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.

As you make your way through the game, you will acquire experience points, which will increase your level. As you increase in level, you will accrue character points, which allow you the opportunity to improve your magical, technological, social, and/or stealth abilities. You will have a neutral alignment by default, but as you do good or bad things, your alignment will shift accordingly. You will likewise generate a reputation for yourself, and also accumulate fate points, which are another unique aspect to the game, allowing you to alter events in a favorable way for your character.

You will also have the ability to create items from other items and assorted components you can make poisons and robots, potions and guns based on schematics you can buy and learn.

On the upside, you can really make and play a unique character the very epitome of role-playing. On the downside, you have so many choices to choose from that you may feel somewhat intimidated by the vast array of choices before you and no matter what you choose, there will be something that you later wish you had chosen instead. Although, not-for-nothing, this adds greatly to the replay value of the game. Beware: when you create your character, and for the early part of the game, your limitations will require you to be pretty focused on what you want to become.

Aside from following the main plot quest, there will be plenty of sides quests to keep you running all over the place. While the quests are tracked in a journal, you will need to pay attention to the dialogues to keep track of all the details.

As you may have gathered, you can play this game dozens of times and still have very different gaming experiences. With the vast array of character development options and their effect on the story, you will find Arcanum to be quite worthy of repeat play. This is enhanced by the open-ended nature of the game. You can follow the main plot in a straight path, or veer off and do hundreds of side quests. Depending on how you play it, the game can give you from 30 to 90 hours of play in a single campaign.

The game is played from a third party perspective, like Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale. The interface may be a little awkward for some at first. I've heard some games get ripped for having a (poor) interface (Gothic springs to mind), but let's face it: If you like the game, you're going to play, and handling even the most tortuous (or torturous take your pick) interface will become second nature after a while. Oh, and by the way, there's nothing particularly bad about the interface in Arcanum. Okay, there is one thing: the darn interface takes up way too much of the screen, giving you a somewhat stingy field of view.

Some will be more critical of the interface than me, but if it isn't to your liking, it isn't to your liking. I have also read of some people experiencing bugs and problems, but my playing experience was smooth and without a hitch. I imagine the more recent patches covered some issues that may have been problematic for those who played the game nearer to its release date.

As with any game, experimentation and practice pay off. Note that there is no in-game tutorial, so you may want to keep the manual handy. The game I bought came with a miniaturized copy of the Prima Official Strategy Guide, which was very helpful (although far more information can be found here, on GameBanshee).

Most CRPGs involve combat at some point, and Arcanum is no exception. The game allows you to choose from real-time, turn-based, and a hybrid of the two. Real-time was too fast for me, and turn-based was too slow, so I used the fast-turn-based, which worked out pretty well. The combat is pretty pale nothing really exciting or graphic just sprites whacking sprites on the real-time setting it looks particularly bad, as everyone just attacks each other in a mindless and uncontrolled frenzy.
Your NPC party members are pretty much going to do what they want, but you do give them some simple commands. Like Baldur's Gate, some will not join a party that conflicts with their alignment, and they will leave if things are not to their liking. They will gain experience from your actions, but the opposite does not apply. In combat, they may wander out of your field of view and kill someone or something you didn't want them to kill. They may get themselves killed. These problems are exacerbated in real-time combat and alleviated in turn-based combat.

Honestly, no matter what setting you use, combat is a non-tactical affair and is one of the game's weakest points.

Would you expect the computer you bought back in 2001 to be as good as the one you just bought this year? Would you expect it to have the same graphics capabilities, sound and picture quality?

You have to expect that compared to what we have today, Arcanum's graphics will look second-rate. I'm not saying they are bad in fact, the artwork and stylishness are quite appealing but this is no Neverwinter Nights. If you played Planescape: Torment or Pool of Radiance, you'll recall the somewhat bland and repetitive scenery and ambience. Similarly, this game is somewhat bland, but as with the two aforementioned games, the setting is suited to the style and theme of the game.

That aside, the game is still somewhat flat. There is a vague, muted quality to the graphics. The city areas are more interesting than the wilderness areas. At least in the cities you can appreciate the architecture and the sense of encroaching industry. While the background art and such is easy on the eyes, some of the monsters and animations are going to come off as silly or weird and awkward-looking.

The background music fits the theme, but there is nothing compelling about it (especially as it endlessly repeats throughout the game). The sounds effects are rather mundane, and also have no particularly outstanding merit, although the character voices are generally well done.

The graphics, music, and sounds, while passable, are really on par with the combat, in other words, not among the highlights of the game. Don't expect any eye candy here, or ear candy either for that matter (if there is such a thing). In fact, let's just rule out the candy.

Arcanum is creative and clever, fun and immersing. You will love creating and developing your character, as well as collecting schematics, assembling items, and exploring the world. There are many NPCs and quests and items to keep you busy. The game is not going to be on par with the current standards of graphics, AI, or combat. Take this as a given. Look instead to the plot, the style, and the settings.

The game has some distinctive features that make it unique. Granted, it will not appeal to everyone, but as an older game, it's relatively cheap I think I paid 10 bucks for it. At that price, you've got nothing to lose and I think that it will inspire many true RPG fans out there with its creativity and depth. For a fan of the shinier and newer games, you're probably not missing out on anything earth-shaking. But for a fan of the genre and real role-playing, the game is worth playing, and once played, worth playing again.