Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review

The title’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Let’s just call it Arcanum from now on. This is an old game for sure. So old, in fact, that on a modern setup, it won’t work straight out of the box. Be sure to install this patch to ensure your game doesn’t crash and burn on launch. Yet the fact that people even bother to go through such hoops to run this game is an indication of how good this game is. Indeed, Troika Games may be defunct now, but there is but one game the studio will forever be known for: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

Not your typical fantasy world

The setting that the game takes place in is unique not because of the overall worldbuilding but because of the industrial revolution the land of Arcanum is experiencing. Magick has always been the predominant force in the land’s history, the elves being the most magically-attuned race, churning out generations of the greatest mages. Technology has also existed in some form or another, with the dwarves being expert technologists, but has never been as powerful or as venerated as magick.

In comes a man called Gilbert Bates (a completely fictional character, I assure you), who kicks off the industrial age with the introduction of the steam engine to the human world. Unfortunately, magick and technology are not compatible with each other, as technology follows the rules of natural law while magick is a supernatural force with no constraints from the natural order. When the two forces meet, instability results.

Manual excerpt
An excerpt from the manual. You did read it, right?

This brings us to the issue of coexistence between magicians and technologists. Since the invention of the steam engine, many cities in the kingdoms around Arcanum have become industrialized and thus utilize technology to its fullest extent. Spellcasters will find themselves unable to make use of their repertoire while within the cities (lore-wise, at least). In fact, should they get too close to a piece of machinery, they risk causing it to malfunction due to the abnormal nature of magick. It is less of an issue with weak magicians, but nevertheless, they must choose to either segregate themselves within the cities (e.g. ride the back of the train, avoiding the engine room) or distance themselves from cities altogether. Such is the course the elven races chose for themselves, living in their forested communities away from humanity.

Flintlocks and fireballs

Translated into game mechanics, the antagonistic duality of magick and technology is clear. Your affinity toward either magick or technology depends on your aptitude, a score based on how many points you put either to magical spells or technological disciplines. If your technical aptitude is high, you gain bonuses toward using technology but will find the use of magic to be less potent or even nullified. Similar effects occur the other way around, with extremely high aptitudes having effects on the game world itself (you simply cannot ride a train if your magical aptitude is too high). This means you have to choose between one or the other. No gunslinging wizards.

Should you choose technology, you get access to guns. What else could you really want in a fantasy world? Here, you have access to eight different technological disciplines:

  • Chemistry
  • Electric
  • Explosives
  • Gun Smithy
  • Herbology
  • Mechanical
  • Smithy
  • Therapeutics

Each time you spend a point on a discipline, you increase your level of understanding known as your expertise. Higher expertise lets you utilize more complex schematics for that discipline. Schematics are like blueprints. Get the crafting materials you need, be it batteries or a tonic, and you can craft items from grenades to poisons to robotic spiders. It’s a lot more work than magick, but magick doesn’t let you blast someone in half with an elephant gun.

In Arcanum there never was a Geneva convention.

Then you have magick, with 16 spell colleges and five spells each, for a whopping total of 60 spells total. High willpower is required to learn more spells within a single college. Here is a list of the spell colleges available:

  • Conveyance
  • Divination
  • Air
  • Earth
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Force
  • Mental
  • Meta
  • Morph
  • Natural
  • Black Necromantic
  • White Necromantic
  • Phantasm

There’s plenty of spells to learn. Resurrection lets you fully revive any fallen comrade, teleportation lets you fast travel to any location you’ve visited, and polymorph lets you turn anyone you want into a harmless animal like a bunny or a sheep. Once you learn a spell, you have no limit on how many times you can cast it, save for fatigue. Hopefully you’ve been increasing your fatigue points if you’re a mage because once it goes below 0, your character passes out on the ground and won’t wake up until it is back in the positives. So, if a spell costs 60 fatigue points and you only have 1 fatigue point on hand, you’ll be doing a lot of waiting.

The prophecy

When we begin the game, we are greeted by a lovely cutscene of a zeppelin in flight, moments before it is shot down by a pair of half-ogres in fighter planes. Turns out, you were on that flight. You miraculously survive as the sole survivor, but not without being greeted by the best character in the game: Virgil.

