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Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (Windows)

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Written by  :  Happy Rabbi (1305)
Written on  :  Mar 02, 2008
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Summary

A little rant about Arcanum.

The Good

Arcanum was the first game made by the now dead company Troika. You know, the company founded by the famous trio behind Fallout.

What I liked about Troika, was that their games had this we-made-this-game-for-the-sake-of-just-making-this-game feeling to them. They weren't shiny, polished, 2 and half choice, above average storyline, romance novel characters games.

They were more gamey, flawed, humbler, yet more ambitious in some sense than Bioware's games for example.

Arcanum follows the Fallout school of game design. That means you can almost play any character you want. For example: a handsome "I'll talk my way out of this situation" human male or a dumb half-ogre with a kind heart who sprouts lines like "Flowers!!! They be pretty....ooh, butterfly!", or even a sexy half-orc female mage, who sold her soul to evil and delights in destruction and letting herself be abused my males and then kill them.

Sidenote: there are few scenes when you are a female character and when you want either to survive or get into some club you have to kiss someone's feet or have sex with him.

Aside from the larping stuff (the stuff that only happens in your head, and we don't judge the quality of games on that) the game really allows you to play in anyway you want.

But now to the most important detail. Choices and consequences. You can make choices in this game. I like choices. It respects the player. It makes me respect the game. Respect, Game.

*tiny electronical voice: ...respect man....*

Bob the Imaginary Gaming Friend: "Nice to see you holding your grasp on reality so well."

Well I think it's great when the game allows you to make choices, and also provide you with shitty consequences rather than hold your hand always and lead you safely through itself. Also shitty consequences is not the same thing as an unfinishable state. They just spice "choices and consequences" with certain element of realism and danger.

I actually would like to tell a little story that I just now remembered. It happened five years ago, in my first playthrough.

You see, somewhere in storyline you need to sail onto some distant island, and when you do get that far you need to get a ship to sail. And how do you get a ship? Well you could buy it for a very large amount of cash somewhere in tens of thousands (I only had like 500) or you could get one from an undead pirate called Pete.

Bob: "Now that's a brilliant name for an undead pirate."

Anyway there are three ways to get the ship from Pete, gamble for it (unfortunately I didn't find gambling skills important early in the game so I had not invested any points into it), kill Pete for the ship, which I tried but couldn't beat him since my character was built as a diplomatic character...

Bob: "Diplomatic character who doesn't have any gambling skills? Isn't that like an oxymoron?"

... or do three quests for Pete. Well what happened was that I screwed up one of his quests, I don`t remember how, but I do remember the fear that I was not going to finish the game and that all this was for nothing. So there I was, doing sadly some quests for some gnomish politician in hopes of earning some cash, when another gnomish guy comes to talk with me. He offered me a job as an assassin and the amount of cash was just what I needed. I remember this because I had serious moral issues with this quest, you see back then I played myself in RPG's, or at least an ideal of myself - a weak in body, charismatic, very handsome, unbelievably sexy and intelligent male with a kind heart.

Bob: "Oh God! That just screams white and nerdy to me."

He wanted me to kill the King of Caladon, it was purely political and purely for money, so I couldn't justify myself (if he would have said that kill the king because he rapes virgins then I would have had no issues with it), but I wanted to finish the game badly. So I did it, back then I felt that part of me died, that I lost my blood innocence, that I sold my soul to Devil and there was no redemption for me (I was fourteen at the time); nowadays I can walk and kill everyone on sight in games with no problems at all. That quest itself was greatly designed, with lots of sneaking and backstabbing... I mean how many quests from games do you remember after four years of playing it?

Bob: "And what was the point of all this? Memories of a gaming veteran? Oh, please!"

I thought it would be a lot better to illustrate the gameplay of Arcanum rather than trying to describe it.

And now I would like to talk about the other major brilliance factor for this game, it's atmosphere.

It's steampunk!!! Not steampunk like in the sense that Thief 2 was steampunk, and not steampunk in the sense that the dwarf has a gun, but steampunk like a 19th century Victorian England.

Bob: "And of course the dwarf does indeed possess a gun."

Everyone duck, the dwarf has a gun!!!

Bob: "That was lame."

