Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura

Developer:  Troika Games
Publisher:  Sierra
Year Released:  2001

Review by Steve Metzler (December, 2002)

dichotomy (dai'kotemi) 1. division into two parts or classifications, esp. when they are sharply distinguished or opposed.

And this is indeed the perfect description for the world of Arcanum. It is a world populated by humans, elves, dwarves, and other creatures of fantasy where 'magick' has held sway for countless centuries, and mages have traditionally woven the fabric that holds society together. And yet, Arcanum is in the midst of its first industrial revolution. A new wave of technologists is beginning to give the established magick users a run for their money, and the entire complexion of this fragile society is rapidly changing.

The opening cinematic, done in sepia tones with inspiring chamber music, finds your character on a product of this industrial revolution - a dirigible travelling to another continent. Suddenly, two tiny primitive aircaft piloted by half-orcs besiege the dirigible in a suicide attack, sending it and themselves to the ground in flames. Your character is the sole survivor of the crash, as a dying gnome amongst the wreckage hands you a ring, and implores you to "find the boy" with his last breath. Moments later you are approached by a young monk babbling on about some legendary deity, the 'Living One'. And then you realise that he's talking about you! Soon after that, you find your life being threatened by a series of total strangers. It is into this setting that you are cast, to make your own way in this dangerous and yet quaint world that is Arcanum.

Arcanum is the brainchild and first effort of Troika Games, a relatively new company founded by several members of the team from Interplay that brought you the magnificent Fallout experience. So how did they fare in this, their first solo outing? All in good time, dear reader...

Of much character
The character creation scheme in Arcanum is one of the best I have encountered to date. First, you get to choose your race and your gender. Available races (for male characters) are: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc, and Half-Ogre. Your choice here can significantly affect your starting primary stats, and also whether you lean towards magick or technology. Strangely, female race choices are limited to: Human, Elf, Half-Elf, and Half-Orc. Presumably, this was to cut down on the number of portraits and character skins that had to be portrayed in-game? Anyway, in this game choosing the female gender results in a subtle alteration of your character's primary stats. Usually, it means that you start off with slightly lower strength than a male character, but with higher constitution... oh, and you look really good in leather. But what differentiates Arcanum from a lot of other RPGs is that you can optionally choose a background for your character. There are about 40 different backgrounds to choose from (not all available to all races), and each one gives you a bonus as well as a penalty. For instance, Child of a Hero sees you starting out with your father's trusty old magickal sword, but you incur a terrible negative reaction for any bad deeds you perform because your father was so popular. As a Professional Knife Tosser, you lost an eye so have -1 Perception, but gain a starting bonus to your Throwing skill, etc. One thing to note especially here is that Dwarves make terrible magick users. Your mana in Arcanum is called 'Fatigue', and it costs twice as much Fatigue for a Dwarf to cast a spell as for any other race. So don't even go there.

Once you've fleshed out your character, you then have 5 points to spend any way you like. You can boost any of your primary stats, which are: Strength (ST), Intelligence (IN), Constitution (CN), Willpower (WP), Dexterity (DX), Perception (PE), Beauty (BE), and Charisma (CH). There are 16 skills in 4 categories (Combat, Thieving, Social, and Technological) where you can also spend points. And you can pick spells from a catalogue of 80 across 16 colleges, or choose 'degrees' in any of 8 technological disciplines. You then proceed to the final character creation screen, which allows you to purchase various items from a virtual shopkeeper, given a small budget of 400 gold coins. Choose wisely!

Trials and tribulations
Each time you level up in Arcanum, you get one point to spend any way you like (two points on every level that is divisible by 5). This doesn't sound like a lot, but believe me, it allows for developing your character to a high degree of specialty and proficiency through the course of a game, because your level only caps out at 50. However, you're always on the horns of a dilemma. Should I boost my Melee skill this time, throw another point into Dexterity so I move faster, or purchase a degree for that new-fangled gun so I can build one? The variety of ways you can develop your character is nearly endless.

On the whole, I found Arcanum to be a balanced game, but there are a few exceptions. For one, magick users have it much easier than technologists. Magickal weapons possess from 0% to 100% innate magickal power, and the higher your magickal aptitude, the more of the weapon's power is available to you. You find these magickal weapons all over the place in various chests, whereas guns and explosives for technologists to use are few and far between. And a technologist with a magickal weapon in hand... well, it's about as useful as a bicycle is to a fish. What makes it all the more unbalanced is that the damage doled out by Melee weapons is dramatically increased by your ST (which can be artificially enhanced with the level 1 spell Strength of Earth). On the other hand, a Revolver that does 3 - 12 points of damage can only ever do that much damage - there's no way to boost it. Finally, Arcanum is designed in such a way that you get experience points (XP) every time your character successfully hits a target, as opposed to killing it! And if your party members ('followers' in Arcanum speak) hit the target instead of you, then you don't get as much of the XP. The fact that Melee weapons are usually much faster than guns further exacerbates these difficulties. Having said all that... this imbalance between magick users and technologists is one of only a few faults I could find with Arcanum. What it boils down to is that technologists, unless you have a few Melee specialists tagging along with you (hint, hint), will have a much tougher time completing the game. It's not until the latter stages of the game that you can find or build a gun that rivals the potency of a just-above-average magickal Melee weapon.

