Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura
Windows - 2001
Description of Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura
A Trainload of Orcs
It's a typical scene from a typical swords and sorcery story: a bold party of adventurers is checking their gear before heading out for days of derring-do in strange lands. A cowled wizard pores over his spell book as a lithe elf tightens her bowstring. Nearby, a mysterious man dressed in black stands among the shadows while a squat, surly dwarf scans the horizon. It all looks like standard fantasy fare, until you notice the dwarf has a pistol tucked in his belt and the man in black has a shiny cane and a top hat.
Welcome to the strange world of Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, the brainchild of Troika Games, made up of many of the designers who worked on the acclaimed Fallout RPG series. It's a quasi-Victorian world where magic (or "magick," as the game dubs it) and technology coexist, but only by keeping each other warily at arm's length. For ages, the ways of magic have helped define civilization, but in recent years, technology has burst onto the scene, creating both amazing feats and social tension. It's a world where you're as likely to come across a battleaxe as a stun grenade. It's also an entertaining world that maintains your interest and lets you largely overlook a number of design weaknesses.
A Game with Character
Despite the many unusual ingredients in Arcanum's role-playing recipe, much of the game will seem immediately familiar to RPG veterans. Take character creation. If you don't like the default characters, you create your own, choosing name, sex, background, and other basic attributes. Available races include fantasy standbys like human, elf, half-elf, gnome, and dwarf, among others. Your character is then defined in more detail by eight basic statistics, like strength and perception. Strength, for instance, directly affects how much damage your character can deliver with a punch. These eight stats also help define secondary, derived attributes, like hit points and poison recovery rate.
Despite all these standard RPG concepts, you'll quickly notice that you don't get to select an alignment. It starts as neutral and is realistically defined by your character's actions. More importantly, you don't get to choose a character class. Rather than being a limitation, this unusual feature opens a world of possibilities. As you make your way through the game, you'll gain experience levels, which grant character points. These offer enormous flexibility and replayability, letting you boost stats, acquire spells, and improve skills as you see fit. Instead of being bound to rigid class restrictions, you can create your own character types on the fly, according to your interests, playing style, and adventures.
Part of what makes character creation and progression so open-ended is Arcanum's large skill set. A wide variety of abilities, like prowling, haggling, healing, and firearms usage let you approach the game in different ways. Want to improve your skills? Character points only go so far since real progress requires real study too. You'll need to head off in search of proper training to progress from untrained up to "master." Top teachers won't necessarily be easy to find, nor will their services come cheaply. Despite its strengths, the skill system is at times hurt by its literalness: if you haven't boosted your throwing skill, for example, you'll be lucky to perform even the simple task of throwing a grenade at a target ten feet away. Half the time, you'll drop the object behind you, which is just silly.
Outside of skills, your character will be defined on a more fundamental level by his or her magical/technological aptitude. If you spend your time boosting your knowledge of electrical devices and gunsmithing, don't expect to pick up a magic item and have it work like a charm, no pun intended. Conversely, time spent mastering the sixteen colleges (divisions) of magic, each with its five spells, will mean less aptitude for gunslinging or contraption building.
Dropping Like a Led Zeppelin
The story begins on a Jules Verne-style airship, the Zephyr, as it soars high above the Stonewall Mountains. Without warning, two primitive airplanes dive from the clouds with guns blazing, sending the Zephyr plummeting to the earth, licked by tongues of fire and trailing black smoke. Among the wreckage, an aged, dying gnome warns you of an unspeakable evil coming to destroy the world, and he gives you a ring to take to a boy, a boy who might help save your world.
From there, you'll immediately begin to feel Arcanum's depth when you meet your first in-game NPC, Virgil. He's a befuddled recent convert to a religion he barely understands. His dialogue is sharp, interesting, and delivered with a quality voiceover. That's indicative of the game's characters in general, though relatively few get voiceovers, sadly. Virgil's dialogue is also funny, as he repeatedly forgets the names of holy figures and sacred texts when his convert's zeal gets the best of him. Like a number of NPC's, Virgil might join you on your adventures, depending on your reputation and motives. While you can gain a number of such followers and give them very simple orders, you still only truly control your one main character.
