Arcanum is Bookish, Hardcore Fun

I want to say that Arcanum is the "thinking person’s role-playing game" but shouldn’t every RPG be for thinking people? I also want to rave about how much I enjoyed playing the game, but I think I better first explain that Arcanum won’t appeal to everyone.

Arcanum is a role-playing game in the purest since. Never have I encountered a title that caused me to really think about gameplay so deeply. Even my ruling favorite RPG series, Baldur’s Gate, did not rise to this level of complexity. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your personal preferences in a computer RPG. It also has a Mature rating from the ESRB, mostly I would guess based on the sexual and moral situations you will find your character in when playing. Personally, I like the adult nature of the RPG because it does not dumb-down reality. However, some would balk at adding this type of thing to a game or may even find it offensive so I figure it was worth a mention.

I am convinced that Arcanum won’t achieve the commercial success that Baldur’s Gate did. Arcanum is too difficult to play, so novice or lukewarm RPG players will quickly become frustrated at the quests. I have played pen-and-paper RPGs for years and just about every computer RPG ever made in all genres and I am not embarrassed to admit that I had to resort to a walk-through more than once to solve some of the quests in Arcanum. That’s great for the folks that sell hint books or run FAQ websites, but not for the hoards of fair-weather role-players that have embraced the platform as of late. Several of my friends have complained that Baldur’s Gate – which for the most part is linear in its quests – was too difficult to play. Those folks would be utterly lost in Arcanum.

So I suppose if you are still reading, you are either a huge RPG enthusiast, or the world of Arcanum really intrigues you. Either way, you should not be disappointed with what you find.

The world of Arcanum is one of the most amazing that I have encountered. The world is at the end of the magical era and the beginning of the technological one. In this respect it is not unlike the end of The Hobbit, where the coming of man is foreshadowed. Magic is still the dominant force in Arcanum and the gameplay reflects this. But technology is the next big thing and opens up magic-like effects like daylight at the touch of a button (electric lights), fast travel (steam engines) and the ability to kill at a distance (firearms) to the common non-magical public. Oh, and one force wont operate properly if too much of the other is around, so mages have to sit on the last car of trains for instance, away from the technological steam engine. I am convinced that if we were to visit the world of Arcanum in 200 years time, that magic would be all but a memory.

Other reviewers have complained that the system is unbalanced toward magic, but this is true because magic has had thousands of years to develop, whereas technology is relatively new to the world. So of course magical characters will have more spells and options at their disposal. That’s part of the role-playing that I don’t think folks who are not used to RPGs will understand or accept.

The game world itself is beautiful to behold. The cities give the feel of the old Ultima role-playing games, in the days before Ultima became synonymous with massively multiplayer RPGs. The wilderness is mostly open terrain, with an occasional encounter location thrown in that can either be learned about in discussions with other people and added to your map, or bumped into along the way. The graphics have a bit of a 2D feel, but all the locations are rendered in a way as to instantly show the character of the game. Spell effects are quite nice as are environmental actions like traps going off or people dying in combat. Depending on the type of death, the bodies will look different. If my wimpy mage kills someone with a stiletto, it will look a lot different than if my summoned demon rips them to shreds.

Combat is done well, but has a few problems. You can choose to fight in either realtime or turn-based mode. Both have issues. In realtime, the action is so fast that you don’t really have time to do much other than rapidly click your mouse. Often monsters would get five or six hits on me before I even realized what was going on, though my NPCs would react. The addition of a Baldur’s Gate-like pause button or the ability to set auto-pauses like when a monster is spotted would help immeasurably.

Because of this, I played mostly in turn-based mode. This mode works well though there is a minor problem. On occasion your main character won’t be able to perform an action because he does not have enough points left or because he is being held in some sort of trap. When that happens, you simply can’t do anything. The game is paused waiting for you to take your final actions that you can’t perform because of lack of points. Normally this catch-22 is fixed by taking one small step, spending the points and moving on. However, when you are caught in a trap and can’t move or on other odd occasions when you are away from the main action, you can’t do this. Your only option then is to initiate realtime combat by pressing the spacebar and quickly pressing it again to put the game back into turn-based mode. This basically skips your turn, but you have to be quick about it or you will stay in realtime mode too long, which triggers the realtime combat problems.

The real strength of Arcanum is the fact that it is about as close to a real pen-and-paper RPG as you can get on the computer. You don’t actually control your non-player character. You can sometimes give them a weapon to hold for you, and if they like it they will equip it and use it even if you don’t want them too. Sometimes they will pick up interesting items on the ground without you asking (or wanting) them to grab stuff. And if they don’t like you, as in the case of an evil NPC working for a good crusader, they will complain and eventually leave your group. They also advance themselves when they make a level, improving whatever skills they want regardless of your wishes.

That is pretty much how pen-and-paper RPGs work. The NPCs are run by the game master and are not in your control. Even in the Baldur’s Gate series where NPCs could disagree with you and leave, while they were in your party they were basically mindless zombies.

You personal character can be improved any way you want, which is another strength for Arcanum. You basically put points where you want as you gain levels, be it to buy new spells, technical disciplines or improve your stats. You can also find people in the game to train you in certain abilities, which gives you an advantage over someone with basically the same skill level, but who is officially untrained. Again, the nod here is to hardcore role-playing.

The game is basically non-linear. You have an overall plot that you are following, but you can travel to any of the cities you know about inside the world and perform a myriad of quests at each location. Some will require that you move around the world quite a bit to gather information and items. And some can’t be solved if you perform other counter-productive actions.

Unlike Planescape Torment, where my chief complaint was that I could not keep track of all the quests I was given, Arcanum keeps a log that is even color coded to help you out. Accepted quests are in blue. Solved quests are in strikethrough font and green. And botched quests are in strikethrough font and red. You can un-botch some quests if you really put your noggin to the problem. If you try to rescue someone and they get killed for example, train in dark necromancy or find a scroll and resurrect them. I’ve tried to out-think the designers by using nontraditional solutions to quest problems, and have not succeeded yet. There must be some hardcore RPGers on the team at Troika, because they seem to have their bases covered in this respect.

The soundtrack is worth noting because it also embodies the world image. It’s a classical score for the most part, though it changes to the necessary combat or spooky music when triggered by a game event or location change.

If you want a highly-evolved and highly-involved RPG, then Arcanum is the clear choice. You can easily lose yourself in the game world, but you have to put a lot into it to get a lot out of it. Sadly, this complexity that will endear the game to RPG lovers will likely turn away the more casual players.

As an RPG lover, I would like to give kudos to Troika and Sierra for designing a game and publishing a game that truly is designed for a select group of people. Too often budgets are such these days that all games are aimed at the "mainstream" population, and end up watered down versions of their original ideas. Arcanum pulls no punches. It’s a RPG that will challenge even expert RPGers. For that and for providing a lovely reality-forgetting experience, I award Arcanum 4 1/2 GiN Gems for their treasure chest with just a slight deduction for a few gameplay flaws.

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