Wednesday, December 14, 2011 Replay: Arcanum: Of Magick and Steamworks Obscura

Each month, we'll review a game from's copious collection of games and provide you with a rundown of how good it is. At the end, we'll tell you to "Buy It," "Ignore It," or "Think About It." This month's entry is Arcanum, developed by Troika and released by Sierra Entertainment.

What Is It?

Think of what would happen if the world of Lord of the Rings had an Industrial Revolution, and that's the setting of Arcanum in a nutshell. You're the sole survivor of a zeppelin crash, and an old man hands you a ring, asking you to bring it to "the boy." Thus begins a quest that will determine the fate of the land of Arcanum.

The Context:

Arcanum was one of the last great 2D isometric RPGs, coming after the Baldur's Gate and Fallout series, and it was made by some of the same people behind those classics: Troika Games, a group of ex-patriates from the famed Black Isle Studios.

Expectations were high, but by the time Arcanum was released in 2001, it already looked outdated. The graphics were worse than Baldur's Gate 2, released a few months prior. Game-stopping bugs were all over the place, demonstrating the (cough) attention to detail that Troika Games would demonstrate with further games. When Troika disbanded in 2005, the team (as well as their game-killing bugs) traveled to Obsidian Entertainment.

That's not to say it's a bad game, by any stretch of the imagination, just instantly dated. Most reviewers gave Arcanum a grade in the B-/C+ range, except for PC Gamer, which liked Arcanum so much that it called it its RPG of the year for 2001.

Other Games Released in 2001:

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec
Max Payne
Grand Theft Auto III

What Holds Up:

Most RPGs will opt for bombastic themes that sound like an Rob Liefeld drawing looks. Arcanum took a different tack, using achingly beautiful music played by a string quartet. It was a brilliant choice that instantly separates Arcanum from other RPGs.

There's also a lot to do in the world. It's kind of like the Elder Scrolls games: If you stick to the main quest, you miss the coolest stuff. There are mysteries to unravel, cabins in the woods that harbor secrets, all sorts of cool stuff to find.

It’s also pretty cool deciding whether or not to make your character a magic user, a user of technology, or to straddle the line between the two. It’s a choice you don’t get to make in a lot of games.

What’s Doesn’t Hold Up:

Like we’ve said before, the graphics were bad even for 2001. It hasn’t gotten any better over the years. It’s like this: You can walk through the world endlessly, but a lot of it looks boring. It’s better to use an FAQ in order to find the cool stuff.

However, using an FAQ reveals Arcanum’s dirty secret: It’s horribly unbalanced. If you complete a few early quests, you’ll quickly find yourself outclassing every single enemy in the game, using the best equipment and having the strongest magic. I say “magic” because it doesn’t make any sense to use technology. The magic is so much stronger than the tech. It’s not even close.

And those bugs we talked about earlier? They almost kill the game. There’s a quest in one of the main cities where you kill rats in a building. As soon as combat begins, the game locks up endlessly. No one can make a move. You can’t drop out of the game. You have to end it manually by opening up Task Manager somehow.

In another case, I was dropped in to an arena and had to fight my out. Since my character was outrageously overpowered, I kept taking on bigger and bigger challenges. I had to save and quit for the day, so I saved and left the game. When I came back, the entire game had glitched. My save game was hopelessly ruined, and that was the last I could play of Arcanum unless I wanted to start from the beginning.

That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Modders have fixed most of the broken quests and have rebalanced Arcanum. In other words, vanilla Arcanum, while fun, is almost hopelessly flawed. Modded Arcanum, on the other hand, is definitely worth playing.

Final Verdict:

Vanilla Arcanum: Skip It
Modded Arcanum: Play It

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