Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick
Obscura - Review
"On The Eternal Conflict Between Natural And Supernatural Forces"
| Battle System
| Replay Value
| Time to Complete
Set in the nigh-elusive steampunk genre, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and
Magick Obscura is not only a rare find, but a great one. For those
readers who are unfamiliar with the term "steampunk", it refers to a sort of
altered reality, steam-driven, Victorian-style world such as that found in
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.
The game is filled with moral, political and religious dilemmas which spin
one's character headfirst into a realm of scandals and intrigue.
Sierra and Troika Games have really hit the mark with this title, bringing
us a game that gives us a refreshing change of pace from the typical
fantasy RPG scene and is sure to leave the player
both satisfied and yet itching to go back and try something new.
Though this is a very story-oriented game, there is
still a large amount of fighting to be done. As such, there are two
basic styles of running combat. The first and by far the most
effective is the turn-based style, which allows each character to complete
all their actions at one time in order of their initiative (or Speed).
This also allows one to monitor Fatigue and Health easily. The second is real-time combat, which is a challenging
option, but also quite handy for letting your followers do all the work.
Real-time combat is somewhat similar to the combat in Baldur's Gate, where
you are only as fast as you can click, except
there is no option to pause the game and direct your followers accordingly.
That very same fact is actually one of the downsides of combat in this game
-- you cannot control your followers at all past telling them to attack or
back off. However, Arcanum has a fairly impressive AI, and for the most part this does not
prove to be a big problem. Another slight drawback to combat is
occasional load-times for certain explosive or extravagant animations. Due to the sheer size of the game,
a computer may sometimes have to think for a few seconds in certain
situations when extra movement is presented; this does not cause major
problems, but can occasionally get annoying. Overall, combat is not
difficult (point, click), but it does require some strategy and may be
In general, Arcanum has a wonderful but very complex interface.
It allows for complete customization, but there are a lot of
buttons and the manual, while very stylistically done, proves little help
to beginners. A personal recommendation would be for a player to
spend some time learning the way the game works with a first character,
then starting over once a better idea is gained on how to effectively
build the specific type of hero (or villain) that is desired.
The game uses a non-class-restrained, point based system which allows the
creation almost any sort of character imaginable. This
also allows for several different options on gameplay and quests.
For instance, if a person wanted to create a dwarven technologist gifted
with a silver tongue and the ability to prowl like a cat, they could. A character like that could then have the
opportunity to participate in all Technology, Persuasion, and Prowling
side-quests, if they so desired. This allows for a player to become
as involved with their hero as much as they want; more in-depth characters
will spend time learning new things and earning reputations all over the
world of Arcanum, while those who just want to stick to the main plot can
do so and still be equally pleased with their character. This also
changes how long it will take to complete the game, as those who wish to
do all the side-quests and go up in skill levels will likely spend several hours of gameplay
improving their abilities.
|The four basic S Groups: Stats, Spells, Skills, and Schematics
The background music for Arcanum is very well done. It adds to
the feel of the Victorian era, with a bit of a chamber orchestra style --
not too dull, yet not too repetitive or annoyingly cheerful. There
are a lot of violins, especially in the main theme, and the darker pieces
feature a powerful brass section. The
style of background music also changes slightly depending on where the
hero is currently exploring; for instance, deep in a cavernous underground
realm there may only be eerie, distant sounds, while in a town there may
be a full orchestral piece playing. Voice acting is also a large
part of the game, and though not everyone is given a "speaking role", the
twenty-odd characters who have them play their parts well. A player
won't be turning the sound off because the follower characters make short,
aggravating, repetitive noises all throughout a battle, in other words.
However, some characters are meant to be a little over-the-top, which may
be annoying to a few players, but for the most part all the voice acting
is quite pleasant and adds to the game instead of detracting from it.
As for sound effects, the game sounds fairly realistic. There are death knells,
creaking doors, footsteps,
battle taunts, and a wide variety of weapon noises that are well-suited for their
particular methods of attack (such as a resounding thud from a hammer).
Arcanum has been compared to games like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale,
and other stat-based D&D-style adventures. The largest difference,
however, is in the fact that Arcanum offers far more as far as becoming truly involved in the events of the game's
world than any of these games is concerned. With 8 character stats, more than a dozen derived stats (Resistances, Character
Speed, etc.), 16 skills, 56 technological degrees
within 8 disciplines, and 80 spells within 16 colleges, no other game
comes close to offering this much originality for the main hero.
Arcanum also features a world very different from what most fantasy RPGs
have, and being based in the steampunk genre it offers a rather fantastic
yet still highly believable setting in which basic fantasy elements exist but are in a constant strain
with basic reality elements. There is also the fact that while yes, this is at the core
another D&D-style game, there are several things that set it apart from
the others aside from the main hero. For instance, while most
side-quests in other games do little to add to the overall appeal and
outcome of the story, in Arcanum even the simplest item delivery quest can
involve a moral quandary or political subterfuge. And on top of
that, everything that one does matters in the end. Depending
on the sort of quests you complete, ignore, or botch, the ending can be
vastly different from one game to another; you can play through again and
again and never get the same outcome. Even Chrono Trigger, where
seeing a different ending often depends on timing more than anything,
doesn't offer that much.
