Publisher: Havas Interactive
Review Dated: 19th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 74
Average Score: 7.40
Arcanum needs to be given a chance or two. I gave it three. My first character, a gnome pistol duellist, killed himself with three successive misfires before the first monster encounter ever got in to melee range. My second character, a swashbuckling and charming half-orc, simply could not get passed the first major villain (the round boss style). The problem with the second character was that as a half-orc he was neither charming nor swashbuckling. By the third time through the character generation procedure I had a character who stood a chance of getting somewhere in the world. It wasn’t until late on in the game that the fine balancing line between technology and magic became clear to me and I was able to start making decisive advancements. It was luck that I got that far because I nearly gave up. I’m glad I didn’t.
Arcanum does not look visually impressive. It looks rather dated in fact. The opening sequence is standard and the in game play is on par with, say, Baldur’s Gate and yet there are years between the two programs. Baldur’s Gate is typical cheese fantasy set in the Forgotten Realms and Arcanum does a world better by creating a wonderful and highly detailed steampunk world for itself. You just don’t realise how strong the world of Arcanum is until you’ve played it for long enough. The character generation is complex but you’re able to pick a pre-generated character rather than go through the process yourself. For those of us used to RPGs and CRPGS this may seem strange but I think it’s a great way to open up the genre to beginners and I think we’ll see this more and more often.
If the term steampunk is new to you then it’s easy to explain and it’s worthwhile making the effort to understand. The cyberpunk genre is about the balance of man and machine and that’s were steampunk gets its name from but not quite a direct translation of the idea. Steampunk is concerned about the balance of magic and machine. The machines in steampunk are early Victorian. There is gunpowder. Electricity isn’t too much of a mystery. Steam engines are the cutting edge technology of the time (hence ‘steam’ from steampunk). Although the exact technological prowess of steampunk worlds can vary quite a bit the world of Arcanum sits safely in the middle. Magic gets in the way of machines and causes them to stop working and machines get in the way of magic and stops magic working. This means that you’re faced with the usual dilemma of “Should I be strong? Or should I be fast? Strength versus Dexterity” and you’re also faced with the Magic versus Technology debate too. It might be possible to create a character so that the physicall attributes are carefull min-maxed and this becomes easier once you start spending experience points but in Arcanum it is impossible to do with to your Magic and Technology levels. You might know a lot of magic and a lot of technology but you can’t be both magically bias and technologically bias at the same time. It’ll be easy to play Arcanum twice and with two very different characters.
In my opinion a good roleplaying game is more than a good rollplaying game. There’s more than just careful character building and then monster bashing in Arcanum. It is as worth your while to play an intelligent or charismatic character as it is to play a deadly fighter. A great example of this is with your NPC party members. Whereas other games introduce an arbitrary limit on your group Arcanum bases it off your character’s ability to keep the group happy. If you’re playing an anti-social, uncharismatic oaf then no one will want to work with you. If you’re playing a friendly, social and successful gentleman then the chances are you’ll have a small following of friends and allies. Another good aspect of group building (which is one of the measures of the CRPG genre) is that if people in your group do not like each other then they’ll not stay together. Arcanum also stresses roleplaying over rollplaying through the NPCs. You need to go on quests that branch off from the main plot otherwise the difficulty level will defeat you. In order to dig up these quests you’ll have to talk to NPCs and the NPCs across Arcanum are sly little buggers who’ll trick you and string you along or, at least, expect you to say the right things. There are as many social and diplomatic battles to be won in Arcanum as there are fights.
Conversations with NPCs are great. The NPCs lead all the conversations but we have to accept that as a technological limitation of the computer programs at the time than a conscience choice. However, the conversation options are always influenced by just how smart you are and what else you’ve done. Typically, in other RPGs, there’s one token riddle conversation where the correct answer only appears if you’re smart enough. Throughout conversations in Arcanum there are hundreds of options that come and go based on your character’s stats.
