If you missed the two Fallout games (released in 1997 and 1998), they were post-apocalyptic role-playing games that gave players all sorts of options, from the type of character to play to how to solve quests to which quests to solve. Plus, they were amazingly rich in detail, so not only was there a lot of replayability from the options listed above, you could also play the games several times just to try and see everything there was to see -- and still not succeed. However, the Fallout games also ran the full gamut of adult content, with drugs, sex, violence, and language, and for perhaps that reason if nothing else they never reached the popularity of the later (but related) Baldur’s Gate games. Now, three years later, Troika Games, with five members of the original Fallout team, has come out with Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. It provides the same sort of “feel” as the Fallout games, but, like Black Isle Studios moving on from Fallout to Baldur’s Gate, Troika Games has made Arcanum much more family oriented -- or at least as family oriented as role-playing games can be (there isn’t any green blood here). And, despite a sluggish, unimpressive gaming engine, Arcanum is still a quality game that is fun to play.
Arcanum takes place in an odd sort of world, where the typical medieval fantasy setting collides with the technology of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (think of ogres flying planes and dwarves firing guns). In this world you play an ordinary person, but, much like in the Fallout games, people seem to think you’re something more important. As the game opens up, you survive a zeppelin crash. A dying gnome gives you a ring and tells you to find “the boy” and stop “the evil,” and then a religious figure shows up and decides you’re “the Living One” from an ancient prophecy. From that point on you’ll have to figure out what everybody is talking about and then (of course) save the world from the evil.
The story is interwoven together well, and Troika did a good job of having mysterious early events relate to later events, so everything ties together nicely at the end. The only real caveat here is that you’re an outsider to the story. Nothing that happens is personal to you -- you’re not trying to save your family or rescue anybody you know -- and so your motivation for helping people out is a little weak. But otherwise the story is interesting and developed nicely, and it holds up well under scrutiny.
But even if you don’t care a whit for the story, Arcanum is still fun to play just for the wealth of detail and playing styles it supports. For example, consider character creation. You can choose between eight races and over 60 backgrounds (backgrounds modify your starting abilities, and some, like arsonist, are pretty funny), and while there aren’t any official classes in the game, there are 16 skills, 56 technical colleges (for creating objects), and 80 magical colleges (for casting spells), and you can learn any of them you want. However, you’re limited to a certain number of “character points” while you play the game, and since those points can be used to learn skills or increase statistics, you have to make a lot of decisions about what’s best for your character. But, as a result, there are a lot of character types to play, from the smooth-talking wizard to the gun-toting elf to the seriously stupid half-ogre melee fighter, and the game plays differently for each choice (playing a stupid character is especially entertaining).
But where Arcanum really shines is in how responsive its world is. For example, there are a lot of quests in the game, and while they tend to be fairly basic, there are always multiple ways to solve them. So if you need to acquire a key, you can either steal it, talk somebody out of it, or kill for it, and each choice is just as valid as the others. Plus, there are over a dozen people you can potentially add to your party, and they’re good about adding background information and commenting on some of the situations that arise in your travels. But the most responsive part of the game is the dialogue. Troika really went all out here, and conversations can change dramatically depending on your appearance, your intelligence, what you’ve done in the past, and even what you’re carrying in your inventory.
Unfortunately, while Troika made all sorts of good decisions about gameplay, all sorts of things when wrong when they developed the gaming engine, and so Arcanum is a game that’s a little better in theory than it is in actuality. Let’s start with the interface, which has numerous problems. For starters, it takes up too much room and then wastes a lot of the space it does take up. Troika provided a “fullscreen” mode in its latest patch, which makes the interface much less conspicuous, but it also removes some useful information (like how much ammunition you have and what time it is), and it forces you to use hotkeys (which, of course, aren’t configurable). Some sort of happy medium is required. Also, it’s more than a little difficult at times to target creatures (especially when they become “invisible” behind walls), and even something as easy as taking off a piece of equipment and putting it in your inventory can be problematic. Even useful-sounding things often don’t work well. For example, there’s an overhead map you can call up to see your surroundings, but the area of the world it shows is barely bigger than the area you see on the game screen, and you have to scroll the map around a lot to get a sense of where you are. There’s also a log that records the rumors you hear and the quests you’ve done and need to do, but it isn’t organized at all, and eventually you’ll have 60 pages of rumors and 30 pages of quests with no good way to search through them.
Arcanum also has some problems with its graphics. The graphics engine looks like it’s three or four years old, which is bad by itself, but then Troika compounded the problem by making the characters and locations drab and lifeless. Even the spell effects are boring. Plus, there is surprisingly little detail in the graphics. Characters don’t have faces, and they only change appearance when they change their body armor. That’s especially disappointing in Arcanum, where you might have a character wearing a top hat and plate mail, which would be funny to see.
The sound for Arcanum is better than its graphics, but then it is also a little sparse. There is far too much dialogue in the game for Troika to have used voice actors for all of it, but for some reason they decided to use actors only for the characters who can join your party. That leaves most of the game like playing in a silent movie, and there are definitely other characters and situations where actors would have been useful. Fortunately, the actors Troika did use were pretty good, and they all acted (not just read) their lines well. There is also some good variety to the sound effects, and the background music is competent if not exactly exciting.
The documentation for Arcanum is lengthy (187 pages) but not especially instructive. Troika did one of those good things / bad things by making the manual into a late 1800’s (Jules Verne era) manuscript, and so the text is thematic and fun to read, but it is also overly verbose, with treatises on some subjects rather than short convenient descriptions. For example, Troika spends 25 pages describing the eight races in the game, but it only covers their background information (their history, how much they weight, and so forth), and you have to actually start up the character creation dialogue in the game to find out what the racial bonuses are. Troika also inexplicably neglected to include a table of contents or index for the manual, and so it doesn’t function especially well as a reference, something that a game as complex as Arcanum really needs.
Overall, I feel like I should be in one of those old beer commercials where one side of the room is shouting “Great game!” and the other side is shouting “Crappy engine!” The punch line now, as in the beer commercials, is that both sides are right (or at least they’re right here; your taste may vary with the beer), and Arcanum is both a good game and a bad game depending on the part of it you want to focus on. I thought the gameplay was good enough to make up for the deficient engine, and I found Arcanum to be a worthy successor to the Fallout series.