Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review
If you're serious about role-playing games, Arcanum is well worth the investment of time, money, and effort.
Arcanum is a traditional fantasy role-playing game with several distinctive traits, including a great premise and a nonlinear, open-ended role-playing system. But the game's broad design brings with it a host of problems that may not be easy for you to get past. Three years in the making, Arcanum is the fledgling effort of Troika Games, a small studio founded by several key members of the team that created Fallout-- Interplay's memorable, highly enjoyable postapocalyptic role-playing game--back in 1997. Arcanum bears many noticeable similarities to Fallout. Like its predecessor, it gives you plenty of freedom within its open-ended world--the freedom to approach the game's many challenges by using a variety of courses of action, from civil to brutal. Unfortunately, Arcanum suffers from a host of rather serious flaws, including an overall lack of polish, which can end up making the game disappointing more often than enjoyable for some players. These problems veil what's an otherwise captivating and immersive role-playing experience.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Arcanum is its setting: The game takes place in a fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution, much like the United States' industrial revolution during the Victorian era in the late 19th century. Suddenly, trains, electricity, and flintlock pistols have invaded a world previously ruled by swords and sorcery. Meanwhile, social tensions are mounting--previously segregated races, such as elves, dwarves, gnomes, and half-orcs, are trying to coexist in newly built metropolises. It's a great concept, and it's just as inspired as Fallout's campy yet violent setting.
You play Arcanum from an isometric perspective similar to that found in games such as Baldur's Gate II, Diablo II, and countless others. Like in most role-playing games, your time in Arcanum is mostly spent traveling from place to place, engaging in (or circumventing) combat, and talking to various nonplayer characters. Creating your own character at the beginning of the adventure (or choosing from one of the many prefabricated ones) is a lot of fun. The game's depiction of various traditional high-fantasy races within its unique setting is very well done--you'll enjoy just cycling through all the beautifully hand-painted character portraits available. There are no character classes as such in Arcanum--you can gain proficiency in various combat skills, social skills, and stealth skills; and you can learn spells in many different schools of magic ("magick" in the game) and even gain technical proficiency in various scientific disciplines.
One of the central themes in Arcanum is the conflict between magic and technology. This conflict constantly manifests itself in the game, such that a magically proficient character won't be able to effectively use technology, whereas a skilled technologist will make a poor magic user (and spells will fizzle when cast on the character). On top of having to choose between the path of magic or technology (or neither), you'll even have the option to give your character one of many backgrounds (raised by monks, sold his or her soul, ran away with the circus, and so forth), and these affect his or her vital statistics in various ways. Given all the different options, chances are you'll enjoy this initial step of creating your in-game persona, even though it's a little overwhelming at first.
While many of the quests in the game are fairly involved and do indeed allow for multiple solutions to suit different types of characters, at the same time, many of the game's situations necessarily involve combat. Combat is a major part of Arcanum, and for the most part, it's simply awful. You can choose from turn-based or real-time combat and readily toggle between the two, but neither option works well. Real-time combat happens in a frantic blur, as all parties involved hack away at each other to the death. The haphazard, too-quick animation makes Arcanum's battles look unintentionally comical--it's like watching people mill about stiltedly in some turn-of-the-century movie played at double speed. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be a deliberate effect, since there's nothing flattering about the dated, washed-out, low-resolution graphics found throughout Arcanum. Since the real-time combat is practically uncontrollable, you'll usually have to stick with the turn-based option. It's a very basic system that lacks meaningful tactical options and essentially limits you to pounding on the enemy by attacking as many times as your total number of action points will allow. As in the Fallout games, you can't even control your party members directly, though you can give them a few basic battle orders.