Ah, I'm killing myself here. And of course the music, composed by Bill Houge and possessing a very 19th century feel, was a major contributor to the atmosphere. It wasn't always to my taste, but I have to admit that without it the game would have lost something. So kudos for Bill for composing a music closely tied to the style of the gameworld.

Bob: "I personally liked the newspapers, and the whole design of stuff that you can use in some way or another. You know, stuff like "Mom's Beans" cans and... the whole ambiance is great. Nothing wrong with that. The in-game books are also written in that 19th century way. Just great. And I can't believe that you, being a voice-acting buff and all, haven't mentioned Rino Romano yet."

Oh yes, the voice-acting. It was great. And Rino Romano's role as Virgil was great, because Virgil was the eternal companion (though optional) to the player and he grow and changed the most in the game. And of course, other voices were great to, unfortunately their characters were not that memorable.

And now something completely different...

The Bad

Arcanum is an open-ended game with a big world. But an open-ended game must keep the player interested. A big world might just turn out to be big island with lots of no-names (Morrowind for example). So how does an open-ended game with a big world maintain the players interest? Artsy main story about the nature of the man? No, not really, Planescape style doesn`t really work in a game like Arcanum, Ultimas 5-7 or Fallout. Interesting writing then, stylish presentation of dialogue? Yes, for example. And here we come to the first problem.

While Arcanum does indeed possess nice dialogue, but it's all style and no substance. The npc's in this game have no life.

Bob: "That sounds kinda hypocritical since you have no life either."

They seem to exist for the sole reason to give you quests or being obstacles before your path that you either kill or persuade. Everything they say is somehow involved with you. And when you gained what you got, there's no point in talking with them more. Especially considering the fact that some even don't have the dialogue tree after you've done with them. Let me give you an example. Here Bob, I need your help for this one.

The player character meets an npc, quite fittingly named Bob, before getting a related quest.

Bob: "Hello, nice weather we're having.
PC: "I must depart now."

The player character meets Bob after getting the quest.

PC: "I heard that you might know the whereabouts of Bla-bla?"
Bob: "Bla-bla? Yes that name does ring a bell, but I'm a businessman and I would be a poor businessman if I would freely give away such information.
If the pc persuades: "You are THE businessman Bob?!!? I'm your biggest fan. I have every one of your books: "Why good girls like rich fat men.", "Money and ethics", etcetera."
Bob: "You liked them?!! I mean of course you liked them, I am after all THE businessman Bob, ha-ha-ha! (I'm really enjoying this acting stuff) Hey, have you heard that story when I bought a dwarven kingdom with two broken shoes?

Then Bob rambles on, he gets in a good mood and gives you what you want for free. Now if you don't have enough persuading skill, then you must do a quest for him. Of course you can always kill him. If you gained what you want and then later come back to talk with Bob he'll only say something like "Nice to see you again, friend."

Now the dialogue is nicely written, but every single npc that is talkative (which means that you can have more than 2 responses with them) is related to some side-quest or another. And when you didn't have quest involving that npc then you couldn't talk to him. These npc's have no life, they are not real characters, they are obstacles that the player must overcome. And thus every sort of dialogue was oriented around the player. Which might be ego-boosting for some people, but for me it robbed the world a lot of detail. This game really needed some NPC that would be part of the world, rather than being part of the quest. Big worlds must have a sense of reality to it. Shallow npc's won't help with that. It made world feel empty.

Bob: "Actually, it's not that different from Baldur's Gate series."

My personal opinion is that Arcanum is a far better game than BG1 so I won't comment on that, but BG2, also an open-ended game, maintains the players interest with fully fledged-out party members, their conflicts with others and of course romances also. It gave the game an adventure novel feel. And what about the party members in Arcanum?

Most of the joinable characters fall into shallow category, Only party members that were worth taking were the voiced ones. And even those were kinda bland. For one thing, you really don't talk to them when they are in your party (you ask questions like "Can I look your inventory?" or "What do you know of this place?") and they don't talk to you, you talk to them before they join and they talk to you before going into the Void (the endgame part). It is somekinda weird mix between Fallout's and BG's way of interacting with party members.

