Saturday, November 26, 2011

Steam Monk: An Arcanum Retrospective

I look glumly at the distance between the two locations. The game features an expansive world, but what that translates into is a long slog between locations. Sure enough, no sooner do I set off to my next than I'm attacked by a series of bandits, assassins, and local wildlife, each one determined to make me part with my money, my life, or both. My companion is of little help; my control over him can be charitably described as limited, and during a battle, he's just as likely to run away than to come to my aid. Finally, as I narrowly finish off my first my last opponent, a telltate chime sounds. A faint smile shows through my weariness. Finally, a level up. I open up my character screen, and bite my lip. So many skills, so few points to spend...

For the first major (excluding Fate of the World, which was a less thorough play for me) gameplay on my new laptop, I thought long and hard about what game would get the honor. From the above description, you can tell that I went with a game that will clearly stand the test of time, something that could really put an Alienware game rig through its paces. I wanted a game that would be rather long, and involved. It didn't matter so much if it was weak on characterization, as long as the world was richly portrayed, and the character management was nice and robust. So, clearly, I had no choice but to play--what? Skyrim? That flavor of the week? No, I decided that the best choice for me was the 2011 Troika game "Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magik Obscura."

You'll have to pardon an old blogger his little jokes. Of course, Skyrim is the one destined to be championed for years, at this point, whereas the the ten year old Arcanum has sadly been delegated to the dustbin of videogame history. But the similarities between the games struck me as worth noticing--Arcanum, directly or indirectly, is part of the history that leads to Skyrim, a legacy of excruciatingly detailed gameworlds, complex player character design, and emergent, sandbox-style quest play. So let's talk about that for a while, shall we?

The preliminaries, then. As mentioned, Arcanum was developed and released in 2001 by Troika Games, a short-lived game company that operated from 1998 to 2004, formed mainly by former Interplay employees. it was so short-lived, in fact, that it released only three games: Arcanum, the critically acclaimed Vampire: The Masquerade--Bloodlines (because nothing helps sell a game than two subtitles), and the lesser-known Temple of Elemental Evil. Troika games have a history of being very intricate, yet simultaneously very buggy. That's one of the benefits of coming to a franchise such as this a decade late to the party--fan patches have rounded off a lot of the rough edges. (And there were a LOT of rough edges--see a partial list of one of the patches' changes here, on Muro's post.) That isn't to say my play was bug-free, by any means; I was beset by game freezes, numerous exploits (although that's more of me beseting on the game than the other way around), and broken quests. But it was at least playable.

Interplay was the company that produced the original two Fallout games, which means that Troika employees originally cut their designer teeth on that post-apocalyptic series. (It also means that there's a more direct connection between Arcanum and Skyrim; the former is by people who created the first two Fallout games, and the latter is by people who created the third.) And Fallout's influence on Arcanum is pretty clear. The graphic engine, for example, is clearly very similar. Compare these screenshots:

Without the telltale signs of the HUD, there's very little reason to identify the top screen as Arcanum and the bottom as Fallout 2, a game that predates it by three years.
Similarly, the world map, inventory menus, and combat (isometric, turn based, with what you can do limited by the number of action points you have) are all very familiar. Worse, the game has somewhat less personality than its older brother; whereas Fallout 2 is famous (or infamous) for its humor and pop culture, Arcanum, while not totally without charm, is playing things much more straight-faced. No "What is your favorite color?" here, I'm afraid.

So what does Arcanum have going for it that's uniquely its own? In short, plot, character system, and the connection between the two. The idea behind Arcanum is that the game world is a place of magic, but magic that is now being rapidly occluded by technology. It is, in other words, a steampunk universe. The aesthetics of steampunk are reasonably common in videogames and even RPG series; the Final Fantasy games have dipped their toes in it frequently, and I think the latest Fable game dabbles in the area too. The difference between these games and Arcanum is that Arcanum makes the conflict between magic and technology the crux of the story. The game starts when the zeppelin the player is riding on is brought down by mysterious means, and you are soon embroidered in a long-term quest to find out what happened to a group of dwarves banished for (it appears) allowing a human to have access to steam technology.

That brings me to the level up system. It's the basic fallout model, which in turn was cribbed, I think, from the traditional D&D form: you get experience, you go up a level, you get points to spend on abilities. Where Arcanum starts to go off the beaten track is the sheer number of options to spend points on. First, you can raise your basic stats--the usual array of Charisma, Intelligence, Strength and so forth. Or, you can raise skills. And that's where things get interesting. Your character has an aptitude level for magic and technology. It starts somewhere around zero, between the two (or a little higher or lower, depending on how you dish out your character initially). You learn a spell, then the gauge moves up the magic side. You learn a technology skill, such as mechanical crafting or gun use, it moves down the mechanical side. Some skills, such as melee and dodge, are neutral, but most are geared to one or the other. And the effects are accumulative; the higher the gauge is on the magic side, the better your spells and magic items work, and the same for mechanical.

