Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura

  • February 12, 2007
  • by: AA0
  • available on: PC


Developer: Troika Games
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment

Release Date: 08/21/01


Genre: rpg
Setting: fantasy

It has been a long time for me. I try and have faith good things will happen, really, I do. I want to think that the next newest and shiniest game coming out will really be a good game. It so rarely is. I can rant about MMO's being so focused on artwork and technical performance and then shoving all their customers in a empty, heartless world with little to do but grind grind grind. So here I am, reverting back to some old games; games with a heart. Back to a time when game developer's really designed their game, their world, and most importantly, they defined what RPG really means. With hope, I picked up some Arcanum CDs, remembering that it has been a long time, nearly six years now. If you have never played this classic RPG, and maybe feeling a little like me, give it a listen.

Arcanum intros to a scene where two half ogres, who are flying planes, attack a blimp carrying passengers. Eventually the ogres destroy the blimp, and themselves in the process. You are the sole survivor, stumbling out of the wreckage, what appears to be an elderly gnomish man tells you to “Find the boy” and gives you his ring, just before he dies. From here, you experience the wonder of Arcanum. How? That is up to you. A figure approaches you from the beyond the smoke and debris, and you make your first choices. You see, in the land of Arcanum, almost every path is available to you. Want to be considerate, good, evil, rude, or maybe just a plain old thief? There is a way to obtain what you desire in each path. Maybe you aren't too bright? Hey, it is OK, you can admit it. Let your followers do the talking for you, and bash your way to fame.

To explain a bit better, lets start with character creation. Now for the era of the game, the character creation is somewhat standard. There wasn't much of fully 3D graphics and customizations. Arcanum is played in a 2D angled view, downward. You can pick your character portrait, race, gender, and to add some great flare, a background story. The main story is the same for each race and gender, although there are some extra quests and options being choosing specific combinations, each giving you more options or less in different situations. On creation you gain five points to spend on your character, and one per level (two on every fifth level) to place where you want. You have a large selection here, and it is pretty advanced. You can increase your statistics directly to influence your speed, strength, charisma, etc or, increase your skills in anything from melee, to firearms, to picking locks, backstabbing, or repairing equipment. Further, you can also increase your knowledge (certain levels will require statistics, as do skills) of magic and technological areas. From learning blueprints for creating technological items from healing salves to full automations, or learning magical spells to assist your group or provide offensive punches.

In the world of Arcanum, magic and technology do not coexist well. Every time you gain knowledge of one side or the other, your aptitude increases in the appropriate direction. You have a choice to stay neutral and gain some of the benefits from either side, or lean to magic or technology and specialize making you more potent with those items, but virtually useless with the other side. For instance, a gunslinger that stays neutral will run into problems, when the enemy magical aptitude is higher than your technical, your weapons will misfire, possibly injuring you, and your accuracy will suffer greatly. Your characters can really be unique and special, you have to choose between technology and magic, between brute force, thievery, and charm. Of course you can pick a few methods of playing, from my very first game as a Battlemage who was tough as nails, to a charming gunman, to a lonely explosives expert, each character has a bit of a unique personality.

As a shadowy figure speaks, you find that this is a man named Virgil. In speaking to him, you get to choose your path, you have a lot of options. From here on you are on your own. Even though there is a central story line to Arcanum, the game is largely open to how you want to play. The beauty of the land of Arcanum is the flavour you'll find inside it. If you've been stuck playing mindless bland MMOs, you'll be shocked and awed! Each town, each person has a personality, some simply won't like you, some will love you, others will rip you off, and it is all great. You can help people out you meet, and save villages, gain blessings and reputation of valor, or reputations of foolishness. Become the Pervert of Tarant, the Saviour of Shrouded Hills, or maybe something far worse, but then again, some people like being attacked on sight. As you wander around the world, you may notice just how many methods there are to complete every quest, and not only can you complete it a number of textbook methods, most of them are completable in very unique methods as well. Are you a good pickpocket, why not plant evidence on someone? Not strong enough to plow your way through a quest? Well maybe you can talk to someone else, even though they aren't mentioned in the quest many NPCs can have information for you, or will talk to you directly about your quests. They might not be able to help you, but if it makes sense to ask them, the options will often be there for you. Quests range from huge complex puzzles spanning the entire game to quick delivery quests, and they affect your world, and the people of the world remember what you did for them. Your choices can even change the ending of the game!

