Arcanum (2001)

When it comes to RPGs, I have long considered myself to have a preference for long games, presumably stemming from my teenage days, when Bioware and Black Isle offered rich fantasy experiences to anyone with enough leisure time to spend (like a high schooler). I fell out of the habit of gaming while I went to college, but kept following the industry news, full of disdain for companies that took a casual, less time-intensive approach to their games. Over the past few years, as I’ve rediscovered video games, my attitudes seem to have shifted a bit. Arcanum has the bad luck to be the game that crystallized that change, through no real fault of its own.

I first heard of Arcanum when it was previewed for the gaming press, and while I thought its mix of fantasy and steampunk sounded intriguing, I never bought and eventually forgot about it. Years later, it was part of an offer on GOG, and the blast of nostalgia caused me to purchase it for some unspecified holiday period, which finally came around in August of 2014.

My first impressions were definitely positive. The character creation dialogue is the most detailed and option-full of any RPG I’ve seen, greatly encouraging real role-playing and making up a unique player character. I eventually opted for an arrogant and vain gnome with a racially atypical interest in wizardry. And the game responded quite admirably to my choices. For example, a background story I picked gave me more Willpower points (an advantage for a mage), but also restricted the number of points I could spend on my Charisma stat, limiting my ability to gain followers. NPCs treated me differently as a gnome than they would have as a dwarf or elf.

An unforeseen negative consequence was the reduced availability of armour for a small character. There are more humans and other normal-sized beings in the game, so it makes sense that clothing for dwarves and gnomes would be more rare and expensive, but it’s something I didn’t anticipate at the start and it remained a minor annoyance throughout.

There are other areas in which the game prides itself on verisimilitude. The game grades you on a scale from “magical” via “neutral” to “technologically inclined” based on how you spend skill points, and it’s stated numerous times that technology interferes with magic (and the other way around). So at some point, my character was so attuned to mystical powers that shop owners refused to bargain with him, fearing damage to their technological devices (even in cases where all they sold was swords and the like). Realistic, and potentially conducive to role-playing by forcing you to stick to your role, but slightly bothersome. (Proper role-playing was also counteracted by fact that I had to do a few things counter to character conception because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish certain quests, though I suppose I could have stuck to my guns and let those quests remain incomplete.)

In a similar vein, the combat system only allows you to attack opponents in your direct line of sight. That would be fine if it worked properly, but it doesn’t. In dungeons and castles with lots of narrow corridors especially, it happened fairly frequently that I as a player saw an evil creature, my character was close enough that he should have been able to see the creature, my party could clearly see it because they rushed to attack, but I was still prevented from unleashing a magic spell. On the other hand, more than just sometimes an opponent walked behind a wall that didn’t fade away like it should, making it impossible for me to attack. My other party members still could and would eventually end the bad guy or creature, so this was never an occasion for a quickload, but it was still frustrating.

The wall mechanic (obstacles in the isometric view fade away when you enter a house and need to see inside, for instance) generally worked fairly well, I should add, but consistently failed several times in every dungeon, and one time outside (I almost couldn’t complete a quest because it wasn’t obvious that there was something to be clicked on in an area of a house that stubbornly remained blocked from view; only a helpful hint from the internet made me point the cursor at every inch of the walls until I found it).

The combat system in general is okay, and I like that it gives you the option to switch between turn-based (my preference) and real-time modes. It’s also an absolute necessity because of the afore-mentioned bugs in the visibility mechanic. Every time my followers attacked an invisible-to-me opponent, I could change the combat mode and let them hack away, as I finally figured out in this situation which so bothered me I wrote it down: One time, my followers noticed enemies they shouldn’t have been able to see at all. The first time that happened, I was forced to wonder why combat mode had activated and my party refused to follow me somewhere else. It turns out that there was an enemy inside the building, and the NPCs had become stuck.

The followers are aptly described as such. Unlike the Bioware or Black Isle games of my youth, NPCs that join your party don’t become player-controllable. They follow you and help you out, but are otherwise operated by the AI. That unfortunately includes both combat situations and experience points management. The followers are very little help at all in a fight. They seem to possess no tactical sense, rushing headfirst into every combat situation, and don’t even serve as cannon fodder to draw opponents away from you because the player character is almost always attacked first.

The player cannot train the followers to make the party more balanced, which meant that I didn’t have an archer in my group until very late in the game and never had a proper thief or capable gunfighter. If you don’t put points into pickpocketing, crafting or repair, you won’t be able to use those skills even if your companions supposedly have them. You also don’t have direct control over which piece of clothing the NPCs wear (despite the fact that they’re supposed to be autonomous individuals with their own sense of style, both the priest and the elven warrior will totally choose to wear eye-sore barbarian outfits if that raises their armour class by a point) or which weapon they choose to handle. More than once, I had a character nonsensically try to stab people with a railroad spike despite a knife, sword or bow being available. For a stretch of the game, my one and only true archer refused to use any of the bows I placed in her inventory, instead jumping into battle alongside everyone else. Followers also don’t use any magic except healing spells, even if they have a background story that suggests they should want to invest some points in new spells.

