Review: Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen (16-Bit DOS)

In this review, we wonder “Where to?” in the 16-Bit DOS game Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen. We find out how well this RPG game plays.

This game was released in 1992 and is the fourth game in the main series.

At this point in time, we know a substantial amount about this franchise. We played the first game in the series, Might and Magic – Book One – Secret of the Inner Sanctum. That game was passable, but nothing special. Next up, we tried Might and Magic II – Gates to Another World. While an improvement, that game ended up only being passable. After that, we tried Might and Magic III – Isles of Terra. Once again, we saw improvement to this game. That time, the improvements were so good, it wound up being a very solid worthwhile game to play.

Skipping ahead, we first became acquainted with the series with Might and Magic 6 – Mandate of Heaven. That game earned an impressive score and is highly recommended. After that, we tried Might and Magic VII – For Blood and Honor. That game showed backwards momentum for the series, but still earned a reasonable score, making it a worthwhile play. Next up is Might and Magic VIII – Day of the Destroyer. That game wound up being a pretty solid game all around. Finally, we played Might and Magic IX. That game would have been great, but bugs held the game back a bit. Still, it is a very solid play and well worth trying.

As you can no doubt tell, there is a gap between games. This review fills half of that void with only the fifth instalment remaining after this.

Like other games before it, this game more or less drops you off at a location and lets you explore the world yourself. In this case, you start your game off in the town of Vertigo. Vertigo is overrun by rodents. It is up to you to find the source of the rodents and rescue the city. The mayor of the town will, of course, reward you handsomely for your efforts.

When you start, you can either use a default party. You can choose between two styles of play: adventurer is the style we wound up choosing. If using the default setting isn’t good enough for you, you can alternatively “roll” new characters. To obtain a certain class, certain stats need to reach a threshold. So, you may find yourself rolling for a while until you get the party of your choosing if you opt for a more customized approach to the game.

In all, you’ll have 6 characters in your party. That may sound like a lot, but it is very manageable once you get used to the controls. “Q” is for a quick reference sheet of all of your characters. Meanwhile, F1 – F6 are your keyboard shortcuts for each character. On a quick side-note, Tab brings up the menu for things like saving, loading, and quitting. Keep in mind that almost everything has a clickable element that permits you to perform the same action. So, it’s no big deal if you don’t know the shortcut, but they certainly help make things go quicker.

Towns have a very similar set-up to previous games. You have a guild for buying spells. You’ll have to purchase a membership from a townsperson, however. Members of your party have to be individually signed up. To save gold, don’t bother enlisting non-magic users.

There is also the taverns where you can hear gossip and purchase food among other things.

Temples are places for you to heal up. If you aren’t able to heal your characters from certain afflictions, this is the place to do it – for a price of course. Don’t bother doing this to recover HP, though. That’s what resting is for.

Finally, there is the blacksmith. You can buy, sell, and repair items here.

One big difference is the fact that there aren’t any more town dungeons. While enemies still occupy cities, there are no more dangerous dungeons lurking below. Each of the 5 towns will have to be “rescued”, though. Additionally, not every town has all the features (temples, blacksmiths, training, etc.). Only two towns in this game have every feature. Others have only a select few of them. Something to keep in mind when hopping from town to town.

As you navigate the user interface, a lot of similarities will pop up from previous games. The top icon denotes enemies nearby while animating. The gargoyle on the left will flap its wings when you have levitate cast on your party. Meanwhile, the gremlin on the right will wave it’s hands if your characters detect a secret door/weak/breakable wall. If you have the ability, you can also see what direction you are facing with the gem on the bottom of the screen.

The swords will display special spells boosting the characters, though generally speaking, this isn’t for until later in the game. The gems on the corners denote resistances being cast on the party. The four resistances they will denote are: Fire, cold, electrical, and acid. Red means nothing is cast while green means that resistance has been cast.

While general stats haven’t even really changed at all, the item system has been greatly reworked. Now, every item is divided into weapons, armour, accessories, and other. You have one screen for each, but really, that does mean you have 4 screens worth of items you can lug around, so it can be hard to complain about that. This does increase your capacity to carry items after all as each individual character has this.

The only thing about this item system is that when selling or fixing things, you have to actually navigate between these different screens for each character. Something, you can forget from time to time when there is valuable gold to be had when selling items. This is because you forget to check every screen while at the blacksmith.