Now, I'm not going to cover up that Arcanum does have some bugs. And of course, it has its other issues. The game music and sounds, even for its time were pretty bland, though the voice acting, while largely incomplete (many characters are missing it) is a very nice touch for some of the more main followers that have back stories. The graphics for its era were somewhat dated, but by no mean harsh on the eyes, at least for me. All two dimensional and somewhat lower resolutions, the characters and buildings are done well enough, and in a style that is at least fitting to the game.

The one big area that really could have used another pass, was the combat system. It is largely unbalanced (though you can succeed in any method still) from magic to technology, from guns to swords, to bows and more. There are definitely issues with some skills and statistics being far more useful than others. For instance, perception statistic is used for firearms and thievery skills, two areas that do no mix well in Arcanum. However, dexterity governs on all your physical skills, and movement speeds, a low dexterity character is useless, and it is far easier to make a melee character than a gunslinger. My biggest gripe about the game, and the only one that really ruins it for me, and I'm sure anyone that has played would agree, is combat. You have the option to play turn based or real time combat in Arcanum. During turned based mode, one combat oriented person can wipe out 4 or 5 enemies often before their turn is up. Power just isn't fairly distributed, if you have a lot of followers there is almost no challenge. The real time combat is so fast paced you can't see what happens or where anything is, much less click on what you want when you want it, so you'll either die or everyone else will kill things for you, possibly causing serious harm to themselves and their positions in the process.

I was pleasantly surprised, though. For the shear number of quests available, they are surprisingly not very buggy. There are SOME bugs, but they are pretty minor (almost all were fixed in the patch), and considering how incredibly complicated some quests are, it is amazing that there aren't hundreds of quest bugs.

Even given the bugs and imbalances, Arcanum is one hell of game. They just aren't made like this anymore. Every town and NPC has a life, there is a story around every corner, and your actions in the world, affect the world. Playing a specific race means something, you are discriminated against, or treated better than you should be in other cases. You are free to play as you choose, and experience multiple paths, diverge and head to the path of evil if you wish, you can do it and still complete the game. As time goes on, it seems we will never get back to the quality of games that used to come out, developers spend more and more time on high tech clients and servers, and then give us empty worlds with no design or feel inside them. And I'm here wanted to tell you more, so so so much more. Arcanum is packed with secrets, fun, humour and originality... oh, and sheep. Can't forget the sexy sheep. But I won't ruin it for you. You'll have to discover the sheep on your own. I better stop writing or I will. I really had a blast replaying Arcanum, I was able to remember what games used to be like, when people made games based on ideas and the love of the game, and not just what profit margins will look like. If you've never played, give it a shot. It is one of the finest RPGs ever made. And if you decide to dive into the unique and strange world of Arcanum... I might just hear you swear from here when you get swindled in a specific quest, by a gnome... damn those gnomes, if you play, you'll know which one.

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About the Author, Nick Presidente (A.K.A AA0)

I am just a single guy that likes to play games when he gets home from work. I have loved computers ever since being allowed to play and mess around with our first 8086 computer. During my younger years I went through the console phase, with Atari, NES, Sega, and then I pretty much got bored of the typical console games by the time the SNES generation was finished. I greatly enjoy the >potential uniqueness, challenges, and flexibility you are given in computer games, and anything that breaks the stereotypes and molds of the genres I often greatly enjoy. On the other hand a game that just copies another's success with no real innovation, or real effort put into that game severely disappoints me. I currently work at a company soon to be mine, wearing many hats from management, purchasing, non-destructive testing, and even general labour when I need to get things done. I enjoy that I can be creative, and design what I need to get problems solved. As in games, if I can not be creative, if I can't construct and manage things in game, I tend not to be happy. Having recently bought my first house, In the future, I'll sure to be having less time for games, unfortunately.