An Enriching Yet Ultimately Flawed Experience
Let me preface this review by admitting that my relationship with Arcanum is... strained. It has taken me multiple attempts at playing the game over a period of nearly seven years finally to muster up the will to play the game to its conclusion. Perhaps this difficulty stems from a case of excessively impossible expectations on my part. Ever since I first read a preview of the game in late 2000, I had incredibly high hopes for the first CRPG by (the now defunct) Troika. After all, Troika was founded by the creative masterminds behind Fallout, perhaps my favorite game of all time, and the company's maiden voyage into the realm of PC role-playing seemed destined for greatness. It promised all of the elements that had made Fallout such a legendary game: a uniquely interesting game world, an intuitive and deeply flexible “classless” character creation system, and tactical turn-based combat should my in-game actions necessitate armed conflict. Even after receiving my preordered copy in late 2001, I was still unable to play the game for a few months due to a lack of free time to commit to such a massive RPG. Nevertheless, I found myself glossing through the game's massive manual, elaborately envisioning what sort of character I was going to create when I finally got the chance to venture into the world of Arcanum. It was just short of borderline obsession with a game I had yet to install on my computer's hard drive.
Perhaps it was simply inevitable, then, that my actual experience with the game fell far beneath my lofty expectations. Regardless, there remains a definite conflict within me as to just exactly how I feel about Fallout's half-brother, and this review is partly my own attempt to reconcile that conflict. At its core, I find Arcanum to be a mind-boggling mix of ingenuity and mediocrity, a rather peculiar blend that manages simultaneously to please and to repulse the gaming palate. Out of respect for my younger self's initial optimism for this “unique” RPG (not to mention the requirements of the MobyGames review format), let's start with the appealing elements of the game.
There are certainly plenty of things that Arcanum does right. First and foremost, the game world – or at the very least its premise – is one of the more appealing and well-conceived settings in any RPG period. Like Fallout before it, the world of Arcanum is highly innovative: a steampunk setting based on the real-world circa 1885 mixed with Tolkienesque high fantasy, elves and all. It is a world of conflict (and what good setting isn't?), but this conflict is more ideological than anything else. Technology – Victorian-era devices such as the steam engine and the locomotive – has revolutionized the world, and the old order of feudal kingdoms, chivalrous knights, and eccentric wizards is giving way to what one in-game personality loosely refers to as “pistol-brandishing cowards.” Of course, the technological-magickal conflict has a physical element as well: the two forces do not mesh, causing direct conflict not only between the forces themselves, but also between their respective adherents. Powerful mages are denied passage on trains due to the possibility of malfunction, there is animosity between the magickal elves and the tech-minded dwarves, and healing magicks have little to no effect upon those who practice technology. Even if it is not implemented as well as it could have been, the ideas such as these behind Arcanum's setting stand as a testament to innovation in game design.
Also like Fallout, Arcanum possesses a deep and flexible character creation system. In fact, Arcanum's system is quite possibly the most in-depth and intricate system I've ever seen, providing an unprecedented amount of freedom for players to create the kind of character they want to play. Want to be the best fighter ever to walk the land of Arcanum? Build up your Strength, Dexterity, and Melee and Dodge skills. Aspire to be the greatest, most feared necromancer who ever lived? There is a bevy of spells to choose from. Simply wish to dabble a bit in both roads to power so as to maximize your ability to get rich? Balance your skill point distribution among select spell colleges and technological disciplines as you see fit. The number of combinations of skills and attributes – not to mention special character backgrounds that provide both a special benefit and a drawback – is ridiculously high. Of course, it would be easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by such a daunting number of options (more on that later), but to those who invest the time and effort, the character system is one of the best ever devised.
Of course, the most skillfully crafted settings and characters mean nothing without a compelling reason to explore them. Fortunately, Arcanum delivers in this area as well, starting players off with an intriguing action-filled beginning that provides a definite adventure hook. The zeppelin on which the player's character is riding is gunned down, and the only other survivor dies shortly after giving the character a mysterious ring and instructions to “find the boy.” The player is then informed by a bystander – a neophyte religious devotee – that he is the reincarnation of an ancient elven deity. Shortly thereafter, mysterious assassins begin targeting the player. The opening is a magnificent call to adventure, and despite its propensity for disappearing for extended periods of time, the main storyline is highly compelling. It touches on a number of robust issues, from the costs of technology and resource usage, to race relations, to the philosophical implications of death and banishment. Though several key plot points are eventually dropped or forgotten, there can be no denying that the tale woven by the designers is if nothing else a wonderfully fitting excuse to explore and adventure in a strange new world.
