Arcanum: Day 1

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.

14 Comments
15 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

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.

Posted by Goly

OOOOhh hoodyfigure I've missed your blog posts man!  Love your super weird tastes in gaming and your constant quest in finding new unique games (hope you're flattered duder).
 
But anyway to comment on the actual post, I seriously doubt I'll ever play Arcanum. I found it super hard already to beat Fallout, and this one seems like some kind of complex torture game. I'm up for a little bit of challenge but man does this game look unforgiving. And all the complexity of how you can customize your character doesn't help a bit. I'm already having trouble with the more classic WRPGS which look way simpler and still I still gotta go through walkthroughs because I know if I fuck up the main character creation the game is gonna be a hassle to play. Which brings me to the question: how do you beat these games with no kind of guide whatsoever? Do you just make builds and a few hours into the game you realise "oh damn this one is not getting me anywhere" and you start all over again or what? I'd really like to know because I seriously don't know the basic mechanics on how to play a WRPG decently. This obviously doesn't apply to JRPGS because, well in all honesty those games are all about the grinding IMO.
 
Also is it just a coincidence that I was thinking of starting Vampire: Bloodlines again or do we really have parallel minds?

Edited by ahoodedfigure

  I'm already having trouble with the more classic WRPGS which look way simpler and still I still gotta go through walkthroughs because I know if I fuck up the main character creation the game is gonna be a hassle to play. Which brings me to the question: how do you beat these games with no kind of guide whatsoever? Do you just make builds and a few hours into the game you realise "oh damn this one is not getting me anywhere" and you start all over again or what?    

Personally I haven't really had that problem, but many of the WRPGs I've played haven't been so strict. I'm thinking like Might and Magic, where you create a whole party so you can fill the gaps in your team's abilities.  Same's true of the Icewind Dale series which came much later. When it's a single character, like in Baldur's Gate and Arcanum, it can be more nerve-wracking.  Especially since if the main character dies in those games, that's it.
 
I'm pretty sure I've never had to start over for that reason, and a lot of those RPGs make sure to let people with parties that don't have the full range of abilities still make it through, but if you don't know what to pick it can still be a problem, especially if the system's difficulty is set with the expectation that your party will have some sort of healer.
 
 Fallout I made it through after I got tough and started boosting my weapon stats, but I've heard of people trying it on Charisma alone (which is as crazy as it sounds). Second time I started it I glitched out the dialog tree and so I gave up.  
 
There are tons of RPGs that do a lot better on balance, no question.  In general I think games lately allow for you to make more mistakes and for the basics to be laid out so you don't have to waste hours trying to figure out what the designers were thinking. Sometimes this swings too far in the other direction, and sometimes you lose the ability to make the character you think is cool, but I guess as long as there's a bunch of different approaches instead of just one, things'll be OK.
 
Thanks for reading and commenting, man, I appreciate it.  You ever get any further with that back-list? :)
Posted by ArbitraryWater
@Goly:  Hey, if you want someone else with the same kind of bizarrely niche tastes in games, you could read my blogs as well (shameless plug). And yeah. The character creation in Arcanum is the definition of newbie unfriendly. You are given so many options, but without any context of how they work in the actual game, you are kind of forced to experiment until you figure out what works. For me, that was a Half Elf melee fighter with a little magic thrown in on the side.  It only took me a few hours to pick that, easily the most boring, yet straightforward option.
 
@ahoodedfigure: Haha. You see, if you recall from my impressions blog, I was pretty keen on Arcanum when I first started as well. It was only later, when the game continued to underwhelm and generally be kind of broken and mediocre, that I quit. Nonetheless, I wish you luck in your little excursion/self torture. It took me around 25 hours with that particular character to give up, (and even then, I still was probably only half way through the fucking main story). I wonder what your limit will be? (Probably more than mine.)
Posted by jim_dandy

If you mess up with character creation, you can edit the files pretty easily later on.
 
One of the neat things you can do is take a picture of yourself and import it into the game with your own backstory.