The catch is, then, that you have to choose. The game caps leveling at 50, and that gives you less than 100 points in total to fool around with (again, not counting initial character creation). When you factor in the fact that you need a certain level of basic stats to raise certain skills (a charisma of 18, for example, to raise the skill Persuade to its full value), then your choice becomes further limited. It's not just that you need to choose mechanical or magic, you need to choose what kind of technician or mage you want to be. Do you want to deal in healing magic or ice magic? There's 16 different branches, and 5 spells for each, so you'll have to choose. Similarly, do you want to be able to construct firearms or build mechano-spiders? (Okay, stupid question; spider-bot, I choose you!)
(Look at that. Eight legs of mechanical mayhem.) On the negative side, I was extremely paranoid that I'd construct a character that was totally useless, especially in an early part of the game I'll get to later. But on the positive, it really makes it feel like the character is your own, and really adds to the game's replay value, which is a real consideration when it comes to RPGs.
Here's a screenshot of the skill screen:
Starting from the top left, we see the menu trigger buttons: quest, world map, items, etc. Then there's the fate points, which are worth explaining: if you finish a notable quest in an exemplary manner, then you get a fate point, which can be used to guarantee some action--100% success rating for a lockpick, or a critical hit for example. It's a nice way of rewarding the player, by allowing them control over the stat-based system. Then there's the middle bit, with three spaces. I never did figure out what that's for. That's followed by the "wait" button, determining how long you wait, and an iconic representation of the time of day. That brings us to the next row: first we have the character window, which is what's currently going on in the main screen. Then there's the character portrait, with level (clearly a mod, since level is above 50), name, race, and so forth. To the right of that is three buttons that control the submenu below them: skills, mechanical skills, and magic, respectively; currently, it's the magic submenu that's open. And the lightning bolt icon to the right of that allows you to set auto-leveling schemes, where the computer decides for you where the character's skill points will be allocated (it also doesn't tell yo that it's controlling this already, by default). Moving down another level, we have the gauge that measures alignment in terms of good or evil, and to the right of that is the main stat list; below this list is the stats that are based on these main stats (and equipped items) and the player's various resistances. To the right again we have the list of spells, currently in the lightning subclass. And to the right of that is the magic/mechanics gauge. Finally, we can start on the bottom row. We have first the red gauge, health. Then there's the shield button, which triggers combat mode. Under that is a number I never figured out. Below that are two quick cast/use icons depicting the last two items/spells/skills used. And to the right is the entire quick cast/skill/use bar, with the description text box underneath. To its right is the quick buttons for the spells, skills, and crafting submenus. And finally, on the bottom right, we have the blue gauge for fatigue/magic power. If it goes to zero, your player collapses, which is usually sure death in a combat scenario. My point here is, there's a lot of stuff going on.

Moving finally back to the magic/mechanical divide, it's equally important, the alignment choice has an effect on the story. Certain characters will treat you differently or even hostilely if you're overly aligned on one side or the other. Not only does aligning your character with magic make magic more effective, it also make mechanical technology much less effective for you. So if you're building an uber-mage, those working at the train station are rather reluctant to allow you to ride their rails. And if your mechanically inclined gnome inventor is in need of healing, you'd better not expect your team's healing mage to get the job done. It's an excellent integration of story and game mechanics, and other designers (I'm looking at you, Bioware) could do well to take notes here.

And that brings us to my playthrough. It being my first time, I took the vanilla approach. Neutral affinity, neither fish nor fowl, neither mechanical nor magic. The result was that I never got the uber level skills with either side--no giant elementals or robo-spiders for me. Instead, I focused on the combat skills, particularly the dexterity related ones. Being able to attack 8 times a round compared to my enemy's three is a good thing. What I'll remember most about the game, I'm surprised to say, isn't the story, or the level system, or the exploit I found where you can sell items to merchants, sneak into their houses at night, steal them back, and sell them again (although I did find it funny that I could do that and not have it even slightly affect my "good" standing). No, what I remember most is my first golem.

Ugh, golems. Baldur's Gate 2 had impossibly hard golems too, so maybe it's a D&D thing. But in this game, somewhere in the first third or so, you're sent into an abandoned dwarf mine, and meet your first golem. If your character was anything like mine, it's a moment of extreme punishment. It brutally decimated my character in three turns flat. To add insult to injury, my own blows were not only extremely ineffectual, but because of the golem's hard exterior, I was damaging my own weapon in hitting it. And with a typical dungeon comportment of at least six or so, after a few, you're fighting them barefisted. And you don't want to do that: If I unequip the weapon and hit it barefist, then I take damage, hasting my own demise. I went online, and looked for others' strategies. Use magic. Nope, didn't invest any points in attack magic. Shoot it with a firearm. Again, no firearm points had I. Shoot it with arrows. Same problem. This was the point I mentioned earlier. Would I have to start over? Would I need to replay hours of the game, just to get back to this point with a few more levels of magick to my name? Finally, I hit upon a running strategy--I noticed that if I kept just the right distance between me and the golem, it would target me exclusively and by running back and forth, I could keep it distracted while my teammates battered their weapons into nothingness inflicting small amounts of damage on its damnably impenetrable hide.
Damn your impenetrable hide!

So yes: even though it's the sort of thing that leads players in great droves to exclaim that a game is "unbalanced" or even "broken," I'll remember that golem. Not fondly, but I'll certainly remember it.

In the end, the whole thing wore a little thin for me. Once I reached the level cap, there wasn't a lot of inertia left to make me want to finish the game. Once they're on your team, most of your characters show remarkably little personality, rarely making any comment or contribution beyond the odd battle compliment. (With the exception of Virgil, who has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the blandest characters in games that I can think of. Affectionately bland, but bland. Though trivia fans should take note that he's voiced by Rino Romano, the man who voiced both Batman from "The Batman" and Spider-Man from that ill-fated series where he goes the animal-man planet.) And the plot itself isn't really interactive enough to keep me fully engaged--the sidequests become somewhat dull when you take out the experience incentive, and the main story is rather linear. Granted, it has a nice twist at the end, one which is even slightly choreographed, but the themes it pursues in said twist is rather contrary to the thematic thrust of the game up to that point.

So: It's no Fallout, it's no Planescape, it's no Baldur's Gate. But its storyworld and character design make it worth remembering. And its golems make it worth cursing. Seriously.

Later Days.

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