Though the creative elements of Arcanum are mostly praiseworthy, the technical elements (i.e. the gameplay) leave a terrible aftertaste. For every ingenius design decision as far as setting, character flexibility, and so on, there is an equally bafflingly terrible decision in the implementation thereof. I'm not quite sure whether this is better described as Newton's third law of gaming or as Murphy's law of gaming, but the fact remains that there are just as many (if not more) things that Arcanum does wrong as it does right.
For starters, the combat system in Arcanum just plain sucks. Why the designers of Fallout, which had one of the best RPG combat systems ever, were unable to implement something better than this is beyond me. The biggest contributor to this lackluster gameplay element is the fact that combat can be run in either turn-based or real-time mode, as Sierra insisted that the game not be solely turn-based for marketing reasons. On the surface, this appears to be yet another way of providing choice to the player, but such a choice is ultimately deceiving. Instead of being tactically sound like Fallout's or strangely addictive like Diablo's, Arcanum's combat systems are horrible shadows of the ones in those games. Combat becomes tedious, ridiculously easy, and flat-out pointless very quickly, as enemies seldom do anything other than charge into melee with the character. This battle conundrum is certainly due to the fact that it is difficult enough to balance a single combat system; trying to balance two separate ones within the same title is a near impossibility.
This lack of balance is without a doubt the game's biggest issue, not only in combat but in all aspects of the design. A lot of this problem comes from the designers' sheer ambition in providing unprecedented freedom in character development. There are so many things to choose from that it's simply impossible for all of them to be equally useful and/or represented in the game world. Some skills are useful maybe once in the entire game, while others (such as Melee and Dodge) are practically indispensable. In fact, pure melee characters have an almost ridiculously easy time with their adventure in Arcanum, due to the fact that experience is gained not for defeating an enemy, but rather for each successful attack. Melee characters thus level up at an alarmingly fast rate, and therefore obviously have a distinct advantage – a fact that even the game's manual is quick to admit. Other character types have a much more difficult time of things. “Hybrid” characters? Forget about it. Sure, they CAN be played, but the game is so ridiculously unbalanced against them that it's not advisable. Such is the double-edged sword nature of open-ended “free” game design, I suppose.
There is, however, ample evidence of a lack of polish and sufficient care in crafting the game that leads me to believe that there were certainly just plain bad decisions made in the game's design. Many gamers have often cited the outrageous number of bugs – not only in Arcanum, but in every game that Troika ever made – as a major drawback. There are definitely quite a few annoying bugs; I had issues with a random memory leak that slowed animations to a near crawl, as well as the fact that the game would fail to reset my display's brightness upon exiting the program, leaving my desktop a strangely luminescent white color until I manually went back in and reset it. There was nothing game crippling, but the bugs were annoying nonetheless.
The bugs, however, are minor compared to the overall lack of quality control that plagues Arcanum. Aside from the usual underdeveloped areas, quests, and NPCs (especially late in the game), there are many things that happen in gameplay that simply don't make any sense. For example, right before confronting the Schuylers about their dealings, I recruited the dwarven tech specialist, Magnus, who also had a beef with them. Without spoiling anything, I will simply say that Magnus and I decided to put an end to them, and emerged victorious in combat. Magnus thanked me for siding with him and permanently joined my party. Months of game time later, however, I asked Magnus to wait for me for a few minutes while I took care of a minor quest in one of the game's towns. When I asked him to rejoin me less than five minutes of real time later, he angrily refused. “Wait a minute,” he exclaimed, “you've been off making friendly with those Schuylers behind my back, haven't ye?” Umm, no Magnus, we killed them about nine months ago in game time, remember? Weird scripting errors like this one litter the game world. Characters remind me of things that we never talked about previously, I am given dialogue options detailing things that have never been mentioned in the game, and so on. While a few instances of this sort of thing are to be expected in any game of this magnitude, the sheer number of such errors in Arcanum falls just short of offensive.
The Bottom Line
I'm still not quite sure what to think about Arcanum. On the one hand, it's extremely appealing and outstanding; on the other, it's maddeningly inconsistent, poorly actualized, and sadly mediocre. Perhaps the best way for me to sum up Arcanum is as an ambitious failure, a flawed experience that is nevertheless appealing. I have made no secret of my mixed feelings toward this once-promising game, but after seven years and numerous playthrough attempts, I can finally say that this game has been an overall positive experience for me. This game certainly doesn't hold a candle to the upper echelon of CRPGs like Fallout or Planescape: Torment. Due to its incredibly unique and immersive world, though, it is still worth experiencing and enjoying – if its faults can be overlooked, that is. If you admire it for what it's trying to do and what it represents instead of what it ends up doing a lot of the time, you will find that it's a gem of an RPG, albeit an unpolished one.