Bob: "I just have to mention it, that everything you put as fault to casual npc's and party-members is done in Virgil."

Yeah, but having one npc doing all the character arc's and world-depth is too much for one character, voiced by Rino Romano or not.

Also another thing. Arcanum has some form of npc schedules, but they are primitive compared to Ultima 7. It seems that only shopkeepers and those npc's that you can steal from have time schedules and it looks like this: in the morning he or she gets up, stands in one room for 16 hours and then goes to the next room to sleep. Brilliant, eh?

Bob: "Well to be honest, the only npc's to have schedules are the ones that are involved in the thieves guild quests."

Yeah, but those quests were horrible. You get the person's name and object you must steal. But why does Cedric Appleby keep a Sword of Derian-Ka in his safe, or why does Fitzgerald own a Potion of the Darkest Evil? There's no reason for those things to be there. It's just fed-ex in it's vilest form.

What else can a open-ended game do, to maintain players interest - Background detail? Yes, Arcanum's background detail was very good. As Bob mentioned, many of the books were nicely written, newspapers were fun to read. But, everything that was talked about in books, every historical incident, the player most probably met all of these things. It caused the effect that the world turns around the player, it made the world seem small and without life. Again, to make a big world, have some background that the player won't experience himself, it makes the world look more alive. Like in Baldurs Gate or Morrowind, there were books that described events which the player had no chance getting involved with - the world had history. Or Ultima 7 where there lots were of fully detailed characters that did not have anything to do with the main story or side-quests - the world had life. Arcanum does neither of these.

Bob: "A game can still be good, if it doesn't do things like that."

But Arcanum flirts with those things. Arcanum does some primitive npc schedules and flirts with history, but when you dig deeper, it all falls apart.

And then the mystery plot. The plot did it's job when it kept most things secret (like most of mystery stories). Of course it jumped from one thing to another like a Dan Brown novel and is about on the same quality. But what really bothered me was, that after meeting Nasrudin, everything just fell apart. The revelations were too big, and since the player already has met all the historical character described in books, and when it comes around that everything and even the industrial revolution is related to the Big Baddie and the player... well it shattered the final shards of illusion of the world and made it look like someone's playground. And the final revelation was the worst one of them all.

The player meets the big Baddie.

Bob: "Can I play the Big Baddie?"

Sure, but I gotta warn the reader, that there be spoilers following.

SPOILERS START.

Player: "Die, big Baddie!"
Big Baddie: "No, I am not the big Baddie. He is!"
Player: "Okay, sorry! Wanna join my party?"
False Big Baddie: "Okay."

The player and the fake Big Baddie unite and go together to kill the real Big Baddie.

Player: "Sayonara, you big Baddie!"
The Real Big Baddie: "No, wait a minute. I must tell you why I am the big baddie."
Player: "Okay. I guess I can spare a moment or two."
The Real Big Baddie: "You see, when people live, they choose evil and kill and rape each other. They hurt each other. They die. And go to Hell. But what if I killed them all?"
Player: "Umm... I guess they would die. And still go to Hell."
The Real Big Baddie: "Oh, I didn't thought about that. My mistakey. Sorry. See ya!"
Player: "See ya!"

SPOILERS END.

Okay, the dialogue itself was written with more style and depth, but it really felt like that. There wasn't enough foreshadowing for the real big baddie, so he really felt out of place. Villains should have more presence in the story. He just jumped out in the last moment.

Bob: "His name was mentioned couple of times in some historical books."

Yeah, I already complained about how the player (if he is as obsessed in discovering all the secrets like I am) can meet every historical character and find every historical secrets mentioned in the game.

Bob: "The thing is, in a way it shows Arcanum's brilliance."

What you mean?

Bob: "Well, I've been patiently listening here to your complaints. And I must say that they are unfair. The good thing is that you have stayed away from the typical cliché's of Arcanum reviews - which are focusing just on bugs and the lousy combat. But you still pick only on couple of parts of Arcanum - the game world feeling kinda fake and the boring party members."

I'm not really following you here.

