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Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Score: 85%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sierra Studios
Developer: Troika Games
Media: CD/4
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:

The most unimpressive part of Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura's presentation is its graphics. They don't look very far advanced from the Fallout series, which the developers of Arcanum also worked on. The game is locked at 800x600, and a large part of your screenspace is taken up by the interface, leaving a relatively small viewing window for the world. While the environments tend towards the detailed--if a wee bit repetitive at times--the character designs look like something out of the original Diablo, standing out on the screen, but in a bad way.

Sound fares considerably better in Arcanum than the graphics--the music fits the steampunk mood perfectly, with strings that'll knock your socks off and provide some real ambiance for the title. The various bit characters in the game aren't voiced, but all of the main ones are, and they read their lines with aplomb, which just adds to the pleasant trend recently of good voice acting. (The horror!) Sound effects are more standard, with your usual growls and clangs and screams, but for the most part Arcanum's sound shines.


And, for the most part, so does the game. Once you get a handle on the obtuse interface, there's more to do in Arcanum than just about any RPG ever made, and you can do it just about any way that you like. The core storyline is solid and intriguing, and there are enough sidequests to keep the completist gamer very very frustrated--in a good way!--as they spend tens of hours going off and doing hundreds of other things in an attempt to beat the game 'completely'. Of course, with a game like Arcanum, there is no way to really do that; if you play the game through with a different character, the experience will be sufficiently different.

The game--and main storyline--starts off with you on the ITS Zephyr, a cool zeppelin-thing that's taking you to the Real World. Of course, it gets attacked, and the ship goes down in flames. You're the only whole-bodied survivor; an old gnome trapped under a plate of steel gives you a ring and tells you that you must find the boy. Typical RPG plot claptrap, to be sure, but then you meet Virgil. Virgil is a newcomer to his faith, but he knows that you're the reincarnation of a major figure in the faith of the Panarii religion, and so your quest begins to find out just what the hell is going on.

Much needs to be said of the setting of Arcanum. I referred to it before as 'steampunk,' which is almost right, but it doesn't carry the 'magick' bits of the setting. (For those who want to see more in this unique setting, I recommend The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.) Think of Dungeons and Dragons grown up, or Planescape one hundred years past its current timeframe, and you'll have a good idea of just what sort of place Arcanum is. Magick and technology are both in full swing, and it's likely to find a spell-slinger who'll also pump you full of lead. This feel carries over to the interface, which despite its clunkiness meshes with the game quite well.

The insanely large number of choices in the game start with the character creation. For the ones who want to jump into the game immediately, there are a number of predefined characters to play with, but the tweak-fiends will find a character creation engine that is downright excessive. Think Fallout, only more so--it's dangerously close to the old Arkania games in terms of configurability. Pick your race, your stats, and your beginning skills, and maybe even a character trait that will give you some benefits but always cost you some too.

The game itself plays very similar to the original Fallout titles, although the combat engine is different. You're going to walk around a vast world, talking to people--the conversation choices, of course, are dictated by your status, alignment, and intelligence--and doing a large number of quests, both core to the plot and ancillary. Combat can be done in one of two ways: a realtime battle engine that's great for easy encounters but downright impossible for more important ones, and a turn-based engine that is good enough for most of the game. It still feels a wee bit lacking, but maybe that's just because I played too much Fallout Tactics.

When you get tired of the single-player campaign (yeah, right!) you can always move on to multiplayer. The game supports a small group of adventurers running around and doing their thing, and it comes with a multiplayer example 'module' and the ability to build many more. Hopefully the fan community will pick this up and run with it, creating large multiplayer worlds for you and your buddies to adventure in.

For all of its ups, Arcanum does have its downs. The interface is downright archaic, and having to scroll it constantly to keep up with your character is downright silly. Fortunately, a hotkey to do this has been added in the newest patch of the game, but it's still a bit kludgy. The same goes for the interface--it takes up entirely too much space, and while a newer patch allows you to have a fullscreen mode, it should have been in there from the beginning. More nebulously, Arcanum is such a deep game that you'll have to spend a lot of time just getting used to it; reading the instruction book has never been so important, other than perhaps in the wargame genre.


Depending on how you play, Arcanum can be very hard or relatively easy. It all depends on if you play on your character's strengths, and try to make up for their weaknesses. If you try to win your way out of combat with your brutish half-ogre, you're going to be in for a rude surprise; the same will occur if you go charging in guns blazing with a willowy elven mage. However, if you think like your character and play by the rules of the univesre, you shouldn't have an excessively difficult time. Yes, some of the sections are going to be challenging, but what fun is a game if they aren't? You can adjust the combat difficulty if you like, and you should always make use of the save feature before you do anything major.

Game Mechanics:

The game is controlled by a combination of the keyboard and the mouse. There are a number of hotkeys, and it's to your best advantage to learn them, as you'll be using many of them frequently. Perhaps the easiest way to go about moving in the game is to use your mouse to manipulate your character and select things, using the keyboard for keeping the screen centred and looking around. It seems a little passe, yes, and it is frustrating, but it works. If you download the patch, be sure to make use of both the fullscreen mode and the new hotkeys, which will ease your life. The core mechanics of the game are solid; while the battle engine isn't my favourite RPG engine by far, the insane depth of the game itself is more than enough to make up for it. Just looking at the logbook gives you an example of how much work people put into this game. There are a number of nasty bugs in the origianl release of the game, and a patch is already out to help fix many of these.

It may not be the prettiest game you'll ever play, and it certainly isn't the easiest to get into or control, but Arcanum offers enough old-school RPG goodness to make up for its flaws for any fan of the genre. If you don't mind having to fight with the game a bit, you'll find an absolutely brilliant setting and enough character to keep you smirking for weeks. Casual RPGers should probably stay away, as the learning curve is high and the time-investment lengthy; those who don't mind sitting down for a truly giant gaming meal will find themselves enthralled by the steampunk fantasy world of Arcanum.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:

Win9x, P2, 32MB RAM, 500MB HD space, 4x CD-ROM, 4MB SVGA video card, soundcard

Test System:

Athlon 1.1GHz running Win98 SE, 512MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS w/ 32MB RAM, SoundBlaster Live!, 8x DVD-ROM

Windows Age of Empires II: Age of Kings Windows Arthur's Knights: Tales of Chivalry

Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated