Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
At first, they were just words -- rumors of things barely understood. Words without any connection to the magical world you know, but heavy with mystery. Electricity. Science. Engineering. And many others. All seemed centered on the capital city, the place called Tarant. It has been months since you completed your training as a healer, with an arsenal of healing spells and even a bit of forbidden herb lore, and the call of Tarant has become overwhelming. You must see for yourself what this great city has to offer. So pack your bags, gentle reader, and prepare yourself for adventure!
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is the latest RPG offering from Sierra Games. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and technology, magic and science. Think Dungeons & Dragons in the Industrial Age and that’s a pretty close match. Arcanum is a completely original world, filled with exotic creatures, powerful spells and the best scientific devices of its age.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Arcanum is in many ways a typical RPG, but it also has many components that are completely original. The balance between things magical and things scientific is very real, both in the world and especially for your character. You may choose to outfit yourself in magical weapons and armor, or become a technical student and arm yourself with handguns and such, or you can take a? middle of the road approach concerning magic and technology. You will quickly discover that magic and technology don’t mix well, though. The more magical you become, the more chance you have of failing when you use or go up against high-level technology and, conversely, high level technologists will discover the supposedly immutable laws of science change when magic is thrown into the mix.
Player development is reminiscent of Diablo, in that your character starts with base statistics that can be built upon. However, the similarity ends there. Arcanum’s player development model is a testament to the gaming industry, allowing an extreme amount of freedom in deciding how to develop the character. When you start, you have the opportunity to either create your own character or use one of the excellent pre-generated ones included with the game. Whatever you decide to use, you will quickly see how much thought and detail has gone into this game. Basic character attributes are divided into eight categories and these in turn affect where you can put skill points. The main player creation screen also has several monitors, one of which shows whether your character leans toward the technical or the magical. Remember, the farther towards one discipline you go, the more effective you become at it. After setting your attributes and purchasing your equipment, you’re ready to begin.
You control the player by a modified isometric, or "top-down" display, reminiscent of Diablo or Baldur’s Gate. However, movement is much more sluggish than either of those two games. Instead of centering on your character as he/she travels (as in Diablo) or giving you an extensive map to explore from a "bird’s eye" view (as in Baldur’s Gate), in order to follow your character around you must use the mouse to scroll across the screen, then click on the spot you want them to move to. Bear in mind, the cities, towns and areas you explore in Arcanum are massive, so this type of scrolling around can quickly become a chore.
The "bird’s eye" view is also available in Arcanum, but follows a different set of rules than other games of this type. For example, in order to access the world map section, you need to be at the outskirts of town or the edges of larger sites. With areas that are roughly the size of a building this is not a problem, but when you’re maneuvering in a large town or extensive site and need to move to the far edge, this may become rather tedious. Other than that, control of players and such is very simple: merely point-and-click.
While not exceptionally violent, Arcanum does contain some graphic images and, in at least one location, dialogue which may be deemed inappropriate for younger children.
At the time of this review, Arcanum’s online servers were not yet available. However, the multiplayer aspects of this game look excellent and are very well documented in the player’s manual. Connections as slow as 28.8K are supported, but I would guess that anything less than 56K would be laggy.
Originality / Cool Features
Some quick notes of items that need to me mentioned, but not expounded upon:
In character creation, be sure to enjoy the background feature. Characters can enjoy bonuses and experience that fit the background you have chosen, along with some interesting scenarios. I enjoyed the "Nietzsche Poster Child" background.
Arcanum can be played in real-time or turn-based as you wish. If going into a combat situation, try turn-based combat, to see which you prefer.
While your character can spend points on increasing skills, in order to really enjoy their benefits you will need to apprentice yourself to other NPCs in the game.
A word of warning: If you go into attack mode, you can attack anyone or anything, even shopkeepers and your teammates. Be sure to click the "Shield" icon to go back into regular movement.
Potions and healing work differently in Arcanum. Your Heal skill affects the potions and spells, and they aren’t automatically applied during combat. So don’t depend on your potion supply, like you would in Darkstone or Diablo.
The development team went above and beyond on this one. All graphics and models are well rendered and clear, artwork is superb with a definite nineteenth-century industrial feel. Character animation is very fluid and the sheer amount of detail is staggering. For example, when a character puts on a new piece of armor or weapon, it is reflected in the character exactly. Your character will look dapper in a tuxedo, militant in an officer’s dress uniform, or geared up in studded leather armor. Make sure to enjoy the cut-scene animation, which has a grainy, film-reel feel in many places. Extremely well done.
The sound is very well executed in this game. The soundtrack is muted, with violin and other period instruments providing a nice nineteenth-century feel. Sounds are very well used, with grunts, squeals, armor and weapon clashing, firearm reports, and many others faithfully executed. The soundtrack, while somewhat repetitive, is by no means abrasive or annoying.
Windows 95/98/2000/ME, Pentium II 300, 64MB RAM, 1.2 GB Free disk space, 4X CD-ROM, DirectX compatible 8MB video card, and a Windows compatible sound card.
The almost 200 page manual is excellent and a must read for anyone beginning Arcanum for the first time. It explains many facets of the game in detail and, while written much like a 19th century school textbook in mannerism and syntax, is nonetheless a very entertaining read.
An excellent, excellent game! Somewhat marred by a bulky interface, Arcanum is nevertheless a breath of fresh air in the RPG genre, with highly rendered graphics, huge playing fields, and an excellent experience system allowing unprecedented freedom of development, not to mention the interesting storyline. All die-hard RPG addicts will need to add this one to their collection, and other fantasy enthusiasts as well. The interface brings the rating down to a low 90’s score, but it’s still well worth checking out.