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Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (Windows)

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79
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5235)
Written on  :  Mar 14, 2003
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Summary

Seems to be mything something.

The Good

The gimmick behind Arcanum is that it’s a fantasy role-playing game with technological elements. Thus, a steam-driven train might take you past the burial grounds of a dragon, halfling thieves might shoot at you, or you could fight a mechanized spider in a dungeon illuminated by electric lights. This does not mean that magick and technology work in concert however. One of the many storylines in this game deals with the struggle between magick and technology. This plays out in several ways regarding character development and means that as you progress towards either technology or magick, your ability to use the oppositional skills wanes. And it draws interesting parallels to the often antagonistic struggle between science and religion in our world.

So the question then, is how well does the gimmick work? Like the Fallout series, Arcanum presents a class-less role-playing system. As your character progresses you may specialize in thief-type skills, magic ones, etc. and through this create your class. Unlike Fallout, as a fantasy game you have your pick of races including human, elf, dwarf, and orc. These races have unique benefits and detriments and some close off gender options- Gnomish women, for example, are never seen. Arcanum does not make use of Fallout’s SPECIAL attribute system, but presents a similar one, which like Fallout, really affects game play. Most RPG’s don’t well integrated attribute systems, but every statistic in Arcanum really affects gameplay. Intelligence determines conversation options, Beauty affects how people react to you and Dexterity determines how fast you move. There are also statistics such as hit points and fatigue which are based on combinations of attributes and the level of your attributes determines how far you can advance in certain skills.

Which brings me to the skill section, which is the most complex system I’ve seen in any RPG. The skill set is broken down into three sets: character skills, magic skills and technological skills. These sets are then broken down into subsets such as combat, specific magic school or specific technological discipline. As you advance in level you apply points to these skills to increase your ability. You can also receive training in the character skills and advance from Apprentice to Expert to Master. Often training is purchased, but Master’s require special quests. Now you can also apply points to your attributes and you only receive one point per level. Therefore, deciding how to spend these precious points becomes strategic.

One final thing regarding the character: alignment. Your character begins the game with a neutral alignment. Depending on your actions (the quests you complete and your interaction with people) your alignment will shift towards good or evil. This is a dynamic system which does away with the complications of the traditional AD&D system and works very well within the game.

Actual game play resembles other RPGs, perhaps too much. You go on many mini-quests while uncovering the larger story. Talk to dozens (hundreds) of people and gain followers. Opinion of the usefulness of the followers seems to be mixed, but I felt like mine were great characters that did far more than carry heavy equipment. I was never able to make use of my dwarven technologist, but I think this was more my fault than his. They have wonderful conversations, fought very well, had interesting reactions between themselves and added to my enjoyment of the game.

There are many areas to explore and several major cities. Talking to the people in the cities results in useful information and interesting quests. During the game I played, I had to solve several murders, track down missing nobles and I found a fun X-Files themed conspiracy regarding half-orcs. There was seldom a time when I did not have at least one quest to work on and I usually had several on the backburner.

Graphically, this game is dated since it does not use 3D graphics, the graphics are good but result in some performance issues. Sound is wonderful. The string score is beautiful, voice work is consistently well above average and ambient noises are realistic and appropriate.

This is a very long game but highly replayable. As a non-thief character, I missed the extensive thieves’ underground, as a melee character I never got far into magic use and technology, and as a good character I didn’t touch on the dark side of Arcanum (however I did perform some evil acts for the greater good and some of my good acts resulted in bad outcomes). Finally, like the Fallout Series, at the end of the game, you get to see how your adventures affected the places you went traveled to.

The Bad

While the story in Arcanum was very good, it is unclear for most of the game. I think I prefer games where you know what points is from the get-go. Several major themes seem to disappear near the end of the game including the one with hero/villain technologist Gilbert Bates (Bill Gates?). Although, this could just be how I played the game. I also wished for more of the steam-punk, Victorian fantasy setting that the box seemed to advertise. While there was a mix of magick and technology in the game, most of the Arcanum world is entrenched in a pseudo-Tolkien setting. Pratchett’s Discworld books present a similar idea more convincingly.

The attribute/skill section I described above is very complex and since the game has a level cap it pays to plan ahead. I was very unhappy with the level cap because I wanted to do more with my character and if you can’t advance in level any more- why go on quests? I found myself very apathetic towards the end of the game, tired of the subquests and solely interested in the end of the game.

Of course one of the reasons for the level cap is the extremely poor balancing in the game. I was simply too powerful too soon. I was also very wealthy, so money oriented quests didn’t matter and I had all the items I wanted. While the ability to increase your attributes was fun, I was able to become almost superhuman. I think they needed to reconsider this element in favor of the traditional RPG feeling that attributes are carved in stone and only acts of God can change them.

While I mentioned some interesting quests, too many of them involved searching dungeons for a person/item. With all the dungeon crawling combat, you level up way too quickly. In short, elements of this game suffered from the Monty Haul syndrome discussed in AD&D books. RPGs have to be about more than who has the more points/gold, etc. By the time I got to the final battle, it was a joke. I was successful in a few minutes and never felt in any danger. The story and framework of Arcanum deserve more than a Cheaterz Diablo-type romp.

Finally, I mentioned that graphics were outdated. On my new system, I experienced several lock-ups because the game wasn’t making use of my 3D card. Characters weren’t particularly well animated, combat animations were minimalist, and the dungeons were visually unimpressive. There were some excellent rendered scenes, but they occur late in the game.

The Bottom Line

I played this voraciously and still don't know how I feel about this game. I definitely want to replay this game as a completely different type of character. As it stands now, I'd describe it as a failed masterpiece.