Another thing the game gets right is its approach to melee combat. With sword, staff or daggers selected, the right trigger sends out a quick blow while the left trigger parries. Press and hold the right trigger and you strike out with a high-powered thrust or slash, while pressing the left trigger and then the right unleashes a kick that sends your target stumbling back. It’s actually pretty effective, and it also helps that Dark Messiah goes big on ways in which you can use the environment to despatch numerous orcs, ghouls and goblins to their doom. Off-balance beasties can be kicked over the edge of a precipice, into waiting fires, or against the various spiked racks that someone has carelessly left littering the game’s locations. See a poorly constructed platform holding a collection of heavy barrels? One good whack on the support and those bad boys will be rolling over black-armoured guards before you know it. Similarly, if there’s a flimsy rope holding back a heavy column, you just know it has not been left like that by chance.
Now, when it’s good, Dark Messiah is almost as good as you might imagine. When you’re climbing a staircase that spirals its way up the side of a mountain, booting off one orc, slashing at another then sending a fireball towards a dynamic duo of archers on a platform just behind, the game gathers momentum. Suddenly you get the sort of heroic fantasy feel that the developers were clearly striving for. It’s great to get a sense that your powers are developing, and – like Bioshock – you soon learn innovative and entertaining new ways in which spells or skills can be successfully applied to cull the local goblin population. Better still, the game even packs in a nice, light sense of humour that alleviates some of the more po-faced fantasy elements. Guards and creatures can be heard conversing about their lot in life, while the taunting and goading in-combat – while repetitive – does include a few gems. And if the plot is a little predictable, there’s an interesting battle for your heart and soul going on-between a goody-two-shoes girl sorcerer and a seductive demonic babe. There’s even an attempt to follow Knights of the Old Republic in giving you the chance to go good or go bad later on.
The problem is that Dark Messiah isn’t always – or even frequently – that great. The biggest fault is probably the pacing. Some of the best bits are over in a heartbeat, while some of the worst chunks of dull exploration and repetitive combat seem to drag on interminably. Sequences in gloomy temples and spider-infested tunnels prove particularly irritating, especially when the spiders carry poison in their bite, and there’s at least one boss battle that turns into a tiresome war of attrition rather than a test of skill or ingenuity. For every ten minutes when the game becomes a mildly sadistic goblin-slaying playground, there’s another ten minutes where it’s just a bit of a grind. And while I like the use of platforming elements, there are times when the controls just aren’t quite responsive enough to do the job. While we’re on that subject, is this the only game in recent years where you have ropes but can’t actually swing on them?