Skills are still a critical element in this game. You can learn skills from reading books. Alternatively, you can learn skills by buying them from various NPCs (Non-Playable Characters).

Weapons, armour, and accessories have remained largely unchanged. There are base items such as helm, short sword, and crossbow. Over top of this, there are different elements these items can be made from. You can have a wooden sword (not good), steel boots (pretty good), and gold plate armour (very good midway through the game!). While armour benefits are easy to see, weapons won’t necessarily show you the bonuses in attack damage. So, you’ll more or less have to take lessons from armour and equip accordingly.

In addition to this, equipment can be enchanted. You can have a shocking ring, seething gauntlets, or a flashing shield. Each enchantment can offer special resistances or damage. If you are lucky, you can have an element and an enchantment thrown onto an item even. That way, you can get the best of both worlds there.

What’s new in this game is that there are a few special powers for weapons. Each one is specific to a certain monster type – dealing three times the damage to that enemy. Examples include Beast Bopper, bug zapper, and undead eater.

When you get to exploring the outside world, you can encounter enemies to attack. Combat is turn based. However, you can utilize ranged attacks with bows and other missile weapons. Some spells are also ranged. For enemies that don’t have a ranged attack, this is especially advantageous as you can attack without the enemies returning fire. So, ranged attacks can definitely be worth the time and money investment.

There are a number of afflictions characters can be struck by. This includes weakness, insanity, poisoned, diseased, and dead. There are a few new afflictions such as depression and confusion in this game as well. Each affliction gives stat penalties to your characters.

Unconscious, dead, and eradication are all afflictions you really need to be wary of. If all characters in the party suffer from those, then it’s game over. Since death is permanent, you’ll be taken back to where you last saved. Fortunately, you can save anywhere you like. Even better is the fact that, now, you can save in different files as well. So, you aren’t tied to one file any more if you want.

There are other features in the outside world. Outposts can generate enemies. Only this time, destroying them will not only net you item and experience bonuses, but also, you can get extra bonuses with certain NPCs for destroying the encampment as well.

Making a return are wells and fountains. Some wells are just traps that damage, but others can grant many special bonuses. This includes temporary bonuses to armour class, stats, HP, and magic.

Mountains are impassable unless you have mountaineering. Thick forests are impassable unless you have the pathfinder skill. Shallow water is impassable unless you have the swimming capability. Deep water requires the water walk spell. Space zones at the edges are completely impassable. Fire spaces burn your characters.

There are a number of dungeons available in this game. Many dungeons either feature a quest goal or a key to another dungeon. Yes, locked dungeons make a return in this game.

In the dungeons themselves, you can also find all sorts of traps and bonuses. Traps like gas, flamethrowers, electrical, and other traps will damage your characters. Resistances can mitigate the damage somewhat, but that’s it. Additionally, there are general damage squares. New to this game are green sparkling squares. These can either remove all temporary bonuses, drain your spell points, or teleport you to another location. Sometimes, it’s even a combination of these.

There are locked doors in these areas as well. You can either grit your teeth and bear with the damage when you bash down the door. Alternatively, if you have a robber, you can pick the lock for experience bonus points. The upside to this is that, even if the robber sets off the trap, the trap only affects the robber. Chests are the same way.

Some chests have enemies inside them. You can defeat the enemies and re-examine what’s inside for the loot (though you won’t always find any). New to this game is the fact that some chests require a certain amount of might. At that point, you might as well get your barbarian or paladin to pry that thing open.

Another new concept is the fact that you can enter dungeon areas where clouds are the floors. You are required to cast levitate in this area. Otherwise, you just fall to the ground below. You will get injured or, worse, get killed on impact. Ouch.

Resting makes a return. Resting takes up food, though quick reference will tell you how many days worth of food you have left. You can buy food at the tavern. Once you have built New Castle, however, you can get food for free. Resting will restore some conditions, your HP and magic points. Very useful if you want to extend your stay in a dungeon. Beware, however, that temporary magical bonuses will also fade away during your rest as well. Xeen may also mock you in your sleep as well.

One thing to note is the fact that level caps are a bit small in this game. In all, there are three trainers. The first trainer will train you to level 10. The second trainer will train you up to level 15 (which can be sufficient to finish off the game). Finally, the third trainer has a level cap of 20. So, if you want an idea of how far you are on your levels, that will tell you a lot.

