Much of the team behind Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is comprised of former Black Isle Studios employees, including key members of the original Fallout team, and it most definitely shows. Arcanum is about as close as one gets to playing a BIS game without actually doing so. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite have the polish and stability of your average Black Isle release. Despite a few gripes I have with the game, I have to say that playing it was a highly enjoyable experience.
If you’ve played Fallout, you’ll feel right at home here, even though the character development is much different. It just has that feel to it. It’s big, it’s nonlinear, and it’s detailed. There are countless sidequests to go on, and one of the largest game worlds I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, a VERY large chunk of it is empty space. That’s not too much of a problem though, as you can travel across these areas quickly by using the world map. Character development is very detailed, yet very simple. You gain experience through the traditional ways, such as killing things and completing quests. One “innovation” I didn’t like about the experience gaining is that you are rewarded for each hit on an enemy, which makes the game much easier for melee focused characters. It’s extremely hard to play a mage in this game. Anyway, back to character development. Each time your character gains a level, you are awarded a skill point or two to spend as you see fit. These skill points are used to develop every single aspect of your character. Want to increase your strength? Spend a skill point. Want to pick locks? Skill point. Want to know how to build guns? You get the idea. The only problem with this is you don’t get enough skill points throughout the course of the game to focus on more than one area effectively. If you attempt to “multi-class” your character, you’re basically screwed. If you know this ahead of time, however, you probably won’t mind too much.
Like Fallout, you can make it through most of the game without fighting, if you so desire. Unlike Fallout, however, the combat isn’t all that fun. It can be played in two ways. The default, which is real-time, plays out like Diablo. This mode, to put it quite plainly, sucks. Enemies move around too fast for you to click them, you have no chance of casting spells, and your AI controlled party members will get slaughtered. Not fun. Unless you are a masochist, I suggest going into the options menu and setting the default to turn-based. This can also be switched on the fly by hitting the space bar. Turn-based mode, while less frustrating, still isn’t exactly tons of fun. Depending on your character’s agility, you’ll get a predetermined amount of action point to spend each round. Everything you do costs points. If you wish, you can elect to spend more action points than you actually have, which depletes your stamina. If you have a large party and are fighting many enemies at once, it can take a very long time in between turns. So long, in fact, that I actually found myself reading a magazine during these long breaks in the action. That’s not exactly the best compliment you can give a game, now, is it? Because of this, I found it best to stay out of combat as much as possible, even with my melee focused character. This in no way affected my character’s growth, however. To be more specific, I hit the maximum level with about five hours left in the game. Note the sarcasm in my voice as I say, “Wow, that’s some great balancing you did, guys!”
Arcanum’s saving grace is its NPC interaction and interesting quests. The dialogue choices are quite varied and differ depending on your character’s statistics. Ugly and stupid characters are treated so, and are forced to act according to their stats. Intelligent and persuasive characters have a much easier time of things, and get some great dialogue choices. I loved a couple points in the game where my character was able to make fun of an NPC without the NPC realizing it. Brilliant. I haven’t had this much fun talking to NPCs since Planescape: Torment. Considering the fact that this is an RPG, it’s all too obvious that many of these NPCs will assign you quests. Unlike many RPGs, however, all but a miniscule amount of the quests are unique and rewarding. A great deal of them play out as mini adventures, which makes them game great for playing in short spurts in between other tasks. This all helps to make up for the poor combat.
The graphics in Arcanum are quite dated. I’d say that they are about on par with the original Diablo. The 2D environments aren’t too bad, but the characters look horrible. They have absolutely no detail and are animated poorly. Considering this game was only released last year, this is unacceptable. I cringed every time I saw my character use what looked like three frames of animation to move. Spell effects, or the lack thereof, are boring and plain. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the awe-inspiring spells of games like Baldur’s Gate 2, but the spells in this game just don’t look very good. I’ll bet those monsters are going to be really scared of a fireball that looks like your character is waving a cigarette lighter around. Yeah, right.
Luckily for Arcanum, its story is excellent. The tale begins as your character wakes up from a zeppelin crash. After conversing with a dying gnome, you receive a mysterious ring and realize that you are the only survivor of the crash. Things get even more complicated when you run into a religious fellow on your way out of the crash site. He seems to think that you’re the second coming of his god. The first leg of your massive quest involves finding the owner of the ring and learning a bit about him. From there, the story gets quite a bit more involved, and, of course, involves a quest to save the world from imminent doom. It moves along at a good pace and doesn’t ever get boring. Most of the game’s characters are developed well and seem to have their own personalities. This creates a very immersive environment, which is easily the game’s strongest area. You really feel as though you’re living out the adventures of your character, which is a rarely accomplished feat among RPGs.
The control in Arcanum isn’t exactly smooth and intuitive. You’re probably thinking, “But how can you screw up the control in a game where all you do is click?” I’ll tell you how. By having a really clunky interface and characters that move like an arthritic C-3PO, that’s how. The interface is not only cumbersome, but it doesn’t always notice the fact that you’ve clicked on something. This can get to be very annoying after a while. Aside from that, just be prepared to click a lot, as is common in almost all PC RPGs. You’ll probably get used to the shoddy controls after a while, but that’s still no excuse.
The sound in Arcanum is pretty good, overall. The music consists entirely of stringed instruments, and it works well. It’s a unique sound that I’ve never heard before, and I found myself consciously enjoying the music as I played, which is rare. The voice acting is also excellent, although sparse. Each speaking character has an easily distinguishable voice that fits him or her well. I especially enjoyed some of the accents various characters used. The sound effects are also of high quality, except for the annoying interface noises. Overall, the sound in Arcanum is of high quality.
While by no means a horrible game, Arcanum doesn’t come close to living up to the hype that was surrounding it upon its release. However, if you have the patience to look past the flaws and dig under the surface, you’ll find an enjoyable adventure underneath. If you don’t think you can deal with the game’s weaknesses, stick with Black Isle’s games for a similar, yet much superior, experience.