I play old games impressions: Arcanum

Posted by ArbitraryWater (11413 posts) -

In order to pretend that I can, in fact, do these kind of things semi regularly, I figure my 5 or so loyal readers deserve an update on the game that I said I was going to play

Pretentious high fantasy subtitle ahoy!
when you voted for me to play it. For those who don't remember, it was Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, which despite having a totally lame, yet totally necessary subtitle is a game that was made by Troika, which was made up of Ex Fallout 1 developers and tanked after 3 games because their expertise of development was a little too hardcore for the average person. It's main draw is it's "Fantasy world in the middle of an industrial revolution" setting, which is actually pretty cool, but we'll get to that later.
Here are my impressions so far after about 10+ hours:
 
Don't let the awesome gentlemanly portraits fool you, the character creation system is the definition of bunk
Like any good non-party based RPG from the late 90s to early 2000s, Arcanum has a stupid deep character customization system. However, the game is a textbook case of " Bad Character Builditis", which affects all RPGs to some degree, but is extremely obvious here. First of all, experience isn't some arbitrary number (Hey, that could be an alt account for me!). Instead you get it every time you hit something. While I can commend Troika for trying something different, this leads to one of many imbalances: Melee characters with high DEX and STR are going to level up about 90 billion times faster than either gunslingers (While I'm at it: Guns are pretty weak and ammo is surprisingly rare, which screws gunner characters over even more) or straight mages.  Leveling up is good, but the way point distribution is done could have been handled a lot better. You get one point per level up with 2 points every 5 level ups. The problem is that there is no division between spending points on improving your stats, improving your skills, or learning a new spell/tech recipe, which leads to a lot of confusion on my part on what to increase.  There is a reason why this stuff is compartmentalized. On a side note, Charisma isn't totally useless, as it determines how many party members you can have! However, it's ugly red-headed stepchild "Beauty" is. All it does is determine initial NPC reaction, which can be easily alleviated by having high enough charisma. Bleh. For the record, my actual character is a half-elf melee fighter with a little defensive magic thrown in for good measure. He works. I assume thief characters would work as well.
 
Another progressive/absolutley stupid and obviously not playtested idea was to make your "magic" and your "stamina" gauges be the same thing. In layman's terms, this translates to: Every time you cast a spell your stamina goes down. When enemies hit you your stamina goes down. When your stamina reaches zero you fall down and are totally vulnerable to all baddies. If you can't tell, this doesn't exactly encourage people to be mages. Unfortunately, tech characters perhaps even get a shorter end of the stick. Not only can they not use magical weapons and armor (i.e. the best weapons and armor in the game), but their resistance to magic extends to friendly spells as well, which means no magical healing. Allow me to emphasize: That is bad. What do they get in exchange? Tech characters can craft some pretty nifty items, a task that, in the end, should be delegated to a party member. 
 
"But Arbitrary!" you say "You aren't talking about the part of Arcanum that makes it a weird cult classic!". You are right. But before I talk about that, let me tell you about how the combat sucks. No, it's not aggressively bad like Jade Empire, but it is the bastard child of Fallout and Baldur's Gate, having the flaws of both and the tactical elements of neither. You can do real time, which is too fast to be of any strategic merit, and Turn Based, which despite being slower still has no strategic merit. It's quite simple: You click on dudes. They die. The end. It's not great.
 
 The combat? Not so great.

Alright, then why am I still playing this shitty game? Because, despite the above flaws, the world and story of Arcanum are incredibly interesting. Sadly, the developers aren't exactly Bioware when it comes to quality of supporting characters, but there are plenty of dialog options that let you be as much of a smooth gentleman as humanely possible, which I immediately approve of. Of course, all the "evil" options inevitably end with you murdering someone, but that can't be helped. The morality isn't quite as black and white as some other games, but there is still totally an alignment meter and you can still totally be a dick. That's besides the point. It's good stuff and I really like it. The non-combat gameplay itself can easily be compared to fallout, which makes sense considering the lineage. That means giant cities that you have to wander around in in order to find quests. It's a pain, but I forgive them. Also, no Autosave, which sucks and I don't forgive them for not including it. 
 
