Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura


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Alternate Titles:
Arcanum: Von Dampfmaschinen und Magie
Troika Games / Sierra
Fighting / Multiplayer / Science Fiction /
Sword & Sorcery / Unique
English, Deutsch, Français, Castellano
PC (Windows)

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Herr M.:
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Herr M. (2015-01-24) [hide]

Avatar At first glance Arcanum looks like a role playing game full of great ideas: Its main attraction is its fantasy world, which is set at the time of an industrial revolution, that is about to turn it into a science fiction setting. It is a refreshingly unique place, full of whimsical magic and technical marvels, that has great potential for interesting twists to age-old cliches: How does an ageless being, like an elf, react to the rise of science, which is about to make the magic, that has kept him alive so far, obsolete? Is there a cheaper workforce than orcs, which can be exploited at will, for they are obviously evil and therefore deserve no less? Or what about safety: Should a wizard, whose magical power has an unpredictable effect on machines, be allowed to get close to steam engines or trains? There are so many new stories that could be told…

… only to be reduced to small vignettes, some flavour texts for the rather bland plots, that never really deliver on the great promise. Granted, it does a great job of spicing things up a little, but in the end it wastes a lot of said potential. While some of the people you meet share quite provocative thoughts, and while there is a conflict or two, where science versus magic actually does matter, the world itself is far too static that it would make any difference. And that is one of the strangest things about Arcanum: For a world that stands at the dawn of a new age it is a strangely passive one, with lots of history, but next to no future. At times it seems like all your character does is unravel past mysteries…

…most of which show a great deal of effort on the authors part. An incredible amount of detail went into the world’s background, it seems like lots of creative talents spent many a thought on fleshing out their world. Almost every character has some interesting nitpick to share, there are lots of books to be read, lectures to be heard and ruins to be discovered. For one thing this gives you a feeling of deepness: If you search hard enough you can find information on almost any topic you like. For another thing this makes for exciting discoveries, which shed some new light on established ‘facts’. It is needless to say that this does actually suits the technological/scientific aspect of the game rather splendidly. Your character is definitely an explorer…

… that everyone and everything in the world is simply waiting for. In the most literal sense possible: Almost all of the people (and monsters) you meet are idling around, only moving between their bed and work place at exactly the same hour of the day, or patrolling in endless (and very small) circles. Their lives are so boring that they either instantly start running at you (in order to vent some steam by attacking you) or start blabbering out half their lives story, which seem rather exciting, up to the point where they decided to take a break and wait for the great hero to walk by. As common as this might be in RPGs, in Arcanum it is taken to the extreme: Almost all of the dialogue is centred on the quests and the conflict they are based on, so the characters feel strangely isolated, each one living in their own little world. E.g. it is a very rare thing indeed that you can ask a person about one of his neighbours, let alone the town/city he lives in. That is, if you do not need that kind of information in order to solve a quest. In that case they start gossiping…

…in a very engaging way. The writing might not be Nobel-prize material, but it has its charm and suits the pseudo-Victorian world. You can even distinguish people simply by listening to/reading their speeches: Low class dock workers use some heavy slang, while upper class gentlemen give their best to be aloof with their overly correct wordings. This even includes your very own character, who will get quite a spectrum of possible answers and questions, depending on his wits and charms. Very dumb people are limited to spectacularly inane babbling, while the more eloquent persons can deliver motivational speeches that move the hearts of even the most stubborn persons. This goes as far as being able to finish the game without killing a single person and (slight spoilers ahead) convincing the end boss that he is wrong, in a very epic appeal to his sanity. So playing a diplomat, which is still very rare in computer role playing games, is a very viable way…

… and strangely enough the only convincing (sic!) one at the same time: The combat system is such a horrible mess you wish to avoid every fight possible. There is a turn-based mode that takes forever, but it makes things rather easy, and a real-time mode that goes by almost in an instant, but gives you next to no control over your actions. In the end both of them boil down to clicking on your enemies and waiting for them to die: You lack almost any kind of option besides choosing your weapon and/or spell plus on which enemy you want to use them on. There are some spells and items that – instead of simply killing your foes – should change the odds one way or the other, but sooner or later you will get another weapon/spell (mostly one of the 100-attacks-a-round or instant-smiting kind) which not only makes them, but also any kind of serious strategy more than obsolete. Well, at least you get a bit of variety…

… ranging from classical melee weapons (e.g. swords, axes and bows) over archery/firearms (yes there are guns!) and a huge amount of spells (e.g. fireball, healing, time stop, paralysing, summoning) up to technological contraptions (e.g. robots, bombs and poisons). So, there are weapons for any kind of character you could come up with: Want to be a knight? Here is your Zweihänder! Feel more like a gunslinger? Pick up your revolver! Ever dreamed of being an elven ranger? Here is your magic bow and just stay in the shadows! You believe in science? Charge your Tesla coils! Want to rely on your silver tongue? Don your super neat tuxedo and the matching top head! The amount of items, spells and schematics (=blue prints for constructing technological items) is amazing. Fittingly you get a wide (yet still not bloated) set of skills, and you are not only limited to choosing your character’s sex, you can also pick one of seven races. The possibilities seem endless…

