Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is another cult classic RPG. From time to time my music collection will shuffle to a song from this gem of a game and bring me back to a world where machinery and mysticism sway in a pendulum of uncertain governance. To define Arcanum one merely need search the meaning of struggle in any lexicon. All across the world of Arcanum countless forces are clashing in sweet anguish as the inhabitants, the gods and the forces of the natural and the supernatural grapple for control or survival.
Steampunk – Those who are huge fans of Steampunk will thoroughly enjoy the themes in this game. For those of you who don’t know what Steampunk is, it can be described at its simplest form as Victorian era England with advanced technology powered entirely by steam. In Arcanum technology users may craft bullet reflecting magnetic top hats in addition to steam powered mechanized arachnids, a fat bill of firearms and of course all sorts of folky herbal remedies and shady ogre-servant tested pharmaceuticals. Character garments range anywhere from street rags to extravagant smoking jackets and barbarian leather to plated armor. If you fancy yourself a suave gentleman or a naked raving lunatic the game will allow you to dress for just such occasions.
Music – Arcanum is illustrated in part by the beautiful music composed by Ben Houge. Ben Houge captures every aspect of the game with its own unique piece. From dwarven mines to elven canopy villages, despairing kingdom suffer for adhering to the old ways and shunning technology to an industrialized aristocratic city burgeoning with steam and machine each location you visit has its own unique and memorable track that inspire feelings and sympathy for the world of Arcanum and its inhabitants.
Story – The story of this game is very philosophical and guides you through all the different factions and their beliefs. What I find most wonderful about the story is that information isn’t crammed down your throat; you actually have to work an NPC to get them to tell you information which makes the acquisition feel more like you are involved in the outcome of dialog. You don’t have to worry about an NPC appearing arbitrarily out of nowhere to explain something to you without provocation just to further a convoluted plot that lacks the capacity to drive itself.
Diplomacy – Because the game puts antiquated magic in conflict with a burgeoning industrial revolution there is great opportunity for characters to engage in a delicate balance between the two worlds, or tip the scales. Being a technology loathing hedge wizard or an industrial tycoon hell bent on stomping out magical tradition are all within the realm of possibility. You may also choose to walk the line between factions as a potato farmer allergic to magic and unqualified to use a potato gun.
In addition to magic and technology there is also racial conflicts where ogres and orcs are subjugated or outcast from society, dwarves and elves battle in ideology, nations’ battle over industrialization and preserving ancient rites. Even the poor struggle against the might of the oppressing aristocracy. If you are an individual who enjoys exploring inexhaustible conflicts and philosophies then this game should appeal to your multifarious nature.
Race Matters – As I have mentioned before there is a great deal of conflict in this game, one of the great gears of this game is that you can explore every inch of that conflict. In many games your starting race merely matters only to the racial attributes you will receive to your stats and abilities. However, in Arcanum your race also has the impact of changing the way you are able to complete this game. As an ogre you will be treated as an inferior inept brute only good for labor by the inhabitants of Arcanum. As an orc you will be shunned from society and often invoke fear and hostility in NPC who have the misfortune of making your acquaintance. Because NPC will react to you differently depending on your race you are forced to conform to your role in society and play out the game within your racial limitations and advantages which makes for many exceptionally entertaining experiences.
Followers – It is always important in the gaming industry to design a game that never leaves a user confused and frustrated. If you don’t know what you are doing and/or are lost then the programmers have failed in their job to build a cohesive story for you to follow. Arcanum is vast and the possibilities are so great that you may be concerned that you will lose the big picture. The developers thought about this and designed a unique and interesting way to help you in those moments when you aren’t quite sure what activities you should participate in. When in doubt you merely need consult the members in your party on what they wish to do. This simple organic method of acquiring plot advice is wonderful in that it is there when you need it and gone when you don’t want to be interrupted.
Replayability – I often remark on the replayability of a game and for good reason. Replayability makes a game valuable because it can turn a game you would enjoy for two hours into a game that you could enjoy for years or more. Arcanum has replayability. The game has so much to offer in so many different combinations that you will never run out of possibilities. You could start a new character every day for a year and find that your creativity will be your only limit. I have been playing this game on and off for over a decade and it took me two years to finish the game because I had the strong desire to recreate my character to experience a new dimension of the game. This infinite replayability is for me the hallmark of a remarkable game.
Combat – One of the most prevalent disappointments this game has to offer is the combat system. The game allows you to experience real time combat as well as turn based combat. Sadly both of these fall short of a fully polished game. Real time is often too quick for you to react to events and turn based often feels sluggish and sloppy as a whole turn can be wasted with a misclick that sends you running into a mob of zombies gleefully thrashing their eager victim.
Technology – While technology and the ability to craft innumerable items is a marvelous attribute of this game it fails in comparison to the sheer power of magic. Arguably it is best not to start the game with a tech character as you will quickly come to discover that they require more skill to navigate obstacles than a mage. You can certainly complete the game as a techie but I would suggest because of its inferiority to magic that you design a tech character only when you desire to increase the difficulty of the subsequent play through.
Magic – Magic in this game leave something to be desired. There are huge varieties of magical colleges and within each college unique and interesting spells. However, any magic user will find that most colleges of magic are entirely useless and that others absolutely break the game and make any combat as easy as a click (or a few furious clicks). With sufficient magical aptitude and the first rank in necromancy every obstacle in the game can be tackled with ease. With that said, the loyal Arcanum community who lingers even today, over a decade after the games release, has made unofficial patches that address errors and imbalances in the game to resolve such great disparities.
The mortar that really cements this game as an absolute RPG classic is the in depth and thought provoking philosophical nature of the antagonist. It has never occurred before or since that I have come to the end of a game with a crisis in which ideologically I find myself inclined to side with the philosophy of those responsible for my endured suffering. If you enjoy a psychologically testing conclusion you will absolutely adore the different variations to how this game can end.
There is also a strong community that follows this classic jewel and you should certainly make use of the resources and information they have compiled over the years. This includes unofficial patches, hacks and other tweaks that will considerably improve your experiences in Arcanum.