Thursday, 23 June 2011

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Right, this could be a long one. Bare with me. Arcanum seems to have gone completely under the radar of most of the gamers I know, being completely overshadowed by Diablo II (see previous review) and Baldur's Gate II. All you really need to know, as far as introductions go anyway, is that Arcanum was another isometric RPG. It was released in 2001 after being developed by Troika. Now, Troika is another under-the-radar name, but the important thing is this: the driving force behind Troika was the same group of gentlemen that developed the original Fallout. One of them was on IGN's list of the 100 greatest developers of all time, and another is working on Diablo III. These guys really know what they are doing. I'll let you sit on that for a minute; some of the developers of Fallout, a game widely considered to be an up-there, hall-of-fame, top-ten-lists classic, set up another studio, developed another game and most of you haven't even heard of it. Shame on you.

Anyway, as you have probably guessed by now, Arcanum is a title that has a very special place in my heart. In 2001 I was a mere 12 years old, and this game brought me firmly into the RPG genre with its deep story arcs and entrancing soundtrack. Oh yeah, the score. Ben Houge did a fantastic job, producing gorgeous string pieces that are truly evocative of an aptly industrial-revolution-esque period. Genuinely, as soon as you begin the character creation, which I will expand on later, the slightly melancholy and yet almost determined melodies chime in, and as you are looking at areas like your character's background, it really helps you to picture the type of world that this person would have lived in.

The character creation itself is really quite well done; you have a DnD type character sheet, where you can allocate a certain number of points, and add more later during the game while your level increases. Also, there are linear skill trees for things like pickpocketing and melee combat. Each of these skill trees has, by the way, apprentices, experts and masters littered around the world of Arcanum who can teach you to a slightly higher level and give you bonuses to each of these skills. Apprentices are usually fairly easy to find, but there is only one master for each, and instead of the apprentices' 100g or so fee, you'll normally have to do a fairly challenging or time-consuming quest to become a master. While on the topic of characters, the aforementioned character background is a brilliantly well done system in this game; you cycle through each one and they explain, without being boring or dull, what bonuses or handicaps you'll have and why, for example:

"Ran away with the circus: Having run away with a local troupe of circus performers, you have gained considerable physical Strength (+6), but have serious deficiencies in Intelligence (-2), Willpower (-3) and Perception (-1) due to all of the school that you missed."

It's a simple touch, but it's implemented really smoothly and it helps you feel like your character is your own, not just another generic warrior/wizard/etc. RPG character. All in all, between the main menu and the completion of your character creation, partly because of the music, you've already started bonding with your character the way all great RPGs make you. You want them to succeed, but not just because you want to finish the game, it's also because you like them. Some RPGs leave you so overwhelmed with numbers and statistics and dice rolls that they detract from the other great things that go into the game, and that can really break immersion for me. Obviously some players like that, but if you want that level of freedom, for me, you should be playing table-top. Just saying. Arcanum gets this initial balance just right, though.

After that stage, the world of Arcanum is pretty much your oyster. You'll begin to assemble a party fairly quickly, assuming you want to, and the story will progress at whatever pace you like. There's plenty to explore and do, though, so if you rush it, you're missing a good deal more than half of the fun. Some of the best content is in Arcanum's side-quests, like an elderly gnome (or possibly halfling, I forget) who lost all of his comrades attempting to acquire a valuable ruby - they were all killed by monsters that came up out of the ground. He wants you to go and get it for him and, of course, most players will need to take on all these monsters when they come out of the ground. When you combine that knowledge with the score I mentioned before and the scenery involved in that quest, as well as a number of other little details, you get a spectacularly enjoyable side-quest, much better than some of the primary plot-driving quests in a number of more modern RPGs I've played.

By all accounts, the main story itself is a great standalone experience, even if you don't partake in the fringe content. It will have you beginning as (possibly) a humble nobody, and winding up meeting thousand-year-old elves and, if you choose to, saving the world. Of course, you can kill everybody along the way, lay waste to entire cities and leave the world for dead if you are that way inclined. As far as RPGs go, the ability to play a role has not been done, to my mind, quite as well before or since Arcanum, at least in terms of games. NPCs will respond to you in an appropriate way, whether that is dependant on your race, choice of clothing, general level of intelligence, beauty, or lack of both or either. It's deep, it's rich, and because of all of that, it creates spectacular immersion. You're there, and you won't want to leave.

Summary: Arcanum is a great game, made by people with a track record for great games. It's well thought out, well executed, and thoroughly enjoyable because of that. Obviously, it's not as new as a 2011 release, so don't expect photo-realistic visuals, but if you can look past that, you'll find an expansive world for you to carve your mark on, in whichever fashion you choose.

Recommendation: If you liked Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Diablo I or II or any other isometric RPG titles from around the same era, this is an absolute must. If you haven't played any of those, this is a great introduction to the style, but beware the others won't seem quite so fun after this one - it outshines them all by a considerable margin. Honestly, the only reason you shouldn't play this is if you don't like RPGs at all.

Actually, even if you think you don't, this one could change your mind.

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