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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (384)

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Iconoclasts 3/5
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Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
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Rage 2 4/5
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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5

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Arcanum: of Steamworks & Magick Obscura   PC 

Of Archaic UIs and Compatibility Layer Obscura    3/5 stars

While largely a phenomenon of the once-separate console ecosystem, the RPG Golden Age of the late ‘90s did have some effective spill-over into the world of PC gaming. The earliest PC RPGs that could be considered ‘playable’ by a gamer with modern, 21st Century sensibilities all arose during this time period, beginning with Brian Fargo’s new ‘Fallout’ IP and culminating in the Infinity Engine series of D&D-based games that put BioWare and Black Isle Studios on the map. Fairly late in the cycle, though, a group of Interplay employees became disgruntled with their corporate overlord, and left to create a new, independent development studio: Troika. Troika only lasted ~7 years, and only managed to produce 3 games during its brief lifespan, each published by a different (and increasingly evil) publisher. The first of these titles was “Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura” (“Arcanum”), an original IP set in an original magickal Steampunk setting, which was published by Sierra (of ‘King’s Quest’ fame). It may seem odd that I never got around to playing “Arcanum” until now, being the huge RPG fanatic I am, but at the time, PC gaming was something only to be tolerated in order to experience more D&D, and with no solid IP behind “Arcanum” or incredible reputation behind Troika (back in the ‘90s, nobody knew who the actual people behind games were), it was easy enough to ignore as ‘just another crappy PC game.’ The fine folks at GOG, however, considered “Arcanum” to be ‘good’ enough to preserve in their DRM-free legacy shop, and with the dearth of RPGs made in the 7th Generation, I added it to my backlog some years ago, and just finally got around to it in 2018.

Presentation
“Arcanum” is NOT a very impressive game by any measure of its presentation. It appears to be built on a modified version of the engine used in the original ‘Fallout’ games, despite being released 4 years after that engine was first used. The game’s visuals are entirely sprite-based and presented from a traditional isometric camera perspective, with no option to adjust the perspective. Environments are painfully drab and unappealing, with more Brown-and-Gray that one can shake a very large stick at. Character models are small and non-descript as well, though the artists at Troika did at least go through the effort of making different armor worn by characters change the appearance of their sprites. “Arcanum” also makes some limited use of pre-rendered CG cutscenes, which tend to look very crude to the modern eye, both with regard to resolution (they are tiny on even a 720p screen) and the stiff, puppet-like quality of the animation.

The audio work in “Arcanum” is a step up from the visuals, but largely doesn’t go far enough to really stand out. There is limited voiceacting, tied almost entirely to the main story and recruitable NPCs. It’s a sure bet that if a character says something that’s voiced, they’re going to have the option of joining the party before too long. The voice acting is quite well done for the time, however, but doesn’t compare favorably to BioWare’s contemporary works. The musical accompaniment is a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the game is, like the first two ‘Fallout’ titles, accompanied by vague, abstract background noise, which is rather unpleasant. However, when traveling across the world map, a lovely string quartet breaks out, which is quite nice, and would have been a preferable accompaniment to the rest of the game.

Technically, though, “Arcanum” is a disaster, and GOG should be ashamed of themselves for selling the game in its current state and marketing it as ‘playable on modern operating systems.’ “Arcanum” was designed to run at a resolution of 800x600. And that is the resolution it runs at, forming a tiny box in the middle of a modern flat-panel display, with huge black letterboxing all around. Even worse, “Arcanum” is so old that it didn’t employ any of Microsoft’s DirectX APIs, necessitating it to be wrapped in a DirectDraw compatibility layer in order to make it play nicely with post-XP Windows systems. The DDraw.dll included by GOG simply isn’t up to snuff, and I had to waste a good 10 hours or so researching the problem and installing both a High Resolution Mod (which still forced me to play at 720p on my 1080p screen if I wanted to read any text) and a different DDraw.dll wrapper (one called dgVoodoo) in order to get it to work properly. Especially annoying is the fact that “Arcanum” is the type of crufty, old type-and-click game that makes the Steam controller an absolute necessity, yet only the dgVoodoo DDraw wrapper allowed the Steam overlay to work with the game (and the overlay is required to make the Steam controller work). On top of its archaic rendering engine and necessary compatibility wrapper, “Arcanum” is a notoriously buggy game (as PC games were/are). After reading the list of game-breaking bugs on the unofficial wiki, I decided to install the Unofficial Arcanum Patch as well, which GOG didn’t bother to include in their version of the game. Even with these three mods installed (the Unofficial Patch, the High-Res Mod, and dgVoodoo), I still experienced a game with bugs, visual glitches, and a persistent memory leak that led the entire game to slow down and eventually crash approximately every 2 hours. I specifically bought the GOG version of “Arcanum” instead of the Steam version because I wanted to AVOID all of that nonsense! Regardless, “Arcanum” can be seen as an object lesson in comparing PC RPGs and console RPGs from the Golden Age: Console games just worked, PC games just broke.