You'll quickly learn that Arcanum is wonderfully open-ended. You can easily find more than enough quests to keep you busy, and you don't often feel that you're being led around by the nose. Like most computer RPGs, you'll encounter a number of "FedEx" find-and-return-the-object quests, though. Either way, you get a real sense of freedom and adventure as you explore the massive game world: Troika estimates it would take 48 hours just to walk the length of the game's chief continent, let alone explore, fight villains, and talk with hundreds of NPC's. You'll certainly want to indulge in all of those activities, since the game world and NPC's tend to be quite interesting, and there are nearly 300 different monster types. Multiplayer modes let you explore separate, smaller areas too. You'll need to be patient either way, though, since you'll be fighting the awkward interface almost as often as the monsters. Finding your way around towns can be a chore too because of the weak map feature.
During your adventures, you'll come across numerous items that you can pick up or pilfer. Where a magic specialist will be happy to find an enchanted scroll, technologists will be gathering raw materials like ore, roots, electrical coils, or acid to create new items according to schematics, the mechanical equivalent of learning spells. You'll be able to make clockwork spiders, energy-discharging Tesla Rods, and elixirs of physical prowess (Gnome Viagra?).
The Return of Monty Haul
To date, most single-player computer RPGs haven't featured much in the way of actual role-playing. With a tabletop RPG and its human game master, you can truly assume and create a unique role, and gameplay becomes a form of improvisational acting and mutual storytelling. Computer RPG's don't really allow that. After all, how can you fully shape and embody a character when you can't even really decide what you want to say, thanks to dialogue trees? These games, no matter how sophisticated, haven't been able to react to your actions with the fluidity and imagination of a human game master. That all may change when Bioware releases its innovative Neverwinter Nights, but for now computer RPG's have focused more on the "monty haul" aspects of the RPG experience. Killing monsters, collecting loot, tinkering with stats, and leveling up usually overshadow deep role-playing. That largely holds true of Arcanum, though those aspects are entertaining enough, and they don't come at the expense of an interesting game world.
To make up for these sorts of limitations, the best computer RPGs have offered you something you don't tend to get in tabletop RPG's: a fairly deep tactical simulation. The Baldur's Gate games, for instance, let you graphically control a whole party in depth. Combat with six or so diverse characters, whose every action you command, can be sophisticated and rewarding. That's unfortunately not true of Arcanum since you only directly control one character.
Combat in general is one of Arcanum's weak links. If the idea of half-ogres wielding flintlocks sounds cool on paper, it's pretty lame in practice. Guns are simplistically modeled and look and sound surprisingly dull. The basic combat system itself could use work. Arcanum lets you fight in either real time or by turns. The former, even with hotkeys, is way too hectic for an RPG, where you need to switch weapons, select spells, and think instead of twitch. The latter is just plain awkward and boring: the number of actions you get per turn is based on your character's speed, but it often feels like you just end up clicking on a monster repeatedly to kill it. In fact, Arcanum begins to feel a bit like a Diablo-esque RPG Lite where combat is concerned. Spotty AI also hurts the game. You can throw a Molotov cocktail right near some enemies who are currently looking the other way, and if it explodes nearby without injuring them, they won't even blink.
The Sights and Sounds of Arcanum
Arcanum just screams for close-up, really detailed visuals to bring the wild setting to vivid life. Instead, you get outdated 2D graphics with jerky animations. While the splash screens and intro movie are immediately eye catching with their mix of fantasy and Victorian steam-and-iron technology, the main game screens aren't as engaging. In fact, the characters and game world, viewed from an isometric perspective, tend to look pretty bland. The art shows some real visual flair at times, but the graphics engine just doesn't do it full justice.
