Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why Arcania Sucks

As a long-time fan of the Gothic series, nothing saddens me more than to see a beloved series turn to shallow mediocrity.  Actually scratch that.  I'd be more sad if the soul of the Gothic series were forever cast into oblivion, never to flex its mighty competition-crushing, standard-setting RPG muscle again.  Thankfully Piranha Bytes, the original developers of Gothics 1 through 3, are still alive and kicking, working this very moment on the glorious Risen 2.  With that in mind, I'm not really sad to find that Arcania: Gothic 4 sucks.  I'm just a little disappointed.  After all, how hard could it be to screw up the "Gothic" feel?
Apparently it's not so difficult, as Spellbound (in conjunction with JoWood) have shown us.  When I'd heard that Gothic 4 was getting a new developer, I was actually one of the few Gothic fans who had high hopes for the new game.  Gothic 3 was far from ideal, so I'd already learned to restrain my expectations, but I thought that a new developer could breathe new life into the series.  I told myself I'd enjoy the game for what it was and not flip out if it deviated from the other games.  And then Spellbound missed every mark and left me no choice but to go on a nerd rage.  Not only does Arcania share virtually no gameplay similarities to its predecessors, but as a game if fails to deliver anything remotely compelling, interesting, or entertaining.
Since Arcania's been out for the greater half of a year now, I'm not writing a full review.  Plenty of other smarter and more talented people have already spoken their minds on that issue.  Instead, I'll be making a list of things that were present in the first three Gothics (especially in G1 and G2), which Arcania is entirely lacking, with special emphasis on why these aspects are crucial to the compelling nature of Gothic.  Click below to continue to the full article. 

Just about the only similarities Arcania shares with the previous Gothics are superficial.  For example, both Arcania and the previous Gothics are set in fantasy worlds with swords, magic, and monsters; they both involve picking up and completing quests; they both involve talking to NPCs; they both involve opening treasure chests and finding loot; they both involve killing things; they both have orcs; they both have a couple of the same characters; and they both have you investing skill points into skills.  But none of these have an kind of bearing on the gameplay.  

There are a lot of specific (and nuanced) things that Gothic and Gothic 2 do to create such engaging, memorable experiences.  Even if you've played them you might not readily pick up on some of these things, because they're woven into the very essence of the game.  So here are some aspects of Gothic that make the original games unique and wholesome, which Arcania failed to include or capture.

  • a fleshed-out, recognized world. A world that feels like it persists regardless of your role in it. A world that doesn't seem built solely for you to save. Every aspect of the world serves some kind of functional role with a significant connection to everything else. 
  • a sense of society with characters that actually DO things in the environment, an established lore and backstory, a sense of economy and relations between realms/factions. NPCs have different functions/roles than just "quest giver" or "merchant." 
  • non-linear exploration. You can go anywhere at any time, if you can handle it; the world is your oyster and you control what you do in it. This creates an immense feeling of freedom and control.
  • hub cities/locations that you frequently return to, giving the world a sense of permanence. You become familiar with places, and the world therefore feels lived-in. But, these hubs also change and evolve over time.
  • risk vs reward. You venture off the beaten track and find a couple of strong monsters. If you're clever enough to get past them or find a way to take them out, there's almost always a unique reward waiting. It's advantageous for you to try to tackle strong challenges early, but you can also stick to easier routes and work your way up gradually.
  • a sense of vulnerability. Stronger monsters are always on the fringe ready to send you back to town with your tail between your legs, and you can't trust many NPCs because they lie to you and stab you in the back. You have to watch out at all times and be careful of yourself and your environment.
  • a sense of progression in the game world. You start out totally weak and pathetic, doing odd jobs for everyone and killing over-sized rats and chickens, but by the end of the game you're kicking everyone's asses and taking out demons, dragons, and legions of orcs and undead. Nothing scales to your level; it's your actions that determine if you can handle the next challenge.
  • quests that require decision-making; you have to say and do the right things or else you fail the quest. Other times quests conflict or overlap and you have to pick a path.
  • quests that require player input to solve. YOU have to do the work to figure out what to do and how to do it. Characters don't blatantly tell you, and the game design doesn't blatantly lead you to it (whether via mini-map markers or level design). It takes your own ingenuity and detective skills to solve quests.
  • quests that give you a genuine reason to want to do something, rather than for the sake of completing the quest itself. Usually this is done via characterization; you become so familiar and involved with the world and the people in it that you just want to do their tasks.
  • consequences for what you do. Attack or betray someone and you lose them as a resource; fail a quest and the sequence is done for good; get beat up in a fight and lose your weapon/money; get caught stealing and you pay a fine or be an outlaw.
  • a sense of challenge. There's always a challenge out there to overcome, whether that's sneaking past an army of orcs, stealing a precious weapon from a monastery, or reaching a new tier of combat prowess to handle stronger enemies. The game frequently pits you against difficult odds and leaves you with the freedom to handle it your own way.
  • guild systems, which give you a sense of purpose and perspective in a larger story, helping you feel a part of the game world. They shape your character development uniquely and differently depending on which you choose.
  • role-playing depending on the decisions you make. If you befriend the thieve's guild then you get to play the role of a sneaky thief; join the paladins and you can be a noble hero; be a thug mercenary and look out for your own.
  • trade skills like forging, animal gutting, and alchemy, which give you a tangible, "real" source of income, and a greater attachment to the world you live in due to the simple, physical interaction with it.
  • auxiliary skills like sneaking, pickpocket, lockpicking, and acrobatics which further help shape your character as unique, and which, at times, offer different solutions to quests.
  • skill development management. You've got 10 LP, but do you spend it on STR to use a better sword, put it into weapon skills to be more efficient with your current weapon, put it into animal gutting to get more income, put in into a skill you need to complete a quest, put it into a skill that will have no immediate effect but a high pay-off later. Something that actually requires strategy, planning, and deliberation to build an effective character.
  • trainers who teach you how to do things. Not only does this require more effort by the player to seek out the appropriate trainer (which in turn makes it feel more rewarding to spend your LP), but it further helps establish a physical connection to the game world. Your character learns and develops through the game environment, as opposed to an intangible interface window that doesn't actually exist in the game world.
  • a functional connection to the environment you're in. If you want to cook food, you find a campfire/stove; if you want to forge, you have to physically bang it out at a smithy; if you want to brew potions you have to find an alchemy bench; if you want to pass the time you have to rest in a bed. These things all further help tie you to the game world to make it feel more gritty and real.
  • a combat system that balances player skill versus statistics. Some enemies just require you to be stronger to beat, no matter how good you are. But if you're skilled enough, you can still beat many stronger enemies you're not yet expected to be fighting.
  • a combat system that requires tact and strategy. You have to time your attacks in sequence otherwise your character will hesitate and leave you open to attack.  Different enemies require different strategies to fight. You can't instantly heal in battle, so you have to be proactive about not taking damage or find a way to get enough time to drink a potion. 
  • recurring characters who show up in different situations across the game, either to help you out with different tasks (literally, they follow you and fight with you) or just to be involved in the story. Which helps build an emotional attachment to characters.
  • NPCs who react to you based on your actions. You pull a weapon out in a crowded city, they pull theirs out and threaten to attack. You stand in someone's way, they ask you to move. If you've aligned yourself with a notorious or prestigious guild they acknowledge that and respond differently. You wear a certain armor/item in the wrong place and people flee or attack you. You go in their house, they threaten to call the guards. You take something from them and they catch you in the act, they attack you. 

