(Reviewer's Note: This game is currently not yet out in the UK, for reasons unknown to this reporter. According to the last press information I have been able to glean, there is not a set release date as of yet. This is also why I have set the price at TBA for the nonce. This review, though perhaps dated for our USA readers, is being written to help enlighten those who have yet to hear about this deeply involving RPG. --Valenth)
Two knights square off over a smouldering battlefield, the residue of magic and blackpowder heavy in the air. Armor shimmering bronze and magickal blade glinting blue, the Red Knight advances on her foe, a combatant girded in shining steel plate. As the Red Knight advances, the unmoved opponent reaches for his belt, pulling out a large-caliber revolver. The trigger is squeezed...
This is the scene from the opening cinematic from Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, the most recent CRPG brainchild of the team that brought us Fallout and its sequel, Fallout 2, having long since departed the auspices of Interplay to form their own group, Troika Games.
At first glance, Arcanum's interface may seem a bit daunting, even to seasoned Fallout veterans, however reading the rather nicely written manual included with the game will resolve most of the questions of character generation and operation of the game. Rather than taking the time-tested approach of character classes, Arcanum follows Fallout's footsteps in using a classless, point-based method of assigning initial stats, purchasing spells or skills, and so forth. When I set out to create my first character, I was also greatly amused by some of the 'background packages' one can have for their avatar, some of which are greatly amusing, and nearly all of which convey some advantage, coupled with a balancing disadvantage. The "Sold Your Soul" package for example gives a 20% bonus to magickal aptitude, thus increasing the power of spells early on in the game, where that little extra bit of damage can make a real difference. The downside: You suffer a massive penalty to reactions on the part of NPCs, and you are permanently aligned with Evil. Skills are ranked in five levels, covering the usual gamut of choices found in most RPGs, however there is a twist: You can receive training from NPCs in-game, usually at the cost of some gold or a completed quest, which will confer a secondary level of expertise in that skill. An Apprentice Marksman for example may have trouble hitting the broad side of the Great Wall of China, but a Master can nail his target between the eyes, blindfolded, one-handed, while chained to a tree across county lines.
Spells are also purchased by character points, with minimum requirements going up the further you advance in any one of over fifteen schools of magic. The more your aptitude leans toward the magickal, the greater effect these spells will have, and the less chance you run of having a spell fizzle, and the less likely it is that the target will be able to save against it. On the flipside of the coin, characters who decide to align themselves with the forces of Technology can purchase or otherwise acquire in-game various diplomas, allowing them to do everything from making first aid kits and bullets to building mehanized arachnid bodyguard-bots that fold down into a handy suitcase for easy carrying. In fact, your Magickal or Technical Aptitude affects many aspects of the game... spells will not be quite as effective on someone whose Aptitude is pegged all the way on the Technological side, and someone who is of a severe Magickal bent will find it difficult at best to manipulate objects that rely on Technological principles. All of this allows for very flexible characters, which grow at your whim and need through the game, not limiting you to any particular class. It also makes for a high level of replayability, as there are many solutions to the challenges in the game, and just as many ways to approach it from a character development standpoint.
The gameplay rather closely follows the standard formula: There's a problem, and you're the poor soul who gets to fix it. You can go more or less anywhere at whim, though some points require you to accomplish certain tasks before you can proced beyond them. You can choose to abandon the main storyline for awhile and follow one of the numerous side quests at any time, usually winding up with some nifty widget or at the very least another character level or two. The storyline itself is delightfully deep, with quests, subquests, and factions coming into play at one time or another. Once I really got into it, I played it for practically three days straight, and still did not even get halfway through the entire game... and I'm certain I missed a few subquests somewhere. Combat can be done either in real-time or turn-based... and to be honest, I favor the latter. The few times I have gone into battle in real-time mode, I've died before I even managed to get more than one spell off, which takes the fun factor down, quickly. Fortunately, turn-based is there, incidentally adding a bit of a tactical element as well.
In terms of setting atmosphere, the game does a wonderful job, especially with the use of sound. From the main menu, you are treated to a wonderfully rendered musical score in the Victorian style, with soft violins and other strings adding the right mood for most situations when coupled with the background noises for some areas. Combine these with the nicely detailed background graphics for cities, towns, and wilderness, and the game seems to draw you in (see above comment about three days straight. That's with no more than five hours sleep, folks. My wife still hasn't quite forgiven me.) and hold you. NPCs will react to you in a fashion according to your character's alignment, Magick/Technical Aptitude, and even your state of (un)dress or race. Of course, if a conversation isn't going your way, there's always the Persuade skill, but beware... it may backfire.
Spell effects are very nicely rendered for a 2-D engine of an age comparable to the Fallout 2 engine, however, the graphics do seem a bit dated in comparison to more recent offerings, including Baldur's Gate 2... but for those of us who are not so fortunate as to have monster-grade computers, this actually turns out to be an advantage. If Arcanum has any other failings, they lie in the game's complexity. Sometimes, there is just too much information to keep track of, although to be fair the in-game journal, map, and other tools help keep most of this data straight. Character advancement can be a bit befuddling until you've gotten the hang of it (or read the manual), which could frustrate the casual RPG gamer. Still, once you get past the learning curve, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had.
I've been waiting for a decent RPG fix to come along that doesn't follow the traditional D&D standard that so many adhere to in more recent releases, and I have found the fix in Arcanum. If this game is available in your area, and you've a craving for some old-fashioned CRPG goodness, pick it up.