You control an orphan named Sareth, who has been trained in combat by mentor, tutor, and all-around swell guy, Phenrig. The adventure kicks off when Phenrig asks you to complete a simple delivery task to a friend of his in Stonehelm City. To ensure your safety, Phenrig infuses a guardian's spirit into your body. It's a female named Xana, a saucy minx who doesn't take kindly to you dallying with other womenfolk. Her voice sounds like something you'd hear on a CD that's been sitting out in the sun too long, but hey, it's some companionship.
In many ways Dark Messiah is reminiscent of the early Hexen series, in that the focus is primarily on combat and solving simple, action-oriented puzzles rather than on developing your character. While four classes are available, you can't make them your own by choosing which skills to master or becoming proficient in specific weapons. Instead, the warrior, wizard, archer, and assassin are pre-defined classes whose primary differences stem from their attacking styles. The warrior wields a sword and shield, the wizard hurls magical projectiles, the archer swings a battle-axe (just kidding, it's a bow), and the assassin skulks around with a dagger.
Originally powered by Valve's Source engine, the world in Dark Messiah offers some interactive elements you don't usually find in a fantasy title. One of the more entertaining moves is a simple, yet highly (almost comically) effective kick, which hurtles enemies back and gives you time to quaff a potion, steady your shield, or perform a follow-up attack. You can even kick enemies off cliffs, towers, or other high places, and into fire pits or spiked walls. Other ways to interact with the environment include heaving items like crates or chopping ropes and weakened pillars to cause heavy objects to crash down on enemies. The combat is otherwise cut from the same loincloth as Oblivion. Slashing with the sword is accomplished with the right trigger, while blocking is initiated with the left. Class-specific skills, which are automatically assigned as you level up, can be mapped to the directional pad for quick access. Aside from kicking enemies and coming up with some optional yet creative ways of killing, however, the combat can best be described as repetitive. Enemies simply don't respond well to the constant hacking, or they missed parrying 101 in the "how to be a better fighter" lecture series.
Knocking Dark Messiah from the "purchase" to the "rental" rung in the ladder of gaming excellence are several technical issues. The frame rate is downright atrocious, with groups of enemies all but making the console hiss, sputter, and whir like it's in its death throes. Loading sequences between levels are long, and there are times when the game simply hangs, forcing you restart the system and reload from a save point. Some design decisions are insulting, including the concept of "collecting" gear from other classes. That's right, you collect the shiny new weapons you discover in secret locations instead of actually using them.
The lone area where Dark Messiah on Xbox 360 improves on its computer predecessor is its multiplayer offering. A new class, the priestess, replaces the assassin, and you can enter battle with a choice of four skills from a pool of nine. While most of the modes simply involve killing opponents, the "crusade" mode has your team in a race to complete missions on a series of five maps. The ultimate goal is to destroy your rival's stronghold, with each map moving you one step closer to the enemy's base. Up to ten players are supported, but the biggest problem is finding enough people online to join.
Dark Messiah is a frustrating title, since moments of fun are outweighed by long stretches of tedium. The ability to use the environment as a weapon means you can cook up some gleefully violent ways of dispatching enemies, but it's largely unnecessary. Including different attack styles through classes is a nice spin on traditional first-person titles, but the silly character restrictions and linear stages don't encourage repeat visits. Factor in a choppy, glitchy engine, and you end up with a disappointing port that puts the "mess" in Messiah.
• Inventive use of physics
• Four distinct character classes
• Five multiplayer modes
• Choppy frame rate
• No choices in stats or skill advancement
• Linear levels
• Dated visuals