Arcanum Review

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Publisher: Sierra
Developer: Troika Games

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 300 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 4x CD ROM, 1.2 GB HD space

Arcanum is a roleplaying game set at the cross-roads of magic and industrialization. Technology is pushing out the old ways of "magick," but magick still retains awesome power. Your character is traveling aboard a dirigible when it is attacked and destroyed by ogres in rudimentary airplanes. You awake amidst the wreckage and are told by a dying gnome to find a boy and give him a special ring. As you wander from the crash site, you meet a member of a religious order dedicated to the worship of... you.

Unbeknownst to you, you are the reincarnation of a powerful elf, The One. As you travel you will fight enemies, solve mysteries and grow in skill and power. Note, however, that since magick and technology tend to foil each other's power, you must choose one or the other–or walk a very careful line between them. A ring, your past life, the unexplained attack on the dirigible, strange people trying to kill you – it's going to be a long journey in Arcanum.

Rob de los Reyes

I make it a practice not to read reviews of a game I intend to review myself. For Arcanum, I felt compelled to make an exception for reasons I will make clear. I approached Arcanum with much anticipation, having so thoroughly enjoyed the Fallout series by much the same design team. Arcanum held the promise of all the great gameplay elements of those predecessors with an intriguing world idea to boot. In the end, unfortunately, most of that promise goes unfulfilled. While there are certainly elements of Arcanum that ring with startling clarity and originality, most of the game is a needless cacophony of complexity and poor design choices. I simply could not get interested in Arcanum, and that I could not do so actually made me wonder whether I just didn't get it or whether others were having a similar experience – hence reading other reviews. In the end, I decided I wasn't crazy; I just didn't like this game. You'll let me know if you disagree (I suppose the two aren't mutually exclusive).

Who Am I?

Far and away my favorite part of Arcanum was the character creation process. Here, Arcanum has indeed built on the achievements of its predecessors to create what may be my favorite character creation process to date. Much of the process in Arcanum is familiar to RPGers everywhere – choose a race (dwarf, elf, human, gnome, orc, half-ogre, and some in between) and allocate personal stats and skills. What you do not choose in Arcanum is a class or profession. One of Arcanum's selling points (as it was for its predecessors) is that your character builds an identity through the skills he pursues rather than choosing a class and having those skills defined for him. Want to play a machine-building meleer? A healer who throws fireballs? A sniper chemist? Some skill choices blend more naturally or easily than others, but ultimately the choice is yours, turning only on your tolerance for difficulty.

The real treat of character creation, however, is matching your vision of your character's skill set with the background histories you may choose for your character. These background histories affect your character in both positive and negative ways, and those histories with more extreme benefits are always countered by heavy penalties. The tenor of the histories range from the puerile (Beat With an Ugly Stick) to the transcendent (Idiot Savant) – and I wanted to choose them all. To give but one example, you might choose the "Bandit" background. This background gives you a bonus to the Firearms skill, but a penalty to your Charisma, and, in addition, you start the game with a gun and some ammo, but no money.

The choice of race and gender is more important and wonderfully subtler than it is in many roleplaying games. As in many such games, choice of race may affect the orientation of particular physical stats, but all the races are roughly equal in total. But where many games take the safe route of having gender be no more than a style choice and race never mattering after character creation, Arcanum takes a more challenging path. Like its forebears, Arcanum plays differently based on choice of race and gender. Some of the non-player characters (NPCs) with whom you interact just don't like dwarves (or women or technologists), and this means that dwarven characters must seek out a different solution to some problems than other characters have to. Male characters may have to fight an NPC when a female character may simply need to bat an eyelash. All of which goes to produce that ephemeral uniqueness that roleplayers long for. And, were Arcanum a more enjoyable game to play, would add a hefty dose of replayability – not usually a strong suit for single player RPGs.

"What, Man, Are You Blind?! Er . . . Sorry, Sir. Better Luck Next Time."

By horrible, horrible contrast, Arcanum's graphical aesthetics and user interface are a dreadful mess. The fact that the game is rendered in a 2D isometric display is not itself troubling, even if such a display is a bit out of fashion at the moment. What is more troubling is that these graphics don't seem to have changed much since the original Fallout. Oh, I hear you say, graphics do not a game make. Fair enough, but shall we admit that they're a factor? And the graphics aren't just dated, they're poorly conceived. The color scheme is dull and lifeless, replete with boring tones. Certain important landmarks, bits of architecture and special sites are pretty, but everything else is a muted mass. All that detailed character creation yields a nondescript little blob of a figure. The spell effects are interesting and the puff of smoke from a fired gun is a nice touch, but it's all icing and no cake.

