2018-Dec-05: Might & Magic: Worlds of Xeen - Darkside

Darkside of Xeen is designed to be doable with a level 1 party at the start, but it's very obvious it was built from the ground up to be tackled by a party of Cloudside winners. Even with my party of level 20s, I ran into trouble. The first town, Castleview, is simple enough. It's clearly level 1 content and quite a snooze if you're coming from the prior game. Once you finish up there, though, things kind of go off the rails. You climb Ellinger's Tower to meet its namesake and he sends you to find Energy Discs to power a spell to uncurse the castle of Queen Kalindra so that she can tell you what to do with an orb your party found on Cloudside. It makes more sense in context, I assure you. In any case, Energy Discs are the Mega Credits of Darkside, for almost the exact same purpose: constructing (or rather restoring) a castle. However in this case, you're kind of left to your own devices to find them, rather than being shepherded on a fairly linear path.

I would consider the open-endedness of Darkside a good thing, except the level scaling is utterly out of control. Having level capped on Cloudside, I expected a pretty easy intro. Imagine my shock when I journeyed a short distance east from Castleview only to get murdered by Armadillos near the central desert. Thinking that a fluke, I set off to explore the Western Tower right next to Castleview, and got pounded again by clerics inside. Backing up a bit led me to the "Troll Holes", Gemstone Mines, and a few small quests around the starting area that boosted me up. While Cloudside capped at level 20 and a level was a major advancement, Darkside gives you millions of experience and stat boosts hand over fist. Even coming in with a party of victors from Cloudside, you need some brushing up before you're able to really just go anywhere and do anything. I suppose that's alright; it keeps it from being boring. But wow the economy of scale here is off the beaten path.

Energy Discs are smattered all over the place. Every dungeon has a few, as opposed to Cloudside's Credits being mostly lumped into three main dungeons. So it won't take long before you're restoring chunks of Castle Kalindra no matter where you start. Eventually you restore the chamber of the captain of the queen's guard, who is too depressed to help restore the world. You're sent off to the Dungeon of Lost Souls, where the game pulls off the kid gloves, puts on the steel gauntlets, and proceeds to pummel you mercilessly. Lost Souls has exactly two enemy types: Minotaurs and Gorgons. Minotaurs will likely one-shot you unless you've been carefully doing all the side content and leveling your party. They have a massive amount of HP, are resistant to melee damage, and yeah, hit like the a truck. Gorgons are exactly the same (with even the same sprite) but hit twice as hard and can stone you. This dungeon is supposed to be your clue that you should explore the world and gain power. I consider this an incredibly hamfisted approach to something prior M&M games did very elegantly: encouraging free exploration rather than a laser focus on the plot and goal.

In prior games, free exploration was the game, and the plot just "showed up" eventually. I suppose not everyone likes this, and JVC tried to make a more guided experience in both games of the Xeen set. The problem with that is a laser focus on the plot can lead to missing a lot of the game and, arguably, missing the point. I don't know if Lost Souls was built to be a wall to make you explore and level up, or if JVC just assumed the player would and it's balanced on a bad assumption. Either way, it's brutal. However it's also the first dungeon that just begins giving you massive stat boosts and levels willy-nilly. My entire experience in Lost Souls was dotted with +6 to a given stat to all party member events, and free level-ups to the point that I exited this dungeon in the 40s, having started at around 30.

Lost Souls level 5 has two notable features: a songbird that'll pull the guard captain's head from his arse and have him help you, and a repeat of the "Soul Maze" from Might & Magic Book One. It seems Sheltem is so full of himself he can't help but writing his name in the walls of dungeons, even if it means exposing a weakness to the player characters. Go figure. Again, finding "My Name Is Sheltem" in the walls of the dungeon becomes critical later, though in this case much later rather than "a few minutes after". In any case, bringing the songbird back to Castle Kalindra opens the way into Castle Blackfang, where you are able to rescue Kalindra and be presented with the key to the Great Pyramid where you meet the Dragon Pharaoh: a character you see in the opening cut-scene, and the only person on Darkside who both knows what's going on, and can guide you on how do anything about it.

