Saturday, August 25, 2012

You Should Probably Play This: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

You Should Probably Play This is my positive review column.  In it, I'll review a game that I think needs more attention.  It may be an obscure oldie, something that was released recently with little fanfare, or something that was badly received on release but has since been made better.  This time: Hijinks abound in a land of bullet-deflecting top hats and screeching monkeys.

So I'm going to be up-front with you.  Arcanum is one of my favorite games.  If you came up to me on the street and asked me my five favorite games, they would probably be something like, "Grim Fandango, Arcanum, The Longest Journey, Fallout, and Thief II".  Then I'd feel slightly ashamed about it being all old games and slide in Dark Souls and Mount&Blade: Warband.  Anyway, the point I'm trying to make by this needlessly long build-up is that I'm pretty biased in favor of this game.  But then, this is the positive review column so I guess that's the point.

First a quick history lesson, then we'll get to the actual review, I promise: In the days of yore (the 90s) there was a company known as Interplay.  They had an RPG-making division who made such games as Fallout, Baldur's Gate, and Planescape: Torment.  During the creation of Fallout 2, three guys (Tim Cain, Jason Anderson, and Leonard Boyarsky) left Interplay and founded their own studio, Troika Games.  Their first game was Arcanum, followed by Temple of Elemental Evil, Vampire: The Masquerades - Bloodlines, and dissolution (that's not a game, they closed after Bloodlines).

So Arcanum has a pretty good pedigree.  In fact, some aspects of the game design are quite comparable to Fallout.  It doesn't use the SPECIAL system, but it's still stat and skill-focused and it's entirely a point-buy system.  The combat is where the most similarity to Fallout shows though.  Arcanum's is just, uh, worse.  See, Fallout used an AP-centric system.  Each move cost an amount of Action Points, which means you had to plan what you were going to do to make the most of each of your turns.  Arcanum does the same thing, but makes it much harder to figure out how much AP an action costs.  In addition, the combat is unbalanced both towards the player and the enemies, often at the same time, and gets quite repetitive later in the game (the monkeys mentioned in the header make an appearance as the inexplicable go-to monster).  Also, the intelligence of the companion AI is somewhere between a goldfish and a particularly stupid rock.  Of particular note is that offensive spellcaster buddies will rarely actually cast spells.  There's also a real time combat mode, but it's arguably even worse.
That being said, I never found a moment where I wanted to quit due to bad combat.  It's not bad, exactly, it's just "meh".

But on the bright side, there're flamethrowers, acid guns, blade launchers, tesla rifles, and bullet-deflecting top hats.

I'm kind of on a roll here, so let's keep talking about the bad: The graphics.  Now, the game came out in 2001.  At the time 3D graphics were becoming pretty prominent.  It blew my mind when I just read this, but Super Smash Bros. Melee was released in 2001.  I could've sworn it was more recent than that.  Anyway, the point is that Arcanum looked like this:
Applebee's was really different in the 19th century.
Nowadays the game just looks like a retro isometric RPG, and indeed the environments are varied (except for the cave tileset) and have a good amount of detail, but at the time it was considered a bit dated-looking.

Now let's move onto better things: Namely, the world and story.  One thing you'd know about me if you ever asked me about my writing or had me DM a D&D campaign is that I HATE standard fantasy settings.  Or, more accurately, I'm sick of them.  I'm sick of rolling green hills and pretentious spellcasters with pointy ears and gruff cave-dwelling drunkards.  I'm tired of orcs and goblins and fire breathing lizards.  I'm tired of being "the one" prophesied to kill Lord Evil Meanypants.  So a big part of the reason I love Arcanum is because of the way it plays with fantasy tropes.

For example, take the world: The world of Arcanum is a standard medieval fantasy world.  Except it's just gone through an industrial revolution.  This acts as a much needed booster shot to the anemic fantasy settings.  Now all of a sudden you've got lampposts dotting streets leading up to an ancient castle.  You've got Half-ogres in suits acting as bodyguards for rich Gnome industrialists.  You've got an Orc in a suit of armor fighting with a staff that shoots balls of electricity.  It serves as a way of creating a fresh and unique world that's still grounded in heroic fantasy.
Dragons are even extinct.  Well, sort of.
The story does similar things.  It initially sets up a pretty standard premise: You're apparently the reincarnation of an old Elf wizard and have to fight another evil Elf who's going to come back as well.  However, from there the game frequently subverts and plays around with the tropes.  It never completely overturns them, but it doesn't play them straight either.  It simply causes you to question the nature of the prophesy and faith in general (blind faith is a big theme of the game).  Also, I'd like to go on record and say that the villain is one of the best ever.  And you can talk him to death, which is always excellent.

Lastly, I'd like to talk to you about player choice.  See, contrary to popular belief, RPG doesn't stand for Game With A Stat System.  It stands for Role Playing Game.  And, in order to allow roleplaying, player choice is necessary.  Player choice generally comes in two important flavors, and a good RPG will have both in excess.

