Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura


Review by · June 20, 2002

Once a place ruled by magic and inhabited by a number of races all in equilibrium, the world of Arcanum was peaceful and quiet. Now, the mechanical age has arrived, and the townspeople begin to demand mass production of steam-driven engines and firearms. The mages begin to grow leery as technology rises to rival the strength of magic. The scientists with their machines began to strengthen themselves to equality with the reality-bending mages. For a short amount of time, the two sects existed in peaceful symbiosis, however the mages soon started to go into isolation and the chasm that separated technology and magic began to widen. In this shaky situation, the player begins his quest into the rifted world of Arcanum.

The chosen one

Our story opens with an immediate twist of plot. The zeppelin that once was your way of passage is now wreckage after a crash landing. You are the sole survivor. Well, actually there is another survivor who ends up giving you a ring and biding you find the owner before promptly dying himself, but you are the sole survivor if you wait until after the first five minutes. And with your first quest already having been assigned, you are free to enter the world of Arcanum.

The main story of Arcanum is mostly a string of quests tied to one central plot and purpose, thus most of your time will be spent doing quests for various NPCs until primary objectives are made available that will advance the plot. While Arcanum is technically non-linear, you are limited slightly as to what you can do. For example, some areas are inaccessible until certain requirements are met in the main story. When you actually complete an objective linked to the main story is completely up to you, but due to the limits placed on where you can go, it is impossible to complete all sidequests before considering the main quest.

Unfortunately, many of the secondary objectives provided by NPCs that are meant to be fun diversions from the main story are small and unimportant to the core scheme of the game, making the player feel as if what he or she is doing lacks any real motivating factor. These objectives thus tend to feel more like obstacles and chores rather then story enhancing sidequests.

Most quests are combat oriented, which gives the illusion that a purely combat character would be an advantageous choice. This is not true, however. Theoretically, the game can be played solo with a combat intensive character, but with the option of bringing up to five party members for assistance, the prospect of creating a sort of ‘mob leader’ with lackeys to do the work for you becomes all the more interesting. Creating a character who is quite the smooth talker and thinker but cannot handle a weapon for the life of him is feasible and creates a completely new element of playing that is not available when played with a skilled solo fighter.

Unfortunately, even this rather cool and innovative style of play suffers from several problems. First of all, you cannot directly control your party members, only give them vague target and disengage commands. So if you opt to have a party of fighters do the blade swinging for you, you may never have the chance to experience combat the way it should be experienced. It would have been great for Arcanum to have the feature of allowing you to control your party so that you could get a feel of how different characters and specializations are played, but alas, you are limited to controlling your main character only.

On the other side of this coin, however, the player is coaxed to play the game multiple times in order to experience fully every possibility in character building. Especially when faced with the fact that certain areas and certain quests are only available to specific kinds of characters (i.e. very smart ones, particularly evil ones, etc.). Combining these two factors makes for a game that is very different in each play through. The difference between a technologically competent but combat deficient thief and a frontline magic user is incredible, not only in playing style, but in what can actually be played as well. It is impossible to experience Arcanum fully unless you play several times with several different characters.

Variety – The spice of life

Character Creation

As I have already alluded, character creation is easily the most fun aspect of Arcanum simply because of its diversity. When creating a character, you first must pick from a bank of seven races (the typical list of human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome, half-orc, and half-ogre), and for some races, either male or female. Next comes a part that I find a fascinating inclusion: the selection of the character’s background. You can choose to be ugly but tough, beautiful but weak, or soulless and cunning but with an affinity toward animals, among others. This particular selection not only adds depth to the main character, but also modifies certain attributes to reflect the character’s life prior to you taking control over him. Finally, you may assign points to specific attributes, skills, or even directly to your hit points (HP) or fatigue points (FP).

Arcanum is completely classless, making the very last step a choice of specializations and disciplines, rather then pre-arranged skills based on a class. You can literally do anything you want, provided you have the character points to pay for it. This is very nice, because you do not have to be a straight thief, you can simply add some aspects of thievery to your warrior and have a generally well-rounded character.

You can mix and match anything you want to create your own ‘class’, whether you want the solid warrior or a fighter who can also steal and is skilled with machines. What you cannot, or more accurately should not, do is mix technology and magic. The rift created by the scientists and mages have, unfortunately, left you unable to become skilled in one area without being poor in the other. In fact, there is even an in-game technological affinity meter, which shows to which side you are leaning in the magic versus science feud. The more you concentrate on one side, the better you become at it, and the more reliable skills from that particular area become. However, this concentration causes the other side to become less reliable. Because of this, it is incredibly impractical to try to utilize magic and technology at the same time. It is a realistic system that creates even more diversity in character creation, but gives the short end of the stick to people who would like to use both magic and technology together and in harmony.

Character Growth

Once your character has been created, he can be further modified as the game progresses. Upon leveling, you are presented with a small increase in HP and FP, and given the chance to distribute some statistic points to your attributes or to save them to purchase basic skills, magic spells, or technological degrees. However, doing so seems somewhat impractical. Since skill level (on a range of one to five) is also dependent on attribute level (you must have a 12 in dexterity in order to advance to a three in melee, for example), attributes must first be raised before skills can even be considered. And it seems much more efficient to raise the levels of your attributes prior to worrying about skills.

The skills to which I refer consist of magical spells, thief skills such as picking pockets and locating traps, and combat oriented things, like dodging or melee ability. All of these can be raised provided you have the points available to allocate and the prerequisite attribute level already.


A wonderful addition, Arcanum gives its players the option to battle in real-time or by using a turn-based system. While I tried to play real-time at first (as it is the option I prefer as I am a fan of strategic combat), it quickly turned out to be almost impossible and incredibly burdensome. Battles in this system play out much as they do in Baldur’s Gate. The major exception, however, is that there is no pause feature. You are able to battle only as fast as you can click. This is not strategic; it is reminiscent of a button-mashing fighting game.

