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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura

The debut game of the short-lived studio Troika, founded by three core alumni on the original Fallout games.  Fittingly, Arcanum is a game that follows closely in its mold, having a heavy focus on role-playing, character customization and even a similar interface and visual style overall.  But does Arcanum show off the talents of its developers, or did it only set them on track for their downfall?

Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson became pretty well-known names in the RPG community in the late '90s, working on the fan-favorite Fallout.  They'd also completed initial design on Fallout 2 before becoming dissatisfied with the direction their parent company (Interplay) was taking, departing to form their own studio.  Troika Games, as it came to be known, created only three games in their brief existence before an inability to secure funds for future projects forced them to close in 2005, only a few months after the release of their final title (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines).

Their first game to be released was Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura; a game which, like Fallout, placed heavy focus on storytelling, player choice and character customization.  It even surpasses those of its predecessors in some ways, with the character creation being a notable example.  Being set in a fantasy-inspired world, it of course has the requisite choice of races (Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc and Half-Ogre), each with their own starting stats and dispositions toward other races.  For example, Half-Ogres start with low intelligence and beauty but are physically quite strong, though most people (elves and dwarves especially) are reluctant to interact with them; even those that do often have difficulty as their low Intelligence severely hinders their conversational skills.  Dwarves have a bonus to Strength, Constitution and technical aptitude, but suffer penalties to Dexterity, Charisma and while they can still cast spells, all fatigue costs for them are doubled.  Elves are the opposite, being physically more fragile and averse to technology, but also better attuned to magical arts.  Humans, per usual, are a relatively neutral race, with average stats all-around; they can do anything pretty well, but don't excel at any single thing either.  One can also play a male or female character, with slightly differing starting stats (Females have one less Strength, but one more Constitution), though oddly female characters are restricted to only four races - Human, Elf, Half-Elf and Half-Orc.

One can further customize their character with a surprisingly vast selection of backgrounds (64 in total, though some are restricted to particular races/genders), which have significant effects on their starting stats and loadouts; some are relatively subtle, while others are surprisingly major.  "Raised by Snake Handlers", for example, grants you greater resistance to poison but gives a -1 penalty to Beauty, "Sent to Charm School" (available only to human females) starts you with more Charisma and Beauty but less Strength and Dexterity, and "Rare Half-Ogre Birth" allows you to play a relatively eloquent half-ogre, with +2 Intelligence but slight penalties to Strength and Constitution.  "Ran away with the circus" is a more extreme example, giving a whopping +6 Strength in exchange for -2 Intelligence, -3 Willpower and -1 Perception, making you a much more physical combat-focused character regardless of your race choice.  If you're determined to play a 'good guy' character, you can similarly pick "Child of a Hero", which starts you with a powerful enchanted sword but causes evil actions to reflect much more poorly on you (double their normal negative effect), or even Special Person (-2 Intelligence, but you get double the positive reaction from good actions).  Similarly, one inclined to play an evil character can choose "Sold Your Soul", which grants you significantly more magical aptitude in exchange for a permanent negative reaction modifier and low alignment.  These are definitely fun to experiment with and lend the game quite a bit of replay value.

Arcanum's setting is a relatively unique one - it's a world of fantastical races and monsters, but one entering an industrial revolution, with sights like electric generators, steampunk weaponry and armor, early aircraft and even crude automatons providing a juxtaposition to the more fantastical elements (and indeed, the conflicting nature of the two is a prominent motif throughout the narrative).  This also serves as a prominent game mechanic - boosting technical aptitudes (Medicine, Mechanical, Chemistry etc.) will make you more efficient with those, getting more effect from them.  However, you'll also skew your alignment away from Magic, causing any spells you may possess to become less efficient.  Fittingly, magic has a greater chance of failure against technological-aligned enemies and vice versa. Finding whatever balance you prefer as you progress through the game becomes another major component of building your character.