Virgil is a member of the Panarii religion, based on the teachings of Nasrudin, who you are supposedly a reincarnation of. “And the spirit of Nasrudin shall be reborn on wings of fire in hills shrouded in fog, and fight the last battle with the evil one,” so sayeth the Panarii altar near the crash site. Seeing that you did just crawl out of a burning wreckage and that the nearest town over is named Shrouded Hills, you don’t really have cause to doubt the prophecy. So, you set out with Virgil (unless you killed him) on a quest to discover the owner of an engraved ring which you took from a dying gnome from the crash site.

The story takes you places all over Arcanum, meeting important individuals that are essential to the plot. So essential, in fact, that you can straight up murder them. You have plenty of choices you can make in this game, both in dialogue and in quest progression. This applies to the main story as well. To prevent players from softlocking themselves for being a murderous psychopath, there will always be a method to continue the story despite an essential NPC being dead, such as a journal or note that happened to be on their corpse. Anyone can be killed off, even Virgil, although you should spare him. His alignment is dependent on your own actions. If you are a good character, he too shall become a good character. If you choose to be a heartless scoundrel, he shall follow in your footsteps.

There are many other companions you can recruit—some of them having a great deal of dialogue and significance to the story—but none of them had the same impact as Virgil. Without spoilers, his subplot and related character development will make you glad you didn’t cut him loose at the start.

You’ll enjoy the dialogue of Arcanum if you’re an imperialist bootlicker appreciator of English culture. The people of big cities like Tarant speak like it’s 19th century Britain, calling each other “old boy” and “old chap.” The writing is quite extensive. Many NPCs have numerous lines of dialogue, from the old sea captain recalling tales of his naval exploits to the Panarii acolyte elaborating on the tenants of his faith. One of my favorite sections of dialogue is one where you debate the dwarven philosophy of Stone and Shape with a certain dwarf. Not only do you have a chance to persuade him on an important matter, but you also have a chance to learn about the culture and mindset of the dwarven clans. Your option to talk to him about philosophy, however, is determined by your intelligence score, which must be 14.

Intelligence is one of the stats used to determine some of your dialogue options in this game, and it is definitely the most important. If your intelligence is below 5, your character is considered dumb. Not only can he not cast spells, but he also cannot communicate like a normal human being. This is reflected in dialogue across the entire game, even going as far as limiting how you can experience the story due your inability to behave properly. Even Virgil gets ticked off at how dumb you can be.

Sorry, Virgil.

A few issues

Combat is unfortunately unbalanced. It’s unique in that you can switch between real-time and turn-based at will, but neither will help you against a guy with a bow shooting at you with five arrows a second. It’s frantic, and much of the real-time combat—which you’ll most likely be using—will come down to multiple melee fighters hacking at each other until one side wins. If a character has a very high dexterity, they will be attacking at what you’d perceive to be the speed of light, a comical effect but a frustrating one to deal with if it is an enemy. Fortunately, Arcanum allows you to skip many combat scenarios through the use of dialogue, though you can’t avoid combat altogether.

As interesting as the setting may be, the cities you visit may not be of particular interest to you. In my playthrough, I was enjoying every second of the game, exploring cities like Tarant and Caladon. They’re big places, and they have many areas you can explore, but the design of the cities looks rather … drab. You’ll be seeing a lot of gray and brown everywhere. I know that it’s the industrial era: everything is supposed to look gray and brown. But since every city uses that color palette, it all looks the same. I would have times where I confused one city for another because I couldn’t mentally differentiate their appearances.

There’s also blue!

Some miscellaneous locations like side dungeons also felt boring to explore. They fit the world, but it felt like their only purpose was to exist. Here’s an example: Ashbury has an abandoned castle you can explore. Lot of undead creatures to hack through. At the very end of the dungeon is the boss, the Lord of the Damned. Once you kill him that’s it. There’s no comments from your party or from the town of your deed, no quest involved, no background given about who he was and what he was trying to do. The world map has a lot of optional locations to discover but they won’t keep your attention as well as the main locations do.

Despite these complaints, what makes the game good does more than just compensate for its flaws. This is a setting that is explored by very few games out there. A steampunk-esque world, taking hold of what was once dominated by magick. There used to be a second game in the making, but the studio got dissolved before it ever got anywhere. It’s a shame. Still, even if a sequel is to never be made, we can always appreciate Arcanum for the precious things it gave us. I’ll miss you, Virgil.

You can find this game on Steam here.

You can also find this game on GOG.com here.

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