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.