Might and Magic 10: Legacy review: One square at a time

The recent resurrection of the retro-style role-playing game is exciting for many reasons, particularly an increased variety of different, new games. But trying to create new "old-school" games has tensions of its own, notably having to balance old-fashioned RPG conventions – user-generated parties, a heavy emphasis on both combat and exploration – with modern conventions like accessibility and more detailed character stats and skills. Fortunately for the state of the genre, Might and Magic 10: Legacy manages to find that balance extraordinarily well, and could serve as a model for other games dealing with similar issues.

Unfortunately for Might and Magic 10, it struggles with many other things.

The player controls a party of four adventurers, sent to explore a peninsula from the world of Might and Magic Heroes 6, Ashan. There are four playable races: Orc, Elf, Dwarf, and Human, and each race can play as three classes. Dwarves, for example can play as heavily armed Defenders, crossbow-expert Scouts, or magical Runepriests. I found this to be a really nice touch that gives the game and its setting a great deal of personality, and sets it apart from the vast majority of RPGs, for which race and class are independent of one another. It makes it seem like there are genuinely different cultures in the game world, which manifest in its RPG systems. (For advanced players, an option to have your party randomly generated sounds like an awfully interesting challenge.)

Once you start the adventure, Might and Magic 10 provides a far-too-long intro movie explaining the storyline of Heroes 6 in excessive detail. It's not a good first impression, but it's not indicative of the importance of story to the game's overall form. Most quests and conversations in the game proper are only a few small paragraphs long, and there's virtually no characterization to speak of, except for choosing whether your party members have "heroic" or "cynical" barks.

Lack of narrative detail isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, because the pleasure of playing Might and Magic 10 comes from exploration and progression. It's a first-person game with tile-based movement – the latter trait is especially interesting, as it's a mode of gaming that fell out of fashion as soon as true three-dimensional movement became possible. Even the later Might & Magic games, starting with the sixth, utilized free, 360 degree movement. The return to tile-based movement in M&M 10 is a deliberate choice to make it feel more old-fashioned, but the choice also keeps combat and exploration easier to keep track of. The goal of filling in every square on the map is motivating on its own.

The Might and Magic series has long been at its best when it opens the world and lets players use trial and error to figure out their best path. But where previous games could open too much, with wild swings in difficulty and horribly unbalanced character classes, M&M 10 feels exceptionally well-guided and controlled, especially early in the game when frustration would potentially be at its highest. Its world channels players in the right directions with bridges and narrow pathways, while early quests focus on nearby regions and only expand to the wider world once the party is more powerful. There are also a few gated areas only accessible with certain divine blessings which open paths in forests or the ability to traverse water. Later on, the difficulty can seem to spike a little bit too arbitrarily, but that's only after hours of buy-in and learning how to deal with tougher enemies.

"It just feels right" might as well be the mantra for M&M 10. It aims for an update of a very specific style of semi-open world, party-based, move-one-square-at-a-time RPG, and it nails that. The combat animations and interface are fast and responsive, while combat itself is intelligently strategic. My normal mode of fighting in RPGs is to hoard as many items as I can while defeating enemies as simply as possible, but M&M 10 never allowed me to go on auto-pilot like that. I was constantly using defensive and healing spells, and chugging potions.

Enemies do enough damage that without defensive spells, it's much too easy to fall behind on healing, and enemies also occasionally toss in status effects like poison to keep you on your toes. Meanwhile, you have to use your attacks in a certain order to optimize damage. For example, a heavy-armored fighter would often block most of the party's attacks. So I would have my mage go first, casting her "Radiant Weapon" melee attack spell, which prevents the target from blocking. But if she were busy with defensive or healing spells, I'd have to decide if I wanted to attack first and break the blocks with my Defender or my Blade Dancer – the former with a skill forcing enemies to attack her, the latter doing 2-3 times more damage. It forced me to pay close attention while maintaining a pleasant pace, a combination rare enough in RPGs to seem almost paradoxical.

Likewise, the skill and character progression system manages to hit the sweet spot between complexity and accessibility. Each class has a dozen or so different skills, and every time a character goes up a level, they get to make three improvements. There are certain geographical gates for each of those skills after a few levels, requiring you to seek out a trainer to become an Expert, Master, and Grandmaster in each, which both encourages exploration and prevents characters from becoming overpowered early on. It also keeps classes distinct from one another in the late game – my Orc Shaman can potentially become a Grandmaster at using elemental magic like Earth and Air, while my Human Freemage can only become a Master at those, but can max out her Primal and Dark magic.

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Keeping track of where trainers were located ended up being an interesting enough layer that I actually found myself taking notes on a document outside the game for easier planning. While I would have appreciated some form of in-game tracking, the fact that I was motivated to do it myself only proves how engaging M&M 10 can be.

Unfortunately, the big problem with Might and Magic 10 is that while it feels right to play, it sure doesn't look right. It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that it's ugly, but it is wildly inconsistent, and that includes a lot of ugliness. Backgrounds, vegetation, objects, and enemies all seem to be made with slightly different styles and levels of detail, which makes them feel disconnected from one another. Part of the issue is that M&M 10 doesn't provide effective graphical options. Its anti-aliasing options are a pile of alphabet soup, and picking the wrong one caused me not to see a door at one point. Even at optimal settings, it's still not an especially attractive game.

Even so, Might and Magic 10 plays so smoothly, with an elegant simplicity and almost effortless depth, that I can forgive its lack of story and indifferent graphical presentation. There's a common argument that pits the more complex/confusing conventions of older games against the accessible/"dumbed down" conventions of more recent fare, with one always good and the other always bad, depending on your point of view. Might and Magic 10: Legacy reveals just how irrelevant those arguments are. It's my new favorite installment in the series, and it offers a great example of how to update old-fashioned RPG mechanics for the present day.

This review is based on a Steam download Might & Magic 10: Legacy, provided by Ubisoft.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser

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