"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.
If the words "Fallout" or "Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines" mean anything to you, then you owe it to yourself to play Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Developed by Troika Games (the team that made Vampire Bloodlines, and many of the key designers who worked on the original Fallout), Arcanum is a steampunk role-playing game that plays much like the best of the classic RPGs.
Set during an industrial revolution, conflict pervades a society torn between sticking with the history and traditions of magic, and embracing the new wave of "heretical" technology. You play as the lone survivor of an attack on the maiden voyage of the IFS Zephyr. Initially tasked by one of the dying passengers to return a ring to "the boy," you set out on adventure to find out why assassins pursue you and, ultimately, to save the world.
As an RPG, it's among the best ever. There are tons of different ways to customize your character, not the least of which is deciding whether to follow the path of magic or technology. One path has you casting spells of all sorts, and the other has you building equipment from blueprints and fighting with firearms. The game changes and reacts to your decisions in ways that are still unsurpassed in modern games, with a open-world to explore and fulfill quests in a non-linear order. So if you like good RPGs, then you should definitely give this one a shot.
The most unique and compelling reason to play Arcanum is for its rich atmosphere. Not a lot of video games go for steampunk, and not many of the ones that do embrace it as fully as Arcanum. Integrating traditional fantasy elements with the typical style of steampunk makes this game world fresh and original.
The conflict between the old and the new is fully realized. The world was founded on magic, and so there are those who view the industrial revolution as heresy, condemning mechanics and gunslingers. This sort of tension permeates the game world at all levels, from just hearing people talking about it in the streets, reading headlines in the newspapers, and hearing politicians trying to pass legislation one way or the other. Lots of major cities have shops dedicated to magic or technology, and they won't even let you shop there if you've aligned yourself with the opposite.
|A sample character sheet for a magic-user.|
But besides the rich setting, Arcanum has good role-playing elements that make it, quite simply, a solid RPG. Chief among its main strong qualities is the character system. You can create your own character from scratch, picking your race and starting stats, and there are lots of different ways to develop your character as you level-up.
Becoming a magician, for instance, lets you choose spells from 16 different schools of magic, each with their own trees of spells, ranging from summoning, mysticism, lightning, fire, healing, and so forth. A technology specialist has to learn how to handle things like different types of firearms, power-assisted melee weapons, special armor, bombs and so forth, usually having to acquire blueprints and build the more powerful gear yourself.
The other nice touch to Arcanum is that there are usually a variety of different ways to complete quests, tailored to different character builds and playstyles. If you need to get an item from an NPC, there's usually always an option to buy it from him, steal it from him, kill him and take it from him, or persuade him to give it to you. If you're given a quest to fix a generator, you can fix it yourself (if you have the right skills), find someone who CAN fix it (and do any number of different things to get them to), lie and say you fixed it, etc.
|And interesting bit of dialogue at the brothel.|
The map functions much like Fallout's, with a large world map that you can "fast travel" across, going from town to town or to other locations and hitting random encounters in-between. For the most part, you can go anywhere you want at any time and complete side-quests in any order, but there's a lot of interesting overlap between them. It's not uncommon to have two quests wanting something out of a certain situation, meaning that you have to pick which quest to officially complete, or find some clever scheme to satisfy both parties.
What's really nice, though, is that the world actually acknowledges your decisions. It has a karma meter that sways towards good or bad, depending on your actions and your skillsets, and some people won't join your party or even interact with you if you don't meet certain requirements. There's a fairly even trade-off between the two extremes in terms of the advantages and disadvantages. But tons of NPCs acknowledge your magic/technology alignment as well, acting respectable or disdainfully depending on that bar, and people acknowledge you for the quests you've completed in towns and such. It's a wonderful thing that psychologically rewards you for your gameplay---a thing that's often missing even in modern RPGs (I'm looking at you Bethesda).
Combat can be done turn-based (again, much like Fallout) with you using stat points to dictate how much you can move or attack in a given turn, or you make the combat real-time (sort of like Diablo) to just click attacks and fight each other simultaneously. So you can go for the more tactical option, or if you prefer faster action, you can go with real-time, which is almost more like triple time because of how fast things move around.
|The map really is quite large.|
Despite the game's strengths as an RPG, it does suffer from some rough edges. Most notable is the fact that the combat can be horribly balanced or even broken at times. I played a mage and kept struggling to kill even the most basic enemies (I was level 8 fighting one or two level 4s), getting killed often and having to avoid combat. At first I thought it was part of the challenge, with me being a weak starting player, but once I learned the "Summon Ogre" spell (an early spell in the Summoning tree) I was unstoppable. That thing just blew through enemies and I could even summon two or three at once if I wanted.
So the combat is typically either going to be exceedingly difficult, to the point where fights almost seem impossible or where you're always just barely squeezing by, or they'll be like a walk in the park without much effort. While it's fun to realize that the way you develop your character affects this (you can make a terrible build and suck at everything, or make an effective build that works well), but the polarity is often hard to predict and takes a lot of trial and error to figure out. Technology users (the path that seems most appealing, given the setting) are also in for a rough haul because blueprints and crafting materials are often too scarce, such that by the time you can craft a weapon it's too weak and obsolete to be as useful as you originally thought.
|A tech specialist using a flamethrower.|
Other than that, the biggest problem with the game is that it takes a while before the depth of the experience really starts to become apparent to you. In the very beginning it might just feel like another old school RPG (so that could be a bad thing if you don't like old RPGs), and the combat's not very great (especially at the beginning) and besides the unique premise, not a lot jumps out at you as truly noteworthy. So it takes some time before certain aspects of the dynamic gameplay and the deep role-playing elements start to shine and demonstrate what a fine game it is.
Simply put, Arcanum is a very good RPG that embodies the things RPGs are supposed to be. It's got a nice open world that offers a lot of freedom to play the way you want to, with plenty of content to experience and lots of different ways to play the game. There's a lot of replay value in this game, because you can play once as a magic-user and once as a technology-user and experience largely different games. The quests are all well-designed with different solutions and lots of different tangible outcomes. It's everything an RPG should be with a unique setting and atmosphere that make it even more memorable.