Bob: "You see, you're only criticizing the parts that to you are the essence of roleplaying games. But that's the biggest mistake to make with Arcanum. Arcanum, in it's very core, does everything that that people might associate with the word RPG. So you just can't pick on few details, because Arcanum isn't that kind of a game. Arcanum is an ambitious project and... well let's take a look at character creation for a moment: you can create any character you want (sex addict, inventor, gun-slinging adventurer, an elven mage with big boobs, etc.)

Now most games just end there, but Arcanum allows you to play any way you want.

Want to go hunting for historical artifacts and treasures - sure, check in the library, search in the ancient manuscripts and go all Indiana Jones on ancient burial grounds.

Want to just hack and slash like Diablo - sure, turn the real-time combat on and slaughter entire cities.

Want to kill anything you see and still be able to finish the game - sure, see the Diablo thing above.

Want to have tough moral situations a la Ultima - sure, and you are not forced in the role of reverend Eric Camden in fantasyland this time.

Want to have npc drama and romance a la Bioware - sure, the elven chick and Virgil embody that design.

Want to play this game without having any combat at all - yes you can, sure it's hard and requires deep knowledge of the game, but it's possible.

Want to have choices and consequences and branching storyline - sure, every quest has multiple solutions and outcomes and the evil and good paths of the game are strikingly different from each other (evil one being the more simpler one also).

Want to experience the legends and stories of the world - sure, books and and some npc's (and there were couple of guys, who were just there for giving the world some depth... well just one, but still) talk about the history and political tensions of the world. The last ride of the knights of Dernholm was my favorite piece of lore.

Want to experience a Japanese rpg like story with heavy philosophical themes - sure, just play the damn thing.

Basically, Arcanum does anything that a person calling himself a roleplayer, from whatever niche he is from (choices and consequences, story, combat, exploration, etc.) would find the things he wants from the game."

Wow, if you put it that way. That is pretty fucking awesome. Wow.

But, it does all this things worse than the games designed for these niches alone - hack and slash being disappointing for Diablo fan, story being disappointing for the Japanese rpg fan (cause it lacks emotional drama), romances being disappointing for Baldur's Gate II fan (cause there's not much else beside the sex in the romance), the world feeling fake for fans of Ultima 7 and Morrowind.

Bob: "Yes, Arcanum doesn't do some of the things as great as the games individually designed for those particular niches. But, in it's defense I must say - Arcanum is the only RPG that combines everything associated with the word RPG, and it kicks the living daylights out of Fallout with it's choices and consequences."

So, I'm a dumbfuck?

Bob: "Yes, yes you are. Just because Arcanum didn't deliver on things that for you are the most important element in roleplaying games, doesn't give you the right to dismiss it without taking into consideration the ambition behind the game - which was one step closer to The Ultimate RPG. And in this case the ambition is great enough to ignore the faulty design."

The Bottom Line

Bob: "Anyway, bottom line, Arcanum is a faulty game. But it's one helluva game. And while it's not perfect, it's one step closer to the Ultimate RPG design. It's so ambitious that I can't just help admiring it. True it might mean that I appreciate the design of Arcanum more than the actual fruition. But I think it would be sad if Arcanum would be forgotten, since it shows that a thing like the ultimate rpg can exist."

Wow, I had no idea.

Bob: "And you even forgot to mention that Arcanum has one of the greatest optional side-quests ever ;)."

But to who would you recommend the game then? The way I understand is, that despite Arcanum being one step closer to the idea of the Ultimate RPG, it's still only manages to be enjoyed by people heavily interested in theoretical interactive media design.

Bob: "You could be right, but it's the people involved in game design who are doing new RPG's, and in RPG design Arcanum is very educational. I don't care what you say, but I'm not allowing this game to go with any grade lower than 5."

You need to have one of them final quotes also, just like in them professional reviews.

Bob: "Arcanum is an ambitious RPG, and while it has a lot of flaws, it's one step closer to the ideal of the ULTIMATE RPG and it would be a shame if this game would be forgotten."

Well that's nice, but I'm going to ignore you now. It's not nice to hijack my reviews, even if for a good cause. The design might have been ambitious, but the final product didn't satisfy me. So I can't give it the praise you have given. But I will take this new information into account when rating the game.

So good-night the mysterious voice inside my head. Now leave me alone with my booze to ponder on important thoughts about games.