Mechanically the game operates very similarly to Fallout, with a similar isometric perspective and visual style (right down to the gory combat deaths), and even the HUD is pretty similar overall; there are a lot more icons to memorize, but hovering over almost any button will give you a quick tooltip of what exactly it represents as well, so you'll get used to it before long.  Some changes are made, though - combat can be toggled between a real-time mode or a turn-based one at the press of a key, though given how difficult some fights can be, the latter is generally preferable.  The world is not broken up into several distinct maps, instead occupying one large world; however, stretches of land between towns tend to be vast and empty, so it does thankfully have a fast travel system that lets you visit areas you've had marked on your map, whether through visiting them or uncovering them through dialog or quest completion.  One can even do a sort of "fast travel" within a familiar area, setting down waypoints that your character will follow at the press of a button, which saves you a fair bit of tedious screen-scrolling and clicking.  Managing NPC allies is more convenient here too, with HUD icons that can be clicked to give basic commands, view their character sheets and manage their inventories.  The inventory screen is a bit like the Diablo games, with a paper doll for gear your character is wearing and a 'backpack' grid you store items in and each one taking up a varying amount of space, though there is also an auto-sort feature for when you want to quickly add more items to your inventory without having to micromanage.  Also similar to Diablo, there are ten quick slots on the HUD that can be assigned to whatever skills, spells or items you wish to have quick access too, which cuts down on tedious menuing.

Another clever mechanic is the use of "Fate Points".  Basically, for completing certain missions - usually ones relevant to the main storyline - you'll get a Fate Point, which can be spent for a variety of powerful benefits - an instantaneous full heal, a guaranteed positive reaction in the next conversation, your next spell will be cast as if you had 100 Magical aptitude, a guaranteed critical hit on your next attack (or critical miss for your enemy), or a critical success with any of several skills.  Fate Points are very limited, though, so saving them for when you have few (or no) other good options is the best way to go.

So, all this sounds pretty good on paper; even like it should be every bit the classic that the '90s Fallout games are considered to be.  So, why is Arcanum relatively unknown while Fallout is so beloved?  Well, its roleplaying element is brilliantly executed and ahead of its time in many ways, but the gameplay itself doesn't quite match up to that standard.  While there are quite a few NPC allies to recruit throughout the game and enemies to fight, they all share the common trait of having very mediocre AI; they employ little in the way of tactics, usually just running straight toward enemies and attacking them repeatedly until one of them dies, which is rather irritating when you're trying to be stealthy, and forming any kind of defensive line is out of the question too.  They tend to wander aimlessly even out of combat too, stumbling right into traps you're methodically trying to spot and disarm or triggering enemies you don't want to fight just yet.  Dungeons tend to be pretty monotonous, with few to no puzzle elements in favor of just being stuffed to the brim with enemies and traps.  Your equipment also degrades with use, and certain types of enemies will wear it down very quickly - earth-based ones will damage your melee weapons, and fire-based will damage both your weapons and armor on every hit.  Critical misses will cause them to decay too, and though there is a Repair skill to offset breakage, using it will lower your item's maximum durability unless it's trained to Master level (which requires a substantial investment of levels and money).  The overall balance leaves something to be desired too - while tech skills (which largely involve combining items together into medicines, traps, bombs, guns etc) sound awesome and are quite fun to play with, they tend to be rather underpowered compared to Spells, which can be cast as many times as your Fatigue meter allows and generally gets comparable, if not superior, results.  The game was also notoriously buggy at launch and had quite a few compatibility issues with hardware of the time (to say nothing of modern machines), though subsequent official patches and a few fan-made ones have eliminated most of the worst offenders.  I still encountered quite a few crashes as I played, though, so I'd advise saving often.

Since their inception, CRPGs have tried with varying degrees of success to create an open-ended, choice-driven roleplaying experience with varying degrees of success.  Arcanum: of Steamworks & Magick Obscura is among first to do it legitimately well, providing a rewarding, fun and substantially differing experience depending on what character you begin with and what choices you make throughout.  Being able to fine-tune your character to such a strong degree, seeing your choices have palpable consequences, and having a built-in, powerful campaign editor lets you make your own stories as well, all add a ton of replay value.  Sadly its comparatively mediocre level design and clunky combat hamper its enjoyability, so it doesn't quite hit the heights of greatness that the Fallout games did.  Even so, it's a brilliantly written game that's worth a play, so scale down the difficulty to get the sucky combat and dungeons over with quicker and enjoy an adventure through a brilliantly realized world.

I would also highly recommend grabbing the Unofficial Patch, as it addresses many of the game's bugs and adds in some extra content as well.

Developer: Troika Games
Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Platform: PC
Released: 2001
Recommended Version:  N/A