It is also quite fair to say
that Arcanum has a superb main plot. The player is thrust into a
world of mysteries and intrigue from the very beginning, and by the end
everything will gel together into one complex, detailed plot that is both
satisfying and intelligent. There is an explanation for everything,
from the laws of the natural world (technology, which uses nature)
to the supernatural world (magic, which twists nature). The
story is long and engaging, with just enough twists and turns to keep the
player guessing as to what will happen or be uncovered next. And
above all it is a believable adventure, where very little is black or
white, no villains are without reason and no hero comes with complete
innocence. It is almost like something out of a fantastic Jules Verne or
H.G. Wells novel. Also making the game more enjoyable is
the ability to choose one's own background for the hero -- some
backgrounds are race-specific, others gender-specific, but most are
available to all characters and range from being rather normal
("Apprenticed to a Shopkeeper") to being quite humorous ("Beat With an
Ugly Stick"). That way, the player does not have to put up with a
hero whose background seems too trite or boring to them, nor do they have
to be deprived of silliness in a world that is normally very serious.
|A Beautiful Spot in a Dark World
And Arcanum also rates very high on replay value because it is
so versatile and has so many options for being just as interesting the
second or third time around. A player can go back and try
something different, such as taking thievery skills instead of social
ones, and end up with a very different method of playing than what they
had with their last character. Different quests open up, followers
that the hero previously could not join with become available, and even
the style in which the character acts completely changes. Yet more
options exist, like trying an evil path or to play the game with a
previously-designed character, each with their own unique background and
style. The sheer size and complexity of the game also keeps
everything interesting, and players may want to go back and start a new
character for the simple fact that one just can't do everything
with any single hero. This game is engaging, intelligent,
challenging, and versatile, but it's also just plain fun, and is
especially great for people who love to experiment as well as have
complete control over the way their hero interacts with the world.
Sierra also has a lot to offer here with the
graphics used in Arcanum. State-of-the-art they may not be, but
more importantly, they fit the style and mood of the game perfectly.
Colors tend to be a little subdued and dark, but a brightly colored,
anime-style world just would not fit in. Also, FMV lovers need not
apply -- there are only four cutscenes in the entire game, and half of
those are at the very beginning. The game does not need more than
that, however, as the story is told far better through dialogue
interactions, book excerpts, news articles, and other bits of fantastic
writing that leave the player guessing, but not hanging without a clue
as to what to do next. Many of the backgrounds used in various
locations are quite beautiful, ranging from gilded temples to the
dilapidated ruins of once-great civilizations, and above all they merely
add a sense of both something very real, yet very fantastic, to the game
without being gaudy or distracting. Load times for such detailed
areas are present, caused by large amounts of movement on the screen at
once, though they usually prove to be over quickly. Also worth
mentioning are the impressive graphics used in several spells, with
hollow-eyed spirits which have risen from the dead and a glowing
whirlwind of teleportation being among them.
There is no defined difficulty to Arcanum, as the
player can first choose from Easy, Intermediate, and Hard settings.
The difficulty of the game also depends on the sort of skills, spells,
technological disciplines, and backgrounds the player chooses for their
character. A hero who speaks like a moron due to a low intelligence
but has rippling muscles may have a great amount of difficulty in towns,
but dungeons may prove to be no sweat. Both the type of character
and the difficulty setting will change the amount of time it will take for
one to complete the game, too, as well as the number of side-quests the
player decides to complete. The fastest time would probably still
take some 60 hours, though it could prove to be quite difficult.
Achieving all the possible goals that one's character possibly can by
finishing side-quests, earning reputations, and seeking out teachers to
earn Master status in the hero's preferred skills can take well over 100
hours, most likely doubling the time spent, if not more.
|I Thought I Told You to Sit Down!
All in all, Arcanum has a lot to offer RPG
fans. It is unique, being set in a world unlike any other fantasy
realm and allowing complete customization of the main character. It
may not be state-of-the-art on graphics or feature a revolutionary battle
system, but it is instead a game that is rich with a well-developed
history, wonderfully written dialogue, a highly engrossing plot, and an
intense Victorian feel both musically and visually. A little bit of
patience is required at first to get used to the interface, but it is
incredibly well worth the effort. Fans of pen-and-paper RPGs will
probably appreciate this title a great deal as it will give them the
opportunity to play as unique or commonplace of a character they could
possibly want, and they will be familiar with the stat and skill based
system. To anyone who has been yearning for a game that not only
tells a story but allows the hero to change the events yet to come, this
will be an instant classic and comes with high recommendations.
However, gamers who are not interested in trying a new and fantastic game
need not bother, as this will be nothing like anything they have seen yet
in a console or PC game.