On the other hand, the magickal/technological dichotomy of Arcanum - the central theme of the game - is very well handled. Your character starts out neutral, but as you learn more spells, you will slowly start to gravitate towards a max of 100 on the magick scale. Likewise, as you purchase more technological degrees, you go the other way. There's a handy meter on the right-hand side of the screen that tells you how far you are leaning in either direction. Your aptitude has a direct bearing on your possibilities in the game. For instance, once your magickal aptitude hits somewhere near the 80 mark, you won't be allowed on trains (you see, magick and technology can't co-exist, so you would cause the train to break down). Likewise, a skilled Dwarf technologist trying to purchase magickal weapons for his followers will be turned away by the shop owner, said owner being afraid that your technological presence will taint his magickal wares. So while in the beginning of the game you can sit on the fence so to speak, near the end of the game you will have to choose your specialties more carefully. The monk Virgil who I mentioned at the beginning of the review can magically heal you, but once your technological aptitude creeps up over the 50 mark, half of his healing spells bounce off (and he's wasting Fatigue in the process of casting them)! So, you'd better learn to heal yourself then, right?

Developing any of your 16 skills in Arcanum is a highly satisfactory experience. Each skill has 5 levels of proficiency, each level becoming more difficult to attain. For example, in order to boost any of your Combat skills (Bow, Dodge, Melee, and Throwing), you will need to have a DX of 6 to get to level 1, 9 for level 2, then 12, then 15, and finally 18 to attain level 5. In addition, you can be trained by certain NPCs as an Apprentice at level 1, Expert when you hit level 3, and Master at level 5. This training confers extra bonuses in the skill. For instance, an Apprentice at Melee has his/her speed with a weapon increased by 5. As a Melee Expert, you become unaffected by lighting penalties. A Melee Master never critically misses with a weapon. Apprentice training will cost you only 100 gold coins, and Apprentice trainers are abundant. Expert trainers are much harder to find, and they will cost you 500. And finally, there is only one Master trainer in all of Arcanum for each of the 16 skills, and you must first locate and then normally undertake a difficult quest on behalf of the trainer in order to secure your Master training.

There are three modes of combat available: real time, turn-based, and fast turn-based. Real time is useless for all but the most trivial battles, and veteran RPG players will almost surely be opting for one of the turn-based modes. The only difference between normal turn-based and the fast variety is that in the fast mode, you don't waste a lot of time watching the characters move to their next position - they just instantly appear there. The combat in the turn-based modes becomes quite strategic, much like in Fallout where you have X number of action points to spend per turn depending on your DX and other factors (carrying a lot slows you down accordingly). The 'targeted shot' concept has also percolated through from Fallout, but has less scope. You can make a 'called' shot to an opponent's head, arms, or legs by holding down the appropriate key while you click on them. When a called shot hits its target, it has a better chance of scoring a critical hit, but that is the compensation for it having less chance of hitting in the first place.

Like you'd expect with any outstanding RPG, dialogue should play a big part. The designers have put in a lot of effort here, and being careful with what you say is vital to both the obtaining and solving of many quests. Your dialogue choices are limited by a Social skill called Persuasion, and to a lesser extent by your CH. Having trouble getting a key off someone? Then throw another point into Persuasion and you might just get another branch added to the dialogue tree. Or... you could just Pickpocket them for it. With much credit to Troika where it's due, there are usually three alternatives to solving each quest: smooth talking, petty thievery, or brute force. You also have an alignment meter, which starts out at 0, and can go to plus or minus 99. Kill too many innocents in the pursuit of treasure, and watch that baby spiral downwards. Pretty soon only other evil NPCs will speak with you. I played as a goody two-shoes most of the time, but just once I played a truly evil character and there is an entire ending branch dedicated to this style of player.

Speaking of NPCs, there are quite a few who will volunteer their services. Some will only join you if you are of good alignment, and of course, others only if you are evil. If your alignment changes, the ones of opposing alignment will usually leave. However, with CH of 20, you can force anyone to stay with you! In fact, the number of followers you can have is limited by CH/4. Unfortunately, none of the followers aside from Virgil has a fully fleshed out background with new dialogues appearing as the game progresses, and this is another small weakness of Arcanum. As compensation, NPCs do present well crafted and lengthy dialogue opportunities when you first meet them. Many of the prominent characters are voiced by actors, and the standard of acting is very good.

I'll just mark it on your map...
The continent that your dirigible crashed on is considerably large, and there is much to explore. Once you get on the outskirts of a town, the World Map becomes available. You can set multiple waypoints between any two points, and this is sometimes necessary to skirt the edge of a mountain, or to work your way along the coast. In fact, there are two extensive mountain ranges cutting you off from a large portion of the map, and one of the central quests in the game involves finding a pass through the mountains. It is possible to stumble upon new places just by wandering around the map, but most of the time you will be relying on conversing with NPCs to put these new places on your map. The downside of travelling on the World Map (or, upside if you're looking for lots of XP) is that while your party is on foot, it will be constantly beset upon by all manner of creatures in the form of random encounters. Early on these encounters are a big boost for your XP, but later in the game when you're at level 20-something and upwards they become merely an annoyance. It would have been nice for Troika to decrease the frequency of the encounters then. You also get many opportunities to travel by train and ship, and these journeys will cost you some gold, but at least you won't be bothered by anything when you travel this way.

