This is the eighth part in a series of arguing editorials with Aerox, you can view his part on Vagrant Story here.
In August 2001 the last great isometric RPG was released for the PC and unfortunately went relatively unnoticed. After the release of Fallout 2 Black Isle lost many of its members, those members went on to found Troika Games. The first game they released under the guide of Tim Cain was Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and it had a steam punk meets fallout meets lord of the rings meets shadowrun feel.It was critically acclaimed, despite some flaws, but it unfortunately passed over the heads of most gamers.
A Unique World
Arcanum is set is a Tolkien style world, but with a twist, there is an industrial revolution taking place. Technology and magic are set up as opposing forces, one works within the laws of nature, and the other bends and breaks them. A character that specializes in one will become locked out of using the other.
Much of the character creation is set like a Dungeons and Dragons paper and pencil RPG. There are a myriad of races to select, from humans, to elves, halflings, dwarves, and half-elves. Each race has their own unique specializations, and there are a number of backgrounds choices for characters much like traits from Fallout that will grant special bonuses, but also some kind of hindrance as well. Character creation was unique and when players leveled up, they were granted one skill point (2 points on levels divisible by 5). These points unlike in other games, where points are spent to improve add on skills and gain new ones, but to raise base stats such as strength or intelligence. As players added on technical or magical skills it would affect their alignment meter as a tech or magic user.
While you the player create the design of the protagonist, there is a large array of non-playable characters that you can recruit to your party and other important characters, all with interesting and diverse back stories.
Virgil is the only NPC you are obliged to take at the beginning of the game, and depending on how the player acts you might not have him very long. There are a total of 24 unique NPC characters that are available to join your party, including the next to last boss, whom can be persuaded to join your party. The real available number of NPCs will depend on the player’s alignment and actions, if a player shifts alignment certain NPCs may encourage you or start to critique your actions, if it gets bad enough they will go so far as to leave your party permanently or turn traitor and attack you.
The player starts off as a passenger on the maiden flight of a zeppelin, after it is attacked and crashes, only the player survives and is given a ring by a dying Halfling and asked to seek out the owner, who turns out to be a powerful industrialist in Tarant, the capital city of the Unified Kingdom.
Without getting into too many spoiler details, after contacting the owner of a ring you are sent on a quest to search for a dwarven clan that was banished from their mines and prevent a powerful entity from being released from imprisonment. Seems pretty standard for most RPGs, but the way the story gets from point A to point B is quite unconventional and the myriad of side quests do wonders to flesh out the world’s background.
Some of the more memorable side quests include, a visit to the grave site of the now extinct dragons, suppressing an uprising by orcish laborers in a factory, and help a woman escape from exile on an island. Like Fallout many side quests can be solved using non violent methods and diplomacy, or if you prefer you can just kill things as well. There is very little forced combat, and the choice is up to the player and how they have constructed their characters.
Magic Sword vs Revolver
Gameplay, Music, & More
Like its predecessors, Arcanum is a top down isometric RPG, players may either play turn-based or continuous turn based. The latter can be somewhat difficult depending on the speed settings and not necessarily recommended.
The inventory system is similar to Diabolo, players have a grid to place items on and they are restricted in both space and weight. Management is pretty straight forward and items are easily shuffled to NPCs, some of which may end up just serving as pack mules.
While there are no ‘talking heads’, many of the key characters have voice actors, which is not the norm in similar games. Dialogue trees are based off a characters reaction to you (a product of your race, beauty, and clothing), and a characters intelligence. Most dialogue is well written and most any mission critical dialogue will have multiple paths that could lead to a violent or non violent solution. Creating a character that is dumb, like in Fallout can result in diminished dialogue options and if low enough, the character only able to communicate in grunts and gestures.
The music is unusual for an RPG, it is composed entirely of string quartet, both short and long pieces are looped in game. The music set a very depressed mood in the game and for the most part it is appropriate to the setting and overall creates a very sobering and solemn Victorian experience.
The game also shipped with a multiplayer mode that would allow several users to play through a dungeon together or a user created scenario. While it worked over the internet the multiplayer was more suited to LAN play, and was generally ignored on the whole. In addition to the multiplayer, the game also included a world and modification builder, several mods can be found scattered across mod archival sites. Several are quite good and can add in side quests to the main game.
Critical Reception & Problems
Despite how well the game was designed, it was not without its faults. The engine was developed from scratch internally and was not entirely ready to be pushed out the door with the game. Some systems could experience slowdowns during long play times. Sometimes the AI was buggy and would make poor combat or weapon choices (ie: a Tech user wielding a magic weapon). There were also several issues regarding balance of some game weapons and a few monsters.
Many of these bugs were addressed in subsequent patches, and despite the large number the game shipped with, it received high scores across the board from critics for its innovation, originality, and well designed open ended nature. Overall the Arcanum scored in the mid 80s, receiving a few notable scores of 90 or above from publications like PC Gamer.
Vagrant Story…seriously Aerox, a Final Fantasy knockoff? It’s not made by the same people as Fallout, and thus can’t be as good as Arcanum.
Arcanum was the first of three games that Troika released. They finally started to get noticed with Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, but by then it was too late to save the fledgling developer. The game received very little marketing and came at a time when PC RPGs were generally not receiving as much interest as shooters or MMORPGs. A few copies can be found on ebay for roughly $25. Give this one a try; it might take some finagling to get it to run if you have a newer system, but it’s always possible, send me a PM if you do wish to try it and have compatibility issues.