If you didn't take the hint from the Dungeon of Lost Souls (as I did not), the Great Pyramid is a brick wall. Minotaurs and Gorgons were bad, but ultimately melee-only. The Great Pyramid introduces Cloud Dragons. These little beauties hit as hard as Gorgons, but the whole party at once, and can do it at range. I got utterly destroyed here, but was stubborn, so I fought my way through using a combination of fountain and Lloyd's Beacon cheese, and sheer determination to win fights no matter what the cost. I imagine if I'd backed out and explored the world to completion at this point, it would have gone better. I did have half of Cloudside unexplored yet, as well as several dungeons in Darkside. However, I'm also skeptical of that because my main barrier in growth here wasn't experience but money-- Xeen has one of the meanest monetary cost curves for leveling of the series thus far, to the point that as early as 25, I was struggling to find the cash to level up.

Fortunately after floor 1, the Pyramid turns into a series of puzzles rather than combat-focused. Floor two does the old "My name is Sheltem" trick again, but instead with numbers required in a math puzzle. The answer turns out to be 1701, which seemed uncanny until I tried to enter the door guarded by the puzzle and was greeted with "What is the Federation ship number". Well then. Floor 3 was ye olde spiral with hidden teleporters puzzle. I've seen this one a dozen times; twice in Might & Magic, so no problem there. Floor four granted me an audience with the Dragon Pharaoh himself, who sent me west into the lava fields of Darkside to find a crashed ship.

In the lava fields you actually find two: one from Sheltem and one from Corak, fresh from their launch into space in Isles of Terra. Within each you find a very verbose log of their journeys, written in a way that neatly summarizes and fleshes out the entire story so far, right from the VARN of Book One all the way through to present day. Within Corak's pod, you find him in stasis and are able to revive him. From there he clues you in on Sheltem and enlists your aid in finding a way to sneak him into Sheltem's castle so he can finish him off for good. This begins a short series of fetches that sends you back to the Dragon Pharaoh, to the previously inaccessible city of Olympus, and into its sewer to find the "Soul Box" that Corak can hide his essence inside of. Once you do this and pick up Corak, you're ready for the final confrontation.

I wish I could say the final dungeon had anything of note about it but it was really just another dungeon. It had a semi-neat puzzle involving walking through a grid of elemental damage tiles, with a key deep in the castle's dungeon to explain the order of tiles to walk on, but that's it. Once you reach the end of the castle, you're pulled into a cut-scene where the Soul Box bursts open and Corak and Sheltem fight while you stand idly by and watch, I guess. Eventually Corak self-destructs, taking Sheltem with him, and that's the end. I finished at level 70, which is closer to what I expect from a Might & Magic game, as opposed to the 20 of Clouds.

The checklist for this one is actually kind of messy, let me try to sort it out here...

I like this a lot better than Clouds. The "Energy Discs" portion is super open ended, even if it is somewhat limited by the insane level scaling. I entered maybe 8 or 9 dungeons to get this done, which is as many as I entered for the entirety of Clouds. I think, maybe, if you know where the Dragon Pharaoh is going to send you ahead of time, you can defer everything between Dimitri and the Pyramid, but you eventually need access to Olympus for the Soul Box, which requires Pyramid access, which requires Kalindra, which requires Dimitri.

Anyway that would be the end if you were playing Darkside stand-alone. In "Worlds", after the final cut-scene, you get yet another forced save and one more clue that everything is not yet over. Upon reporting back to the Dragon Pharaoh, you're told that with the major antagonists of the world gone, it's time to re-unite Cloudside and Darkside into one world. He gives you a laundry list for doing this. To summarize...