The first is Development Choice.  This is what you probably commonly associate with RPGs, even though it shows up in games that don't actually allow much role playing.  Development Choice simply means that there needs to be some way of developing your character (or characters as the case may be).  It can be a stat system, ability trees, equipment, skills, whatever.  As long as it allows a character to grow and specialize over time and allows you control over how your character ends up, it's good.  That's not to say that there aren't superior systems, but it's largely personal opinion.  I really love Arcanum's character development system.  It's one of my favorites, along with Fallout.  I don't want to get too deeply into the mechanics, but it's essentially a point-buy system.  At character creation and level ups you gain character points, which are used to improve stats, learn spells, improve skills, etc.  Arcanum's system offers a lot of options because it is entirely skill point based.  Pretty much everything costs one skill point (though learning spells, crafting skills, and skills requires having a certain score in an appropriate stat), which means that you have quite a lot of freedom with how you build your character.  You can put all your points into stats so you'll be extra powerful with the very few options you have or you could focus on skills, which'll give you many more options to approach situations, but you'll have to focus on one or two stats, which itself limits the skills you can choose.  In addition, there's your collection of fantasy races, and also the option to choose a background.  Background's provide various bonuses and penalties, and can add some very cool flavor to your character (stuff like Escaped Lunatic, Frankenstein Monster, Raised in The Circus, Child of A Hero, Sold Your Soul, etc.).  The downside, however, is that offensive magic (and melee to a lesser extent) is very overpowered, and guns are a bit underpowered.  It's not a big deal, but playing a mage can get boring and it might be a turn-off for beginners who want to be gunslingers.
Like Fallout, having an Intelligence of less than 4 changes dialog considerably.  It's brilliant and really hilarious.  Sadly, I couldn't find any good pictures.
The second type of player choice is what I'll call Situational Choice.  This is the type of choice that's less common and for good reason: It's really hard to pull of successfully.  Situational Choice essentially means giving the player choice in how they approach situations and narrative in your game.  This means giving alternatives to combat, branching storylines, critical choices that actually matter, different quest branches for different character types, etc.  It's a lot of work, and the more alternative solutions to situations you add, the harder it is to balance.  It's equally hard to balance story-changing decisions.  It means a massive amount of extra writing, and you have to focus on making it seem like every option is viable, which is again very hard.  When pulled off though, the effects can be mind blowing.  Deus Ex is the classic example of this, allowing the player to solve pretty much every situation in the game using a variety of approaches.  However, Deus Ex is also a fundamentally linear game.  Situational Choice is much more difficult to pull off in a freeform or sandbox structure.  Fallout 2 pulled it off well, as did the original Fallout on a somewhat smaller scale and, more recently, Fallout: New Vegas.  Geneforge also handles this pretty well (look for a You Should Probably Play This of it once I finish it).  Arcanum is quite good at the Situational Choice.  Format-wise it's similar to the first two Fallout games.  Wide open world where you can go wherever you want, many sidequests, and the main quest linking it all together.  Like Fallout, many quests can be solved multiple ways, whether it's via combat, stealth, diplomacy, or some other option.  In addition, Arcanum may go down in history as one of the few games where playing an evil character actually significantly changes the story.  Near the beginning there's a set of evil quests you can take in place of the good story quests, and then later on the main quest splits into good and evil, with the evil side having different quests and locations.  It's a nice touch and something I wish more RPGs did so you weren't stuck being a pure evil hellspawn in the sidequests and then the heroic chosen one in the story like you are in so many games.

So that's it.  That's what I have to say about Arcanum.  In conlusion: Don't play Arcanum if you're looking for deep, varied tactical combat.  Do play Arcanum if you're looking for good player choice, an interesting world, and a great story.

Arcanum can be bought for 5.99 on and I highly encourage you to do so.  Make sure to check out the forum on the site as well so you can download the unofficial patches, the game was fairly buggy in its base state.


  1. Also, you can enter buildings through windows! Why don't more games let you do that?

  2. I need to try this one out someday. CRPGs and I have had an odd relationship, however. I really really appreciate them (I adore Fallout 1, Morrowind, and Baldur's Gate II), but at the same time I have trouble sticking with them to the end. I've never finished a CRPG, unless you count Fallout 3, and even there it was just the main questline. I think what happens is that eventually the lack of first person shooting sinks in :P.

    Ooh, I just remembered that I have Legend of Grimrock and Arx Fatalis to try as well. Once again, too many games...

    1. Yeah, it's definitely a brilliant game as long as you recognize its flaws. The world, story, and choice is excellent though, and totally outweighs the negatives imo.

      Also, you should finish Fallout. It's pretty short. :P

  3. Also, SSBB WAS RELEASED IN 2001??????


    1. I KNOW RIGHT? You're not supposed to feel old at 17. ;_;

  4. Great review. I believe the game is $5.99 on GOG though, not $6.99.

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