Many of the storied western RPG franchises went out not with a bang, but with a wimper. Thus is the case with the Might & Magic series - or at least its numbered installments. Might and Magic IX is both the final numbered installment in the series and the final true Might and Magic game of any kind to be developed by New World Computing. It's also notable as the first core game in the series not to be designed by series creator Jon Van Caneghem. The director this time was Timothy Lang.
The game is as the first game in the series to have an engine developed by another company. Specifically, it uses Monolith's LithTech Talon engine (which was also used in No One Lives Forever & Aliens Vs. Predator 2). It's likewise one of the last games to be released by 3DO before it went bankrupt, and it's also notable for the incomplete state of its release, with numerous crippling bugs which New World Computing were not able to patch before closing their doors. Ultimately, fans of the game were forced to fix the numerous bugs on their own through a couple of fan-made patches.
Might and Magic IX's story brings the game to a more grounded tone than the epic quests from the various sequels to the original game. No longer is the player's party of heroes seeking to stop global annihilation. Instead, they have to perform various quests for six rulers, in order to get them to unite against the impending threat of conquest by a Genghis Khan-esque warlord. Also, the setting has been moved from the world of Enroth (home of Might and Magic VI-VIII, as well as the earlier Heroes of Might and Magic games) to the world of Axeoth, after Enroth was destroyed in Heroes of Might and Magic IV. It's also much more humorous than earlier titles in the series, though the jokes are not necessarily clever. One side quest has the player going into the "Beet-hoven" of a writer named Wolfgang Van, in order to retrieve the manuscript for his masterwork, "My Everybody Beloved".
The map system of the game is sadly no longer as useful as it used to be. In Might and Magic VI-VIII, the game would auto-mark certain points on your map, like the location of trainers, and also let you add additional notes for locations of shops, traps, quest-givers and so on. Here, the maps remain blank slates, only showing boundaries where walls and doors are, but without any information about whether you can go into a building, and if so, whether it's a shop, quest giver or something else. More obnoxiously, trainers are no longer stationary in buildings. If players wishes to train up to the Expert or Master level of a particular skill, they will have to hunt through numerous identical townsfolk to find the person with the right skill.
The game also relies much more on palette swaps and larger versions of the same monsters than earlier games in the series. One dungeon has players fighting small imps until they fight a final boss who's just a man-sized imp. A forest will put the players up against small Dragonfly-Mites followed by normal sized Dragonflies, Yellow Dragonflies, and finally Fire Dragonflies (which are red), all using the same model, and are only distinguishable by hit-point total, amount of damage dealt, size and color.
Furthermore, the game is much more linear. The overworld areas channel the player dramatically more than earlier games in the series did. Rather than using the skybox to avoid the edge-of-map effect, it seems like the developers, in a hurry, chose to stick the character in canyons instead, to keep the player from investigating the draw distance too much. This makes the game feel much more linear.
On the bright side, the game returns to the four party members-plus-two combatant henchmen system from Might and Magic I & II. While the player only starts out with two classes to choose from, Warrior and Initiate, there are a series of promotion quests to bring the character up to one of four advanced classes, giving a sense of progression for the player. Unfortunately, several of the game's most serious bugs revolve around those promotion quests and the people giving them, basically forcing the player to quick-save before talking to anyone in case anything goes wrong. Because of the new engine, the game also introduces platforming. Dungeons include pit traps and spike pits, which only can be avoided through jumping, crouching, and possibly some save scumming.
Might and Magic IX is a disappointment in several respects. It's much more linear than earlier games in the series used to be. The story feels anticlimactic. The game itself is a buggy mess. Considering the franchises pedigree, this is an incredibly disappointing note to go out on. If you do pick this game up, check out the fan-made patch at The Erathian Liberation Party. It fixes many of the game's bugs. It only really works with Windows XP, though. In any form of compatibility or emulated mode, like in Windows 7 or Windows Vista, the game locks up more often, particularly while loading areas.