That’s a general gist of the game.

For me, I was really looking forward to playing this game. The third game in the series was solid while the 6th game was spectacular. So, I had high expectations going into this. Lately, I’ve been disappointed with games I’ve had high expectations, so that is the only reason I had to be nervous about this. After playing this game, I can say I was not disappointed by this game.

One sign I was enjoying the game is that, between sessions of playing this game, I was actually looking forward to the next session. There is no shortage of games where I was actually dreading the thought of another round of slogging through it. This game, however, is different. I was actively thinking which area I wanted to try and explore next. That, alone, is a great sign for this game.

One big improvement this game has is the fact that the difficulty curve has been relaxed. That may sound like I just like easy games, but there is a big reason why this is a positive in this instance. This is a huge open world game. So, if there’s only one dungeon you can access at any time that your party stands a chance, that would make the game a painful one to play. Once you’ve conquered the Red Dwarf Range mines (and the game straight up tells you to go there next), you’ll almost always have several places you can explore. This way, you’ll never be overwhelmed necessarily. Instead, if a dungeon winds up being too hard, check out a different unexplored dungeon instead. I found that to be great for keeping your interest in the game.

Required puzzles have been greatly reduced in difficulty. Honestly, I think that makes the game much more accessible. Having puzzles in an RPG is fine, but first and foremost, it’s an RPG game. There are very few really hard puzzles to scratch your head over. Most of the ones that are there are optional anyway.

The game is also very user friendly. All the speed keys are there, but if you are not big on speed keys, everything is also clickable as well. So the learning curve on the user interface is actually quite small. It might take a bit of getting used to to get the overall style of the game. Still, this is for people who never played the series before more than anything else. I find that it is very learnable.

As far as the game is concerned, there are really only minor issues that I can see. The first is what has already been mentioned – it’s next to impossible to tell what kind of damage weapons can deliver. All you’ll be able to tell is that they get taken down faster. No actual statistics seem to be offered in the game. It would have been nice to be told what damage weapons deliver in the game itself.

The only other problem I see with this game is that gold gets very scarce by the end. The war zone only offers extra experience points, so there is limitations on how much gold you can accumulate in the game. This puts a lot of pressure on you if you find that piece of expensive armour is getting broken on a regular basis. Still, this is a problem only late in the game. The rest of the game is actually very playable in that regard. In fact, gems are almost a total non-issue as you always seem to have a good supply of them in the first place.

Otherwise, this game plays really well. Good open world concept. Very well thought out difficulty curve, and a good user interface that can be learned by a novice player and mastered by an experienced player. Gold is a bit scarce towards the end of the game and weapon stats are too vague for my taste, but those are really the only two problems I found with this game.

Graphically speaking, this is a very solid game. A lot of games at this point in time are largely sticking to 2D graphics. Very few even bother with first person perspective graphics. This game handles those graphics and handles it well. Some other DOS games are pushing the morphed picture cut scenes (like Dune 2 for instance), but graphics are still largely 2D action. This game also steps things up by offering a lot of different environments. You could be exploring a mine, desert, arctic tundra, mystical towers, deep forests, swamps, and a whole lot more. More impressively is the fact that there are very few enemies being retextured. The only one I actually noticed is the trolls and golems. Even then, that’s just to denote different elemental bases they represent. Overall, it is an impressive effort here.

The audio is nicely done as well. The game features several MIDI tracks, though it’s very possible to forget you are listening to MIDI music in the first place. The sound effects are also very nicely done. What really boosts the quality of sound is the fact that there are a multitude of speech samples. Some games might feature the odd sample here and there, but by this stage, actual speech samples are quite uncommon. On top of it all, there is actually quite a lot of speech samples in this game as well. So, job well done here.

Overall, this is a great game to play. After a short session of getting used to the games features, it had me coming back for more. It’s got a nice small learning curve and a great difficulty curve. The exploration is huge and the puzzles are, for the most part, very solvable. Graphics are impressive and the audio is great. I definitely recommend playing this game.

Furthest point in game: Beat the game. Levels ranged from 16 – 18.
Score: 70,501,420.

General gameplay: 22/25
Replay value: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Audio: 4/5

Overall rating: 86%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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