It's these sorts of things (and I'm sure there are many more examples and specific aspects which I've overlooked just because I take them for granted in a Gothic game) that help develop the strong sense of immersion in Gothic's game world. These are the things that make Gothic feel interesting and wholesome. These are the things that make your time and experiences in Gothic feel unique. And Arcania's missing essentially all of these things, and what we have in their stead just makes Arcania feel like a generic, soulless game without the rich qualities of Gothic.
Taken for what it is, without trying to compare it to Gothic, Arcania still fails to set itself above anything more than simple mediocrity.  And that's being generous. Mostly, Arcania is competent---it gets the job done, but it does so in an almost rote and formulaic way that just won't really intrigue anyone who's already an experienced RPG gamer.  Meanwhile, other aspects are just downright bad.  The quests are entirely fetch-based and never qualified by any sort of significance; the exploration is so linear and restricted with locked gates and invisible walls that there's no real excitement to be had; the skill system is arbitrary and doesn't have any depth or complexity to it; NPCs are dull and lifeless; the combat is boring and repetitive; the story is laughably cliche; and so forth.

Arcania also evokes this weird feeling that it doesn't know what it wants to be.  Almost everything about it seems conflicted, like it's trying too hard to appeal to two ends of a very polarized spectrum.  There's a European and American color setting, as if the two regions have different preferences for the hue and saturation in their games; you can switch between "Gothic" (hardcore) and "Easy" difficulty to adjust the combat to whatever you prefer; you can toggle map markers and quest icons off, or leave them on; there are animations tethered to environmental set-pieces like alchemy benches and forges, but you can perform those actions in the middle of nowhere.  There are all of these settings that seem to exist to appeal to "casual" and "hardcore" gamers without balancing them.  Instead of delivering a good game one way or the other, Arcania delivers a sloppy, half-assed effort both ways.  
It would be one thing to overlook all of the things that set Arcania apart from the rest of the Gothic series if the rest of the game were actually good.  As it stands, however, Arcania feels like a generic, soulless, uninspired, formulaic, snooze-inducing, "by the book" piece of shovelware.  It doesn't do anything that we haven't already seen a dozen times before in other games, and it has no sense of unique charm or style to it. Perhaps Gothic fans are more likely to feel this way about it, given our history with the series, but you don't have to be a deluded fanboy to notice these kinds of flaws---you just have to have played enough games to realize how much potential it wasted. As well as how much of your time and money it wasted. 


  1. Gothic 2 was a masterpiece.

    I loved the NPC interaction and their intelligent thinking.Also how you started being nothing,from being a convict that no-one trust nor respect to a.....well, you decide that.

  2. Your bullet points are a really fine summary.