I never expected it to take this long. When I finished Might & Magic I last July, and gave it my highest final rating of any CRPG so far (the record still holds), its sequel was only about 15 games ahead on Wikipedia's chronology of CRPGs. I expected I'd be there in a couple of months. But then Arcanum pointed out that Wikipedia's list sucked, and I engaged in a series of "backtracking" postings while supplementing Wikipedia's list with other sources like MobyGames. By the time I was done, I had nearly 40 games between I and II. I'm glad to be there at last.
With all the buildup I've been giving to this game, I was afraid it might suck. (If I every played it before, it was a long time ago, and I don't remember it at all.) I'm happy to report that it does not. It's everything that Might & Magic I was, and at least a little bit more.
The Back Story
Might & Magic II takes place on the World of Cron, which, like VARN before it, has a variety of terrains, cities and ruins. Notably different is the existence of four elemental plains in the corners of the world, which we will come to in a moment.
It's impossible to start this game without remembering how, at the end of the first game, the world of VARN turned out to be a spaceship-cum-biosphere run by some advanced beings with computers. VARN stood for "Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle," and by completing the main quest, the party was given a "new assignment at the gates to another world."
"Cron" being that other world, one might assume that it's really CRON--an acronym for something like Cosmic Roving Orbital Nacelle. And I presume that the party that starts the game is supposed to be the same party from the first game, although I've long since lost the save file and and had to start over with new characters.
The manual contains a fairly long backstory divided into two parts. The first tells the story of the archmage Corak the Mysterious, in the form of a journal written by his apprentice, Gwyndon. Gwyndon is a bit clueless, but the summary of the story is that Corak discovered that Sheltem, "an alien criminal from another reality" (and the villain of the first game)...
...had escaped from some prison and found his wan to Cron. Corak teleports himself all over the place trying to catch him and ultimately ends up disappearing completely. Given cryptic references to Corak all over the first game, one suspects he tailed Sheltem to VARN and either died there or was imprisoned. I didn't get to kill Sheltem in I (see this posting for more), so I suppose it's possible he returned to Cron, although the book leaves it open-ended.
The second part of the story tells of the creation of Cron, starting when "an ethereal substance capable of supporting life" arose in the void. The first living beings were elemental lords of great power: Acwalandar (water), Shalwend (air), Pyrannaste (fire), and Gralkor (earth), who warred with each other and accidentally ended up creating the physical world. While the elementals fought, humanoids arrived on Cron (their origin left mysterious), bringing magic with them. The elementals sought to destroy them, but the humanoids created an Orb of Power held by four talons that could control the four elements. A human wizard named Kalohn used the orb to defeat the four elemental lords in battle and banish them to barriers in the four corners of the world. Kalohn became king.
Acwalandar took his revenge by studying magic and creating the first dragon, "a creature of mindless destruction and incredible strength." The dragon and Kalohn killed each other in battle, and the Orb was lost in the Quagmire of Doom. With Kalohn slain and his ineffective daughter Lamanda on the throne, Cron's society descended into a dark age with monsters roaming the lands. Enter the party.
I wonder if the game will reveal if the story is metaphorical or literal and, either way, how the elemental lords square with the likelihood that Cron is, in fact, another spaceship. In any event, the part begins in the town of Middlegate without much direction or explanation--just like in the first game. When you take your first step, the ghost of Corak appears and offers some general encouragement but no real advice.
The basic gameplay is unchanged from I: it is a turn-based, multi-character, first-person game in which all commands are entered via the keyboard. What has changed a bit is the main adventure screen. "O" and "P" toggle between a list of commands (as in I) and the currently active spells. You also get an automatic clock and compass.
All of the game maps are 16 x 16 (I didn't cheat; the manual says this) as in the first game. But new to this game is an automapping feature that activates if at least one of the characters has the "cartography" skill (see below). I don't know how I feel about it. I really like making my own maps. I can see where it might come in handy at points, though. The "clairvoyance" spell, which puts a little automap in the upper-right corner of the game screen, helps ensure that I haven't missed any steps while I'm mapping (I don't have the spell yet, but there's a fountain near the first inn that casts it for you).
The graphics are much improved, well past the point at which they're acceptable to me, but the sound remains mired in the infrequent, bloop-ish age, and I could only take it for a few minutes.
As you move about, you can adopt one of four dispositions: inconspicuous, average, aggressive, and "thrill seeker." This affects the frequency of random encounters.
You can have up to eight characters, although at least two of them must be NPCs that you find after the game begins. The races are the same as in the first game: human, elf, dwarf, gnome, and half-orc.