Posted by Goly
@ArbitraryWater said:
" @Goly:  Hey, if you want someone else with the same kind of bizarrely niche tastes in games, you could read my blogs as well (shameless plug). And yeah. The character creation in Arcanum is the definition of newbie unfriendly. You are given so many options, but without any context of how they work in the actual game, you are kind of forced to experiment until you figure out what works. For me, that was a Half Elf melee fighter with a little magic thrown in on the side.  It only took me a few hours to pick that, easily the most boring, yet straightforward option.
 
your shameless plug has shamelessly worked!
Posted by owl_of_minerva

I've struggled terribly with this game in the past, mainly due to sub-optimal builds that led to me wandering into combat I was desperately underprepared for. But ever the masochist, I've bought this game for the second or third time off GOG for 3 bucks so I'll eventually have to conquer this bastard of a game. It's not that what I played was unenjoyable per se, it just seemd needlessly complex and poorly balanced.

Edited by Raakill

This game always looked interesting to me. I've started playing Baldur's Gate (stuck on a laptop for a while) and it's actually fun so far. Mind you I'm really familiar with the D&D rule set so all the stats aren't out of context to me. I can deal with some old school jank, but is the story/setting worth it?  
 
Edit: Interesting reading btw. Followed.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater:  We'll see, I guess.  Like I said, I'm aware of the potential for a serious crash in my interest.  But...  I've already got my 3 bucks worth out of this, if you see what I mean.  And dude...  I plug for you, I put a link up whenever I think it's pertinent so you don't actually have to do it yourself.  I don't recall you doing this for me too many times, though :P
 
Given that I've already been frustrated by the steep rise in difficulty in just a few scenarios, being blocked from proceeding but not getting a whole lot to work with, I feel more like I'm trying to repair a gutted pickup truck rather than buying a fancy new one.  Like I said, we'll see.
 
@jim_dandy: I'm happy with what I have as far as pic, although I'd probably change the back story a bit. I'll see how I feel about the game some hours in before I start going nuts on customization, though. I still have a sneaking suspicion things will get worse.
 
@owl_of_minerva: That's what I've heard in most of the even-handed reviews, and damn is it hard to get a good character going. It's sort of like we're shown a bit TOO MUCH of the innards of the machinery here, when usually there's too little. Even if I never beat it, though, I think I've managed to learn why people like it. If my trust in some reviews isn't misplaced, I'll eventually learn why people hate it.
 
@hematurge: Thanks for the follow!  The setting's history WAS a pretty standard fantasy setting, with fantasy races and some fantasy creatures. Then changes set in which made development run in parallel to the industrial revolution that we're familiar with. This influence is so strong that if there weren't fantasy races it would feel almost like a steampunk version of Shadowrun (which has artificial body augmentation, cyberspace, tweaked fantasy races, Mayan prophecy, and magic, with a balance between tech and magic (when you get tech grafted on, you lose some Essence, which is necessary for spells)). 
 
There is a distinct Victorian feel to the conversations, where social class appears important, and a wild-west feel to towns due to the frontier placement of some of them.  It's a pleasant mix for me. The storytelling seems OK so far, with a bit of self-awareness that helps offset some of the cliche, but like I say above some of the dialog trees are a bit botched, making it less than smooth reading.
 
Just read the warnings in the comments here, the reviews that don't glow in the dark, and in blogs, like ArbitraryWater's, that talk about how that oldschool jank sort of takes over. I'm just a few hours in, so I'm fine with its rough edges. I wonder if many people wound up not getting much further in and that's why they love it.  As much as I usually hate this comparison, it may be a question of casual dabblers in the game versus the hardcore folks actually trying to see what the game has to offer, perhaps.  The central mystery for me in all this is the disparity of the reviews.  That's REALLY why I'm so fascinated by this experience, beyond the game itself.
 
As far as DnD, I really appreciate the rails on that system now. It would be nice if eventually you got to make whatever you wanted, but giving everyone a new system and letting them make what they want, then not supporting that decision too well is a terrible approach. There are some pregen characters, but even DnD lets you create from the get-go and have that creation function in the world. 
Posted by FourWude
Edited by Tennmuerti

Welcome to the fold brother.
 
 Oh wanted to mention you do not want to spend points in magic at all as a tech character, because as your tech meter goes higher you will be more resistant to enemy magic attacks but your own magic ability will suffer. It's far better to specialize in Arcanum. Magic and Technology are in friction in that world in every way because they  directly interfere with one another. If you need healing then instead of the healing magic tree just use alchemy/herbalism (can't recall name atm) to create a bunch of healing salves (likewise for buff potions). Virgil will change his alignment towards yours over time too.
 
