Two Rights Make a Wrong
When looking at influential PC RPG series, one’s eyes undoubtedly come to rest on Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. In most respects, these two series define what PC RPGs look like much in the same way that Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior do for console RPGs. It seems almost inevitable that someone would attempt to combine the greatest aspects of the two best PC RPGs into a singular package. That attempt resulted in Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. The question, however, is would the two great tastes taste great together? The answer is a hesitant “No.”
In many ways, the battle system is Arcanum‘s biggest failure. On the surface, it resembles the original Fallout with the option of real-time combat. That is, enemies are encountered on the field and can either be engaged in turn-based or real-time combat. One of the problems is that neither system is really based on the other. For example, when fighting a large, slow-moving target in real-time, there exists the opportunity to assault it from a distance using magic, bows, or guns while periodically moving away with relative impunity. That slow-moving enemy will never catch up with the character to threaten melee if the character continues moving away. Under the turn-based system however, on its turn the monster is usually capable of walking the entire distance of the screen and getting an attack or two. Meanwhile, the only distance option is to what amounts to Fallout-esque action points moving away and perhaps firing once. In either case, the slow-moving enemy merely walks back up to melee range and attacks again. On the other hand, a melee character benefits more from the turn-based system, as monsters will close to melee distance immediately, allowing such a character to get a full attack on that monster with little or no chance of a counter-attack considering that even high-level monsters die to a few good hits. The real-time system for a melee character merely allows monsters to get the same number of attacks that the character does. This fundamental gameplay flaw leads to situations in which the player decides which battle system to use based on whether he or she can get free kills by abusing the discrepancy between them or not.
A deeper flaw however, stems from the mechanics which govern the battle system itself. In nearly every other RPG ever made based on a Dungeons and Dragons system, a character’s ability to, say, attack is based on that character’s Strength or Dexterity score. That is, the higher one of those stats, the easier it is to land a damaging blow. In Arcanum, stats are more or less irrelevant, as the Melee skill governs accuracy, just as the Persuasion skill, instead of Charisma, governs diplomacy. While it is not a flaw in of itself, the extent to which Arcanum relies entirely on skills while maintaining the counter-intuitive facade of a system based on Dungeons and Dragons is. It becomes ridiculous when a level 12 character is more than capable of killing a level 30 monster simply by raising the Melee skill one rank. Since the experience system is mostly based on dealing damage rather than simply participating, it encourages the player to benefit from this exploit which otherwise devalues Arcanum‘s difficulty down to zero.
The interface that accompanies this flawed battle system does not fare much better. Similar to Fallout, Arcanum employs a classless system in which the player is given almost complete freedom in deciding the growth of their character. Character points are earned at a frustratingly slow rate of one per level (two on levels that are multiples of five), and these character points allow increases in stats, skills, hit points, fatigue points, and to learn new spells or technology. Whenever new spells or technology are learned, it raises the character’s aptitude in that field with a corresponding decrease in the ability to wield items from the opposite field. A character with high magic aptitude, for example, means technological weapons or armor will have a higher chance of critically failing, and vice versa. Considering that critical failures often result in becoming incapacitated, breaking a weapon, and/or self-inflicting 200% of the damage that would have caused, this deterrent alone is generally good enough.
Speaking of things being good enough, that sums up the plot which transpires between the ridiculously easy dungeons and fetch-quests. Just about the most interesting aspect of the game is the setting itself: a steampunk Lord of the Rings, complete with orcs, dwarves, elves, rifles, subways, and transcontinental railroads. Arcanum practically oozes flavor, between the setting, Industrial Revolution-style dialogue, and general description of the environment. It just seems like a waste to have such flavor covering an otherwise boring plot. The initial momentum the game exhibits becomes bogged down in useless quests that in of themselves do nothing for the plot at large. It is easy to stop in the middle of yet another nondescript dungeon and ask the very relevant question of “Why I am here?” and receive a wholly unsatisfying answer. The endgame collapses into excessive backtracking and bombastic plot twists which themselves fail to register as it becomes apparent that it may be easier to simply kill everyone instead of talking to them (which is entirely possible). Unfortunately, the player is rewarded for all their personal sacrifices with a 5-second ending and a Fallout-style epilogue which leaves much to be desired.
The soundtrack, which probably consists of four songs, also leaves much to be desired. The songs themselves have a classical flare and are very relevant to the style and flavor of the game, but they repeat pretty much ad infinitum. Even though both Fallout and Baldur’s Gate played the same sort of “ambiance” card, those games backed up their claim with actual ambiance and numerous songs worth listening to. That is not the case with this game. Just about the only quality Arcanum successfully imitated from its predecessors was the bland visual style of Fallout. The colors are subdued, characters are sprites, and there will never really be anything worth a second glance from a visual perspective.
Despite all the negativity, the final verdict of Arcanum is hardly a foregone conclusion. Put most simply, in a genre rife with clones, this was one of the more original PC RPGs in the market. Indeed, the novelty alone proved to be enough of a benefit to see this game through to the end for this reviewer, although your millage may vary. If you find yourself capable of slogging through twenty hours or so of repetitive and/or ridiculously easy battles, perhaps as a veteran of Planescape: Torment, then you can be assured of a experience full of wholly unique flavor, hilarious Old-English dialogue, and quite a few charming Fallout references.