The Netbook Gamer: Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (2001, RPG)

Imagine a world in which the mythical creatures of the middle age mythology – elves, orcs, etc – were real, and that magic existed. Now imagine it is the 1880’s and the industrial revolution in in full swing, but causing a conflict with the worlds of magic and knights of honor. That is the setting of Arcanum, and you are the hero. And that is the premise of the first game from Troika Studios.

Troika Studios is worth mentioning alongside their games more than just about any other developer: the studio was formed by three people who left Interplay after completing the game design for Fallout 2 and being unable to come to an agreement with the company about the future of the franchise. They formed a new company to allow them to develop games their own way. They released a mere three games before closing in early 2005. Arcanum is discussed here, I will later review Temple of Elemental Evil, and I already wrote a sprawling retrospective about their final work Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

The common school of thought on Troika is that their games were brilliant but buggy. My Bloodlines retrospective touched on that, and Arcanum was the start of that thought process … and for good reason.

As you begin, the music of a chamber string quartet introduces you to the game with a theme that is at once melancholy and hopeful. The opening menu has a rich dark-stained wooden background and items from the ‘old west’ that when juxtaposed with the music immediately create a scene and a mood.

At first your character creation options look pretty thin: you make basic choices about your character and then move on to the next screen. There you are assaulted by a deep and detailed character creation system. You have a modified version of the SPECIAL system with 8 characteristics rather than 7 (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Beauty, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower and Charisma), as well as a massive tree for Magick, Technology and General skills.

The core of much of the struggle comes down to Magick vs. Technology. As you look at the skill trees, you will notice that aside from an ‘Alignment’ gauge there is also one for Magick/Technology, with the implication that you cannot possibly support the world of magic and the anti-magic world based on technology. It is possible to build a character who is tilted enough in either direction that they will be thrown out of shops in the very first town! For me that character is always a mage, and the weapons and armor dealers are positively aghast when I enter their shops!

As I mentioned, Arcanum tracks your alignment on a positive and negative scale, and doing things within the game that are construed as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ will shift your alignment accordingly. This system is similar to the ones used in the Dungeons & Dragons based games such as Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights as well as other games. These point-based scales move in either direction based on actions, but it is easy enough to undo choices in one direction with one in the other direction – unless you make a huge good or evil choice. Those large decisions tend to not only give you a major alignment shift, they are also likely to give you a reputation.

You can also gain certain Reputations by completing certain actions or taking on quests that have specific results. Once gained, the Reputation shows up in your character information sheet … but more importantly it can result in you getting attacked seemingly at random, or gaining new insights and information or perhaps even open up new quest lines!

Fate Points are also displayed on the character screen. These are rare and special rewards obtained from certain quest actions, and have an amazing impact. As they suggest, you can alter your fate using these. So you could choose to open a door you could never unlock, or get a critical hit, or other special bonuses.

The story begins with a cutscene that is made to look like an old newsreel that shows the IFS Zepyr zeppelin flying on its maiden voyage and being shot down by half-ogre bandits in samll fighter craft. The end of the scene has you receiving a ring from a dying gnome and are told only to deliver it to ‘the boy’. You gain control subsequent to the crash and immediately meet with Virgil, who explains that you are supposed to be some sort of reincarnation of a holy entity known as the Living One. From there you take off to meet with an elder named Joachim and get the story started in earnest.

Arcanum looks like a classic late 90’s RPG for good reason, as it was created by many of the same folks who were responsible for classics of the era such as Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. The game is played from an isometric perspective with hand drawn 2D environments and animated sprites for characters. For much of the game you are surrounded by relatively bland colors, browns and greys, and the overall impression is that this is simply not a game where you should worry much about the graphics. The interface shares the same polished wood appearance and sensibilities as the opening menus and rest of the game.

Speaking of the interface, it is relatively huge for a 2001 game! You lose about one third of the bottom of the screen to the in-game interface and a strip at the top to main menu functions. The top bar provides access to the system menu, inventory, quests and so on. The bottom portion displays your health and mana, as well as quick-slots for spells and items, easy access buttons for rogue skills and your array of magic, technology or other skills. There is also a display showing the action points for when your are in turn-based combat mode. At the center is a large display showing information about enemies or allies you click on, as well as dialogue with other characters.

