Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura - Review  

Th3_Sn1per Will Save the Day!
by John Boske

Moderate to High
30-50 hours


Rating definitions 

   Many role-playing games opt for purely fantasy or sci-fi environments, with so few exploring the ground in between. Arcanum is a bold attempt to do just that, taking a fairly traditional fantasy world and pushing it forward into an industrial revolution. It is a world of knights and castles, magic and monsters, and alongside such elements of fantasy are steam engines, Victorian architecture, electricity and firearms; a world where magick (the k is intentional) and technology exist in opposition to each other, and tensions are high between the various races and nations which populate the titular continent. Sadly, like many Troika products, it fails in some technical aspects even as it succeeds in design ones.

   The interface borrows much from games like Fallout, featuring a birds-eye view of the player's immediate surroundings and point-and-click movement and interaction. It's less complicated than it looks, but not by much; paper doll equipment setup (head, hands, body, legs, rings, neck), up to ten hotkeys for quick-use items, limited inventory space and carrying capacity. You can call up a wide-area map and set waypoints to auto-run across a town, and when you're far away enough from a particular location you can call up the world map for travel between cities. An in-game journal helps you keep track of notes the character takes, quests you've completed or have accepted, rumors you've heard, and reputations and keys you've picked up along the way.

   Combat is handled Fallout style, with each participant having a set number of Action Points and being sequenced according to their stats. You enter combat whenever you're spotted by a hostile (NPCs have a reaction gauge which determines how they treat your character, ranging from 0 to 100 with zero being hostile), or if you strike first. Fighters can make targeted attacks on the head, hands or legs, and one can even attack obstacles or objects such as doors, chests and lights, and break them down or blow them up. Party members operate independently in battle, although some tend to stick by your character and use spells or items to aid you if you're hurting. The player can choose between turn-based and real-time combat, even during the actual fight, with the press of a button, although this is more novelty than anything as combat is difficult to manage in real-time - especially when you start to involve magic, guns or thrown weapons.

Caption I know I've seen this somewhere before...

   The visuals are a mixed bag. The towns and most of the world is well designed and fairly colorful to look at, but dungeons are often unreasonably dark, and the heads-up display is needlessly cluttered. Spell effects are sometimes impressive, and combat can often be graphically violent, but animations are stiff, and many of the races have only one or two different NPC bodies. Cinematics, in another quality shared with Fallout, are above par, and well produced, particularly the opening movie with the zeppelin, but they are few and far between. Sound, on the other hand, is generally good across the board. Music is typically subdued and quiet, but it does a lot for the atmosphere of a given area, and the songs are never out of place, though the combat music does get old after a while. Voices are excellently performed, with capable writing and talented actors, none of whom seem to have a problem getting into the role.

   Difficulty is tough to pin down, as some of the mechanics are unbalanced. While a player can make it through the game favoring tech or magic (or neither), tech-based weapons can be difficult to acquire or build. Magic, conversely, is often overpowered, with several spells being virtually impossible to stop, and comparatively easy to use than their technological equivalents. Some monsters present an immense challenge early on, with creatures like Rock Golems or Were-Rats being difficult to stop without a good-sized party or powerful weapons. There are also several bugs - some crashing, some merely time-and-resource-consuming - making a patch a bare necessity, and fan mods come highly recommended if you can find them. However, there is a lot to do; all told, the core plot can take about 30 hours to unravel, with perhaps another 20 including other quests and side areas, and the variety of character types - and even the ability to play as an evil character - add considerable replay value.

Caption Where's the love, man?!

   Where the game really deserves praise is in its story, originality, and even roleplaying. Character creation is very open-ended; the player sets their name, gender, race and background (which may influence their stats) and then distributes points across stats, skills, technical disciplines (allowing access to schematics, for building custom items), and magickal colleges (permitting the casting of spells). Who you are plays a big role in what you can do, as many people treat elves, dwarves, smart people, dumb people, magicians and technologists differently. The setting is fleshed out very well, and it feels natural; the world of Arcanum has a rich history, with a lot of thought put into the evolution of the races and nations, and the development of technology. The story may start off simply, with your character escaping from a zeppelin crash and warned by a dying gnome about something evil headed your way, but it takes some smart, well-written twists, and a few late-game revelations will happily take what you think you know about the plot and throw them right out the window.

   The question is, can a compelling plot and vastly open-ended gameplay compensate for lackluster graphics, technical problems and unbalanced gameplay? For some, the answer is yes, but it's not hard to see how the flawed technical aspects of the game can get in the way of enjoying the story and the richness of the world. Even an optimistic assessment of the overall game reveals several trouble spots. However, a dedicated roleplayer who's willing to put up with a few frustrations can wring a considerable amount of enjoyment out of Arcanum. The sheer amount of stuff to do and ways to do it ensures repeat playthroughs, and the innovative setting almost warrants attention all by itself. It's not a ground-breaker or a crowd-pleaser, but it just might scratch the itch of a PC RPGer looking for something new.

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