Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Developer: Troika Games
Release Date: August 22, 2001
Time Played: Around Three Hours
Dubiosity:4 out of 5
Number of times I’ve played through the opening hours of this game: at least half a dozen.
Would I play more? You know it’s coming. I can’t escape.
I’m back on my decade-long bullshit again, and that bullshit continues to be “Arcanum is my CRPG White Whale.” It’s one of the few remaining games of that late 90s/early 00s “Golden Era” that I’ve never played to completion, and even moreso than the likes of Fallout 2 it’s the one that sticks in my craw the most. As part of getting older, I’ve managed to move past a lot of weird backlog anxiety in my life, much to my own benefit. I’m moderately capable of accepting the fact that I’m never gonna finish certain things, because who has the time and/or attention span to address the giant pile of Media sitting in physical, digital, and mental shelves. That’s fine, and in a lot of ways it’s healthier to accept that fact than always trying to force something.
Arcanum is one of those exceptions. I still firmly believe that *one day* I will give it another honest shot, even if there’s absolutely no guarantee that I’ll ever finish it. Why? Aside from my general affinity towards Troika’s troika of RPGs, in my mind, Arcanum is “Peak CRPG.” Less from a qualitative perspective and more from a position of raw ambition. Much has been said about Arcanum’s terrifyingly open character development system, the numerous background options, and the varying ways those can play off each other. As a fantasy world in the midst of an industrial revolution, a lot of Arcanum plays off the diametrically opposed status of Magick and Technology, and so too can your character diametrically oppose having an enjoyable handful of opening hours depending on the build you start with. I cannot emphasize enough that Arcanum means it when it says you can have a very different play experience depending on how you develop your character, but that shouldn’t always be mistaken for a positive.
Creating a character and then inevitably restarting a few hours in is something to be expected from games of this era. However, Arcanum’s classless, highly variable spread of stats, skills, spells, and tech recipes all being fed from the same pool of points is intimidating even for someone of my caliber. Yeah, sure, you can probably get away with playing a very straightforward fight-man, but if you want to play anything remotely more interesting it’s going to be an experiment in trial-and-error as you find out that things might not quite be as flexible as they initially appear. You might be tempted to make a gunslinger character, given the game’s novel setting, but most of the early game guns are terrible, ammo is scarce, and For the purposes of these streams, I went with a tech character and a throwing build, which is a decent initial start, especially once you start running around with easily-craftable molotov cocktails, but I only knew about that stuff because I’ve started this game a bajillion times and have looked at guides.
To be clear, you *should* play Arcanum with a guide, in the same way you *should* play Arcanum with the unofficial patch. There’s a lot to see, a lot to experience, and a lot of interesting stuff in this game that I’d like to see one day. But I also think it’s fair to say that you have to squint a little (or a lot) to see the kind of game its proponents tout it as, and I’m not just talking about things like the clunky UI, the intimidatingly open structure, or the bad, clusterfuck-y combat that is neither good real-time or turn-based. Arcanum is promise, it is potential, and it is, ultimately… something you’ll probably hear more from me about because I cannot escape that siren song.
Release Date: August 28, 2007
Time Played: A little less than two hours
Dubiosity:2 out of 5
Would I play more? NOPE.
I’ll spare you a repetition of my “Hey the late 00s and early 2010s were a rough time for console JRPGs” spiel that accompanied my write up on Enchanted Arms. Instead I’ll say that this period is also a pretty fascinating one, all things being equal. I’m not just saying that because this is also PRIME REAL ESTATE for both my idiot streams and our idiot podcast (I’m saying Eternal Sonata has been discussed with some seriousness) but also because you can see the same kind of weird experimentation and ambitious ideas of the PS1 and PS2 era coming to a head with technical, financial, and design limitations imposed by the shift to HD consoles. Remember how developing Final Fantasy XIII was so expensive for Square that they had to make two drastically different and extremely weird sequels? I sure do! Imagine how much more of a problem that was for developers and games who didn’t have that kind of Final Fantasy money!
Speaking of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi is a man of many talents, such as “being a Champagne King,” “burning giant piles of money to make a movie that almost bankrupted the company” and “creating one of the most beloved video game franchises ever made.” It turns out that imitating his colleague Yuji Horii is not one of them, as Blue Dragon shows. The comparison with Dragon Quest is unavoidable (and I have to imagine intentional?) once you start throwing Akira Toriyama in the mix, and the relative straightforwardness of the storytelling and mechanics seals it. Blue Dragon really wants to be a Dragon Quest sorta thing, with a Final Fantasy-esque job system thrown on top for good measure and a protagonist who said “I won’t give up!” no less than eight times in two hours. It’s weird seeing the amount of production assets, including some very nice-looking cutscenes (3 DVDs worth!) being put into an incredibly… straightforward story? A weirdly paced one, where our initial setup is quickly setup, the group of plucky kids gets their blue stands, and then… JRPG grinding and dungeoneering happen? I dunno man. Once the cutscenes dried up and I could no longer goof on them, I lost interest very quickly.
But actually I think the biggest minus for me here is that Blue Dragon just seems on the competent edge of dull. To reinvoke the comparison I made with Tales of Zestiria, it’s what I thought Dragon Quest was before I played a Dragon Quest game. No amount of generally jamming Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack and tantalizing *job system* prospects can distract from a game that did jack-all to differentiate itself from anything else I’d rather play. With something like Tales I can at least count on the combat being relatively fresh, and with something like Dragon Quest I can expect an aggressive barrage of charm that didn’t quite come through the same way in Blue Dragon. I’m sorry about this one Phil, but I think Lost Odyssey might be the early 360 JRPG that was actually worth them exclusivity dollars. Actually, I take it back. Whatever you paid for this boss theme was worth it.
And that’s it for me this week, but not quite all. You see, during my GB Community Endurance Run stream, we managed to reach the stretch goal to play through the entirety of not one, but TWO of the dubious games I played during those three days of streaming. I’ve already finished Project Snowblind, which is a… baffling disaster, but now the impetus comes to you, dear viewers. Do I stream a playthrough of the “maybe actually totally okay” Hitman Absolution, or do I continue the punishment session and my own tortured relationship with Survival Horror with The Evil Within? VOTE NOW. No seriously, I’m putting up a strawpoll. It’ll be open until the end of the week. You’re welcome.
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