I mentioned ‘turn-based combat mode’ as if it was an option – and that is because you can choose between turn-based and action-based combat modes. As one would expect, the turn-based has a distinct Fallout feel, while the action-based combat is meant to emulate hack-n-slash games such as Diablo II. After playing and replaying this game many times I cannot imagine ever using action-based combat mode again! It lacks the precision of the best genre games, your allies tend to run off long distances and get themselves killed, and overall it is just not the best way to approach the game.

Turn-based mode is handled very much like the Fallout games: your character has a certain amount of action points, as does every other character involved in the current combat. Each round consists or every character getting a turn based on various skills and racial attributes. During your turn you can move, attack, use skills or items, and so on. When your action points are depleted your turn automatically ends. You can manually end your turn whenever you want or even skip a turn. Your followers (allies) will act on their own, though you can impact their behavior by equipment and other choices.

The Arcanum soundtrack is one of the best in all of gaming. The majority of songs are played by a string quartet and composed by Ben Houge. The soundtrack, which Houge has released for download with links on his site, consists of just under an hour of gorgeous and moody music. There are a number of impressionistic themes, and some more obvious combat themes, but there are also a number of stirring motifs and songs that could easily stand alone as excellent small group compositions. The use of the quartet was a master-stroke, as it captures the intimacy of the quest and the tone of the depicted period perfectly without falling prey to the typical bombast of a full symphonic score.

The game features a fair amount of voice acting throughout the game, with some front-loading as would be expected in a non-linear game such as this. While there could always be more, what is there is very well done and complements the environmental sounds and awesome soundtrack perfectly.

While I have introduced the story and talked about some choices, I haven’t touched upon the quests and the structure of choice & consequence in the game, which either means I am avoiding it or saving it for last.

From the very start you have the option when talking to Virgil to handle him harshly and tell him effectively to shove off. He won’t so that willingly, but even if you eventually have him join you it immediately impacts your standing with him. You gain followers during the game who can be invaluable in combat and also open up quest, skill and trade options you might not otherwise see, but the number of followers and exactly who will join you depends on your alignment, reputation, and other factors.

This system of choice and consequence tying skills and reputation to outcomes and available options extends even further into quests. In each new town and area you will encounter characters who want something, either for themselves or for the town or even for the wider world. You might never find out because you are a female / elf / mage or any one of those! And if you do, the degree of choice you have in completing the quest will also depend on your character choices and decisions to that point.

Of course, there are plenty of ‘fetch quests’ and ‘kill the rats’, but Arcanum twists these up as well, as you can encounter a cave with rats in the first area that opens up a quest that will allow you to lie, double-cross, change sides, and otherwise manipulate the situation however you see fit! I say you ‘can’ encounter it because if you just head straight to town as Virgil suggests you will never stumble upon the cave.

The game itself is essentially non-linear. You will obtain quests to go to certain locations, but there is little to compel you to actually GO there! Obviously at the end of the game everything closes in, but before then you can choose where to go and what to do. If you go to a place with certain requirements before you obtain a certain item to unlock the quest, nothing will happen – though sometimes the game will suggest that you notice something unusual and should come back later.

You even get travel choices similar to the Elder Scrolls games – upon leaving the initial area you can simply head to the world map and plot a travel path to Shrouded Hills, or you can walk there manually. If you simply walk around you can open new areas and stumble upon minor side-quests and loads upon loads of combat. If you fast-travel, time still continues and depending on the length of your journey you might still run into random combat along the way.

The game doesn’t feature any real romantic options, as you have ‘followers’ rather than being the leader of an adventuring party. This also does make your followers feel more like the henchmen from Neverwinter Nights instead of the fleshed out characters of Baldur’s Gate II.

But the main criticism is balance. I have mentioned that the action combat system feels a bit clunky and out of control, but worse still is the balance between magic and technology. I had only heard about it for years since my preference is for mages, but a few years back I attempted a pure technology character and found it frustratingly difficult at times. There were battles where enemies could simply destroy your weapons – these were trivial as a mage and nigh on impossible as a technologist! I managed to get through but found it more frustrating than fun at times … and returned to happily playing a mage every time since!

