Game Review - 'Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magic Obscura'


'Arcanum', available from Amazon.

4 stars for 'Arcanum'

When it was first released, over ten years ago, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura seemed to be a classic example of ambition reaching beyond talent. There was no question that it promised a great deal for fans of role-playing games, and there is no real question that it ultimately delivered on much of that initial promise. Though, the game ultimately proved to be so bug-filled that the original release was almost unplayable. While patches were put out as quickly as they could be prepared, it would seem that the damage had already been done. What could have, and arguably should have, become a classic example of the RPG genre, alongside other releases such as the Baldur's Gate series, Planescape: Torment and the original Fallout games was, instead, mostly forgotten beyond a core group of devoted fans.

Which is a shame, because, with the application of both official and unofficial patches that have been developed since the original release, the game can now be played mostly free of problems. Meaning that, although it took much longer than the developers intended, it was eventually possible to experience the game as it was originally intended.

Arcanum takes place in what would seem to be the standard Tolkien inspired fantasy world typical of much of the fantasy genre, with all the standards – mysterious and powerful elves, dwarven craftsman, savage and bestial orcs. However, the world of Arcanum is also one that has undergone some drastic changes in recent years. Scientific discoveries and developments in technology have continued in earnest, with the development of steam engines and other wonders, and the human race has managed to bring something of an industrial revolution to this magical world.

It is this contrast between magic and technology that makes Arcanum seem instantly unique. Taking more than its fair share of cues from the literature of early science fiction writers, most notably Jules Verne, the technology presented in Arcanum is of a distinctly 'steam-punk' variety – with airships, steam-engine trains and early firearms existing alongside more outlandish contraptions as rods capable of shooting out bolts of lightning, mechanical spiders, and magnetized top-hats capable of diverting bullets. All of which, of course, existing in a world where magic is still very real and very powerful.

The contrast between magic and technology is also a source of tension for the people of Arcanum, though. The two are ultimately shown to be opposed to each other in a very real and literal sense. Powerful magic, concerned with shaping and altering the world around it, can cause mechanical devises to fail, while particularly complex machinery, based on the laws of the physical world, can cause any spell cast around it to fizzle out. Naturally, this direct contradiction has traditionally magically inclined cultures, particularly the elven race, concerned as the influence of science and technology begins to spread.

This is the world that the player enters, as a passenger on the IFS Zephyr, a newly constructed airship on its maiden voyage to the city of Tarant, the centre of technological development and considered to be one of the wonders of the modern world. The journey is promptly cut short, though, as they IFS Zephyr is shot down, leaving the player's character as the only survivor of a devastating crash. Mysteriously unharmed, the player's character quickly finds him or herself in possession of a ring, forced on them by a dying gnome, with a final request to 'find the boy'. They also find themselves in the company of Virgil, a member of an obscure religious order who, after informing them that the act of surviving the crash in this particular location loosely fits with a prophecy held sacred by his order, promptly declares the player's character to be the reincarnation of an ancient elven hero.

From here, player's will find themselves with the dual tasks of investigating the nature of the prophecy, as well as dealing with a mysterious cult that seems to have a particular interest in the gnome's ring, and in ensuring that no one survives to walk away from the crash of the IFS Zephyr.

As a decent RPG should, though, the real fun starts before any of this, with the creation of your character. Here, you will find yourself faced with seemingly overwhelming levels of choice. Do you want to go for one of the standard RPG cliches, such as an elven magic-user? Or, make the most of what the unique setting offers you with a gun-wielding dwarven explosives expert? Or, something in between – a travelling gambler with a gun at his hip, just in case, maybe? The point-based character creation system will let you try all of these, as well as any other possible combination you can imagine. As well as being able to choose your gender and race, and assigning points however you wish in a wide variety of attributes, skills, and magical and technological abilities, you will also be able to choose from a list of backgrounds that best reflects your character's life before boarding the IFS Zephyr. While these choices wont have much impact on the game itself, the various bonuses and penalties each applies will help to better refine your impression of your character, as well as helping to answer the all important question of who you character actually is.

Once this is done, it is time to enter the game proper. Game-play, overall, is serviceable without being anything special. Combat can be set to play out either in real-time, or turn-based. Turn-based combat, a long-running staple of older RPGs, is likely to feel particularly slow-paced here, at times - something which is not helped by an interface that can occasionally seem fiddly and awkward to use. Setting the game to real-time, while it will certainly speed things up, does so at the cost of turning the screen into a confusing jumble of movement as everyone on the screen rushes about – making it extremely difficult to use, and correctly target, any of your spells and abilities. Neither is perfect, though both get the job done – turn-based, for example, could be used to take a more thoughtful approach to difficult battles, while real-time can be used to let an otherwise easy and tedious fight play out quickly on its own.

The real fun comes from exploring and interaction. Arcanum features a wide variety of fascinating environments for the aspiring adventurer to explore. Tarant itself, for example, being the seat of technological innovation in the world of Arcanum, is a place of stark contrasts – on the surface a place full of technological wonders, it also harbours a tension buried just beneath the source, with factories that rely on the cruel treatment of cheap orcish labour to turn a profit. Beyond this, there are also ancient dwarven mines, elven tombs, destitute cities crippled by war and shrines dedicated to forgotten gods all waiting for the player to discover.

Any RPG that places emphasis on actual interaction and dialogue, including options that allows players of charismatic characters to talk their way out of trouble, gains an automatic plus as far as I'm concerned – and, thankfully, this is another area where Arcanum excels. There are many examples that could be mentioned of times when a suitably persuasive hero will be able to rely on speech, rather than combat, with branching dialogue paths that let full conversations play – an aspect of many older RPGs that, unfortunately, seems to have been lost along the way as the technology has improved.

Overall, a great deal of effort has been put into making sure that there are always multiple ways of taking on a particular challenge. If you don't like what you're being asked to do by one party, then maybe the other parties involved will have a better offer. If talking doesn't work for you, then there's always combat, or thievery. Or, if the worst should occur, and someone you need to speak to should end up dead, and you happen to be playing a magic-user with a particular gift for the darker aspects of necromancy, then why not drag their soul kicking and screaming back from the afterlife in order to question them? That's an option, too.

It may have taken longer than the developer's wanted to get the game into a playable form, and even both the official and unofficial patch, there may still be the occasional problem, though Arcanum is definitely a game that deserves to be better remembered then it is. And, it is definitely a game that any fan of RPGs, the older ones listed in the opening paragraph in particular, should seek out an play for themselves. Just make sure that any version you get hold of is patched up.

Like with many older games, though, there are likely to be issues in getting the game working properly in modern systems, though the version available from Good Old Games, here, promises to resolve these issues. Alternately, the game can also be purchased from Amazon.

© 2011 Dallas Matier

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Comments 2 comments

Crewman6 profile image

Crewman6 4 years ago

Well written. You've created a fascinating window into another world, and given me reason to search it out.

Dallas Matier profile image

Dallas Matier 4 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks. It took me a while to get hold of a copy after I'd first heard about it, but it was definitely worth it.

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