Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review


Arcanum is a role-playing game set in a very distinct universe.  Sure, you have your usual monsters, magical items, and perilous quests, but into this mix is thrown guns, steam locomotives, and other Industrial Age technology.  The game takes place in a distinctly Victorian-like world, where 'magick', elves, and fantasy beasts are all part of daily life.  This unusual setting sprang from the minds of some of the members of the development team of the Fallout games, which had their own unique world as well.  Veterans of the Fallout games will certainly recognize some of the inspiration that those games provided for Arcanum.

Arcanum departs from traditional RPGs right off the bat in the character creation screens.  You will still need to pick a race from the usual cast of characters (elves, half-orcs, dwarves, and the like), adjust basic character statistics, and the like.  In addition to this, you'll be able to choose a background story for your character.  These not only add a little 'character' to your character, but they can also have an effect on your statistics, providing additional bonuses and penalties.  Since the game does not give you a lot of points to spend on skills and statistics, these are a good way to pick up some extra points.  There are quite a few to choose from, and are all pretty imaginative, ranging from things like sheltered child to escaped lunatic.  Some backgrounds will even affect your reputation, and how people in the game react to your character.

There are not really an defined character classes in Arcanum.  Instead you customize your character by selecting skills from four areas (combat, thieving, social, and technological), or selecting different technological or magick disciplines.  The magick disciplines affect which spells can be cast, while the different technological disciplines allow your character to create devices and gadgets by combining different items.  Once your character is set, you are given a visit to an outfitting merchant where you can purchase a few items with which to start your adventure.

Should you not want to force yourself to choose between the many options available for your character, you can use one of the pre-generated ones provide by the game.  The game even provides an auto-leveler function, so that you can have it select your character's improvements when he/she gains a level according to your selected scheme.

Once play begins, players view the world of Arcanum from an overhead, perspective.  Your character is controlled via mouse-clicks - click where you want to go and on whomever or whatever you want to attack or converse with.  Movement can also be accomplished on the game's map screen by selecting waypoints and then clicking a button to make your party follow the waypoints.  This is only marginally useful if you are in a city or some other special location, as the view switched to follow your party as they run between the waypoints.  When out in the wild, though, you watch as the party's marker moves across the map at a greatly accelerated pace.  This is a very good thing since the world of Arcanum is huge.  You could certainly try to hoof it in normal time between the various special sites, but it would  certainly take you quite a bit of time to do so.  

Although the waypoint movement method may seem a bit of overkill for getting around towns, it can be pretty handy when moving for large distances.  The mouse can only scroll so far during movement, so moving for a long distance involves scrolling the mouse as far as it will go, clicking on a spot, waiting for your party to move, scrolling as far as you can go, etc.  It would have been nice if movement could have been accomplished merely by holding the mouse button down and scrolling the mouse.  As it stands, covering a bit of a distance can sometimes feel like a chore.

When fights occur, attacking is accomplished by clicking on your intended target to initiate an attack with your character's ready weapon.  Combat can be conducted in either real-time, or in a turn-based, action point mode.  The real-time combat can be confusing, especially in areas of low light.  The animations are a bit clunky and it can be tough to click on an opponent during a melee.  The turn-based mode works better - each combatant moves in turn until all of his or her action points are used up.  It is interesting that in either mode the player will have no direct control over the NPCs in his/her party.  You can issue a few basic orders such as 'wait' or 'attack my target', but you will not be able to tell them when to use heal spells, when to swap weapons, and some of the other things you may be used to doing with your party in an RPG.