In addition to I's character classes (knight, paladin, sorcerer, cleric, archer, and robber), there are two new classes: ninja and barbarian. Ninjas sound very useful, with an automatic chance of assassination in each attack, and they can disarm traps and unlock doors like robbers (although apparently not quite as well). In contrast, it's hard to see the benefits of barbarians, who have weapon and armor restrictions and are balanced only by slightly more hit points.
Nothing's changed in the list of attributes--in fact, I don't think these change throughout the entire Might & Magic series. During character creation, you can re-roll to your heart's content and also swap statistics among attributes.
Finally, you choose sex and alignment (good, neutral, evil) and set your name. Overall, the game is one of the most detailed when it comes to character creation.
Remembering the advantages of speed for all characters except the healer in the original game, I gave that attribute high priority. I also made the characters all "good." I don't know if the game has the same types of puzzles as I, but in the first game a mixed-alignment group was a disadvantage. I briefly entertained the idea of trying something like an all-paladin party but ultimately decided to save that for a game I was already familiar with.
This was my final party:
- Bolingbroc, a male human paladin
- Valstaff, a female half-orc knight
- Mortemar, a male gnome ninja
- Quickly, a female elf archer
- Peta, a female dwarf cleric. I deliberately gave her low speed so she could go last in combat and heal anyone damaged that round.
- Glendower, a male elf sorcerer.
Also new in II is a skill system reminiscent of Shard of Spring and Demon's Winter. Each character can have two "secondary skills" that you purchase from trainers.
Some of the skills sound somewhat mandatory for exploration, including mountaineering, pathfinding, navigation, and cartography (the trainer for this is named "Otto Mapper"). Others simply boost statistics, like gambling and linguistics. Either way, it's a binary thing: you have the skill or you don't. The skills include designations that would become class upgrades in later Might & Magic games (crusader, hero), and some to which VI-VIII would assign points and skill levels (diplomacy, arms mastery). It's fun to see the franchise feeling its way forward here.
I began in Middlegate. My starting characters had only small weapons (clubs and knives) and no gold. I started mapping the town. Within moments, I had entered the house of a wizard named Nordon, who gave me a quest to recover a goblet from goblins in the caves beneath the city.
Nordon had a closet in his house, ominously labeled "skeleton closet," whose trapped door decimated my hit points. Inside was, quite predictably, a large group of skeletons.
The skeletons finished the job that the trap had started. Within 60 seconds of beginning my first expedition in Might & Magic II, I had suffered my first full-party death:
But even this brief unsuccessful endeavor taught me some important things about the game:
- There are going to be side quests. I loved this part about the first game, and really no other CRPG in this era has offered side quests.
- The game is going to have Might & Magic I's difficulty. I was partly worried that they might water it down.
- Monster parties are bigger. In the first game, there were never more monsters than could be listed on the screen. This game allows the monsters to scroll off the bottom of the screen. I wonder if that means that only the visible monsters will be affected by group-effect spells.
- Just like the first game, each town probably has a dungeon beneath it.
Still, I reloaded of course and managed to map the town. A few other things I discovered:
- The difficulty of the game seems to assume that you've brought characters from Might & Magic I. I died a lot in my exploration of Middlegate. My luck seemed to be that I defeated enemies that dropped no gold and died every time I faced an enemy with gold, so it was a couple hours before I finally had enough to buy some decent equipment.
- Sorcerers don't automatically get all of the spells at each level. Some, they have to purchase from the mage's guild.
- Nordon has a female counterpart at the other end of town named Nordonna who just yells "get out!" when I show up.
- My ninja actually sucked at lockpicking and trap-disarming. The third time he blew up the party, I dumped him for a robber named Hotspur. He didn't turn out to be a lot better.
- One of the monsters you can fight is a "cripple." That just seems mean.
- There are other monsters unique to this game. Some monster names from the first town include: greedy snitches (steal food), inept wizards (true to their name), sewer rats, burglars and muggers (steal gold), and brain eaters (cast sleep).
- There's a "brain wiping" store that makes you "forget" your secondary skills, for a fee, I guess so you can choose different ones in case you decide you chose poorly the first time around.
- Once I was strong enough to survive them, the skeletons that killed me turned out to be a reliable source of experience and gold.
- Like the first game, all of the squares of a 16 x 16 map are used. If you find yourself walled off, it's a sure sign of a secret door.
- The tavern, which served up a variety of food and drink specials, included a rumor that said "children at 0,15." I'm not sure what this is talking about, since those coordinates seem to be the cartography trainer.
- I already have my most hated enemies--worse than the sprites in Might & Magic: jugglers. These clown-looking monsters "juggle" your party, rearranging the order, and doing significant damage in the process. More than once while exploring Middlegate, they wiped out my party.
Eventually, I got up to Level 3 and, as I reluctantly sign off for the night, I am poised to tackle Middlegate's dungeon and solve the first quest. I hope this one keeps me occupied for a good long while.