I Played This Game So You Won't Have To
Arcania is JoWooD's most recent entry in the Gothic series, which has developed something of a cult following due to a wide open world, interesting choice dynamics, complex leveling system, and intricate customization options. This is not to say previous entrants in the series haven't had their problems. Gothic 3 was notoriously buggy on release, rendering it nearly unplayable. Even now the most recent official release has some major problems. This may have played a part in JoWooD's development decision here to farm the production out to Spellbound, and you can immediately see the difference in this game. Unfortunately, that's not a good thing. After playing Arcania for around 18 hours, I can't help but see it as a huge step backwards for the series.
I'll start with the good points that I came across in my playthrough. It's probably best to get these out of the way early so we can discuss the much more substantial list of flaws. First and foremost, the graphics are actually pretty good. Characters are highly detailed, the environments are attractive, there are good weather and smoke effects, and you can see for a good distance. The cut-scenes also have an interesting artistic style. While they may not be for everyone, I found them to be fairly well done and a nice complement to the game itself. The combat mechanism in the game has undergone a decent overhaul and as a result is a lot more streamlined than it was in the past. It feels more substantially more developed (not like an action game, but solid for an RPG), and it is easy and intuitive to switch between melee, range, and magic attacks.
Perhaps most notably, there aren't very many major bugs in Arcania, which is one of the first things that will strike you about how different this game is from Gothic 3. You might find yourself stuck on a rock here or there, or notice that text doesn't always match speech. The occasional quest or object may have an unidentified value associated with it, and from time to time you may notice some minor visual tearing. But in general, the bugs are fairly minor flaws and are relatively few and far between. In any event, the game has an auto-save system that is constantly updating your progress, so even if something disastrous occurs, you will probably only lose 5 or 10 minutes of work.
Ok, now that we've finished that formality, we can get into the heart of the game. If you're a Gothic fan, the first thing you'll notice is that the game is structured very differently than previous Gothic games. This is not an open world game. You start on an isolated island, and the story is initially very linear. I kept expecting the game world to open up, but it never does. You are almost always locked into one section of the world, and must complete that portion of the main quest in order to access a different section. While there are sidequests in each section, these are often encountered along the way to doing the main quest, so there feels like there is very little choice in how the main character will proceed with the plot. Additionally, there is no need to go back to previous cities or areas, so each section feels more like a level than a part of the world. From a character development standpoint, you are also given very little choice in how to resolve the plot. Occasionally (particularly towards the end of the game), you can decide to solve quests in one of two or three ways, but this feels mostly tacked on and tends not to involve difficult decisions affecting the outcome of the story. You rarely find yourself in a situation contemplating a real moral choice. This is quite different from Gothic 3, where you could ally yourself with a number of openly competing factions.
This segues nicely to the plot and the story, which are uniformly awful. The game starts off with what should be a strong, emotional premise (your village is destroyed and the woman you loved murdered), but the voice acting and writing are so poor that I couldn't find myself caring. The plot after this is so convoluted and silly that things go downhill from there. Your initial goal is to find a certain temple, and you wander through the entirety of the world continuing to find people who help you on your way there, but almost always require you to complete a task for you before they will unlock the gate to the next area, where you will find another set of people with another set of similar problems to solve. You'll quickly find yourself clicking through dialogue without listening to it or even reading it. Even the main character seems to tire of this at a cetain point. There are no good plot twists to speak of. The cut-scenes, while fairly appealing visually, are generally nonsensical and don't really advance the plot in any meaningful way. The game-ending cut-scene was probably the worst of these. I'm not even sure how the game resolved itself, but luckily I don't really care. The game also has major pacing problems. I thought I was near the ending of the game for the last three or four hours, but when the ending finally came, I was surprised at how abrupt it was.
Sadly, I'm not nearly done with my list of complaints. The quest design can be very annoying. There is no point to generally exploring the world, because almost every cave or tower or city you come across will either be used as part of the main questline or a sidequest. All of the caves are designed so that there are hidden passages that go straight from the end of the cave back to the beginning, which I guess is helpful in avoiding you retracing your steps, but struck me as incredibly unrealistic. There was a particularly annoying quest near the end of the game that sends you hunting all over a city for specific enemies to kill. This sounds ok, except that there are barriers (not shown on the map) blocking many of the streets (including some invisible walls) that make it a chore to run around all over the place. At the time, it seemed almost like a willful attempt to make the game longer than it actually was. There are also a series of collectible items you could search the world for to (presumably) unlock special loot, but I quickly lost interest in this. I can't imagine they added much to the experience, especially because of how easy it was to beat the game using whatever random equipment I came across.
Combat, as I described above, is actually an improvement on the last Gothic game. But that doesn't mean it's actually satisfying. I found that some of the magic spells seem incredibly cheap. The electrical attack stuns opponents for several seconds, during which they cannot move or attack. If you are only fighting one enemy, this makes combat incredibly easy, provided you have the patience to wait it out. You simply have to fire a spell, wait a few seconds, and repeat. Mana recharges fast enough that you are often able to do this indefinitely. Even when there are several monsters attacking at once, just walking backwards firing spells can be a devastating tactic.
The enemy AI is also uniformly terrible. It is incredibly easy to use monsters to block each other, or get them stuck behind a wall. I had several situations where enemy archers continually fired arrows into a wall directly in front of them rather than take one step to the side to where they could actually hit me. In a number of situations, I found that if you retreat far enough, monsters will just turn around and go back to their starting points, even if they have you cornered, injured and outnumbered.
The skill system and leveling up is also incredibly stripped down. There are only a handful of abilities in this game, and they tend to focus on playing the game in one of three ways (as a warrior, archer, or mage). There is not a lot of benefit in creating a character with mixed abilities; I tried to do so initially, but ended up dumping all my skill points into magic by the end. Crafting is also unnecessarily simplified. There are a limited number of items to craft, but a fairly large number of crappy reagents to pick up as you're going across the world. So I constantly found myself stopping to get this, even though I hardly ever needed to use them. Really, what's the point of making health potions when you never use them?
Your inventory system will rapidly get cluttered with a fair amount of useless stuff that you'll nevertheless hold on to for some reason, and will become a burden to navigate. I found this more charming in Gothic 3, where you could pick up damn near anything that wasn't nailed down. Plus, you had to work for your loot in Gothic 3. If you took something from an NPC's house, he might notice and call you a thief. Here, you can rob a peasant blind in front of him and he won't bat an eye. Also, when checking out new weapons, there is no auto-compare feature to show how the selected item matches up to your currently equipped item. A lot of games seem to omit this feature, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. They got it right in Final Fantasy VI, they should be able to get it right here too.
Finally, I should note that the PC version of Arcania uses SecuROM for copy protection, which has gotten a pretty bad reputation in the gaming community. I personally haven't yet had major problems with it, and at any rate it seems to me it's better than Assassin's Creed 2's copy protection system. But I guess since Ubisoft made that game borderline unplayable, that's not exactly a high bar to clear.
Overall, farming this game out to a new developer appears to have been a big mistake. Many of the things that appealed to fans in the past have not been translated well, and the new additions don't come anywhere close to making up for it. It will be interesting to see how the Gothic series develops from here, but I'm not anticipating the next release like I was this one. At the end of the day, the game isn't broken, and there isn't anything wrong with it per se. It's just not a very good game.