When the game was released there were issues with video card compatibility, DRM issues with various hardware, and a moderate level of bugginess. But by now, between the 1.074 patch and especially the bargain priced Good Old Games release, the only real remaining issue is the balancing, and it is something that is so well known that the community has developed ways to work around most of the frustration.

My last playthrough was once again as a female elf mage, working for the highest positive alignment and reputation. That is more or less my standard ‘lawful good’ D&D build, but it is truly my favorite character to play. I like playing a female in Arcanum because the game nicely applies 1880’s gender sensibilities and doesn’t really like the thought of such a powerful female character assuming command of men. Yet even playing the ‘same old’ character, there are numerous choices that can drastically alter the flow of the game while allowing me to maintain my role-playing ideals.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, I returned to the RPG genre with the Mac release of Neverwinter Nights for the Mac in late summer 2003, so when I bought Arcanum it had been out for a couple of years and I missed all of the release-day issues. My initial impressions were joyous – I loved the setting, character, quests, story, music and more. Every time I have gone back to replay it again I have always enjoyed something new as well as still appreciating things I’d already discovered. This is definitely one of the best RPGs of the decade, and one of my all time favorites. If you haven’t played yet, I definitely suggest checking it out!

RetroGamer Perspective: Mix one part Troika games, one part isometric turn-based RPG, and one part deep and intriguing characters and story … and you just KNOW you have a game with serious RetroGamer appeal!

Netbook Gamer Perspective:

– Digital Download / CD version? – Arcanum was recently released on Good Old Games for $5.99. The CD version is out of print and until the GoG release used games on eBay were fetching decent prices due to new found appeal and short supply.

– Installation Notes: The game installs quickly from either CD or GoG file, with no serial number or activation required.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~700MB.

– CD Required to Play? Yes – the CD version requires the disk in the drive to play. Fortunately the GoG version has no special requirements.

– Control Considerations? Arcanum uses general isometric RPG standards in terms of click to move and attack, as well as mapping standard keyboard controls for inventory and Map and so on.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? I have played the CD and download versions of Arcanum on XP (CD & download), Vista (CD only) and Win 7 (download only), and it works great on all three!

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? No Mac or Linux version of Arcanum was ever released, but it has been reported to work acceptably on Crossover Games for Mac, which means it should also work on Wine.

– Notes on the Digital Version: The Good Old Games version is the most up-to-date release available, without any of the issues that plagued the GoG release of Divine Divinity.

Conclusion: After selling mostly to hardcore RPG fans followed by years living in relative obscurity, followed by a revival of interest and escalating eBay prices, Arcanum has finally found its rightful place among the pantheon of the best RPG’s ever created. There are imperfections to be sure, particularly if you choose the way of technology and guns, but overall the amazing music, story, character development and fully realized steampunk world make this one of those ‘you simply MUST play this’ games.

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4 replies

  1. RT @geardiary: The Netbook Gamer: Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (2001, RPG) #Games & Gaming

  2. This is actually pretty cool. I’d ignored this on release partly because there was no way that my PC would run it and partly because I didn’t know too much about it. This review is definitely intriguing and the GoG prices are pretty reasonable so I think I’ll give this a look.

    Thanks for the very detailed review.

  3. Did you know that you can play Arcanum directly on Android mobile devices using emulator developed by Eltechs?

    15.04.15 Eltechs released the biggest update of ExaGear Strategies and ExaGear RPG!

    To the already supported games:
    • Civilization 3 on ExaGear Strategies
    • Heroes 3 on ExaGear Strategies
    • Disciples 2 on ExaGear Strategies
    • Might and Magic VI, VII, VIII on ExaGear RPG
    • Fallout 1, 2 on ExaGear RPG

    Now added a couple of new iconic games:
    • Arcanum on ExaGear RPG
    • Jagged Alliance 2 on ExaGear RPG
    • Panzer General 2 on ExaGear Strategies

    Also games are loaded 12% faster due to increased performance. And now ExaGear is fully compatible with 64-bit devices (like Nexus 9, HTC One M9, LG G Flex 2 etc).