…and yet very samey. Fitting to that one main selling point of the game world, there is only one true distinction: Science or Magic. Gaining proficiency in one of the two automatically decreases your skills with the other. If you should decide to use technology, get ready to pick up loads of items, cramming your inventory with ingredients/components for your gadgetry and ammunition, only to be let down by mediocre effects. On the other hand if you want to become a mage, always keep an eye on your fatigue (= mana, more or less) counter, which will drop faster than lightning. Still, magic is slightly more useful, because you can not beat instant teleporation (on continent scale!), unlocking each and every door or (nearly) unlimited ranged attacks. But that is strictly speaking from a gameplay point of few…

… because the technical stuff just looks a lot cooler and creative. It provides the game with a very distinct art style. While you get to visit locations of each kind (from a late 19th century London up to the game’s equivalent of Lothlórien), most of them are embracing a rather technical lifestyle, and the more interesting and memorable ones are those bustling with steam engines, valves and pipes behind an art noveau facade… or – in case of the dwarven mines – under the mountains. Even with the game’s rather simple graphics they look really great, but the designers also succeeded at something else: They made all of the places distinguishable. Cities feature lots of cobblestone, ornate gates and machinery, while smaller towns show lots of wooden walls, mud roads and farm animals. To some degree you are even able to tell villages apart, simply by taking a look at their streets, because each one of them has its own characteristics. Although they do have some things in common…

… like being rather lifeless and sterile. And that is mostly because they are totally silent. As mentioned above, most NPCs like to stand in their houses and wait for the quest trigger. Yet, one of the strangest things about this is that – until you start a conversation – they are totally mute too. The prime example for this must be the bars: Imagine entering a pub and all of the patrons standing around, staring right in front of them, until you greet them. And even then most of the time they only want to play some weird quiz (which btw. has a copy protection feel to it). But it does not stop at that: There is also a total lack of background noises. The game is totally silent except for the occasional voiced dialogue or the not so occasional combat grunts. That is if you turn down the music…

… which can only be described as exceptional. As usual it is hard to put in words, but this string quartet will send shivers down your spines and drag you right into the game. Especially the main theme is a beautiful piece, so full of sorrow and yearning, yet with a slight hint of hope. Overall the songs are on the melancholic side,…

… which seems a bit strange for a world that actually seems to prosper, at least in the most places. And surely there was not just funeral parlour music in the Victorian age?

Once you get used to it (which you will rather fast) the rather subtle sound makes for a far more pleasant background than any hymn or march ever could,…

but it is just another one of those small pieces that does not quite fit together…

And that is Arcanum’s main strength and weakness at the same time: Like the world torn between science and magic, the game itself seems really torn in what it wants to be. There are so many things it tries to accomplish at the same time, so many tastes it tries to cater at, it simply has to fail. This is a prime example of quantity above quality: On the one hand the game gives you lots of options, but on the other hand they do not make that much of a difference. On the one hand the world is huge and it has an incredibly large background story, but on the other hand the characters within are lacklustre at best. On the one hand it sets up that big conflict between tradition and progress, between mysticism and science, on the other hand it does not really make use of it. Strangely enough it still very playable, because for each horrible part of the game, there is a really good one, and the overall impressions is that of an ambitious, but flawed game, that could have been slightly better… but also a lot worse. And at the end of the day the very unique setting, as underused as it might be, still turns this into a highly recommendable experience.

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Comments (3) [hide] [Post comment]

NullVoid (2017-11-04):

the "Of X and Y" phrase (as well as the related "On X", where X is often long-winded) does make it sound (read?) Victorian, which with the setting's steampunk/industrial revolution vibes, is probably on purpose

Herr M. (2015-02-05):

Originally posted by Mr Creosote at 17:59 on January 27th, 2015:
[…] the only possible explanation I have is the attempt to make it sound more fancy. It just comes across as pretentious. Or is all this just me?

But I guess this is exactly the reasoning behind it (at least in this case): It is supposed to sound pompous or archaic, which seems quite fitting for Arcanum.

Mr Creosote (2015-01-27):

This is only semi-related to the game, but maybe there is somebody here who can enlighten me. I'm really curious how this phrase 'Of X and Y' sounds to the native ear. Because to me, it sounds horrible, and the literal German translation (also used for this game on the local market) is truly appaling!

I'm aware there is a certain tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world (Of Mice and Men), but I never understood this. Why not just call that novella Mice and Men and this game Arcanum: Steamworks and Magick Obscura? This 'of' seems grammatically and context-wise superfluous and the only possible explanation I have is the attempt to make it sound more fancy. It just comes across as pretentious. Or is all this just me?

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