Thursday, June 18, 2009

Arcanum: A Not-So-Well-Oiled Machine

Most of the games on this list have been influential to me as a gamer because of the positive impact that they had on me. As such, many of the games I've discussed are in one way or another among my favorites of all time. There are, however, a number of games that I don't particularly revere as paragons of the medium that have had just as much of an impact upon me. Some of these, such as Knights of the Old Republic II and Xenosaga: Episode II, disappointed me on many levels for failing to live up to my expectations for the sequels of two of my favorite games. Perhaps the king of muddied expectations, however, is the freshman effort from the now defunct Troika Games: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. It's exceedingly difficult for me to stress just how much I anticipated playing this game, and ultimately how it frustrated me so badly that I did not finish it for the first time until nearly seven years after first starting it. It will suffice to say, then, that the game failed to live up to my (and many other people's) expectations for it.

It's really hard to understand just why this is the case, as the game has so many things going for it on paper. The game was the first from Troika, which was the then-new company of Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, and Jason Anderson -- the primary developers of the original Fallout, quite possibly my favorite game of all time. It promised to deliver the same style of RPG goodness as its half-brother, with in-depth classless character creation and a robust turn-based combat system. Most importantly, the game presented what I still consider one of the most creative settings ever presented: a Victorian-era fantasy world undergoing an Industrial Revolution. There were dwarves with pistols clashing with magick-wielding elves, half-orcs staging strikes to protest their subhuman factory working conditions, and railroads connecting the major cities of the world of Arcanum. It is a world of conflict: philosophically, between the utilization of physical law (technology) and the bending of it (magick); socially, between the old feudal system and the new industrial republic; and of course morally, between the forces of good and evil. In typical Fallout style, the moral conflict is quite gray; it is never explicitly clear just who exactly represents which side, a refreshing departure from the typical fantasy-based role-playing world. I couldn't wait to delve into such an interesting campaign world, as I am particularly fond of "alt-fantasy" worlds (such as the Dark Sun campaign setting).

The setting's ingenuity, however, is muddied by its in-game implementation -- a fact that completely baffles me, given the game's pedigree. I suppose that Sierra, the game's publisher, is partly to blame, as it felt (somewhat correctly) that the game as it was would not be sufficiently marketable; as such, they suggested some changes that turned out to be for the worse. The most infamous change was the rather forced inclusion of a real-time combat system along with the original turn-based one. I assume that this inclusion was made due to the popularity of the Baldur's Gate games, which implemented a "real-time with pause" combat system (which I consider to be the weakest aspect of the Infinity Engine). Regardless of the reasoning, the change was detrimental to both systems, as both are little more than a pale imitation of their counterparts in Baldur's Gate and Fallout. As a result, combat is utterly banal, and detracts from the game more so than any other single element in the game.

Of course, Troika shares the blame, as there are numerous issues with game balance and stability that are just as detrimental. Characters tend to become too powerful much too quickly, which leads to the game becoming quite uninteresting beyond finishing the main quest. Towns tend to look alike and are especially difficult to navigate due to the combination of a lack of an adequate journaling system and a very Victorian-era system of addresses. (Where is Devonshire Way again, and in what city? Good luck finding it, because the map won't tell you.) Add in a number of troublesome bugs and a pesky tendency for broken scripting in dialogues -- NPCs reminding the player of events that never happened, dialogue options that should no longer be available based on previous in-game events, and so on -- and the lack of quality control in Arcanum becomes readily apparent.

Despite its technical failings, though, Arcanum is still oddly compelling to me, due in large part to the setting and its exceptionally engaging main quest. Topics such as racism, the nature of power (and the abuse thereof), environmental awareness, and tradition versus innovation are prevalent in the main plot. Unlike in many other fantasy RPGs, they are handled in a very mature and even-handed fashion. The world of Arcanum becomes one that is exciting to explore, and each mystery -- such as where the lost elven civilization is located -- clamors to be unraveled. It is in these elements that the heritage of Fallout shines through, and they more than counterbalance the great frustrations of the game's technical elements. In fact, they make the game worth playing when it otherwise would not be.

Though my very strongly mixed feelings about Arcanum are obvious, my experience with it has been an overall positive one. I feel like I have grown as a gamer due to my experiences with this game, despite the fact that it is not even close to one of my favorite games. (Favorite settings? Sure. Favorite games? Nope.) Arcanum has helped me to tune my critical eye toward games, showing me that a little patience and care can reveal the greatness in what appears to be an altogether lackluster title. Furthermore, it is a prime example of the danger of hype -- games seldom live up to ridiculous levels of hype, be it from the media or self-induced.

Check out my MobyGames review of Arcanum here.

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