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Lora's Reviews: Arcanum (Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura)




Arcanum (Game release date: 2001)
Wonderfully original steampunk concept and intricate plot marred by poor execution and design.


Arcanum Walkthrough page Buy This Game



Highlights: Innovative gameworld, good plot with tons of flexible quests, nifty steampunk feel Lowlights: Slow and buggy gameplay, unpleasant interface, uncustomizable PC, poor quality NPCs


This game is really a mixed bag. It has a very interesting main plot, and it starts with one of the best premises I've seen in a CRPG (a typical magical world undergoing an industrial revolution). There are many quests, some of which are complex and have more than one solution. I liked the leveling system, and the magic/tech development was very nice. Unfortunately, the interface is clunky and suffers from several major design flaws--traveling from location to location is oppressive, everyone in the gameworld looks identical, the NPC's are two-dimensional and only a few of them even have voices. Furthermore, the game suffers from debilitating bugs, runs slowly and choppily, and requires significantly more system memory than other games with far superior graphics. Arcanum is also heavily, heavily geared towards men. Female players should brace themselves for the tired old gaming experience of watching women in this game give you the same flirtatious lines they give the male characters and accidentally call you "him" periodically; the only time the game seems to remember female PC's might exist is in bars and whorehouses, where you sometimes get groped or propositioned by ugly gnomes. You definitely get the feeling that no one at Troika bothered to playtest this thing with a female PC, much less a female player.

Arcanum is a game with a lot of ups and downs. If you play it, you'll find yourself gritting your teeth through long, boring wrestling matches with the slow and buggy interface just to get the next plot gem. On the other hand, there really are gems. It's worth playing once, in my opinion; but make sure you tackle it with an 8MB video card and a male player character, or you may not have the patience to reach the interesting conclusion.

Style: Arcanum is an Ultima-style CRPG with a third-person birdseye interface. You control and develop a single character, though you can build out a larger party by means of NPCs over whom you have partial control. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy, technology, and conspiracy themes. The game is untimed and requires no manual dexterity. Combat is stop-and-go realtime.

Series: Arcanum is not part of a series. It is a completely stand-alone game developed by Troika Games and Sierra On-Line.

Finding Arcanum: This game is relatively recent, so you may still be able to find it in your favorite software store. You can also buy Arcanum online if you like.

Getting Arcanum to Work: Arcanum is a new game and theoretically ought to be plug-and-play. In practice, this is one of the buggier new games I've played in a long time. Ignore the "minimum system requirements"--if you don't have the "recommended system requirements," particularly an 8MB DirectX compatible video card, the game will be functionally unplayable due to slothlike speed.

Hints For Arcanum: I have a page of Arcanum hints up online, with a low-spoiler walkthrough for the game as well. If you need more, you can try some of these Arcanum links, or buy an Arcanum Hint Book.

Pitfalls In Arcanum: Rape and sexual harassment are major elements in this game; it is not usually possible to punish the wrongdoers, and the game seems to treat the subject rather lightly at times. If that's going to distress you, I suggest you choose a different game. Beyond that, there's nothing you need to be aware of before you start. If you want some spoiler-free party formation and general playing suggestions, click here.

Game Length: 50 hours, about standard for a CRPG; it could take much longer if you end up wasting your time exploring the many large map areas that are completely empty.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated M (for 17 years old and up) due to far more explicit sexual content than you'd ever expect from a Victorian-based gameworld, including at least three quests involving rape, sexual enslavement, and sexual psychopathy; a female PC is frequently sexually harassed and given the option to prostitute herself, while a male PC is given the opportunity to have sex with a sheep. Really. Not a game for kids.

Lora's Arcanum Review: (Good)

Plot and Quests: The main plot is very interesting and there are plentiful side quests, many of which have more than one possible solution. The only flaw plotwise is that many of the quests are short and end abruptly, which can sometimes leave you with a frustrated or unsatisfied feeling.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Like the Baldur's Gate series, Arcanum concentrates the player's brainpower on its complicated quests, many of which take a lot of puzzling out. Dungeons are uniformly mindless. There are no spatial or visual puzzles.
Characters: You get only one PC in Arcanum, whose personality you can develop in one of several directions by choosing different conversational options. Unfortunately, he or she is otherwise completely uncustomizable--there are only one female action sprite and three male ones in the entire game (this goes for all PCs, NPCs, and map characters), and you cannot so much as change the color of your character's hair. Those old gold-box D&D games did better than this, man. Somebody also did a painfully half-assed job on the NPCs--only some of them have voices, for instance, so some of your NPCs will have audio and others won't! There is also disappointingly little interaction any of your NPCs can have with anyone or anything in the game.
Gameworld: This is where Arcanum really shines. The premise is one of the best I've seen in a CRPG (a typical magical world undergoing an industrial revolution). The collision course between magic and technology is very well explored. The countries and cultures are believable, and the social tensions in Tarant are interesting. The only flaw with the gameworld is that everyone in it looks exactly the same, even when it's in direct contradiction to the game text--you'll see a woman who supposedly has "flaming red" hair, but it will still be black on the screen.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): Magic/tech development is original, well-handled, and fun; artifact-building is also good, and I liked the character advancement system a lot. The input you get into your NPC's development is subpar.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): Clunky bordering on oppressive. Game movement is horrible; you have to manually scroll across one screen, wait for your characters to run across the space in slow motion, and then manually scroll across the next screen. Inventory management was so bad it still makes me twitch today, and the awful NPC AI made the otherwise serviceable combat system a chore.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The player has an Ultima-style birds-eye view of the party and the world they're interacting with. The steampunk feel is great, but the graphics are mediocre, and the inconsistent voicing (some NPCs speak aloud while others only present text) is very distracting.

Lora's Recommendations: If you're not already a fan of CRPGs, Arcanum is a bad place to start--the bugs and interface problems are tough for even veteran gamers to slog through. I recommend Baldur's Gate 2 or Wizardry 8 instead. If, on the other hand, you're a CRPG aficionado, the fascinating gameworld and original, interactive quests of Arcanum make it worth the aggravation.

If You Loved Arcanum: You would probably really like Fallout II, an innovative post-apocalyptic CRPG. If you were impressed by the diverse quests and multiple solutions of Arcanum, then you're likely to enjoy the brilliant Baldur's Gate 2. If what really sucked you in was the originality of the gameworld, you may enjoy the dark experimental CRPG Planescape Torment, the quirky film noir/magical realism adventure Grim Fandango, or the surreal psychological thriller Sanitarium.



American Indian tribes * Indian languages * Hopi kachinas * Native American totems

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