May Millennials 5: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura (Outro)

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I'll be frank with you all: this was an inauspicious start to May Millennials this year, even putting aside the quarantine troubles. It felt like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura fought me every step of the way as I attempted to at first enjoy its more subtle strengths of an unusual setting and unique mechanics before tolerating everything else long enough to see what the later game was like, and I've instead spent much of the past week finishing up Picross S, Ms. Splosion Man (which, while also feeling like pulling teeth at its nadir, did at least remain compelling throughout), and watching the occasional Giant Bomb stream and episode of Fringe (that is not a show you want to watch while eating something, lemme tell ya).

Arcanum's early game, and possibly its entire game, is excruciatingly slow. I don't just mean in terms of its glacial movement and map traversal, though they are certainly very applicable, but in how leisurely it takes the game to get anywhere interesting. I'm meant to head to the largest city of the region, Tarant, to investigate a ring that was left to me by an important-looking gnome passenger on the airship in which he and I crashed. Having no other immediate goals or agency for my character's fate, this has become the de facto primary quest of the game, and my investigations in the sleepy opening village of Shrouded Hills revealed the location of the makers of the ring as well as hints that a major cult of some kind is tracking it down, and tracking me down in turn for several reasons beyond wanting to hold onto the jewelry in question. I know this because every other tavern NPC reveals themselves to be an incognito high-level cultist assassin who cuts me down mercilessly because the game has once again set itself to "real-time mode" and I'm dead before the dialogue UI has disappeared and I'm aware we've switched to combat. The guards do not help during these fracas, and I can only surmise they're part of the same occultist plot. What's great about this also is that the game doesn't auto-save at any point.

Arcanum's also one of the most visually drab RPGs I've seen. The UI's not bad though, with the odd exception of a main menu button (unless it's hiding somewhere).
Arcanum's also one of the most visually drab RPGs I've seen. The UI's not bad though, with the odd exception of a main menu button (unless it's hiding somewhere).

Anyway, this dumb ring is incidental to what I want/need to do, which is to explore the more immediate zones for the experience and equipment I'll require to take on the big city's many perils. A few guides here and there - this game is obtuse enough to need them, believe me - strongly suggest that I first check out the nearby (though by "nearby" I actual mean "several weeks' travel each", since that's the lethargic speed the game's world map traversal operates at) towns of Dernholm and Blackroot. The former leads to the latter, as I need to learn the whereabouts of these places before I can visit: the map works much like the ones in Fallout and Fallout 2, where it's a blank canvas that has locations added to it as you receive directions. Dernholm was as interesting as its name: a worn-down former capital full of destitute sadsacks and a powerless king, with a handful of quests that are concluded elsewhere (hence, I suppose, the guide's insistence that I come here to pick them up first). Blackroot was marginally more interesting, with a dock area and quests that involved local issues like a nearby thief gang stealing the mayor's symbolic item of office (a dagger) and a reclusive inventor out in the woods who ran afoul of a magic portal spitting out demons. However, in both cases, any combat immediately led to a deft demise: the thieves were around level 20, and the weakest portal demons were level 15.

For comparison's sake, I had just reached level 7 and had upgraded my melee skill in the vain hope of nudging my to-hit above 25%, which was what I was getting against these overpowered enemies in this ostensibly early region of the game. I'd wanted to pour a few points into lockpicking and persuasion, to attend to this roguish gunslinger adventurer archetype that was quickly becoming a fantasy in a world devoid of the nuance to pull it off, but the level up system had instead regressed to one building point per level, which offers very little in the way of character development potential. I've read that the game's level cap is 50: I've yet to figure out if that means it's interminably long or if I need to complete the game's objectives in a very specific order befitting of my character's competence, bouncing from town to town and completing only those quests without a heavy martial or skill-based aspect (i.e. only the most banal of fetch quests) until I'd had a few dozen more levels under my belt and a character build worth an olde Victorian ha'penny capable of handling the more challenging fare. Probably both.

I saw this screen a lot. Nice of my followers to bury me, since they did nothing to absorb aggro when I was dying.
I saw this screen a lot. Nice of my followers to bury me, since they did nothing to absorb aggro when I was dying.

The final straw came when I was beating a fast exit from the aforementioned inventor's shack to take the Blackroot train to Tarant, the place I was meant to go before I was led astray by some dubious walkthroughs, when I was met with a pack of level 12 venomous swamp rats as a random encounter on the world map. These rats proceeded to hit me with a poison value - that is, the amount of health it will drain before it vanishes - of about three times my current HP total in quick order (the game had switched to real-time again, of course). The poison was moot, though, as the rats killed me quickly thereafter. I then chose to exit the game rather than reload for more punishment, only for it to bug out and hang on the main menu indefinitely. Sometimes you abandon a game because it wasn't what you hoped for and other demands on your time take priority, and you leave in a sort of ambivalent mood that does not necessarily preclude another attempt in the future. Then you have situations like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, where it feels like any bridges have been set on fire, pissed on to extinguish the flames, burned again, and their ashes magically disintegrated for good measure.

Still, though, I remain optimistic that the rest of the May Millennials itinerary will prove more palatable. Next is Gothic II, the sequel to a game I played for this feature last year. While rough around the edges, I appreciated Gothic's odd structure - even if it also demands a very particular critical path that the player is forced to deduce on their own before they're strong enough to open up the game a little - and its ludicrous fantasy fiction take on Escape from New York. I'm hoping the sequel is stacked with some necessary improvements, though I suppose I'll find out soon enough.

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