Might and Magic III
The Might and Magic series changed quite a lot with the third installment. Might and Magic III - Isles of Terra, released in 1991. This is when this series start to feel accessible to me. Perhaps I just feel that way after having played through the first two installments, but this game has an interface that is intuitive.
This game features greatly improved graphics, an expanded interface. Instead of character names you now have portraits of each character. Their hit points are shown by a colored bar below their portrait. You also have buttons on-screen for all actions you can perform. Despite the age of this game, it should not be too hard for new players to quickly understand the basics. The one thing that might still make this game a bit inaccessible is the lack of direction and context compared to newer games. You start out in the town of Fountain Head and you basically just need to start exploring, but at least you start with a quest to secure the town, ensuring you at least have some idea of what to begin with.
For reference, you may want to check out my article on Might and Magic II.
As I have already stated, this game is quite different from the two previous Might and Magic games, and the largest change is probably the ability to save your game at any point. Yep, you no longer need to go back to the inn to save your game. You can actually save your game before turning every corner in a dungeon, or before trying to open a trapped chest. No longer will you be nervously exploring a new dungeon, fearing that an unexpected encounter might force you to reload at the inn.
You are controlling a party of six adventurers and you also have the option to employ two additional hirelings to increase your party size to eight. In case you want to replace some characters in your starting party, this may be done at any town inn, which is also where you can find hirelings. Character races and classes are the same as in Might and Magic II. You have elves, dwarves, gnomes, half-orcs and humans. The available classes has been increased since the last game. You still have the Knight, Barbarian, Ninja, Archer, Robber, Cleric and Sorcerer. This game also adds the Ranger and Druid. These new classes have a new line of spells available, while also having some spells from both clerics and sorcerers. I found it essential to have either a Ranger or Druid in my party since they are the only ones that can cast Walk on Water. Considering the nature of the game world, this spell is very important.
So let's take a little look at the game world. It consists of multiple islands on a large ocean. Only three of the islands have cities on them, so all the other islands can only be reached by crossing the ocean. This is why the Walk on Water spell is so important. Like the last two games, you still need to properly explore most the of the world in order to actually complete the game. However, there are some major changes that makes this a lot easier. Unlike both previous games, you can now actually see things at a distance. You can see enemies, doors, cities and castles, caves, chests and so on. There are still hidden stuff that can only be found by actually stepping on the space they occupy, but almost everything can be seen from a distance.
This brings up an important point. Since you can now see enemies at a distance, combat is drastically changed. Everything is turn based, so until you perform an action in the game, time stands still. Turning around does not count as an action, so you can freely turn around to get a look at your surroundings without worrying about enemies moving closer. Whenever you do perform an action, such as moving, casting a spell or shooting with ranged weapons, any enemy who is aware of you will move one space closer to you. If they do not have a straight line to you, they will move sideways to the closest straight line. Interestingly, enemies do not become aware of you until you actually see them. So if you move backwards towards an enemy, it will stand still until you step into the same space it occupies, or it comes into your line of sight. This method can be abused to actually get around enemies safely, or at least get close to dangerous ranged opponents.
Combat is essentially divided into two parts. When enemies are some distance away from you they will attempt to get closer to you. Enemies who can perform ranged attacks will do this in addition to attempting to move closer. Your party can either shoot with ranged weapons, maneuver or cast spells. You could also simply attempt to get away from the enemies. If you cast spells or shoot with ranged weapons, you have a chance of defeating your enemies before they get too close. Once an enemy occupies the same space as your party, everything changes. You can no longer move and have to resolve the combat. Now each of your characters perform actions individually, one at a time. Ranged attacks are no longer possible, so it will either have to be a melee attack or casting a spell. You are also limited to three enemies in a single close encounter, since only three enemies can fit on a square together. Keep in mind that while you are engaged in close combat, time will pass for the outside world so any enemy at a distance will creep closer if they are aware of you. So even if you start a close combat with only a single enemy, others can join in during the course of the encounter.
Secondary skills are available in this game as in the last. Some of the secondary skills improve your total hit points, or spell points. There are other skills to detect danger or secret doors. However, the most important would have to be pathfinding and mountaineering, which lets you pass through thick forests and over mountains. Swimming will let your party pass through shallow waters which is very useful early in the game. These secondary skills are available from teachers that can be found throughout the game, and you just have to explore to find them all. Obviously not all these skills are critical, but they certainly improve your chances of success.
As for game continuity, it is unclear whether or not you are supposed to be the same group from Might and Magic II, or if you are starting out with a brand new party. The introduction for the game seem to indicate that you are the same party as you are addressed by Sheltem, congratulating you for overcoming his previous challenges. On the other hand, most sources I have looked into refer to this party as a group of native Terrans. It could be that Sheltem is simply breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the player. There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other in this game.