Story
“Arcanum’s” setting is far and away the best and most interesting part of its storytelling. In a generic High Fantasy world populated by the typical elves, dwarves, gnomes, ogres, and orcs, as well as humans, the Industrial Revolution has come, ushering in an age of technological growth and prosperity, as well as a cultural shift toward more Victorian-era norms. Magick still exists, however, and does so in an unhappy balance with technology, as these two forces apparently exist in equilibrium as ‘two sides of the same coin,’ and the presence of too much technology in a given region causes magick to go awry, and vice-versa.

Set against this almost Lovecraftian world of Victorian mysticism, our (custom) main character is the sole survivor of the crash of the IFS Zephyr – the world’s first lighter-than-air craft – on its maiden voyage. Amidst the burning wreckage, our hero has a mysterious encounter with a dying gnome who pushes a ring into the hero’s hands and insists that they get in contact with the ring’s owner. Soon after this encounter, our hero meets yet another strange individual, a Panarii cultist named Vergil, who insists that our hero is ‘The Living One,’ the reincarnation of the Panarii god, Nasrudin, who will, according to prophecy, appear during a time of great strife in order to stop the return of the evil god, Arronax.

With a mystery and a bit of generic Chosen One fluff to serve as motivation, the player is then free to set out into the world of “Arcanum” in the pursuit of their own ends. “Arcanum” is the type of PC RPG that, much like the old ‘Fallout’ titles, obsesses over giving the player the freedom to be Good or Evil and live with the consequences of their choices. I always play the Good Guy in these types of games, and I honestly don’t see the appeal of being Evil.

“Arcanum” is also one of the earlier efforts in creating a truly open world game, as, unlike the Infinity Engine games, which took place entirely in self-contained regions with random tiles full of random enemies in the event of random encounters during region transition, it is entirely possible to walk across the entire world without using the map to speed up travel. Not that this is particularly interesting as the map is mostly empty and, despite the fact that the game goes through great pains to show off how non-linear it is, important story locations only become available after key plot points, effectively hemming the player into a smallish sandbox that gets progressively larger as they follow the linear narrative thread.

In general, “Arcanum’s” story is an incredibly slow burn. I didn’t have a functioning game timer, unfortunately, but I estimate it took between 60 and 100 hours to make my way through it, yet it didn’t really start to get interesting or address any unique philosophical trains of though until near the very end. When “Arcanum” finally decides to stop being so slow and uneventful, things really do get a bit interesting. However, most of the side content isn’t all that exciting, and the sheer amount of time I spent doing repetitive busywork instead of exploring the story due to the game’s overwhelming lack of Quality of Life features made the already slow pace feel even worse.

Gameplay
“Arcanum” is a PC RPG in the mold of “Fallout 2” and maybe a little bit of “Baldur’s Gate.” The player begins as a lone adventurer, and can only form a party by finding kindred spirits throughout the vast game world and convincing them to join up (via a high Charisma score). “Arcanum” is emphatically NOT a D&D-based game, so any assumptions about stats and character builds a D&D player might have need to be set aside.

Characters in “Arcanum” have 8 primary stats: Strength (carrying capacity, damage), Constitution (health), Dexterity (chance to hit and not be hit in combat), Intelligence (dialog and crafting), Willpower (health and stamina), Perception (finding traps and shooting guns), Beauty (NPCs initial reaction to the character), and Charisma (NPCs ongoing reaction and party size). Upon gaining a level, the player receives a single skill point to dump into one of those stats. OR the player can dump that point directly into Health or Stamina (stamina is used to cast spells and slowly drains during combat due to exertion). OR the player can dump their points into one of 16 (!) schools or magick, one of 8 schools of technology, or one of a handful of other skills, including competence in combat with a variety of weapon types. With a level cap of 50, “Arcanum’s” character building feels quite restrictive, even moreso because the player has no say in how allied party members spend their skill points. Upon character creation, the player is free to select a variety of races (interestingly, there are no female gnomes or dwarves available), and can select a backstory, each of which comes with a variety of perks and detriments. I personally chose to create an Ugly male gnome whose revolting appearance was easily circumvented by the general affability of gnomes and a high Charisma (wearing a stylish smoking jacked while in town socializing also helped). Characters also have both alignment and aptitude scores. Alignment is determined by the character’s actions in-game and places them on the Good/Evil scale, whereas aptitude determines how invested a character is in magick vs. technology. A highly technological character will find magick items performing sub-optimally in their hands and beneficial spells cast upon them will randomly fail. Likewise, a highly magickal character will find that gadgets and gewgaws fail spectacularly in their presence.