In conclusion, I can already see why everyone says that Arcanum is a deeply flawed game. However, I can also see why people like it so much. It's oddly engaging, despite its flaws and considering it's $6 on Good Old Games, unless something totally awful happens, I feel justified in my purchase. Expect me to blog again when I am done. Thanks to those who soldiered through and read this entire thing. I promise the actual blog will be a lot smaller and more specific.
#1 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11413 posts) -

In order to pretend that I can, in fact, do these kind of things semi regularly, I figure my 5 or so loyal readers deserve an update on the game that I said I was going to play

Pretentious high fantasy subtitle ahoy!
when you voted for me to play it. For those who don't remember, it was Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, which despite having a totally lame, yet totally necessary subtitle is a game that was made by Troika, which was made up of Ex Fallout 1 developers and tanked after 3 games because their expertise of development was a little too hardcore for the average person. It's main draw is it's "Fantasy world in the middle of an industrial revolution" setting, which is actually pretty cool, but we'll get to that later.
Here are my impressions so far after about 10+ hours:
 
Don't let the awesome gentlemanly portraits fool you, the character creation system is the definition of bunk
Like any good non-party based RPG from the late 90s to early 2000s, Arcanum has a stupid deep character customization system. However, the game is a textbook case of " Bad Character Builditis", which affects all RPGs to some degree, but is extremely obvious here. First of all, experience isn't some arbitrary number (Hey, that could be an alt account for me!). Instead you get it every time you hit something. While I can commend Troika for trying something different, this leads to one of many imbalances: Melee characters with high DEX and STR are going to level up about 90 billion times faster than either gunslingers (While I'm at it: Guns are pretty weak and ammo is surprisingly rare, which screws gunner characters over even more) or straight mages.  Leveling up is good, but the way point distribution is done could have been handled a lot better. You get one point per level up with 2 points every 5 level ups. The problem is that there is no division between spending points on improving your stats, improving your skills, or learning a new spell/tech recipe, which leads to a lot of confusion on my part on what to increase.  There is a reason why this stuff is compartmentalized. On a side note, Charisma isn't totally useless, as it determines how many party members you can have! However, it's ugly red-headed stepchild "Beauty" is. All it does is determine initial NPC reaction, which can be easily alleviated by having high enough charisma. Bleh. For the record, my actual character is a half-elf melee fighter with a little defensive magic thrown in for good measure. He works. I assume thief characters would work as well.
 
Another progressive/absolutley stupid and obviously not playtested idea was to make your "magic" and your "stamina" gauges be the same thing. In layman's terms, this translates to: Every time you cast a spell your stamina goes down. When enemies hit you your stamina goes down. When your stamina reaches zero you fall down and are totally vulnerable to all baddies. If you can't tell, this doesn't exactly encourage people to be mages. Unfortunately, tech characters perhaps even get a shorter end of the stick. Not only can they not use magical weapons and armor (i.e. the best weapons and armor in the game), but their resistance to magic extends to friendly spells as well, which means no magical healing. Allow me to emphasize: That is bad. What do they get in exchange? Tech characters can craft some pretty nifty items, a task that, in the end, should be delegated to a party member. 
 
"But Arbitrary!" you say "You aren't talking about the part of Arcanum that makes it a weird cult classic!". You are right. But before I talk about that, let me tell you about how the combat sucks. No, it's not aggressively bad like Jade Empire, but it is the bastard child of Fallout and Baldur's Gate, having the flaws of both and the tactical elements of neither. You can do real time, which is too fast to be of any strategic merit, and Turn Based, which despite being slower still has no strategic merit. It's quite simple: You click on dudes. They die. The end. It's not great.
 
 The combat? Not so great.