Arcanum is non-linear. You can do what you want. You can sell what you want, kill who you want (but you still can’t join with the baddies), accept or decline alliances and go where you want. If you try and follow the core plot then you’ll be thwarted because the monsters quickly become too tough for you. You have to nose around and get experience in other areas first. I found myself travelling back between important dwarf mines and a key city many times just to test my mettle against the trouble in the mines and the NPCs in the city.
There’s a world map and you can travel to anywhere you want on it. If you’re lucky enough to travel past a place of interest then it’ll appear on your map. The map’s designed so that you can’t get through mountain ranges or to interesting looking islands until you have access to a boat or know where the mountain pass is and so although the world map is as non-linear as the plot there are plenty of checks to keep you pretty much on the right track. Travelling around takes time, not so much that you have time to go make a cup of coffee while you and your party are crossing the map but you’ll certainly see the game time fly past. If you see somewhere interesting appear on the map then I strongly recommend cancelling your current travel plans, saving the game and going to investigate.
As an important point I encourage saving the game often. Here in my Windows ME machine I found Arcanum to be less stable than I would have liked. The game did not crash too often but it did suffer from two scary problems. The first problem is that it couldn’t cope with you multi-tasking. If you alt-tab to a different program then you can forget about Arcanum re-loading correctly. The graphics mess up but the game still chugs along behind the distorted screen. At least this means that if multi-task happened by accident (your computer shuffled your windows in order to tell you something) you should be able to remember where the save buttons are, save the game, quit, reload and return to the normal. The other nasty stability problem I found with Arcanum was that saved games were too prone to corrupting. With horror I loaded up an advanced game to find myself naked save for my boxer shorts in the middle of an entirely flat field. There was chest beside me and interestingly enough this chest had everything in that the initial character generation shop could sell me. Well. It was interesting for about ten seconds before I really wanted my real game back. If you persist, quit, reload and try again you can sometimes recover these games. If you save alternatively between two threads (save-a and save-b, for example) you should be all right. I suspect a patch would be a far better idea.
The plot in Arcanum grows on you. It starts off slow. You know that something big is happening and that people are trying to kill you but you soon arrive in a boring little village. I suspect lots of people who give up on Arcanum give up in this backwater. I can see why. I nearly did the same thing. By the time I finally managed to battle my way out of the village I didn’t have too much energy left. You’re likely to move from the backwater village to a city (but you don’t have to, where you go on the map is entirely up to you) and at a glance the city looks just to be a bigger version of the same boring village. It’s not. There’s a lot more going on here and it’s worth checking out the nooks to find out what you can get involved in. You’ll not be able to get involved in everything either because some quests you’ll simply not be invited into by the NPCs.
The game play in Arcanum is intuitive enough. It’s point and click. You have a framed window through which to view the world. On the bottom of the frame is your character interface where you’ll be able to select shortcuts or open up larger and more complex menus. Arcanum’s system is complex and it’s well worth getting the best out of these shortcuts. Your character party is also represented on screen through the typical top-left column of NPC portraits. You can tailor game play to suit yourself. The best part of this was whether you wanted free-form combat or turn based. Free-form is quicker since your NPCs rush around and fight intelligently but you may also miss out on possible actions. Turn based ensures you’ll get to move or fight the very second you can but also involves lots of sitting around and watching when it’s not your turn. Very occasionally the turn-based combat system would decide it’s never your turn and you get stuck in limbo. Such an occurrence is easy to fix, switch to free-form combat for a second and switch back again. You’re also able to set the gore and feedback levels. If you want to see how much damage you do with each stab, shot, swipe or whatever then you can.
My initial impressions of Arcanum were very poor. The freshness of the setting seemed to pale against the slow development of the plot and there was nothing impressive enough to keep me interested through this initial stage. I stuck with it though. By the end of the game I’d been sucked into the plot, fallen for a few of the twists and had developed a fonder appreciation of the complexities of the game mechanics. It’s worth giving the game a try.
512 MB Ram.]
One of my favorite RPG's of all time! I love it's steampunky-magic mix.
I think the way you'd draw the magic rune in the air with your hand was an innovation. My favourite magic systm, though, was an old game called Nox where using magic took the light out of nearby crystals and made it darker.