The backstory is presented in the game manual as a document written by Corak. The very same Corak that we heard of on Varn, and then encountered on Cron. Corak has explored the Isles of Terra search for clues in the old legends. The land of Terra was made by the fighting elemental forces. During their fighting, the different races came to settle upon the land. In order to drive off these invaders, the elementals decided to stop fighting amongst themselves and drive off the mortal races together. The Forces of the Dome, beings that watched over from above the clouds and stars, gave the races of Terra the power to resist the elementals. They taught them the powers of the different classes, and as such all the races of Terra fought back and made the world of Terra safe. They constructed cities where adventurers could find safe harbor and find all facilities they required.
Corak set out to search for Sheltem just as our group of adventurers find his documents in the town of Fountain Head and start their quest. Exploring the land, you discover that there is a struggle between three lords, each associated with an alignment, good, neutral, and evil. Exploring the caves and dungeons of the land, the party will find that some dungeons require keys. These keys can be found scattered through the other dungeons of the land. Within these locked dungeons, there are strange items called Hologram Sequencing Card. Along with these, the party will also find King's Ultimate Power Orbs. The three lords of the land seek these Orbs, for they give them the power to defeat the opposing lords.
During this search, the adventurers come upon a dungeon called The Maze from Hell, and at the center of this maze, they find a fountain which will grant them status of Ultimate Adventurer. With the Power Orbs in hand, the party can hand them over to one of the lords of their choice. The chosen lord will then use the power of the Orbs to destroy the other two lords. As a reward, he will hand the party the Blue Priority Pass and tell them that their destiny lies beneath the pyramids of the land.
On each of the five large islands, there is a pyramid. Entering these pyramids requires the Golden Pyramid Key Card, located within a glass container on Mount Keystone. Shattering the glass requires great strength, but with this key card, the party is free to explore the pyramids. Below the pyramids, the party encounters strange sights. Metallic walls and corridors and robotic enemies that attack with energy weapons. Here the heroes will encounter Corak and Sheltem, locked in combat. As the party approaches, Corak is distracted long enough for Sheltem to escape. Corak beckons the party to follow. They enter into a transport tube which takes them to what appears to be some kind of ship. Here, the party is required to enter in a code into a computer, this code can only be learned by freeing the ghosts of two ruined castles, Greywind and Blackwind.
With the code entered, the computer will play a message for the party. The Ancients, a technologically advanced civilization, are using the powers of elemental manipulation to create artificial worlds (Cron and Varn, along with other such worlds), these were sent to seed distant planets with life. This is called the Grand Experiment. The guardian unit Sheltem was created to be the guardian of Terra and oversee the colonization. However, there was a flaw in Sheltem's programming, causing him to see the Ancients as his enemy, and their seedships as an invading army. The Ancients then created Corak, who was to apprehend Sheltem and take over as guardian of Terra. Corak first succeeded, but Sheltem managed to escape. He then sought to destroy the Ancients seedships by sending them into a star. This was the events of Might and Magic 1 and 2, in which our party of adventurers managed to stop Sheltem. Now Sheltem has left in an escape capsule, with Corak following in another. The party then follows in this space ship. Leaving the planet of Terra and flying through space.
The previous two Might and Magic games were a lot of fun, however this game is where I personally feel like the series is truly taking a step in the right direction. I had a lot of fun playing this game, and the whole experience was overall more enjoyable than the previous games. This does not mean that they were bad, it just means that this game is better. Of course, this is just a subjective view, but I have my reasons. For one, the ability to properly see things at a distance makes such a big difference. The first time I left the town of Fountain Head, and could see the goblins in the distance, I was hooked. Well, I was admittedly hooked from the moment I heard the town theme music.
This game has a much improved interface, it is intuitive and easy to understand. I found it easy to get into the game from the start without needing to pour over the details in the game manual to understand how to play. Dialogue is also vastly expanded from the last games. I feel like this game gives a lot more context to your journey, while still leaving it up to you to explore the world and find your way.
The new combat system is a lot better in my opinion. Being able to see enemies at a distance, maneuver around them, shoot arrows and cast spells before they get close, this gives more depth and immersion to hostile encounters. This is also a big step towards the mechanics of modern games. I am not claiming that all modern games are better than older games, but there are certain game mechanics common to newer games that definitely are better. This is one of those.
Another thing I can't stress enough is the ability to save whenever you want. This just makes the game so much more enjoyable. If you lose against an unexpectedly difficult foe, you don't lose all progress since you last visited an inn, you just need to reload since your last save.
This reminds me about another new game feature that I actually never made use of. At any point in the game, you can open up the menu and click on "Mr Wizard", which will transport you back to the inn of Fountain Head, from any situation. This does come with a prize, lowering your characters level. It just never seemed like a good deal to me, which is why I never tried it out. Besides, as long as you make sure to save your game wisely, you should never need the aid of Mr Wizard.
I really love the science fiction elements and the stark contrast it provides. The land above is primarily similar to any normal fantasy world, but there are some clues to science fiction elements. Then, as soon as you enter the pyramids, everything change and it's like you are playing a science fiction game. I realize some people don't like the mix of fantasy and science fiction, but I love how they do it in this series.
This game is not hard to get into, not even for people who are only used to modern games. So as long as severely dated graphics does not bother you, definitely consider giving this game a try.
Next up is Might and Magic - World of Xeen