Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura Review

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Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Sierra Entertainment
Developer:Troika Games
Release Date:2001-08-21
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
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After a two-year romance with Neverwinter Nights and Morrowind, with all their expansions, modules, and plug-ins, I found myself craving a new game. I'd already saved Baldur's Gate from Sarevok, grappled with my divine heritage, braved the frozen north of Icewind Dale, explored the ruins of Myth Drannor, and suffered the indignity of waking up on a morgue slab in another plane. The Temple of Elemental Evil was a mere appetizer for my adventurer's hunger, and as quickly as it was discovered, it was conquered.

And there I was, once again, yearning for adventure. I searched through sites and forums, looking for something that peaked my interest. After a couple of weeks, I had found three (well, really four) games: Arcanum, Gothic I and II, and Sacred.

I had to start somewhere, so I chose to play Arcanum first.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, was published by Sierra Studios and developed by Troika. It was released on August 21st of 2001 in the US. The concept of the game is that technology has emerged in an ancient world of (magick,) populated by elves, humans, orcs, and dwarves. As you might imagine, in a world where technology is on the rise, the ways of old may begin to fall, and there will be those who are made uneasy by this industrial revolution.

By most accounts, Arcanum is a true RPG, with lots of room for character development, along either technological or magical lines. Your character choices affect the gameplay in this large and nonlinear world. You can be stealthy, combative, or persuasive. You can cast spells or fire guns, travel alone or in a party, with a variety of NPCs to choose from. There are hundreds of unique characters and monsters that you can encounter as you immerse yourself in this unique world.

Arcanum takes place in a Victorian-style setting, accentuated by the softly playing string music in the background and the 19th century dress of the cities' inhabitants. Tones of gray and brown predominate, and the pistol is as common as the sword. Various races populate the growing cities and various factions vie for power. The game world is well developed, with a rich history and thoughtful plot development.

From the opening movie, which has the feel of a silent film from the early days of cinema, the game immediately comes off as intelligent and quaint. You will find yourself the victim of a crash, in possession of a ring of unknown origin. Following the leads as they arise, you will be drawn into the history of Arcanum and the forces that are at work all around you. There will be power plays, romance, and danger; you can assemble a large party of followers, own a huge estate, and build technological marvels from scraps of metal and simple chemicals. There is still magic in the air, so take heed the arcane has not vanished beneath the concrete, but still contends for power in this dynamic game.

In true RPG style, you get quite a bit of say in whom you play and how your character develops. There are no classes in Arcanum. You have 8 basic statistics (strength, intelligence, etc.) and their derived statistics (hit points, heal rate, etc.). There are four skill areas combat, thieving, social, and technological with various specific skill areas in which you can improve, rising from apprentice to expert and finally to master level status.

Those who are of technological inclination will have 8 technological disciplines and their many degrees to choose from, while those of a more magical persuasion have 16 colleges of magic to train in, each with its own set of spells. Your choice of orientation will affect your ability to use items (magical types aren't so good with rifles, and industrial types won't gain the full benefits of using an enchanted weapon) and your interactions with other characters.

Of course, you get to pick your race, face, name, and gender, but Arcanum throws another choice your way: your background. While you can choose to have a background of no significance, you can also choose from some colorful options to add flavor to your character. Any special background you choose will have a positive and negative impact. You can for example, choose to be a (disenfranchised gnome,) which will improve your strength, but impair your haggling skills, you can be hydrophobic, a bookworm, an arsonist, or a feral child, among many others each with its own pros and cons. Half the fun is just scrolling through the choices.