Alright, then why am I still playing this shitty game? Because, despite the above flaws, the world and story of Arcanum are incredibly interesting. Sadly, the developers aren't exactly Bioware when it comes to quality of supporting characters, but there are plenty of dialog options that let you be as much of a smooth gentleman as humanely possible, which I immediately approve of. Of course, all the "evil" options inevitably end with you murdering someone, but that can't be helped. The morality isn't quite as black and white as some other games, but there is still totally an alignment meter and you can still totally be a dick. That's besides the point. It's good stuff and I really like it. The non-combat gameplay itself can easily be compared to fallout, which makes sense considering the lineage. That means giant cities that you have to wander around in in order to find quests. It's a pain, but I forgive them. Also, no Autosave, which sucks and I don't forgive them for not including it. 
 
In conclusion, I can already see why everyone says that Arcanum is a deeply flawed game. However, I can also see why people like it so much. It's oddly engaging, despite its flaws and considering it's $6 on Good Old Games, unless something totally awful happens, I feel justified in my purchase. Expect me to blog again when I am done. Thanks to those who soldiered through and read this entire thing. I promise the actual blog will be a lot smaller and more specific.
#2 Posted by Symphony (1912 posts) -

I soldiered through and read the entire thing! I demand some pictures of in-game graphics! From what you've said of the experience system, it sounds absolutely atrocious. @.@ 
 
Psst: You should take the evil route. Betray your party members! Steal their loot! Murder their families! Bwahahaha errr.. okay maybe not that last thing... 

#3 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11413 posts) -
@Symphony: Your wish is my command. Voila! Pictures! See the dated graphics for yourself.  I'm still not playing evil though. I could write another rantalysis on how playing evil is never very satisfying, but that is for another day and another time.
#4 Posted by hai2u (322 posts) -

i tried playing arcanum but couldnt get past the dreary and ass looking graphics, don't really get all the praise for it. 

#5 Posted by Symphony (1912 posts) -
@ArbitraryWater: Does it make me a bad person if I think that the graphics of the game make it look like a bad Diablo 2?
#6 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11413 posts) -
@Symphony said:
" @ArbitraryWater: Does it make me a bad person if I think that the graphics of the game make it look like a bad Diablo 2? "
Well, it is isometeric, but the more apt comparison is a bad Baldur's Gate or Fallout 2.
@hai2u: It isn't the most... accomplished game out there. But I really like where the story and setting are going so far.

#7 Posted by Veektarius (4530 posts) -

I played through most of Arcanum until I got to some puzzle that totally made no sense to me.   I agree that it seemed magic characters had the advantage in combat, but they paid for it with a disadvantage in convenience - in the extremely huge capital city, which I found myself revisiting often, you aren't allowed to use fast travel if you're too good at magic.  I'm not sure exactly what kind of design mentality this is. "Well, magic makes the game easier, but also more annoying.  I think that's the sort of trade-off that will get people to enjoy playing our game."   The story was all right, but the entire tone of the game served to make it feel a lot like a novel from the Victorian era it emulated - very intellectual (rather than emotional) and without any particular urgency.   
 
I will give props to the chamber music soundtrack, though.  That was neat.

#8 Posted by Tennmuerti (7949 posts) -
@ArbitraryWater:
I played thought the game several times myself and actually both mechanical and magical characters are quite viable and can be very powerful.
The leveling system does however require a large time investment to learn it and to properly pimp out your character.

For example as a Techie it is quite quite fun to create several mechanical spiders (or ever better robots!) and watch them tear through enemies. Also once you get your hands on some of the more juicy guns you can easily mow down enemies. There is even the equivalent of Power Armor, you can create some insane powerful steam armor that has really nice stats and boosts your attributes to boot. The magic healing being resisted is not a big deal, imo it was very appropriate, from memory there is a herbalism tree and you can create your own medicine and potions.
The same goes for mages, they may seem to be initially quite weak but once you start getting to the good juicy stuff things can become too easy. you got your summons your healing  spells, aoe, there are even instant kill spells. Maybe early game stamina can be problamatic but later on you will be moping up the floor with enemies. Death school (if i remember name correctly) is quite effective.
The mele builds may be the easiest to start with but they are not the only way to go. This is what is so great about the game, if you take your time learning the nuances and reading up on stuff you can create some very unique and interesting characters. It is really rewarding. I have to say I enjoyed the variety of the character system more then the actual story :p
 
