priority key card I got from turning in orbs, the six holographic cards from the six keyed dungeons (where I also got most of the orbs), and the Ultimate Adventurer title (which I also got from one of the dungeons I got the other two things from). Once you enter the correct door of said final area, you find Corak and Sheltem locked in battle. If you missed the last two games, Sheltem is the on-going antagonist of the series, and Corak is some kind of developer-insert Mary Sue who's been chasing him across the various worlds to subdue him. At this point you have a good idea of their deal: the Ancients created Sheltem to watch over Terra, but he rebelled and set out to destroy Terra, as well as the experimental arcologies of VARN and CRON. Corak then set out to find and stop him.

I expected to get involved in the battle here as some kind of final boss fight, just like how you beat down Sheltem at the end of Book Two, but alas. Sheltem and Corak dive into escape pods (oh by the way the pyramids all lead to different compartments of a giant undersea space ship) and Corak urges you to follow. A short walk around the corner takes you to a third escape pod that, upon entering it, finishes the game. There is a fiddly detail here of needing a launch code, but there are a couple places to find this code and they're fairly hard to miss.

The final area had two additional tidbits. If you go the wrong direction after encountering Corak, you meet Terminators. These are probably the hardest foe in the game. They're 99% resistant to physical damage, seem to be completely immune to every other element but energy, and can instantly eradicate anyone they hit. Fighting through these required I use my Sorcerer's Energy Blast and Implosion spells, then rest when she ran out of SP, and of course resurrect my eradicated characters. Power Shield reduced the eradication chance but didn't eliminate it. In total I had to kill about ten of them, though my reward was quite interesting. Past them was something I'd describe as a developer room, complete with credits and a password to be sent to New World Computing for some purpose. The Terminators were definitely a super-boss I accidentally blew through.

Second tidbit: I softlocked myself here. I entered this area with about 100 Might each on my two front line heroes. Your chance to bash open doors is determined by combined Might of these two, and I could not bash open any doors in this area, so I was unable to leave once I entered. Due to the Terminators, I also saved in here. Good thing I had all the components I needed to finish the game I guess, or I would have softlocked my save in the final stretch. Unfortunately for this reason I'm unable to return to the main world and finish my explorations. I may some day cheat my party out of this area, but for now I'm stuck, and I'm okay-ish with leaving it this way.

So the completion work flow for Might & Magic III is something like this:

In usual M&M fashion it seems so simple on paper, but brings with it a ton of meandering, exploration, and powering up when playing blind.

Your reward for this is an actual cut-scene that explains the entire legacy of Corak and Sheltem. If you've played the entire trilogy like I have, most of this is old info, but it's a nice refresher and a nice way to wrap up the story. You're left with your party blasting off into space to chase Sheltem. It's implied Might & Magic IV picks this arc up, but it doesn't. You don't get any clue as to what happened to your party until Might & Magic VII, or so I'm told.

M&M3 is certainly different, but I'd call it the best one yet. I went in totally blind and was able to find my way (with some difficulty) through the world. I definitely feel like I missed some things, but I never felt stuck. I was skeptical of the new combat system and the non-renewable foes at the start, but I turned out to really enjoy both. Now I'm excited to dig into the 4 & 5 World of Xeen combo game. Same engine, most of the same mechanics, but I expect it's going to be utterly huge.

Part 2