By ahoodedfigure 14 Comments
Recently bought Arcanum during a sale. Cost me 3 bucks, which may make any disappointment I might feel relatively negligible. All the while the many impressions I'd read of the game wandered through my head. Some loved it, some hated it, many were disappointed by it. My first real impression was the music, which I promptly downloaded when they posted promotional copies of the mp3's online. I later emailed one of the designers and talked with him about their choice of having women and men in the game have [slightly] different attribute modifiers. I can go into that more later.
I uploaded it to our gaming platform, followed by Drog Black Tooth's unofficial patch, a bunch of modules, and a few other tweaks. After I don't know how many years now of wondering what this game was like, having only a limited, buggy demo experience to go by, I was finally playing Arcanum.
I began with character creation, and decided to go for a female human bandit (free high-quality pistol but no starting money), with no definite plan but an inkling toward being a firearms expert, or something generally mechanically inclined, with possibly a few supplemental magical abilities. Being the kind of freak that's willing to just dive in and start creating a character from the ground up I found myself overwhelmed by all the background choices, especially since I didn't know what the practical effect of some of those choices was going to be. I'd already heard from the esteemed ArbitraryWater that pistol ammunition is rare, so I was sort of choosing this particular character idea to challenge the engine to make me fail. The magic choices are immense; I can't imagine what I would have picked if I'd have tried to make a magic user. That seems like a whole other game in itself to pick different magic types.
They could have used a different interface for character creation, I think. I felt like I was a preschooler being sat in a car and told "go to it." No doubt the manual would have helped, but the choices themselves could have been presented in a way to show how everything interacted. Still, an IMMENSE amount of choices. Even if some of the builds wound up being unworkable, I think I can see why this game charms a lot of people-- if you're into customization, Arcanum has tons of it. Perhaps too much of it, but since you only get to create your main character it's hard to focus on that for too long.
After the opening cinematic and conversations, I spent a good deal of time roaming the wilderness, murdering wolves, boars, and really tough rats, getting to know Virgil and looting a few corpses (I didn't realize until after many corpses had disappeared that you have to switch to their body to take weapons and armor (or just hit the take-all button).
I died quite a bit (this is on Normal difficulty-- given what I'd heard I didn't dare put it on hard), trying to see how far I could push myself fighting rats and the more powerful kinds of wolves (yet another RPG where wolves are somehow insane killers? C'mon, folks). At one point I gave up pushing that angle after one too many deaths and tried to solve one of the first quests through a bit of semi-justifiable murder. Then it was on to the first town.
Navigation took a bit of getting used to, and I wish there was a way to center the onscreen view on your main character because at times I felt like I was catching up. But it has a nice waypoint system when you get the hang of using it, and the automap... well, let me just say it right here, if anyone was curious, this game resembles Fallout way more than Baldur's Gate in terms of fine details. That's not too surprising given Troika's pedigree, three of the core design team for Fallout (thus "Troika", which is Russian for three-of-a-kind). This means a slightly more difficult interface, and a lot more options.
Regarding the scarcity of ammunition, in the starting town it can be purchased in what I think is an effectively unlimited supply. The metal worker and a used goods store owner have a new batch every day or so; the only problem is having the cash to spend on it. At one point I ran pretty low, but managed to sell enough of my junk that I was supplied well enough to take out the obstacle blocking my way into the wider world. I don't think I would have managed that battle without numerous resets, a few grenades I'd looted, and boosting my firearms skill up to the apprentice level. I can see this being a real sticking point with people, and I hope that the easier difficulty wasn't as punishing as this was. Most of my deaths were there, especially before I boosted my skill in shootin', but yeah, melee characters with high hitpoint counts seem to have an advantage that needs to be reduced through tricksy play (like the grenades, or possibly spell effects. Apparently you can target body parts, in a less obvious way than with the Fallout VATS system, through keyboard shortcuts, but I've not read up too much on that yet).
That said, sticking with firearms and getting that up to a decent level was vital to my success there. I'm not sure what would have happened to me if I hadn't powergamed through that character advancement to make sure firearms worked for me. A lot of people like to make sure to maximize their potential in RPG advancement schemes, but here, at least for my firearms user, it seemed essential. It was also necessary to be smart with ammunition conservation, and I came dangerously close to falling behind. It's an expansive system, but relatively unforgiving, unless there was some safety net I was unaware of.
Garrr, no autosave...
There is a level of humor throughout the game that is self-referential and a nice counterpoint to the absurd juxtaposition of magic and steampunk. It helps, because of all the thematic clashing, to have a bit of fun with the conversations. Some of the conversations, though, are pretty busted. They should have gone over the trees a bit more, because at times the person you're talking with seems to have forgotten what you had just asked. It was nothing totally broken, I could still get the conversations completed and things were reasonably resolved, but the lack of polish in the decision trees was marked.
One persistent bug required my shutting down and restarting the program once in a while. I don't know if it's an artifact of the patches, the original game, or maybe the platform I was running it on, but every once in a while it would cease to update the main screen. There were also a few other hiccups, but I've had Age of Wonders blow up in my face a lot more than Arcanum has so far.
So far, and I hate to say it, I'm enjoying myself. Quite a bit, actually. And what's funny is that the aesthetic that everyone talks about, apart from the music (which I still love), is still not terribly present for me. Maybe I need to see a big city in action before it'll really hit home, but right now, apart from the pistols and the steam-powered electric lights, I don't get a strong enough feel for it, though that doesn't bother me a whole bunch. Actually I'm more irritated by the inclusion of the old slew of fantasy races. I don't think they were necessary, really, but I can see a few reasons for including them.
Still, despite my giddy enjoyment of this early phase I'm aware there are plenty more things that can go wrong over the course of the game. I don't pretend to have this thing sussed yet, but I have to say that whether or not I'm ultimately disappointed, I'm really glad I finally I got this game.