Monday, June 18, 2012

On Arcanum

So here's a blog post on what has been consuming my free time recently. And by consuming, I mean devouring without mercy or end of appetite.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is an RPG. Worse, as you can tell, it is a steampunk RPG. There was absolutely no hope that I would be able to avoid buying it when I saw it, but at the very least I hoped that I would be able to finish it quickly and move on.

As all good RPGs do, this one crushed those fragile hopes. Arcanum can be described in one word: deep. I've read epic fantasy novels with less developed frameworks for their society and backstory. It is set in a world of magic and industrial revolution, where the various races of elves, dwarves, orcs and humans all coexist and thrive. Magic in this world is anathema to technology; a magical artifact can cause havoc with even the simplest technological device, while technology can make spells fizzle and fail. You can sense the tension between those two forces everywhere in Arcanum, from the political debates to the backstory for each nation you enter, and Arcanum does a very good job of immersing you in the conflict. As for backgroun, well, the manual comes with its own treatise on how the various races of Arcanum evolved or were magically morphed, along with detailed explanations of everything else in the game. That should give you an idea on how well thought-out this world is.

The balance between those two forces has shaped not only the culture and politics of Arcanum, but effects the gameplay and plot. People will react to you differently if you are a half-elf mage, an experienced dwarf blacksmith or a gun-toting human bandit. Combined with the different backgrounds you can give your character, you can play this game in a hundred different ways and have a new experience each time. The game gives you a freedom that allows you to choose your own story and shape your experience as you play. Plus, you get to make your own Molotov cocktails, repeating rifles, and forge dwarven armor, or just blast the enemy with arcane magical force. What could go wrong with that?

The character development in this game is very well done; it doesn't seem like any particular path is inherently superior to the others. I've had fun playing any of the various roles, and half of the fun has been designing new characters and seeing how the game changes. I think the technical term for what I've got is 'alt disease', which means I still haven't finished the game yet, but I have like five different characters about a quarter of the way through the story. The funny part is that the options available and the balance of the various elements mesh a lot better than most modern games. Aside from a few issues with combat (unless you play it in the turn based mode, real-time combat gets you stomped on by monsters pretty quick.) and the annoying fact that when you die without having saved you lose everything, Arcanum is one of the funnest games I've played in a long time. In fact, playing through this one has given me some very interesting ideas for my own, paper based RPG design... but that will have to wait for another post. Mwaha.

So there you have it! I got this game over on Good Old Games, where it does not cost nearly as much as it is worth. If you are a fan of steampunk, RPGs, and extremely good videogame storytelling, give it a try! See you around.

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