Sometimes, if a co-worker is really annoying you, you wish you could take a blade and slice their head off in beautiful slow motion, with blood spewing all over the place. This is of course a thought that remains just that for those of us who function as respectable citizens in society, but in games our inner demons can be let loose. Despite being a spin-off from the altogether more serious Heroes of Might & Magic series of strategy games, Dark Messiah is very much a game for those of us who like our steaks a little bloody.
You play as Sareth, an apprentice working under a magician named Phenrig. The story revolves around a crystal, and the opening level sees you capture this crystal for the first time, and also acts as a tutorial. Along the way you'll be treated to a few cut-scenes but there's also a fair bit of in-game storytelling, often by Xana, a woman who somehow gets inside your mind and often offers advice if you seem stuck. A number of endings can be obtained, depending on how you tackle later sections, but on the whole the story isn't the strongest aspect of the game.
The first-person perspective and the Source engine that powers Dark Messiah suggest the game is something it's not. There are no guns to be found in Dark Messiah, and most of your fighting will be done up close and personal, with varying degrees of magic thrown in depending on how you sculpt your character's skills. You can acquire numerous fire and ice attacks, as well as telekinesis and some handy health replenishment skills. How your character grows will depend on how you use your skill points, earned as you progress through the game.
Being the key to the whole game, the melee combat had to be up to scratch and thankfully it is. By default your left mouse button will attack and the right will block, and various other attacks can be performed by holding down the attack button or by moving while attacking. Ranged attacks can also be performed using a bow, and your skill here can also be improved if you so wish. Each attack, magic included, also has a powerful strike that can be performed when the screen glows around the edge. These finish off enemies in one blow, often sending body parts flying in slow motion.
It would be fair to say there are definite RPG elements to the way your character's skills are levelled up, and the whole game has the feel of a much more streamlined, linear Oblivion. Dark Messiah is a chapter-based game though, so there's no free-roaming to be done, but the way you tackle each chapter will depend on the skills you have chosen to acquire. The inventory is easy to use and the 'quick use' toolbar can be accessed with the scroll wheel on your mouse or by numbers on your keyboard.
Early on, when your skills are weak and health potions aren't all that plentiful, battles are incredibly hard. You'll soon learn how to approach fights, and by the time you can quickly tap a number key to cast a health regeneration spell, and your inventory is packed full with mana potions, things become a lot easier. You can also make use of a handy kick move, killing enemies by sending them over a cliff edge or into a wall of spikes. It is easy to abuse the kick, but after so many uses your depleted stamina meter will force you to resort to other means of attack.
As well as the standard orcs, trolls and the like, at various points in the game you'll encounter larger creatures that take a little more skill to kill. Among others are a dragon-like flying creature and a Cyclops. Each enemy has its own weakness and the environment can often be used as a way to kill or aid in the killing of each beast. The Cyclops, for example, will fall to his knees if you repeatedly attack his eye. You can target this with your bow, but you can also cause a statue to fall on him, allowing you to get up close and personal. Falling statues and other interactive elements feel rather contrived, with easy to cut rope sending them falling, and there are far too many platforms that can be collapsed, but it all adds to the options you have to take out enemies.
By now most people recognise the Source engine as what Valve's excellent Half-Life 2 was built on, and Dark Messiah definitely looks like a Source engine game. It has a slightly dated look, but character models are superb and textures are incredibly sharp and detailed. Strangely, you'll need a monster PC in order to run the game at its maximum settings, so don't bank on Dark Messiah running smoothly just because you've played other Source Engine games without any problems. Audio is impressive, with a solid musical score and good voice work.
A class-based multiplayer mode is available for players who wish to take the fantasy gameplay online, and the melee combat makes for a rather different feeling online experience. As well as the expected deathmatch and team deathmatch modes there's something called Crusade, which pits humans versus the undead, in a battle for control points over a number of maps. Your character will level up and this stays with you over the course of your time connected to the server. Multiplayer certainly has its moments, but the melee combat simply isn't as exciting as standard FPS weapons and it's often hard to see how much damage you're inflicting on enemies.
What really lets the whole game down, though, are bugs and a general lack of polish. During the single-player campaign I experienced a number of crashes, the infamous Source engine stutter bug, and some of the worse loading times I've ever had to endure. In fact, even before you play the game you're treated to a horrendously slow install procedure that makes to wonder how PC gaming is still alive.
There's no denying that Dark Messiah has a certain bloody charm, with battles against numerous enemies being both challenging and rather gory. By the end though, things do become a little repetitive, and this prevents the game from being anything truly special. Had the story been stronger and the numerous bugs been ironed out prior to release, Dark Messiah would have been very easy to recommend. As it stands, it's not quite polished enough to be anything more than an enjoyable diversion.