@Veektarius: The entire idea behind the game is the conflic between magic and technology so these little mechanics are implemented to further impress this point of conflict. It also makes perfect sence withing the game context since magic users fuck up machines when they are near them. Magic supresses Technology and visa versa.
#9 Posted by Rallier (1739 posts) -

Played through this game several times myself with different builds and it is an entirely different experience every time when you do that. The graphics are  quite dated but as soon as you get past that you can start enjoying to explore the absolutely HUGE world. It was so much fun killing the magic shop owner every time and stealing all his inventory, poison is your friend.

#10 Posted by Veektarius (4530 posts) -
@Tennmuerti: Just because a mechanic makes sense from a story perspective doesn't mean it makes sense for making good gameplay.
#11 Posted by Tennmuerti (7949 posts) -
@Veektarius: Magic users get to use teleports later on in the game, railroad allows for fast travel between certain places and teleports between others. Both sides have their advantages and disadvantages.
#12 Edited by Ghostiet (5208 posts) -

Oh, so you've stumbled upon a Troika game. There is no such thing like a Troika game that isn't half-assed - combining great ideas with horrible execution. Obsidian seems to take that route, too, which is especially ironic when you realize that it is comprised of similar geniuses Troika was.

#13 Posted by MightyMayorMike (423 posts) -

Wow, you have excellent timing and you don't even know it. I've been mulling over whether or not to pick up Arcanum off GOG for several days now. After reading your impressions I think I ultimately will, but it sounds like I need to read up some more before I do. I'm bummed that a warrior seems to be the way to go given the experience system. With a game like Arcanum, it seems like you'd want to be anything BUT a warrior. I love the idea of steampunk gunslingers.
 
I actually picked up Arcanum a long, long time ago and couldn't get into it then, though I really only spent an hour. I'll be interested to hear your future impressions after playing some more, and if it really gets its claws into you or not.

#14 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11413 posts) -
@Ghostiet said:
" Oh, so you've stumbled upon a Troika game. There is no such thing like a Troika game that isn't half-assed - combining great ideas with horrible execution. Obsidian seems to take that route, too, which is especially ironic when you realize that it is comprised of similar geniuses Troika was. "
I see where you are coming from, and don't disagree. The mechanical elements leave much to be desired, and the same lack of polish is evident. However, Arcanum doesn't repulse me the same way that KotOR 2 did (probably because I had no initial expectations whatsoever) Yeah, it's not an especially great game, but it is an interesting one, and it was also $6, which makes it hard for me to argue against it. I also messed around with Temple of Elemental Evil for a little bit and liked what I saw, but considering that I had already installed a fixpack, knowing fully well that the internet was probably right, I assume the Vanilla game is full of jank.  And yes, nothing about what obsidian has done so far has convinced me that they are anything other than the bastard offspring of Black Isle with most of the flaws and few of the strengths.
 
@MightyMayorMike: No problem. The game is obviously flawed on a mechanical level, but the setting is very interesting. The story has the generic "Chosen One" thing going on, which I am not a fan of so far, but you can be a dapper gentleman in most dialog, which I find to be totally awesome.  And it was $6.
 
@Tennmuerti:You sound like you know what you are talking about, but from what I have tried so far there is nothing especially fun about playing either a straight mage or a tech character. Maybe they do get awesome at later levels, but I have yet to see any of that, and I probably won't play through this game again because the mechanical elements are pretty much busted, not to mention the lack of autosave.
#15 Posted by TBORange (4 posts) -

I've played through Arcanum once or twice, and despite being a little buggy, the game is a lot of fun and most options are viable, as long as, and this is golden, you dont try to spread yourself across different fields, specially as a mage, to be a viable mage you've gotta go full mage. if you want to play a thief, i was doing insane damage with backstab maxed out on a playthrough.  Same goes for playing a techie really, don't feel limited because even if your character is less than stellar, some melee-heavy companions can pick up the slack. 
 
