How do you play retro games?

Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (Windows)

Published by
Developed by
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  -Chris (7365)
Written on  :  Oct 10, 2001
Rating  :  2.17 Stars2.17 Stars2.17 Stars2.17 Stars2.17 Stars

7 out of 13 people found this review helpful

write a review of this game
read more reviews by -Chris
read more reviews for this game


Anthology of errors.

The Good

This review is long. I apologize; I didn’t intend to waffle. If you decide not to read this because of its length, I perfectly understand you, and probably would immediately join you for a beer. But for the sake of my favourite genre, role-playing games, I have to explain in detail the errors of Arcanum. Because they are legion, and because they are fundamental. And now that you’ve made it this far, you could actually go on and read the whole text.

The Bad

Know this then: Troika Games consists of the people who created Fallout. Fallout was, and is, one of the most perfect role-playing games ever designed.
It is important to know these two things to understand the scope of Arcanum’s failure. Because everything that Fallout did right, Arcanum does wrong. On the plane of consciousness on which the game was created, which is certainly not our own, this might even be some sort of achievement.

Arcanum is not a bad game. In a certain respect, I wish it were; you can feel pity for the cripple, but a bore moves no one. As it is, it is hard to understand how Troika could have the cheek to publish a game that is so obviously outdated without making absolutely, perfectly certain that there is a healthy body under the rags. Instead, the garb covers a slip of a game dragging itself along.

Enough grumbling already. Let’s hear the facts.

I will never tire of stressing the brilliance of the Fallout skill system; in my book, it can hardly be improved. Arcanum exemplifies this point nicely, as they tried. To be fair, Arcanum’s skill system is still its strongest point; the specialization works reasonably well (although the game not nearly enforces it well enough), and the tinkering with technology is great fun. However, Troika confused quantity for quality and bred confusion. The problem is really simple: you have so many choices that you cannot decide on one. This might be called freedom, if it wasn’t for the game’s lack of guidance. You can only guess which skills might be useful; in fact, many aren’t at all. Any master gamblers out there? More: Why is there one point for all talents? Fallout showed how a wise structuring of skill areas can greatly improve comprehensibility. Why must the basic skills be changeable? That makes your character a wobbly turncoat instead of a clearly defined specialist. Why do Arcanum characters level up so frequently? This greatly diminishes the overall importance of levelling. If you play Arcanum and understand why freedom is not always a boon, the game may have a purpose after all.

Arcanum is the Might & Magic of 2D role-playing games: lots of insignificant quests, almost insulting in their stupidity, piling up like trash along the main road. I have nothing against a variety of challenges, but I demand exactly that: variety and challenge. At best, I hope for side-quests that arise naturally out of the game world and are motivated through the plot. Look at Baldur’s Gate 2, for example, where the desperate need for ransom money forces you to do menial tasks, or where you are – brilliant idea! – unexpectedly offered quests that concern one of your party members. Disappointingly few of Arcanum’s quests are sensible in this way, even less are remotely interesting.

Even worse, this is also true for the dungeon mission, regardless whether they are plot elements or not. Sad highlight is the Tarant sewer, an endless maze of blue-grey tunnels in which the designers threw in monsters at random, but forgot to throw in some sense as well. Even the randomly created dungeons of Diablo are more varied (and a lot more thrilling) than the hand-made corridor deserts of Arcanum. Pinch me, maybe I’m ungrateful. Probably it’s asked too much that dungeons are exciting, and an extra dose of enemies always makes up for the lack of those other things, wosname… puzzles.

You might not have noticed, but you have companions. Yeah, the guys that join your group until the next fight, when they die. Party members can be a great utility to increase a game’s depth. Take a look at Baldur’s Gate 2 once again to see how gripping a cleverly designed party can be. But try and answer me this question: What good are the companions in Arcanum? Please, this is serious, think! My little brother has put it perfectly in one word: packhorses. They carry around extra stuff. That’s all. And that’s sad. Generally spoken, companions could, and should, serve two purposes: contribute useful additional abilities to broaden the choice of actions, and enrich the atmosphere. The second job is more important and generally paid less attention. The Arcanum companions serve neither purpose, as their talents are of little value (Virgil has not opened one single lock successfully for me, Magnus can build utilities that I don’t need, and so on), and they follow you around speechless like zombies, when they could enhance the atmosphere so much by commenting on each situation, quest or person -- a huge chance wasted. If a game feature is useless, then it should either be improved or removed.