The game's sound effects aren't particularly strong, either, but Ben Houge's musical score strikes you immediately. The melancholy, soulful adagio for string quartet that accompanies the intro movie sets an unusually introspective, romantic mood for a game. While there are some ambient tracks, most of the game's music is in fact scored for string quartet, and to great effect: the few instruments allow for music that's intimate yet diverse and usually emotionally effective. The unusual scoring suits the game's unusual setting.
Arcanum doesn't do anything dramatically original, and parts of it could certainly use more work. Still, what it lacks in polish, it makes up for with that elusive "fun factor" that you can feel even when you can't always pin it down. Despite some real weaknesses, Arcanum is definitely greater than the sum of its parts and immerses you in an intriguing world alive with the sense of adventure.
Review By GamesDomain
Captures and Snapshots
Comments and reviews
inteltium 2022-11-25 0 point
Some more useful links for this game:
Play a half-ogre with high strength and dexterity if you want an much easier time killing enemies.
SOME MANDALORE GAMING SIMPER 2022-10-20 0 point
Is great that Mandy reviewed Arcanum and raised some awareness over the only CRPG that ties in greatness with Torment Planescape (What do you mean Mandy covered Arcanum already? Who is this Sseth?). Then again I feel this one was is wea... "Lesser funny" one (Duskers was short, but dude, shotgun roomba). Probably because is kind of hard to talk about Arcanum minimizing spoilers, "That sidequest" and dealing with the buggy nature of the original and patched game. He sounded damn tired (Then again, becoming one with Mjolnir 54 sounds taxing at an existential level).
Yet I confess is one of my many pending games. Is the GOG version (Steam for old games most of the times is a No-no) mostly the original games without the Drog Patch? For what I know that patch is a must if you want to have actual fun with the game (Or even to be able to play it), but I like to do a first run for this kind of buggy and content cutted games for historical curiosity.
Also, doing what most comments do and SHOULD BE DONE:
Felipe 2021-09-22 1 point
A link to the unofficial bugfixes/restoration of cut content/improvements patch is missing.
Der_Dude_ 2020-01-02 3 points
This Game is THE GAME to play, if you want to play an RPG. I was palying this Game since 2001 from time to time and there are still combinations i have not tryed. And i always read, that there should be so many bugs in this Game, its really not that worse from my experince, at least not for the german version i have played, I have found one Bug in this game,but could still play along with it, so I think the amount of bugs is normal, and there are many patches to fix them. The Map is nearly free explorable and there are some community Maps for a little extra hours of Fun. And the story is well telled and intresting. The Wolrd of Arcanum is full of little interesting riddels, Jokes, Things to Explore and options to choose from. sometimes I speend a day in the Game and did not play the Main Story, but wander arround and do some of the not-main Quests, and now, 19 Years after its releas its still not boring. I get this up and running on Windows 10, but it is a bit of work with the original CD. GOG, the Community and some patches help and the DDraw-fix.. I will put a link here if someone want to get the patches or Community Maps.
Oh and there is another cool thing about this Game, it has a Multiplayer. The multiplayer has an own Map with a much shorter story than the huge singleplayer story, but still a quite long and interesting story. And it is made possible by the community to play the massive single player world in multiplayer, the only problem with this map is fast travel is not working, so community patched in some talkable stones to do fast travel. You can get this Map here :
I hope you enjoy this game, its worth spending the money.
ragbasti 2019-05-26 2 points
My go-to RPG for whenever I want to go back to one of my older titles. This game is too good to pass up on.
There is a community Patch available that fixes many issues and even in 2019 the modding community for the game is still small but going.
krashd 2019-02-16 4 points
The best RPG I ever played, I love it to this day. The magic of three - Troika was set up by the three geniuses behind the first two Fallout games, Tim Kain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason D. Anderson. The tragedy of three - They only released three games, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and this fantastic RPG.
The other downside is that the three games were as buggy as they were brilliant. The community fixed that though, as they always do. I would pay full price for this game any day of the week.
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Buy Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura
Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura is available for a small price on the following websites, and is no longer abandonware. GOG.com provides the best release and does not include DRM, please buy from them! You can read our online store guide .