Arcatera: The Dark Brotherhood
Windows - 2000
Description of Arcatera: The Dark Brotherhood
I wanted to like Arcatera: The Dark Brotherhood. I really did - the promotional materials promised many things I would enjoy, including story-driven point and click adventuring, RPG elements to deepen the abilities and skills of your character, and diverse reactions from NPCs in a realistic world. On top of that, it is clear that Arcatera is a labor of love rather than a product decision made by the marketing department; the game world, characters, and "rules" are taken from a roleplaying system created and used by the developers from the time they were teenagers.
Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like this game, I couldn't. While it does sport atmospheric graphics, diverse character backgrounds, and a heavy emphasis on story, it is also extremely confusing to play. What atmosphere is created is marred by an imperfect English-language translation, poor combat and control system, and overall lack of clear game direction.
You Never Saw That
There are four main characters to choose from - an adventurer, a monk, a thief, and a magician. The player may opt to simply start the game with pre-generated statistics or to manually control the statistic and spell selection process. The different characters have various motivations as the story begins. The adventurer seeks to escape the lifestyle of his working-class family and to find the woman of his dreams. The thief and magician both seek to avenge the deaths of their fathers at the hands of a mysterious green skinned man and a sinister black-leather clad man, respectively. The monk has perhaps the most interesting story - he is suffering almost complete amnesia as to how he found himself on the road to Senora, with only brief flashes of a temple destroyed, time in a prison cell, and an exile by the High Priest. Regardless of your choice, your character will find themselves outside of the gates of the city of Senora and given new purpose - to uncover the truth behind many strange happenings in Senora and ultimately save the world.
Here is where the first of many problems arises: For a game whose purpose seems to be to investigate mysteries, you are given far too much information in the character introductory sequences. Do Black Lords really exist? Well, the Magician could tell you yes for certain. What about the Black Sun? Either the Adventurer or Monk could speak to the validity of this claim. Where is the fun in playing a mystery where you already know most of the answers? To add to the frustration, whatever character you choose will have an odd ignorance about the facts their backgrounds present them with, whereas if you add them to your party later they make the logical connections most easily.
Adding to all this, the game narrator comments on everything important you are told. Then, when you get enough opinions one way or the other, regardless of the quality of the opinion, the narrator treats it as a fact. For instance, I know that the Black Sun exists. My character should too, but he's busy ignoring all of his own expository information. He asks one person about the Black Sun, and the person offers in-depth information about the operations and history of the group, prompting the comment "what was just said indicates the Black Sun does exist" from the narrator. Then he talks to a handful of random people on the street who tell him it is fantasy and the narrator, after remarking on how each comment indicates it does not exist, finally concludes that the Black Sun does not exist. What??
Okay ... Now What?
Beyond the quirks in the game system where conversation is concerned, lurks the larger problems of combat, and overall game purpose. While the developers boast the merits of the non-linearity and random nature of this game, Arcatera is proof that too little structure can be a bad thing. I was unable to finish the game, because I couldn't figure out what actions I should have been taking. The game system does not prompt you to take any action; in fact, you could literally do nothing and have the game come to completion regardless. The goal, as far as I could ascertain, was to walk around and talk to people about important topics, and hope you weren't pursuing the wrong conversation path with that particular NPC. The game places a limit on the questions you may ask, so you have to select carefully as it is possible to "fail" an encounter and miss important information they may have given - or in the cases of dealing with one of the other playable characters, making it so they will not join your cause. Beyond that, I found a small handful of puzzles to solve and items to collect. But, ultimately, it would seem that the only thing to do would be to rest, thereby advancing the time in the game world, in hopes that it would cause new NPCs to appear who I could converse with. Continuing this way for days (real time) and thinking that there must be more to the game than what I had seen, I tried to obtain a walkthrough from UbiSoft, but to date, one does not exist.
In-between sleeping, solving a couple puzzles with no outcome, talking to NPCs, and listening to my characters complain about their lack of water, I found myself thrust into combat. You can either initiate the combat, or fall into it by crossing paths with hostile NPCs or saying the wrong thing. As with most action sequences in adventure games, these sequences were unimpressive. Once I finally figured out how to equip my weapons, combat became easier; but basically everybody swings at each other or casts the occasional spell until someone dies. You can pause the game to allow time for combat decisions to be made, however the interface makes it difficult to navigate all the icons and submenus to select an action for each character to take, and the game unpauses when you make a combat decision for one character. Ultimately, however, it didn't seem to make a difference, as I had just as much success with hitting attack and watching them swing as I did when I tried to plan out the combat.
The interface doesn't just obscure combat, it makes it difficult to navigate the game world and perform party maintenance as well. While it is documented well in the manual, in practice it is not entirely intuitive to use. The interface consists of pop-up windows for different actions such as arranging inventory, selecting spells, or equipping weapons. This results in so many pop-up windows, it is possible to completely obscure the game screen - something that I did frequently as I attempted to perform simple tasks such as swapping inventory between characters. Navigating the game world can also be difficult: the arrow cursor would change slightly to indicate a direction route you could take, and sometimes these hotpost locations would be so close together as to make it impossible to see you were missing a possible route.
Pretty Setting, Bad Language
Graphically speaking, Arcatera is beautiful. The backgrounds are very well done and in some ways reminded me of Blade Runner in a fantasy setting. The clouds move across the sky, torches flicker in the darkness and light streams in through dust in cellars. The characters in the game world are interestingly depicted with elaborate garb and each distinctly different from the other. In most cases shadows moved realistically with motion and time, although I came across a few that defied the laws of nature.
The few sound effects I heard were well done, however the voice acting left something to be desired. At first I thought it was just bad voice acting, but ultimately I decided that even the best voice actors would have problems with the lines. Westa is a German development company, so the game had to be translated from German into English. I know that translations can be difficult, especially when you try to translate into the fantasy game standard "Ye Olde English" mode of speaking. The result is an odd mix of Shakespearean and slang English, with characters spouting lines like "You knowest what?" and "Thou art not a loser." I thoroughly expected to hear my characters at some point to say "Quit thine bitching" as they complained to each other and was almost disappointed that they didn't.
Oh, to see a Black Sun
Despite having the potential to be a good game, Arcatera's shortfalls such as lack of game direction, poor interface design, and distracting translations ultimately ruin the game experience. The graphics are pretty, and the plot hints at many more interesting things to come, including the promise of 10 different endings. But without a clear or intuitive path through the game, playing becomes more of a chore than an enjoyable experience. It is such a shame too; it isn't every day you see a game where the developers have such an obvious personal stake in their creation.
Review By GamesDomain
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