First, let me start by getting this off my chest. I'm a complete sucker for the Steampunk theme. Rise of Legends, Warcraft 3, and Arcanum have to be my favorite examples of this sort of world. Mixing Magic and technology, when done right, can make for an interesting world setup. Thankfully, the game I'll be talking about does a very good job of mixing these two, which results in a well crafted world that the player can explore.
Hooray for box art
Released in 2001, Arcanum was published by Sierra, and developed by the now-disbanded Troika games. The game is played from an isometric viewpoint, and is rendered with sprites, which gives it the same sort of feel as Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale.
Arcanum, as I've already stated, takes place in a steampunk world, where technology is spreading, much to the chagrin of those deeply rooted in magic. This causes somewhat of a rift between different societies throughout the world, as magic-users and technology-users are constantly at odds. This comes into play in many ways throughout the game, and your own personal leanings will change how things play out for you. For example, scientists are hated by magic-users, and although mages are still allowed to ride the steam trains that populate the world, they are literally forced to the back of the train. The world is very fleshed out, and it really feels like a living and breathing society.
Player choices make a big difference in the way the game plays out, with the most obvious choice being whether the player decides to develop his or her skills down the path of magic or technology. When designing a character, aside from the standard race and gender, players are also able to pick a special background for their character, which comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the player's choices throughout the game, certain paths may open up, and other quests may be closed off forever. Player actions will even affect the opinion that your companions have of you, and if you piss them off, they can leave, or even attack you.
One of the many character backgrounds you can pick from when designing a character
One criticism that was given to Arcanum was that combat was fairly simplified. In real-time combat, clicking on an enemy will set them as a target, and will then set you to auto-attack unless you interrupt using items or magic. The turn-based option is based on Action points, similar to the Fallout combat system. Players are left to decide which combat system they would rather use.
The game is not without its flaws, and some bugs do crop up from time to time. Combat can also seem difficult for characters who don't put many points into melee stats, though luckily, there are often ways to advance without combat. However, the game does change depending on the type of character you are playing, offering some real replay value to the game. There is also the option of playing a multiplayer game, though I haven't yet been able to test this to see how well it is implemented. The single player game is more than likely where it shines.
In short, Arcanum is a good choice for both fans of the steampunk genre, and for those looking for a fairly non-linear RPG experience. Moderately difficult to find these days, it routinely goes for about $30-40 on eBay.