Worst of all is a clunky and garbled user interface. The main screen is approximately half interface and half playing area. That is way too little playing area. I did eventually get used to it, but I never could stop looking at the wasted space in the bottom part of the interface screen. This is not just a matter of making the whole interface smaller, it's a question of arranging it better. The health and mana bars are needlessly large and several buttons are splayed about to take up otherwise dead space. More confounding still is the area map. Given the small playing area, I was hoping to rely on the area map in order to get my bearings. Alas, this map adds little extra viewing area, and building labels are inconsistently applied. I eventually abandoned it.

Now, this may not matter to the young and fleet of mind, but if you're as old and slow-witted as I, you may struggle as I did with the quest journal. Quests are dumped into a journal in the order in which you find them – and there are a lot of them. You only get a few quests on a page and there is no way to organize them or skip around, forcing you to flip through page after page of text sequentially. And they never go away. When you complete a quest, it is crossed-out, but there it sits. The same is true (with different identifying marks) for quests you have failed and quests you simply cannot complete because of other choices you have made. If we need to be able to access old quests for some reason, they should at least be shuffled to the back, or set off in another "chapter" or something – anything.

Hit Him, You #$#@%$^^&^!!!!!

Many of the graphical and UI problems could be overlooked if the game played well. Where Fallout seemed to clear a path, however, Arcanum seems to have built a bridge too far. Some will undoubtedly thrive in a world that offers so many tangential quests presented in such an undirected way. I just found it frustrating in a way I never did in the Fallout games. I never knew what I should be doing or whether a particular quest might just be far too difficult for my character level (and the latter was too often the case). There is, of course, the basic storyline to follow, but it is frustrating to ignore all the other quests being thrown at you, to know that you're missing a big chunk of the game.

The fact that Arcanum lets you select from among three styles of combat (real-time, turn-based and hybrid) is an attractive feature. I chose the classic turn-based mode. The slower pace doesn't bother me, and I like to be able to think through and use the full assets of my character and his party in a tough fight. Turn-based mode also lets me look at the percentages, and decide which course of action to take–or it should, anyway. For reasons I am at a loss to explain, with the interface showing me having a 60% chance to hit my enemy, I would routinely miss seven or eight times in a row. Perhaps this is simply an extraordinary demonstration of the power and mystery of probability, but it just ticked me off. Arcanum incorporates another combat concept I enjoy, but again runs amok with it – critical hits and misses. Not only can a player score an extra-devastating blow through a fortunate twist of fate, but he can also suffer a horrific failure, damaging or destroying his equipment and injuring or permanently disfiguring himself. Maddeningly, I found that I was averaging two to three such critical failures a combat with the attendant dire consequences. (And, in case you're wondering, I tried several different characters and played both magic-leaning and tech-leaning characters to see if it was simply a conflict of magic and technology to blame. No difference.) These failures were so frequent and devastating to my low level (read: weak and cash poor) characters that I chucked more than one of them to start over.

Complexity Theory

In the end, Arcanum is both underdeveloped and overwrought at the same time. The drab visual aesthetic is uncompensated for by gameplay that has taken a number of good ideas and "advanced" them beyond the point of being fun. The character creation segment is a genuine triumph, but this, the very start of the game, is the high point. I recommend you take a pass on this one, but, if you're tempted when it hits the bargain bin, fear not – the graphics won't have aged any more.

Kyle Ackerman

Arcanum is brilliant in concept. The failure is entirely in the execution. Arcanum plays and feels like a high-minded design around six months from completion. Folks here at Frictionless Insight had been excitedly following the progress of this title, and eagerly anticipated the release of a "Steampunk" RPG. This game seemed as if it would break the conventional genres of Tolkienesque fantasy or post-apocalyptic wasteland, taking advantage of the tremendous pedigree of a skilled design team (of Fallout-series fame). The background concept and setting that Rob described above are brilliant. The sound and voice acting are good and enhance the ambiance of this title. The technological disciplines are cleverly conceived, using recipes both learned and found to combine ordinary items into powerful tools or salves. The world is enormous and filled with subplots. The game could have had endless scope and replayability.

Regrettably, the game is badly in need of continued testing and development. After a thoroughly pleasurable character creation and ten hours of early play, the game froze in combat. The save file was corrupted, so I had to restart the game. While the addition of a waypoint system to the area maps made traversing long distances simpler, pathfinding for the characters was awful. The dwarf technologist crawled through windows rather than going through an open door right before his face. Doors were bewilderingly hard to navigate. The interface was complex and entirely unintuitive. Even the manual, clever in concept and stylish in execution with florid, period prose, was made nearly useless by the lack of an index.

My initial eagerness soon gave way to a stubborn hope that the game would improve, and that the game's concept might transcend its bugs and shortfalls to become something enthralling – or at least playable. The minor distractions, bugs and game crashes ultimately overwhelmed its clever stylistic elements, and made play more painful than enthralling. Steampunk will have to wait, and we can only hope another developer will make the game this should have been.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 27, 2001 4:07 PM.

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