Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is one of the best games ever made, and one that far too few people have heard of. It provides you with so much freedom that you can make things incredibly difficult for yourself by killing willy-nilly (even important characters can be killed—there’s no “so and so is unconscious because we couldn’t think of a better way of handling this” stupidity), and so much reactivity that even modern games tremble in its shadow. It’s simply as close to a perfect cRPG as anyone’s ever gotten, proving itself every bit the equal of Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate 2.

It’s also made by Troika, so it has some bugs. Aside from one or two minor quests that end without a satisfying resolution (compared to what must have been hundreds of other quests that did) and some rare, intermittent crashing, however, patching it will make its infrequent bugs a non-issue. A bit of time and a number of unofficial patches have proven to be a more than adequate ward against Troika’s notorious bugginess, so it’s very possible that you’ll play through the patched game and find yourself wondering why anyone ever considered it buggy in the first place.

One of many character back stories you can choose.

First, a note about the story: it’s better than you’d think after playing it for a few minutes. What begins as a fairly predictable “the big bad evil is coming and you’re the our prophesied savior” setup soon spirals into a more complex story that’s difficult to explain in any meaningful detail without giving the whole thing away. Suffice it to say that the reality is always a bit more complicated than prophecies suggest. It should be noted that the world itself is very interesting, being at a crossroads between magic (spelled “magick” with a K in-game so that it’s even more magical-sounding) and technology. The two are diametrically opposed to the point where they interfere with each other; a mage, for example, interferes with technology to such a point that there comes a point where you’re so magical that they won’t even let you ride on trains anymore. Blacksmiths will also refuse to sell to you, demanding that you leave their shops, and technology-centered healing items will no longer work on you. The oppose is also true for the technology-focused.

You can create virtually any character you want. You can give them Fallout-esque back stories that add and subtract to certain stats, and unlike most games, those stats (strength, dexterity, constitution, etcetera) affect more than just hit points and boring stuff like that; intelligence can give you better choices in conversations and allow you to finish some quests in a more satisfying manner, while having a low intelligence means talking like an idiot, leading others to patronize you. A higher charisma will allow you to recruit more followers (and provided it’s high enough and you’ve mastered the “persuasion” skill, allow you to travel with members who would ordinarily never travel together). A high willpower is required if you intend to use high-level spells, because spells and skills are tied to certain stats and the skill can only be increased once the stat is high enough.

That last one would ordinarily be daunting since few games allow you to level up stats whenever you want, but Arcanum allows you to level up your stats very easily. Every time you level up, you get a point to spend. You can then use that point to level up a skill (like “pickpocket”), learn a new spell, or just as easily put it into one of your attributes. Leveling up quickly becomes about figuring out the kind of character you want to be and focusing on that, because you’re not going to be able to level up everything. You’ll just spread yourself too thin if you try. This lends quite a bit of replay value to the game, because you’ll continually find things you missed when you go back and play through as a different kind of character.

Here’s my character, Prickly Thunderbottom, boosting his intelligence
and finishing the quest.

Arcanum is a game of freedom. You can attack anyone, break down doors if you don’t have the key, steal from shops, pickpocket random people, and a number of other things that even modern games fail to include. Early in the game, I pickpocketed a shopkeeper’s key, sold him a bunch of items, then broke into his chest of items with his key to steal back the items I sold to him. Boom, profit. Later on, a quest required a high intelligence (which I didn’t have at the time and wasn’t willing to spend experience points on), so I found a trader who stocks an intelligence-boosting item and used my unlocking spell on his item chest from a far enough distance that no one noticed. From there it became possible to rob him blind every day of not only the item I required, but arrows, gold, resurrection scrolls, and some helpful equipment for my followers.

The combat has been criticized, but it’s really no worse than any other game. It has two modes that you can switch between at any time: real-time and turn-based. The latter works a lot like the original Fallout and lets you think things through, but like Fallout, it’s a bit slow. Luckily, the real-time combat allows you to blow your way through enemies who you’re far stronger than, saving you a lot of time. This means that Arcanum’s combat has all of the depth of Fallout’s combat without any of the tedium. Switching between the two as necessary (which is as easy as hitting the space bar) makes for an enjoyable experience; it’s only when people stick to one combat scheme that it becomes frustrating. Turn-based combat is slow, so using it when it’s not necessary can make even simple fights longer than they should be. Real-time combat is much faster, but it’s so fast that you rarely have much control. Using a combination of the two is a much swifter and more fulfilling experience, and you can switch even in the middle of combat once you’ve gained the upper hand (or when you haven’t, but then you might die and stuff).

I didn’t have the key for this door and didn’t feel like looking for it, so I
had my dog companion break the door down.

After playing through it once again, I can say that Arcanum is a longer game than I remember it being. To be fair, my initial assessment of its length was based on one and a half playthroughs. The half playthrough came first—my character was ugly and stupid and everyone hated him, and their scorn was so bitter that I ended up slaughtering entire villages. The reason it was a half playthrough is that I killed so many people that no one was left to tell me what to do next. Now, important characters often have a book or item on them that explains what to do that can be referenced if you kill them, but I wasn’t aware of this and wound up horribly lost. Frustrated, I quit halfway through the game. My second playthrough as a smooth-talker was much more fulfilling, and everyone loved me. I so enjoyed it that I apparently didn’t even notice just how long this game is. It’s not the longest game ever created, I’m sure, but the sidequests and exploring can really suck up time. Arcanum is very much a game where you tell yourself “just a few more minutes” before realizing that several hours have passed.

The graphics may not seem like anything particularly special at first glance, but the sprites and general aesthetic grow on you. The poorest criticism I’ve seen of the game is that it looks the same as other games with a similar perspective, because it really doesn’t. It’s a subtle difference sometimes, but Arcanum has a style all its own, a style that perfectly matches the magick-versus-technology theme. It may not be as immediately striking as Planescape, but you’ll remember certain areas as though it were. The music is even more memorable than that, if only because of how completely unique it is—almost all of the songs in the game are played by a string quartet. It’s beautiful, really, and it greatly adds to the game’s atmosphere.

Here’s what you should do:

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