Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura - Review

"On The Eternal Conflict Between Natural And Supernatural Forces"

By: Wirestars

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 9
   Originality 9
   Plot 10
   Localization N/A
   Replay Value 10
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Varies
   Time to Complete

60-120 hours


Title Screen

     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 time-consuming.

     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 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
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!
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.

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