An engrossing and impressive rpg that ultimately lives up to it's potential.
There's a lot to love about Arcanum, it's the first rpg to come out from the runaway splinter group of Fallout's developing team, and suffice to say that the pedigree shows.
The game provides a truly engrossing experience, in a completely unconventional setting, with lots of rpg-ing goodness and a wonderful character editing system.
Truly the game's strongest point is it's world, it's a mixture of traditional fantasy elements with a strong "steampunk" edge that makes for an incredibly unique gameworld (sort of like "Thief meets The Difference Engine"). A gameworld that is populated to the max with npcs, quests, and places to explore. This of course takes the focus off the main plot, but as long as you understand that, that half the fun in Arcanum comes from exploring and fooling around at your leisure, then you'll be okay. Arcanum appeals to those types of players that want to experience a game from end to end, not just 1 (one) adventure in 1 (one) setting. If you want everything tied up nicely with the main plot then you are barking at the wrong three. The game has millions of sidequests that both enrich and liven up the experience (if you are willing to put the storyline in the back-burner for a while) in fact, few games take you off the main plot to explore an X-files like conspiracy or have you solve murder cases, negotiate political treaties, or lots of impressive quests like the exceptional one with the fortune teller early on....Granted, the game has a bit of "filler" material, but it's nothing compared to the amount of innovative and truly interesting quests it has in store. And the story itself even though is starts out rather bland, gets way better as the game progresses, with a lot of good twists and situations.
The npcs that can be added to your party come in a nice variety, and add a lot of color to the game, they add info and comments on locations and have their background, motivations and will add their own participation to the storyline. Only a select few have this however (tip: choose the talking ones! ;)) and they don't add as much color as in other games like Baldur's Gate, but they bring a lot more to the game than more inventory space and fighting muscle. Whoever says they are merely packhorses hasn't taken Magnus around, or left Virgil early on in the game, didn't take Z'an A'zul Rhin (or whatever!!) to Arronax, left Raven to rot in Quintarra, or didn't even bother to check Torian, etc...
Another highlight of the game is it's powerful character editing system... Which again, will piss off players that have little grasp of what they want. I'm not calling myself an expert in this types of games, but I have seen newbie rpg friends stare blankly at the screen trying to figure where to put their skill points. One must certainly know what he wants when he creates his character, and must be prepared to steer him in the direction that matches his playing style. As in other skill-based rpgs like the Fallout games, the character evolves continuously, and is not limited by a particular class. However the character system in Arcanum goes a step further and in some aspects even surpasses Fallout's S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system. For starters it's based on points, which as even the remaining Black Isle developers admitted, works a hell of a lot better than Fallout's percentage system. You could sometimes add 15% to a skill and nothing tangible would happen, you always had to raise the percentages above certain "milestones" to get stuff to happen (say, 50, 70, 100, 150, etc.). On Arcanum you get a small number of points to add to any skill, but said points ALWAYS make a difference, so needless to say there's a great feeling of reward for every point earned, not to mention that you have considerable bonuses for excelling on each skill like being able to buy worn items, get any npc in your party regardless of alignment, etc.
Furthermore, the game allows you to put points into your basic skills, which is to me, another great choice. The lack of that option in the Fallout games placed you in a shell you had no chance of getting off in the game, once you assigned your points, it remained forever etched in stone for the rest of the game... effectively thrusting you in a class of sorts, a class made by you, but a class in the end. Sure, this system only works if you like this kind of freedom, but even if you don't Arcanum comes with lots of pre-made characters, and an auto-level up scheme which simplifies the whole process.
On the technical side of things, the game comes with a great soundtrack and good sfx. The graphics are dull at times, but they are functional enough. Oh, and for the millions of geeks that keep bugging about the lack of a decent viewing area, I should mention that my copy came with a big Arcanum FULL SCREEN start icon... I suggest you guys try it!
Oh, and you also get a multiplayer mode, an editor, and the chance to play mods! How's that for more player value?
For starters there's the fact that the game has serious performance issues. I am well above the recommended system requirements and even so I experienced stuttering, and choppy animations... next time add some 3D stuff guys, if only to take advantage of hardware acceleration...
Also the cutscenes in the game are exceptionally well made, but are veeeery scarce. In fact, there isn't a real ending movie, and there isn't a proper epilogue to your adventure, just a rundown of how you affected each location and character in the world, which is a nice touch... but it's not an ending sequence!!!
Other than that there's the issue of fights and experience earning. The fight system is rather good, it offers a significant amount of options without becoming cumbersome and allows for an interesting set of options, I for one think the addition of a fatigue system works great, since it forces you to keep an eye on what your choices are. Unfortunately you have little to no control of your party members in combat, you can order them to stop or start attacking, but that's about it. Mind you, they work a hell of a lot better than in the Fallout games (whoever says he didn't cross his fingers and clench his teeth whenever any party member whipped-out a smg or minigun is lying his ass off!) but they still have weird quirks. The weapon selection is always weird ("ok Virgil, so you are telling me that Broadsword you can't even handle is better for you even when I'm giving you a filament sword??") and the AI on both opponents and allies is questionable at best. Your friends will take the most weird and stupid routes to get to their enemies, and they will make use of their most powerful spells in completely absurd situations. Ditto the enemies, whom most of the times I just tricked into targeting and following me (keeping out of his reach), while the rest of my party kicked his ass to his seemingly complete ignorance.
Regarding the exp. issue, the game has adopted a weird system. You get experience when you kill monsters, but also when you hit them!! Needless to say, you get very strong, very fast, and while in a decent town you will probably level up once due to the quests, in a typical dungeon you'll go 3 levels up minimum!
It sure is nice to feel that you are always moving forward, but your character does get VERY strong VERY fast, especially if you do the altar quests. Memo for Arcanum 2: Fix up the exp. balancing.
The Bottom Line
A truly unique rpg that stands on its own, and even surpasses it's predecessors in some accounts. An interesting question was risen in a previous review, does Arcanum have a meaning? Yes it does, but not in the "You have to go and do this" kinda way. Arcanum's meaning is "You just got dropped on Arcanum. Enjoy yourself" :)
Completely engrossing and fulfilling, Arcanum is truly a landmark in the genre of crpgs, a game that sucks you in, and gets you lost in a brilliantly crafted world.