Combat is a bit of a disaster, and can lead to quite a bit of frustration. “Arcanum” can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a turn-based Action Point system, like ‘Fallout,’ or a Real-Time-with-Pause system, like the Infinity Engine games. While it effectively gives the player the option to use either system, the best way to play in actuality is to switch between the two. In order to effectively use ranged attacks, ‘pausing,’ using up all of the hero’s Action Points, then unpausing and letting all Hell break loose works far better than trying to aim at the rapidly-moving bodies of enemies, especially when NPC allies are constantly getting in the way (and getting hit with friendly fire in either combat mode). While “Arcanum” does give the player some vague options to command their party members from a cumbersome right-click menu on each character’s portrait, during combat they generally don’t listen. Trying to do anything strategic in “Arcanum” simply doesn’t work, as the player doesn’t have fine enough control of their party’s behavior to make any well-laid plans come to fruition.

This cumbersome UI for interacting with companions during combat generally applies to companions in every other scenario as well. While it’s possible to look directly at a companion’s inventory by right-clicking their portrait and selecting the correct option, and even cycle between all companion inventories from that same screen, it’s impossible to trade things from one party member to another without first putting them in the hero’s grid-based inventory, which makes the good old tradition of Inventory Tetris an omnipresent bugbear. While it is true that “Arcanum” makes a token effort to ease Inventory Tetris by including a button that, with a single click, will reorganize the party’s inventories to free up either vertical space or horizontal space, the results are a bit hit and miss. It’s also a small concession when one takes into consideration the fact that simple healing potions tend to weigh 10 stone each (I don’t know why “Arcanum” uses stones instead of pounds, outside of Victorian flare) and AREN’T STACKABLE! I spent the vast majority of the game with my hero’s inventory half-filled with nothing but healing items, while the half-ogre companion I recruited in the first town had his inventory filled with herbs and twigs in case I needed to craft more. See, I thought I was being clever to collect herbs and twigs and immediately craft them into healing poultices. Each herb and each twig took up two squares of precious inventory, while a poultice only took up one square. I quickly learned, however, that crafting poultices from herbs and twigs doesn’t result in a single dose, but FIVE doses, each of which takes up a square of inventory, thus making crafting a LESS efficient means of carrying those items on long journeys.

On top of the pain of inventory management, the game also goes out of its way to make earning money a time consuming pain in the ass. While it is quite easy to fill up the entire party’s inventory with loot while out adventuring, emptying their inventories in exchange for gold is not. “Arcanum’s” towns and cities are populated by a variety of different merchants, each of whom is only interested in specific goods. Thus unloading an inventory full of unwanted loot typically entails a half hour of real time traipsing around a city in order to find which merchant is willing to buy which goods. Frequently there are NO merchants in a given town who will buy certain goods, mandating a long cross-country trip to a town with an appropriate merchant. I must have spent half my time with “Arcanum” dicking around with loot and merchants, turning the game into a memorably tedious goat rope. Another major annoyance when it comes to loot in “Arcanum” is the overwhelming amount of cursed items! While there’s no permanent penalty for equipping most cursed items, their omnipresence made me paranoid enough to never use a new, unidentified magick item until I was able to return to one of the three towns in the game with a Wise Woman camped outside who could tell me about their magickal properties.

The rest of “Arcanum” is fairly bog standard PC RPG fare: There are lots of dialog trees, a journal that automatically keeps track of rumors and quests, and a world map that enables high-speed cross-country travel and cursory exploration. There are also a large number of REALLY BIG dungeon-like environments to explore (seriously, each one of them is about 3 times larger than it should be). If inventory management and companion combat behavior weren’t so hideously borked, “Arcanum” could have stood alongside the greats, like “Baldur’s Gate 2.” As it is, it’s a relic – a museum piece in ‘how not to handle RPG system design.’

Overall
While “Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura” is certainly unique due to its setting, it is far too bogged down by its various cumbersome and archaic gameplay mechanics as well as its slow-paced narrative, to really stand out as a Golden Age RPG. Its unspectacular nature combined with its plethora of technical issues, which not even GOG has managed to get a handle on, make it hard to recommend this title to anyone but the most ardent Steampunk fanatic who is willing to overlook its glaring faults. That said, there’s enough of interest here that I’d really like to see “Arcanum” become the next crusty old PC RPG to get a modern sequel, like “Wasteland 2.”

Presentation: 1.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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