Some folks have criticised the interface for being too cumbersome, and I did find it a bit unwieldy at first. It took me ages to figure out how to use magickal staffs (there's a rather un-obvious button lurking near the bottom of the interface). Eventually got used to it though. The manual is largely at fault here, being written in an exuberant mid-1800's American period style (think: snake oil salesman) that is entertaining to read but confusing in presentation. And it has no index!

The magick interface is easy to use. You can put your most often used spells in quick slots by dragging them there. Just left-click on a spell and your cursor changes colour, then click on the creature you want to cast the spell on (could be yourself). There are also area-effect spells, most notably Temporal ones that have to do with the stretching or compression of time, and these apply to the whole area once you left-click on them. How many spells you can maintain at one time depends on your IN/4. So for instance, with an IN of 12 you could simultaneously hold 3 enemies at bay with a high level spell cast and maintained on each one while your Melee fighters beat the living daylights out of them. The various spell effects are well animated, injecting a bit of colour and excitement into the otherwise slightly lacklustre graphics.

Use of schematics for technologists is somewhat more complicated. You can come upon one of these schematics in three ways: 'purchase' it as a technological degree using a character point after levelling up, purchase it from a shopkeeper, or find it in a chest. Each schematic requires two items which you must combine to make the finished product. Not only that, but you must also possess enough skill in one or two technological disciplines to manufacture the more exotic items. For instance, to make bullets, you must not only have Saltpetre and Charcoal, you must also be several rungs up the ladder in the Explosives discipline. One of the most amusing aspects of Arcanum is witnessing the vast array of garbage that a technologist lugs around in the hope that some of it will eventually become useful!

Technologists take note
Graphically, I suppose Arcanum doesn't really excel, but this isn't a big problem for me when it comes to 2D RPGs. The graphics are for the most part workmanlike (and tiled), but there are a few breathtaking exceptions - like the skeleton of a huge dragon, and the elven tree villages. And there are other visual surprises in store: aside from the opening cinematic, there are no others until the latter part of the game when you are presented with a stunningly animated and well narrated presentation that literally comes out of nowhere to pull the whole story together. It lasted for a good few minutes, and left me gobsmacked! The end game was also nicely illustrated with stills that explained the effect - good or bad - your various exploits had on the different places you visited during the game (another nice Fallout-like touch).

In the normal mode of display, about a third of the screen is taken up by the interface. However, if you download and apply the patch before you start to play (available on the Sierra Arcanum site), then you can run Arcanum in full screen mode and it does look quite a bit more impressive. This patch also fixes a rake of bugs. Despite this patch, Arcanum will occasionally slow to a crawl when there are a lot of NPCs on the screen in a particular area. This appears to be the case no matter what the spec of your machine.

The music throughout is provided by a chamber orchestra, thus using solely stringed instruments, and is quite befitting the period the game is set in. Each of the major towns and villages have their own mood piece. The music goes up-tempo during combat, but is otherwise soothing and spiritual.

Around the world in many ways
Arcanum can be played in Multiplayer mode either on a LAN or over the Internet. One player hosts the game with his/her machine as a server, and the other players connect as clients. Several varieties of Multiplayer are available. You can work cooperatively as a team, play each character solo, turn on and off player killing player, etc. I'm usually a lone role player, which means I rarely go near the Multiplayer option of any game, and Arcanum was no exception. So I can't comment much on this mode of play.

Arcanum also provides you with a programme called World Editor that allows you to construct your own Arcanum 'modules' from scratch. There is as a result a small but thriving Arcanum mod community, and you can find out a lot more by paying a visit to the Dimensions of Arcanum website. In fact, Arcanum was shipped with one such Troika-developed stand-alone module called Vormantown. After you've finished the game proper a few times, it's worth playing this module just to see what can be done (though don't expect to develop anything more than a simple dungeon crawl unless you're willing to expend months of effort. Meaningful dialogue and story lines take a long while to get right).

So, there you have it. Sorry that all took a while to explain, but there's a lot to do in the world of Arcanum. I've played it four times through so far with widely varied character types, and though there is a certain familiarity about the proceedings each time you play, there are also a lot of new things to discover. While not excelling in the graphics department, and despite favouring the magick/melee style player over the gun-toting technologist, I still rate Arcanum as one of my favourite games. For me, it's the game play that really counts, and Arcanum has bucketloads of that!

See the Arcanum walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
64MB RAM (256MB recommended), Pentium II 300MHz (PIII 500MHZ recommended), DirectX compatible 8MB video card, 4X CD-ROM, Windows 95-98-2000-ME (works fine in XP too!), 1.2GB free disk space, Windows compatible sound card