Monday, June 13, 2011

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Genre: RPG, Action/Tactical (Isometric, Real time and/or Turn Base)
Developer: Troika
Publisher: Sierra/Activision
Released: 2001

Zolgar paid: $5.99
Beaten: Multiple times.
Zolgar's rating: Vanilla 7/10, Mod/bugfix'd 9/10
Replayability: High

Arcanum, like the other two Troika titles, is a flawed masterpiece. The detail work they put in to the world and story is, as always, top notch. However, as always, their quality control was slightly lacking, leading to a very buggy release. Developers and fans, however, have continued to support it long after Sierra tossed it aside as rubbish, and there are a great number of bug-fixes and quality of life mods. Meaning that while the game is worth dealing with the bugs, you don't have to.

I was exposed to Arcanum early in my RPG days, and before I even knew what Steampunk was. I have to say, it really fueled my love of both. To date, it is the closest I have found to what Fallout 3 should have been, probably because it was made by the guys from Black Isle, creators of Fallout 1 and 2 (as well as many other great titles).

Arcanum is one of the few RPGs I've found to have an almost completely nonlinear story, that lets you decide if you want to be the hero, be a villain, or just get rich and say screw the story; yet at the same time, it makes it very easy to pick the story back up, no matter how distracted you've been with side quests or just trying to make enough money to get loaded up on bullets.

The story opens up with a CGI cinematic (that for it's time was very well done) of orcs attacking a Zeppelin from weaponized flying machines, followed by you finding a dying gnome who gives you a ring and tells you to “Find the boy”. What does this ring mean, who was this Gnome, who is the boy and why is he important? The game starts off leaving you to wonder that, but doesn't give you much time to ponder, as you're immediately greeted by a slightly under-educated religious fanatic who swears you are 'the one'.. and then meet an assassin bent on killing you.

Are you 'the one'? Why does everyone want to kill you? What was up with that gnome? I could tell you, but I'd spoil the plot. Instead I'll drift in to the mechanical side of things.

Character creation:
Much akin to Fallout, Arcanum lets you choose between one of several pre-made characters (those of whom are not played are found dead in the wreckage of the Zeppelin, for a nice touch of continuity), or making your own.

If you choose to make your own, you are treated to a selection of 8 races (Elf, Gnome, Dwarf, Halfling, Half-Orc, Half-Ogre, Half-Elf.. oh and Human), and of course a gender selection (which does have a mechanical effect). And as an added bonus they can choose a 'background' which gives some minor mechanics bonus and penalty.

Then it's on to choosing your focus. Are you tech or magic oriented? Do you prefer melee or ranged combat? Or how about talking your way out of fights? Do you buy things, or craft them out of scrap and refuse you find laying around? You will want to do it all, unfortunately, you can't.

When you you think you're finished, you're given a vendor screen, which you can choose what you want to start with, very convenient!

When you enter the game proper, there's something that you will notice right off the bat. This is 'old school' compared to a lot of modern games. There's no respawn (save and save often!), it's rather unforgiving if you're less combat oriented (not like say.. Baldur's Gate, but still pretty bad), and it's the type of game where you explore everything, and take anything that isn't watched by guards.

When it comes to combat, you have 2 options. Real time or turn based. When in turn Based mode, the game uses an Action Point system. Any action you take requires X points, run out of points and your turn is over. In real time mode, your Action Points reflect how fast you can do things. This can make the game slightly broken late game with a speed build, while early in the game real-time moves too fast and is suicidal.

Then there's the non-combat side of things: the many skills you have at your disposal!
This game is built for skill monkeys, almost everything can be bought or stolen if your skill is good enough. With a good stealth and lockpicking, you can slink in to a vendors shop and steal -everything- they have.. Or you can pick their pocket and steal the key to their shop.

Most of the plot-centric fights can be avoided with words, if your skill is good enough, as well people skills will get you better quests, discounts on wares, and maybe even a good time. Think I'm kidding? An attractive female can get work as a hooker. You can also get followers to fall for you, which can make for fun issues when more than one follower starts to fall for you and they get jealous of eachother.

Can't forget about followers. Throughout your adventure, you will meet a lot of crazy people. Some want to help you, some have to help you, some you can pay to help you. Depending on your charisma, your alignment and your tech/magick lean, you can get different followers, and more followers based on your charisma.

Followers are useful, depending on your build. Virgil, the prior mentioned religious nutter, is your first follower, and you can manipulate what he does a little. Most others have a certain focus, so clearly, if you're a tech oriented gunslinger, you'll do best with a nice sturdy meat shield to protect you, and maybe a rogue-type to handle locks.

In the vanilla game, your followers have kinda crappy skill distribution, however, you can get mods that change that, or there's a character editor you can download, that also edits your followers.

And finally we come to my personal favorite mechanic: Magick vs. Tech.
In Arcanum you choose whether to be a mage, or a technologist (or neither). Mages find that machines fail around them, but conversely their spells fail to affect those focused on tech. This means that while a mage may be safer from a gunslinger, he has a harder time hurting them, and also doesn't do well receiving aid from technological means. Mechanically this leads to a 'magic resist' and 'tech resist' stat, as well as critical failure chances for magic or tech gear.

If you choose magic, you spend skill points in 'schools', and with each level in said school, you gain new spells. The spell assortment is the normal range of magic spells available in any generic fantasy setting, all done quite well, and when used right they will win the game for you.

If you choose tech, you spend skill points in crafts, with each rank you learn a new schematic, and you can also find schematics all throughout the world. Schematics let you make everything from moltov cocktails, to healing salves, to fully automatic shotguns, to robots that aid you in fights. When used right, they will win the game for you.

If you go the neutral rout, you have the advantage of being able to use any gear you want (though watch out if you have too much magic or tech gear on you, as it will cause the others to malfunction!) and though you may not cast spells or build explosives, your selection of skills will be quite impressive, making you a force to be reckoned with in combat. In this case, it's your own personal skill that will win the game for you.

Then there's the weak points of Arcanum:
The graphics have honestly not aged as well as other games of it's era. They weren't precisely top notch at the time, and that was 10 years ago. For it's day I would have given it a 7 of 10 for graphics, a 5 of 10 today, for how they've aged.

The level cap is too low, and it's easy to level up far too fast. One of their weird quirks is that you gain XP per-hit, instead of just per kill. When I made a low-int half-ogre melee fighter, I hit the level cap less than half way in to the game, and my gunslinger was also to the cap well before beating the game. I don't think though that my high-charisma mage ever pinged the cap.

While the plot has a lot of twists you don't quite expect, every now and then it feels like they decided to just throw some weird needless twist in to the mix to increase the length of the game. First time through that's not really too bad. Fourth time through you're like “What purpose does this serve again?”

And if you play it Vanilla, there are just a lot of bugs to be had, and places where there's remnants of things that didn't quite make it in to the game.

Fear not! Salvation is at hand from Terra Arcanum, a site devoted to all Troika games that has a section of mods and patches for Arcanum, including a level cap remover.

For the “TL:DR” version of this review, I will borrow a quote from my friend:
“Arcanum: The greatest game made...ever. So great, you don't even care about the frelling bugs!”

Availability and price:
GOG: $5.99
Amazon: $10-20
Ebay: $5+

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