Sphinx, Dragon Tower, and Darkstone tower are three of the four previously inaccessible dungeons Cloudside. Access to them is gained by finding a key in Sheltem's dungeon and starting this final event with the Dragon Pharaoh. Additionally, an exit in Sheltem's dungeon leads to the town of Shangri-la, which bridges both sides of the world. Exiting the Cloudside of Shangri-la takes you to Volcano Cave, which is accessible in Clouds of Xeen but is way too hard. These four locations (and the additional optional "Dungeon of Death") fill in most of the rest of the Cloudside map: Dragon Tower, Volcano Cave, and the Sphinx all reside in the north half that you have almost no reason to enter on a pure Cloudside playthrough. It's apparently possible to finish Darkside without ever rescuing Kalindra, or so I've been told. So that too could end up added to the list of things you must do for re-unification.

Honestly this little addition to the plot for the "Worlds" version of the game is butts. Darkstone Tower has events you have to do to progress that can deal thousands of damage to your entire party. I had to cheese a +2500 HP fountain near Sheltem's castle to survive. Dragon Tower has Cloud Dragons and even more dangerous Energy Dragons that can just annihilate even a level 100 party with ease. The Sphinx has a gimmick that requires you to choose between paying up two million gold, and trying to survive a gauntlet of traps that deal hundreds of damage a step, for at least a dozen steps. Then finally Dragon Mummies: enemies that hard-target Clerics and Paladins and are capable of one-shotting (to death) even a fully buffed, level 90 Cleric. "Excessive" doesn't even begin to describe the jump in difficulty here versus the mooks of Sheltem's castle.

The Cloudside "four corners" affair is just kind of filler. It's easy enough since Cloudside is tuned for a level 20 cap. Absolutely nothing on the surface world is a threat. You just walk or teleport from corner to corner turning on beacons; you could have even done this way back when, though you'd have no idea why you were doing it. The Darkside sleeper is Darkside's version of "four corners", except instead of the surface world, you go to the four corners of the Skyroad. There you find a portal to four elemental planes, just like the planes of Book Two (without the murderous hydras, thank gods). Same story really: a 16x16 plane of element, and a thing in each you need to find. Once all four are found, this part's done.

Finally, while Might & Magic has always danced on this weird uncanny line between fantasy, sci-fi, and real-world references, this final arc dives right into the deep end. Most of the puzzles are Star Trek references, including the NPC you speak to in the Sphinx being named Picard and ending his dialogue with "Make it so!". One of my chatters said if I didn't know what to do on a puzzle, just assume the answer was a Trek reference, and they were not far from the truth. I think around here I uttered the phrase "Someone should have stopped JVC".

Getting through it and getting the pieces together for the ritual: the artifact from completing each game, the reflectors and sleepers dealt with, freeing Prince Roland and Queen Kalindra so they can perform the ritual, getting the Chime of Opening so you can access the ritual site, and climbing Darkstone Tower, gets you an interesting little walk through a cloud path that takes you past a sort of quasi-credits area. Each corner of this zone has a little island of clouds that has signs bearing the names of other New World Computing titles; basically a thank you for playing I guess? At the very end is a pyramid that gives you the final cut-scene of the game: the performance of the ritual and the flat two-sided world warping and re-manifesting as a proper unified globe. It was pretty solid cut-scene material for the time, all told.

Phew, that's a lot. Darkside felt like more of a complete adventure to me but it too was pretty short. In fact, the entire "Worlds" 2.5 game block took almost exactly as long as Isles of Terra did. I can chalk this up somewhat to my zeal to be done with Might & Magic for awhile accelerating some of my gameplay. I skipped a few dungeons, never fully mapped Cloudside, and fought through some areas when I should have left and explored elsewhere. However I didn't miss that much content. Only when put together do they make a complete, coherent game. That's true even with the story. Clouds on its own is this weird isolated microcosm that doesn't really have a sense of closure or completion. However Worlds does neatly tie up the Corak and Sheltem story in a bow. I'm pretty sure going forward, we'll be seeing a completely new story from Might & Magic.

You know, if I ever decide to do 6. Might & Magic 6 starts the new era of non-grid based movement and quasi-real time interactions. I don't know if I'll like it. Regardless, I'm more than done with what has been a year of dungeon crawlers.

EDIT: And here's the Darkside map. Unlike Cloudside, I explored this one 99% before I even finished the game. The only part I had to go back and check was the very very south-east tip of the landmass.