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Of PCs and RPGs Obscura
Talk to almost any PC-RPG enthusiast who’s been around since the days of Baldur’s Gate about the days of yore in PC gaming and you’re bound to hear tales of isometric 2-D PC RPGs before any Diablo game, such as games in the Fallout series. However, one title that probably will be overlooked is Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. To die-hards of this particular PC RPG genre, the game has achieved a measure of cult success; becoming very difficult to find of late in stores, being mostly promoted through word-of-mouth on various message boards. But does Arcanum stand the test of time?
Arcanum is set in a world that is post-industrial revolution; a world with trains, zeppelins, firearms and dying remnants of the feudal system and customs. Magic is also present in this world, though the advent of technology is beginning to render it useless. The protagonist is on one of these zeppelins, for reasons decided by the player. The zeppelin is shot down, and you are the sole survivor. A dying man among the shards of flaming wreckage hands you a ring, and with his dying words, tells you to “Find the boy…He’ll know...what to do…” With these words begins a tale of deceit, intrigue and mystery, in trying to discover who this ring was intended for, who the gnome it belonged to was, and the reasoning behind the group responsible for the destruction of said zeppelin. This is the main quest throughout the entire course of the game; though other secondary objectives are revealed through the large scope and obscene number of sub-quests able to be completed by the hero’s group.
Arcanum is a very non-linear game, which is specifically driven by the inherent good or evil in a character’s actions. The player is able to entirely skip a majority of the game’s quests, making a judgement call as to its moral implications and deciding to accept it or not. Most PC RPGs today, few games come close to being this open-ended. The non-linear aspect and unique setting enables Arcanum to compete with several PC RPGs today in terms of originality and plot, in a truly unparallel manner. This open-ended gameplay comes with a downside, however. There are many bugs, unresolved issues or glitches, even in the current build. There are probably no plans on Sierra’s part to release a patch for an almost four-year-old game, so the community has taken to correcting some of these more glaring problems such as sound or graphical glitches, even going so far as to change key gameplay elements for the better.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game world exists in the dichotomy between magic and technology; perhaps one of the most innovative, yet extremely simple gameplay mechanisms ever devised. To explain, machinery and technology follow the laws of physics. If magic is used, it twists these laws, therefore slightly modifying the laws of physics and causing machinery in proximity to the magick to malfunction; one operates in a rule-bound universe, while the other does not, and changes these rules to suit its own needs.
This explains Sierra’s Magic/Technology meter, accompanying the standard Good/Evil alignment meter in the menu screen. The purpose of this is to determine a character or NPC’s resistance or proficiency to magic/technology. Basically, the more proficient one is in technology, the less magical effects function properly on him/her. The opposite is true for magically inclined characters, who, among other things take much more damage from magic and are also less likely to take damage from a mechanically aligned enemy. Players can effect this alignment during character creation or during level up by spending their skill points on roughly 80 spells or 56 technological “degrees”; which allow crafting of various items for technologist characters. Creation allows for a choice between one of 8 races with different starting characteristics, sex, and a background, which modifies a character's statistics. These include events like “Raised By The Circus” where you are more agile, but lose out elsewhere or gain increased powers as a mage during the night or day, to even backgrounds that involve your hero as a child who was once blind who now has regained his or her eyesight, at the cost of much of your family’s estate. These allow a player to customize their hero or villain in virtually any way imaginable.
At times, the game feels unbalanced, as it seems to be more suited to magic-using characters than to their technological counterparts in combat situations. Indeed, some spell colleges are too powerful, leaving a group of 25 or so spells that are actually useful, while many of the 80 spells are almost totally useless, and can be completely ignored. “Fatigue points” govern magic, and are Arcanum’s answer to MP. If you attempt to cast a spell with low fatigue, you pass out until the meter returns to positive numbers. Inexplicably, NPCs do this often, with sometimes-hilarious results, such as multiple unconscious party members in one battle.