Oh, the fights. I cannot help but think that Troika would have preferred doing without. The battle system of Arcanum is, well, functional. It serves it purposes, i.e. killing evil guys. Sorry to insist, but I have another question: Why do you fight in Arcanum? I believe there is an answer to this question on a general level, but it doesn’t apply to Arcanum or to many other games. Somewhere along the line of RPG creation, the purpose of battles must have been lost. Fights should first and foremost be challenges. Tactical challenges. A good RPG fight is always a matter of superior intelligence against superior strength. Only then can a battle be thrilling and rewarding. It doesn’t matter whether the strategy is correct use of weapons, spells, formation, action points, timing, you name it; what matters is that you can use it, and that you can win by using it correctly. The Fallout fights were tactical in their use of action points, weapon choice and targeting system; no surprise that they were refined into a full-fledged strategy game (Fallout Tactics). In Arcanum, battles serve only the two lesser purposes: as obstacles and delays (a use which sooner or later exhausts the players’ patience), and as a means of acquiring experience points. Hey, think hard, was there a memorable fight in Arcanum? On second thought, don’t strain your memory.

If you played Arcanum, you probably know that there is a skill cap at level 50. I find the necessity for caps dubious on principle, but in Arcanum it is actually understandable: Your hero simply grows too strong too fast. This is only one of the effects of bad balancing. There are many more. Take the plot, for example. Actually, the story of Arcanum could be quite interesting. Unfortunately, it is stretched so thin over the first half of the game (up to the Isle) that it hardly moves at all. Especially in the beginning of the game, a fast pace is essential to wake and bind the player’s interest. In short: things need to happen. In Arcanum, things happen very, very slowly, and those that do are not really thrilling (“Oh, you found me! Now search that mine”). So, the plot would have needed tightening. Also, as a friend of mine pointed out very rightfully, the program does nothing to encourage a decision for either magic or technology. Again, don’t mistake that for freedom. A strong, early opposition of forces would not only create dramatic tension, it would also increase the replayablity a great deal -- after all, you’d like to see the other side, too. But again, a chance had, a chance thrown away.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is the issue of technology. Mind you, I can live with Arcanum’s graphics, even though I feel that sting when I look at the other games on the store shelf and the 40 bucks in my hand. But what I cannot live with is the game’s speed. In fact, to publish a game that looks like a mid-90’s relic and jerks like a slide show on a PIII is an unbelievable impudence. I don’t know what technical challenges the programmers faced, and I don’t care; I expect a working product for my money. If a TV salesman told me “Did I say constant viewing? Well, it shows static every few seconds, of course”, he’d see static for more than a few seconds. This technical botch-up is not only unnerving, it is also a genuine mood-killer; if the screen is drawn once a second, I can no longer enjoy the illusion to explore the exiting city of Tarant, but I am constantly reminded that I’m sitting at my desk and staring at a computer.

Thank you for your patience. If you were clever, you scrolled down directly to this paragraph in expectation of a summary. Here it is: Arcanum is a mediocre game in every respect, as it disregards basic guidelines that every game, especially role-playing games, should follow: pace and flow, guidance and soft pressure, depth without confusion, atmosphere and credibility, and especially, meaning. Meaning in a computer game? Not in the philosophical sense, not necessarily. But in a down-to-earth, every-day sense: telling the player what he has to do, and why. If there is meaning, what follows is motivation.

The Bottom Line

A huge disappointment for RPG fans, Arcanum tries to fly to the stars with a wooden rocket. Compared to Fallout, Arcanum is not one step, but a fair afternoon walk backwards. How on earth this could happen is beyond me; if anybody knows and is willing to tell, he could restore a distressed man’s sleep.