I quickly switched to turn-based and found my experiences here to be much better, albeit slightly confusing at first. Each character receives action points, visible as little dots on the screen, that are exhausted in varying amounts depending on the attack that is used. The number of action points given to a character is based on his or her speed rating, which is calculated using dexterity and equipment encumbrance, and modified by weapon speeds. Once I understood the turn-based system, I decided to ignore the real-time option completely. It became a pretty useless feature compared to turn-based combat.

The only problem I really have with combat other then its slightly steep learning curve and its extraneous implementation of real-time combat is the fact that it is extremely melee biased. Casting spells (and being hit) lowers stamina, and upon reaching zero, you fall unconscious. Though stamina does regenerate, it is far too slow to be able to rely on magic without running the risk of rapid exhaustion. Likewise, ranged combat is out of the question as carrying around the required amount of ammunition is impractical. In addition, ranged combat very seldom deals enough damage to dispatch an opponent. Guns in particular are only useful in the beginning; however, you only begin to be able to afford a supply of bullets later in the game when the use of guns is no longer worthwhile.

I find combat to be occasionally unbalanced as well. By merely exploring a little, you may be quickly ambushed by monsters that you have no hope of being able to defeat. Several times in quests, I have found the solution of provocation and immediate dispatching to be unsuccessful as the NPC rapidly slaughters me. Leveling up to face these stronger opponents is out of the question as well, as gaining levels is slow and monotonous.

With such a wide diversity in combat tactics, it surprises me to see that melee combat is the only method that works. It would have been excellent to see a way to utilize the more obscure talents of party members to dispatch foes creatively, but when choosing NPCs to have tag along, mindless warrior cohorts will often work best.

Hit every branch while falling down the ugly tree

Perhaps this title is overly harsh, but there really is not much to praise in the graphics department of Arcanum. At best, it seems as if it was included as a utility feature; something that had to be there, so was just done well enough to keep people from complaining too much.

The scenery graphics are pretty elementary, but do not really detract from the overall gaming experience. Likewise, animation is simple and basic, but gets the job done. Some of the special spell effects are done quite well, but it seems that there is too a high frequency of pauses to load the animations from the CD, something that is extremely annoying and brings abrupt halts to player immersion in the heat of battle.

Character designs are not bad, and have the nifty feature of changing based on the equipment that the character is currently wearing. However, but for the most part, they, like the scenery, seem drab and dull.

Backgrounds are boring and repetitive, characters are uninspiring, and the general graphical feel of Arcanum is nothing to write home about. While it does get the job done, it certainly will not turn any heads.

Dead after four hours

Arcanum’s music is not bad at all, and I found myself really enjoying it…for the first four hours. It sounds good and is quite appropriate for the Victorian, 19th century theme conveyed by Arcanum, but after hearing the same tune for four hours as you wander a city trying to complete menial tasks, it really starts to grate on one’s nerves. Variety in scores is mandatory if you wish not to bore your audience, something that should have been learned prior to developing Arcanum.

Sound effects really do not stick out too much in my mind, which is due in part to the fact that there were not that many sounds. You have the typical clanging of metal in melee combat and wispy, supernatural sounds for magic effects, but for the most part they were repetitive and seemed to slink into the background. Also, the recording quality does not seem as good as it should have been, and several sound effects are much louder than other ones. This fact would be understandable if only moderate in the variation, but the fact that an axe swing is so much louder then a conjured fireball is a little bit out of the ordinary. I found myself having to change the volume on my speakers more than once to avoid being blasted or unable to hear what was going on.

Voice acting was solidly done, but was very sparse. Each character had definite personality in his or her voice, but one character in particular sounded just a little…odd (you will know who I am talking about when you meet him). For the most part, the voices were well done, but should have been used more often. I would have liked to see every major NPC at least have his or her own voice rather then being so rarely used.

Limits even in mediocrity

Control was mediocre at best. It was not necessarily difficult, nor was it sticky or slow, but it just did not feel intuitive enough to be comfortable. Battles were especially cumbersome, and it is lack of control that really makes real-time combat impossible.

Control was pretty much all-around average except for battle in real-time, which makes it difficult to give Arcanum a good score. However, considering the only real problem caused by poor controls can be remedied by simply changing a play option, I do not believe its score should be lowered too much. However, making the interface simpler and controls more intuitive would have fixed a ton of problems that plague the current control scheme.

Replay without the redundancy

There is no doubt in my mind that the strongest aspect of Arcanum is its replay value. You simply cannot experience everything you would like to experience in one play. To borrow a used and tired cliché, Arcanum is really like having several games in one. You can play as an evil sorcerer bent on world destruction, or as a benevolent thief who lets his personality do the talking and his cronies do the fighting. Whatever and however you want to play is up to you, and Arcanum will most likely be able to accommodate you. While I would have liked to see a way to mix technology and magic, I understand why that option was not made available.

Arcanum really is a fun game to play despite its faults. While these faults do keep the game from becoming epic, they certainly do not make the game unplayable. It will take quite a few hours of time to play, especially if you plan to enjoy the different uses of the distinct characters, and the majority of your play hours will be well spent. While I cannot guarantee that Arcanum will be a blockbuster for everyone, it certainly has wide enough appeal to stimulate a general audience. Arcanum has a very interesting premise whose execution could use a facelift, but is well done nonetheless. For anyone looking for a role-playing game on the PC, this is a definite recommendation.

Overall Score 86
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Brian Cavner

Brian Cavner

Brian was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2002-2004. During his tenure, Brian bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs. Being a critic can be tough work sometimes, but his steadfast work helped maintain the quality of reviews RPGFan is known for.