I've been waiting for Might & Magic to settle in to a more cohesive narrative before I posted again, but that just isn't happening. The game is, rather, coming together like a puzzle, and until I get more pieces I won't be able to see the full picture.
After I found the Merchant's Pass, I was able to visit a couple of the castles and get quests. It appears that each lord gives a series of quests, starting with very easy ones ("bring me garlic!" or visit a particular location) and escalating to hard ones. My current quest is to find a medusa's head. I have a pretty good idea where to look, but gorgons and basilisks keep turning me to stone, and I won't have "stone to flesh" for another level yet. Fortunately, whenever I encounter obstacles like this, there's another map to explore.
I my first Might & Magic posting, I thought there might be around 35 maps to explore. Ha! I didn't account for all the dungeons, caves, castles, and fortresses--some with multiple levels. I'm up to 53 now, and I think it might be finally slowing down. Still making very little progress on the "main quest," but I"ll let you know what that changes.
The game got a little easier when I reached Level 4 and got two spells: "time warp," which allows you to escape combat, and "surface," which allows you to quickly exit a dungeon. These coupled with "fly" mean that I'm never more than a few moves from a town, healing, and a save point. But you can't always rely on them. "Time warp" has a way of failing right when you need it most, and I still get wiped out in about 25% of my forays from town.
A few other random things from the game.
1. Black & white checkerboard rooms. I keep finding rooms like this one in dungeons:
A statue in Sorpigal suggests these have something to do with the seer Og (who I found on one of the maps but couldn't do anything with), but I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with them. (S)earching returns nothing and there are no secret doors.
2. Magic square puzzle. One of the dungeons had this neat soduku-ish game where the entire dungeon was laid out in a 4 x 4 grid. The center of each room had a dial that you could set to a number from 1-9. Some of them were already pre-set to numbers higher than 9. I figured out right away that it was a magic square in which all of the rows and columns needed to add up to the same number (34) and you could only use each number once. With a little help from Excel, I figured it out and was duly rewarded. I can't remember this type of puzzle in a CRPG earlier than this one.
3. Messages. One of the consistent features of Might & Magic is that you encounter a series of nonsense messages at various places in the game (in VI and VII they're on obelisks scattered throughout the land; in I they're written on walls). Once you've found all the messages, you interleave the letters or words to determine the total narrative. I've only found a few, so I can't even begin to guess. There seem to be two sets--one with letters and one with entire words.
4. Corak. In one dungeon, I found this message scrawled on a wall. It is the first reference to the enigmatic Corak, who appears in a bunch of the Might & Magic games, but frankly I forget what his specific role is. I just remember him--or references to him--in III. Maybe this game will remind me.
5. A dungeon with invisible walls. I stumbled into this one from a magic door. The "locate" spell didn't work and you couldn't see most of the walls--you could only try to walk into them and get a "blocked!" message. This was a pain to map. I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to do there--I apparently need some kind of card.
6. The experience fountain. In a ruined castle called Dragadune, I found this fountain, which takes your gold and gives you an equivalent number of experience points. I thought this was unique to Might & Magic VI. Now I'm wondering if all Might & Magic games have one and I've just forgotten--or missed them.
6. Little touches. Wandering through the fortress of the minotaur lord, you come across things like this. Yes, it would be nice if the game actually showed you these tapestries, but we're a few years away from those graphical capabilities. It's still a neat touch that keeps the game interesting.
My basic strategy has been to explore each map until I get blocked--either because I need an item I don't have or because the monsters get too hard--and then move on to the next map, revisiting the previous ones at higher levels. As much as I enjoy the game, I'm getting ready for it to end--my long list awaits--but I actually want to find out what the main quest is, who Corak is, and the fate of the alien invader. To me, that's a sign of a good CRPG.