It has a fascinating setting and numerous sidequests, and one I sort of discovered by chance being the thieves underground, which opened up a multitude little optimal heists throughout the cities of Tarant and Caladon, lending meaning to many locations in them that were for seemingly no reason.  
 
Also, I strongly recommend dabbling in the fixes of Drog Black Tooth from RPG Codex for Arcanum, they strongly enhance the game to a superior level in a balanced and seamless way.

#16 Posted by Gargantuan (1880 posts) -

Arcanum is the second best game ever made in my opinion (the only better game is Planescape: Torment). Sure the combat isn't great but it's still decent but the world, the story, the NPCs and most of all the MUSIC is awesome.

#17 Posted by Cwaff (1260 posts) -

Nice blog post! There was a point in which I had considered playing through Arcanum but never got round to it! I'm not quite sure anymore though... I might just accept it for being the cult classic it has been labelled as and leave it at that.

#18 Posted by Tordah (2469 posts) -

Interesting read. Never played the game myself but it always looked intriguing. Good blog!

#19 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -

Thinking of builds: could you have, like, one person kitted out for dialogue choices, and the rest as melee fighters? 

#20 Posted by ChernobylCow (238 posts) -

I put about 40 hours into this game at one point with a Elf Warrior/Mage (who spent his early career breaking into houses) and somehow had a lot of fun.  I nearly beat the game but gave up after finding the female elf archer companion.  Every time afterwards that I tried to get into this game it's combat and general game mechanics increasingly worsened.  This game is ultimately broken.  Your points about the distribution of experience points is dead on and essentially any mechanical character (except a molotov thrower) is broken and unplayable.  This is one of those games you had to experience it pretty much when it came out...otherwise it's just trash and un-recommendable.  Props to you for even giving it a shot.  I'll probably get around to playing Troika's Vampire game at some point.

#21 Posted by CompleteInanity (41 posts) -
@MightyMayorMike:  If you wouldn't mind my $0.02, I'd say Arcanum is absolutely worth picking up (if you haven't done so already). At $6 on GOG it's a steal. The community has also done an amazing job patching it up. Check here for unofficial patches and extras (high res patch, high res maps, etc...) that essentially fix the entire game:  http://terra-arcanum.com/downloads/ 
 
I've been playing through on Win7 x64 and it's been running like a charm.
#22 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -

I'm tempted to buy this again.  Stop me if you can...

#23 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11413 posts) -
@ahoodedfigure: Please. No. Don't be a fool. I spent more than 20 goddamn hours with that game and there was absolutley no payoff for whatever I did at all. The game is mechanically broken, most of the quests are fairly dull, and the story never gets good enough to compensate for either. All Arcanum has going for it is its unique Victorian-Steampunk aesthetic, which is apparently enough for some people and enough for it to have a full 5 star rating on GOG instead of the average 4&1/2 star rating that 90% of the games on there get.  Also, while the soundtrack is initially pleasant, it drove me crazy after a while. THE VIOLINS.  I guess I got my $6 out of it in the end, but it's not a $6 I am willing to pay again.
#24 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -
@ArbitraryWater:  I like the music (maybe it grates against the game, I don't know), but yeah, I've been reading GOG comments and I'm wondering if they're talking about the same game. Most even-handed or heavily critical reviews will talk about the stuff you mention, especially the combat. I think it was a really good set of ideas that didn't manage to be executed properly, and with an RPG that means you have a feeling of depth and warmth that, in this case, punishes you for spending time with it.
 
I wish all the blind love for this game, which is kinda creepy like cults are creepy, would be spent on recreating the game from the ground up with balanced class, gender, and race choices that make any decision not a death warrant for your game experiences.  I get the feeling that it's rosy nostalgia for the game's novelty and design choices.  No patch I've heard about seems to address the basic issues that I've heard over and over again.  
 
Don't worry, the precipice looked nice, but I've taken a step back now.
#25 Posted by ryanwho (12082 posts) -

I never got around to this one, and yet I managed to get around to bullshit like Septerra Core and Pool of Radiance. Its inexcusable really.

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