May Millennials 5: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (Intro)

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May Millennials is back with a few more of the biggest CRPGs from the 2000s that I missed out on, starting with the last of the three major Troika releases I've yet to write about*: their fantasy steampunk-themed Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Like the other two Troika games, this was almost entirely resurrected by an accommodating community who saw what these overly ambitious developers were trying to do, albeit without the necessary amount of budget and time to polish it to a sheen (or even to the point where it was functional enough to be sold to people), and helped them over the finish line with a series of fan patches, the last of which released only last year.

Honestly, after playing the game for a few hours, I'm not sure they needed to bother. Maybe that's just early CRPG doldrums talking - the first "town" of any CRPG is invariably dull and full of simple fetch quests intended to get new players acclimated to the new game and its mechanics - but even with most of the rough edges sanded away by frequent patching, there's a distinct clunkiness at the core these community mods were never fully able to overcome. It moves like molasses, important options frequently untoggle themselves mysteriously, random items can vanish from inventories equally mysteriously, and the map travel system is just bizarre in how it switches from the local to world maps depending on your distance from the center of the region but theoretically lets you keep walking past that border for possibly forever. Then there's the hilarious "critical miss" system that can cause your weapons and armor to lose a significant amount of their item endurance and become permanently unusable, or scar yourself for a semi-permanent stat penalty to attractiveness, or knock you on your ass to make it easier for enemies to finish you off, or you'll simply drop your weapon and have an NPC ally decide on their own to pick it up for you for safe-keeping, preventing you from using it for the rest of the conflict. Any aspirations I had to play this game all rootin' and tootin' with a flintlock was quickly dashed when the game makes clear that gunfighting is purely a late-game build extravagance, and the only firearms you can find early on can't hit the broadside of a barn and will bankrupt you in ammunition costs besides.

My vaguely dexterous/rogue character, which I eventually decided on after scrolling past dozens of terrible (but thankfully optional)
My vaguely dexterous/rogue character, which I eventually decided on after scrolling past dozens of terrible (but thankfully optional) "significant background" choices. One of them was "literally brought back to life to be married to an undead monster". I don't have the frizzy hair to pull that off, for one thing.

I have to say, though, like Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines, the game is slowly growing on me despite its flaws and iffy gameplay. Part of that is just how underpowered you are to start with; upon hitting level 5 I received double the usual amount of building points (might just be a thing for levels divisible for 5, but I'm hoping it's the new standard from here on out) and am starting to feel a little bit more secure with my skills. Arcanum has an odd system where everything - stats, health, skills - use the same pool of building points, and higher skill levels often require boosting the attached stats sufficiently first. It means that you can't exactly master a whole lot right away - the best being a handful of the most useful skills and a preferred stat or two - but the game does accommodate this somewhat by letting you sweet-talk or outwit certain critical foes instead of fighting them. Sometimes. You do still have to fight your way out of the wreckage site the game starts in, surrounded by wild beasts who aren't so taken by your charisma stat, and that alone can be quite a challenge for the physically impaired. Reminds me of that intense first dungeon in Daggerfall and how it makes fools out of those wishing to take a more silver-tongued approach to the rest of the game.

Current Status: I got so sick of damaging my expensive dress fighting rats that I've chosen to fight in my undergarments. Truly, I am the archetypal demure lady adventurer.
Current Status: I got so sick of damaging my expensive dress fighting rats that I've chosen to fight in my undergarments. Truly, I am the archetypal demure lady adventurer.

Anyway, that's all I've got for Arcanum at this stage. There's a certain Giant Bomb Monopoly stream going on right now that ate my whole evening, so I'll have more to say when I pen an "Outro" sometime later next week, but I'm hoping getting a few more levels and adjusting to the game's very particular personality and maybe seeing some more interesting locations will turn me around a little more definitively. For now, I'm in that Deadly Premonition/Final Fantasy X-2 zone of suffering some bad gameplay now for some potential good narrative later. This May's going to be a rough one, I can tell.

(* I've written about VtM: Bloodlines via a semi-scathing review here, and about Temple of Elemental Evil with this "illustrated" series here.)

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