A particular annoyance is their insistence on melee attacks when pitted against enemies like fire elementals, golems and robots, which damage every attacker’s weapons and armour. Once again, breakable weapons are a neat idea, but it’s more than a little exasperating when you have only your followers’ idiocy to thank for having to continually run to the only blacksmith in the entire world who has the ability (and, see above, the willingness) to repair your things. The clunky inventory interface, which requires transferring their possessions over to you almost one by one (the player’s inventory is often mostly full, because followers cannot be trusted with unidentified and therefore potentially cursed weapons, potions or magic scrolls), doesn’t help matters. Thank the gods at least for a teleportation spell and a genuinely useful (and sometimes amusing, causing the characters to jump through windows) guided pathfinding system without which I would have gone mad.

Do the followers have any redeeming aspects? Only early in the game, to help a little in battles and carry stuff you can sell for money. But if you complete enough quests, it’s very easy to become very powerful and very rich fairly quickly. I’m convinced I could have strolled through all of the mid-to-late stage dungeons on my own without getting killed. As a mage, there are tons of spells to choose from; only a few are useful, but some of those can be obtained very quickly and are so cheap and effective that you barely need anything else. As I was nearing the level cap with no end of the game in sight, I allowed myself to install a fan-made fix so I could try out some more spells. When I finally got to the game’s conclusion, I was at level 63 and so powerful that I defeated the final boss in a way definitely not intended by the creators. (I replayed that scene a couple of times from an earlier savegame to see the different endings, including the one I accidentally skipped over.)

I was tempted to leave the NPCs behind a few times, but I was also hoping for some interaction, since some of them (e.g. a priest accosting you in the opening scene) were connected to quests. I waited in vain. They didn’t interact with each other and they barely interacted with me or with quest-related NPCs. I keep coming back to Planescape: Torment (1999) as the gold standard of party NPC engagement, and other games keep coming up short (at least compared to my memory of that game). Weirdly, some followers have voice-acting while others don’t, seemingly randomly. For those that have them, the voices are actually pretty good. The internet tells me there’s one follower storyline that reaches an acceptable conclusion, but it wasn’t possible for me to reach that conclusion because of a bug that corrupted my savegames when I welcomed that NPC back into my party after a period of absence.

Speaking of bugs, I was warned beforehand that the game was buggy, but other than what I’ve mentioned, I didn’t encounter any problems. I did install a fan-made patch before playing, though. Many of the small annoyances of the game experience aren’t due to bugs but due to poor (interface) design. Scrolling could have been handled better, and the navigation overall is not as smooth as it could have been. A journal system that keeps track of the many, many quests contains the kernel of a good idea, but in practice is still too cumbersome. I went online quite frequently just to look up where on the map a certain person who’d given me a quest was located.

I haven’t really talked about Arcanum‘s narrative elements yet, which does the game a disservice. The world that intrigued me oh so many years ago really is quite interesting. The player first gains control of their character after a blimp crash caused by primitive planes shooting the dirigible out of the sky. A priest who has hurried to the scene of the crime finds the player character the only survivor and claims him to be the reincarnation of an elven god (regardless of actual race). I won’t spoil whether that claim is true or not, but what I can say is that the character never regains his memory. His (or her) prior history is irrelevant and never even comes up. I’m guessing that’s to facilitate immersing the player in his creation, and I suppose it worked, because I never even noticed that my character really should have had a life before falling out of the sky until a few days after finishing the game.

What follows the opening scene is a fairly complex main plot that stays essentially interesting, but probably stretches over too long a timeframe. There’s a complete lack of urgency because it mostly doesn’t matter how many days you spend travelling around Arcanum (over 56 hours of playing in real time translated to about three years and three months in Arcanum time). While that’s good for one’s side-quest completion rate given how many, many of those there are, it also means that by the time I was ready to move on to the grand finale and finish the main quest, I was becoming a bit bored of the game. That’s why I mentioned in the opening paragraph that I’ve apparently aged out of wanting super-long games, something I also experienced but didn’t yet recognize when I played Nethergate: Resurrection around the same time last year.

Arcanum has a reputation as a cult classic with a particularly devoted fanbase. Despite all my complaints both big and small, I can see why. Studio Troika Games’s world-building is really good, the quests varied and the storylines on the whole fascinating and worthwhile. There’s a lot of replayability inherent in the game based on character creation and level of magic/tech affinity alone, and that doesn’t take into account what the internet tells me are the many different ways to complete quests. I played this game a lot over the course of a couple of weeks, and there are still locations I didn’t visit and quests I didn’t attempt. I just wish that the overall execution matched its high ambitions instead of muddying a generally joyful experience.


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