Speaking of combat, Arcanum turns to an innovative solution to actually enable limited player customization of the game’s battle system. Players can choose from a real-time system, a slower rurn-based system, using the “action point” system employed in other PC RPGs, or a "fast" turn-based style, which eliminates action points altogether. While this is an excellent idea in theory, it unfortunately leaves Arcanum’s combat severely unbalanced in favor of slow turn-based combat. Using the right enhancing spells which increase the number of points they can spend in a given turn, a player character is able to act five or six times before an enemy can act once. It is easy to destroy every enemy in a battle before your character’s NPC companions can ever get a bead on your current fighting targets, considering they are even targeting the right monster at all. There is no way to actively control that they target in any given battle. Fortunately, the AI is decent at this, and causes little frustration; though keeping a quicksave in case of AI stupidity is recommended.
Music in Arcanum is sparsely used, only making appearances upon entering towns or during major events. When it does appear, it includes full orchestration, and truly immerses you in Sierra’s fictional time period which it is supposed to represent; one can almost imagine a character listening to some of the pieces on some sort of period phonograph. For the rest of the time, ambient sounds related to your current area are looped in the background, which also add atmosphere: a chirping of crickets, a rustle of foliage, a dripping of water from cave ceilings. Combat sounds are very present and distinct; battle shouts, cries of pain, and the varied magic sounds are a welcome change from he usually recycled sounds, which are the norm in most games released in this time period. Voices are also sparsely used, with a little over 17 voiced parts, most of them your companions or characters integral to the plot. The acting is very fitting, and captures the essence of each NPC character present in the party, a rarity for these types of RPGs. In various conversation trees with each party member, their personality begins to develop, as each character has a distinctive manner about them in their responses to the player’s chosen statements. At times, they can be hilarious, which oddly enough, does not detract from the experience at all.
Graphically, Arcanum comes off as having a very gritty visual style. The pre-rendered backgrounds have various visual effects that enhance the environments and breathe life into the different areas. Smoke billows from factories, fire burns brightly, illuminating the surrounding area in the dark and magic dances brightly across the screen for an instant. Arcanum has problems with more recent videocards, as a warning, and most playing the game with ATI video cards will have to play sans the 3D lighting and shadow effects; but this is not a drastic change. The characters that populate these rendered environments are fairly decent, and are not nearly as detailed as the pre-rendered areas that they inhabit. The characters have a muddy, blurry sort of look to them, and are starting to look aged in 2004’s standards. The characters do not significantly detract from the experience, but could have stood to be slightly more detailed for their time period.
Arcanum’s point-and-click interface should alert many RPGamers, as it has been a part of most PC RPGs for years. Everything is mouse-driven, and the keyboard is designed to be less integral to the experience, and can be used for as little as quick-saving or loading, should you desire. The on-screen interface is slightly intrusive, forcing the game into a letterboxed format, though all of it is necessary to gameplay. The most recent patch fixes this, providing the choice of a full-screen mode that removes much of the wood-paneled interface, but functionally, they are both the same. Inventory is also similar to many other titles, opting for a maximum character carry weight. The character sheet is also quite well organized, and categorizes all the technological, magical and various other skills and you can choose from on leveling up, and makes them easily accessible in a limited number of clicks; minimizing the time spent crawling around menus.
To summarize, Arcanum is very deserving of its cult classic title it has earned in Internet circles of late. Despite a few relatively minor quibbles with some mechanics and gameplay elements, it is a solid, well-executed example of an excellent PC RPG that never quite reached the level notoriety of games like Fallout or Baldur’s Gate reached. In spite of this, it was clearly deserving of more recognition, owing to its open-ended gameplay, depth, replay value, and sheer size. If you can find it these days, Arcanum is definitely worth the price of admission, and harkens back to the golden era of PC RPGs; where quality was virtually a requirement rather than a rarity.
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