Also looking forward to your writeup when/if you get your hands on the really BIG guns like cannons or machine guns or if you go full tech pet robots :P
 
PS: As a female character there are a few "extra" quests you can do in the games major city, ahem.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Tennmuerti said: 
 

 " Welcome to the fold brother.   Oh wanted to mention you do not want to spend points in magic at all as a tech character, because as your tech meter goes higher you will be more resistant to enemy magic attacks but your own magic ability will suffer. It's far better to specialize in Arcanum. 


You know, that's what I keep hearing, but right now I'm happy with my slightly hybrid character. I have to read the manual to make sure I'm not shooting myself in the foot, but right now the only magic she has is Light, just to make night fights easier. It seems like IF you go all out on one or the other, you have problems with the opposite, but if you do both you can live in the middle.  Maybe.  I don't know.  Don't tell me too much, I sort of want to make my own mistakes based on what I'm presented with.
 
AM tempted to do the herbalism thing like you said anyway, since I just bought a bunch of blueprints/recipes for it.
 

Virgil will change his alignment towards yours over time too.


OK, I thought that might be what's going on. Good old Virgil.
 

 Also looking forward to your writeup when/if you get your hands on the really BIG guns like cannons or machine guns or if you go full tech pet robots :P

:) I'm tempted, but that looks like a lot of points out of my way right now.  Not sure what I'm going to do, but I guess I'll find out.
    
 

PS: As a female character there are a few "extra" quests you can do in the games major city, ahem. "

Yeah, I murdered that guy.  Last thing that scumbag ever tried to do.
Posted by ChernobylCow

Good luck, man.  Good luck.  That's all I have to say.  I'll probably never revisit this game but I remember having an epic 25+ hour romp as a weak Elven thief that grew up to be a ridiculously powerful warrior/mage.  Nothing like creeping into other NPCs' houses to steal their stuff, murder them, or break the game until both things happen.  I have good memories of the experience but not so much the actual game.

Posted by MrKlorox

Nice writeup. I love this game, even though it's a bastard a lot of the time.  
 
@ahoodedfigure said:

" 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. "
But the idea of "what would it be like if all the fantasy races were around in a more industrialized time?" was the practically the whole premise that this entire game sprung from, according to some interview.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ChernobylCow: There's tons of TYPES of characters that can be made in this game, but I imagine I might feel a bit burned out after a while, especially if I go far enough. I like my character now so I figure things will just progress until I either get stuck or break through. In general I think this game is inspiring selective memory, in that I hear hatred, love, and the mehs in-between, but nothing that encapsulates all of the non-overlapping opinions into a whole. Maybe the game is too massive in its scope to actually take in in a single view, which is why we need a bunch of people giving their own opinions.  I'm beginning to see just why this game is so divisive.
 
@MrKlorox:  And at times it succeeds, but the concepts seem crowded. It's got general thematic innovation, with its steampunk vs. magic thing, so I can imagine enough conflict and depth in that that the fantasy tropes weren't necessary (or they could come up with new races). The underlying idea is, I think, and I've talked about this before, that fans of fantasy seem to think that what fantasy always means is elves and dwarves, preferrably snooty, long-lived elves and stern dwarves with fake Scottish accents and a penchant for mining and metalworking.  
 
I totally get what you're saying, and maybe more of a feel for these different races having a stronger presence might have helped. Since I wrote that I ran into a lot of the racism that's much discussed about the game, which has been interesting.  I realized that part of what they do with races is that they have a sort of implied social class behind them.  Half-ogres and half-orcs tend to be underclasses, elves tend to be marginalized creative types and visionaries (and sometimes holier-than-thou jerks),  dwarves are working folk, gnomes narrow-mindedly pursue wealth.  I get it.  I just feel like with so much thematic ground to cover, and such a complex system, they won't get the chance to develop anything as much as their design promised. And since so much has changed from when there were these stronger fantasy elements, right now I feel like it's more of a steampunk setting with an extra layer of fantasy spread on.