Most RPG genres, such as fantasy and futuristic science fiction, are cloyed with clichéd storylines and boring action. Of the remaining few, the most underused is arguably the "steam-punk" style, an 1800's world fashioned after the industrialized British era where fantastic and complicated technology is powered by steam. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura delves into the Victorian vault to posit a world where technology and magic vie for dominance in an archaic, yet sophisticated environment. Those wanting to take a break from the slew of fantasy games on the market will benefit by looking to the past and entering the world of Arcanum.
After surviving a horrific zephyr crash, the main character is proclaimed as "The Living One," a holy reincarnate, by one of the first people he meets. Thus begins the epic tale of your passage from survivor to savior in the land of Arcanum. It is a long and arduous journey, fraught with many perils ranging from exotic animals and expert assassins. In time, your character develops in strength and knowledge before finally facing the otherworldly enemy threatening the entire population.
After deciding the character's race, sex, and history, you factor in skill points, which is the first indication of the game's complexity. There are four categories in which to spend points: stats, skills, schematics, and spells. This breaks down into eight basic statistics, 16 skills, eight technical areas with seven schematics each, and 16 magical colleges with five spells apiece. Since characters are capped at level 50, earning a single point a level and two every fifth level, it becomes obvious fairly early that specialization is a must. The incredible number of choices available in designing a character may leave novice RPG players confused, but experienced players will relish the variety.
Unfortunately, multi-faceted characters are hard to build, due to the scarcity of points; a gun-slinging gambler won't reach his full potential until too late into the game to fully enjoy either skill. The game rewards improving stats above all else, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit experimentation somewhat. Also, the numerous unfriendly encounters means points spent on combat usually pay off more than skills spent in role-playing categories, such as haggling or persuasion. You may need to build several characters before finding the perfect fit.
Gameplay is a mixture of the familiar and the new. Fans of the Fallout series will recognize Tim Cain's touch as project lead for Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Fights happen in conventional real-time or turn-based formats, although the later makes battles much more manageable. Travel across Arcanum takes place on a Fallout-styled map, standard fare that works well. The ability to combine found items into powerful weapons through the use of schematics is an example of the features that revolutionize gameplay. There are literally hundreds of magical, technical, and mundane items to aid you, almost to the point of sensory overload.
With the familiar RPG format comes the usual shortfalls. Rather than a plot with entirely different paths to follow, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura provides different ways to accomplish the same goal. Granted, actions and alignment change the NPC responses, but eventually you still battle the same end boss, be it with magic, technology, or words. The many side quests available add a bit of variety, but distract from the main story. Computer AI is nominally better than similar games, but party members have a tendency to rush headlong into battle, requiring you to rescue them more than a hero should.
It is worth noting that the Sierra On-Line website message boards are filled with a segment of players who have problems running the game despite meeting system requirements. One note of caution for those with space limitations on the hard drive: the game requires a whopping minimum of 1.2GB of install space. Regular upgrades, updates, designer notes and mod-builder (world editor) information is available at both the developer and publisher sites.
While gameplay shines with a treasure trove of options and customization, the graphics vary in quality. The urban and sylvan areas are nicely designed locations filled with attractive architecture. Items on the ground, however, may require serious hunting and clicking, especially in the dark dungeons and sewers, but, as in Fallout, they highlight when the cursor finds them. The introductory movie sequence establishes the atmosphere, but later animations are missing. Showing the classic steam engine marvel, the locomotive, pulling away from station the first time would have been worth watching.
Sounds are fully realized, masterfully combining effects and music. The soundtrack moves appropriately from soothing and haunting to frantic. Gun reports and resonating spells emphasize the battle lines drawn between technology and magic, and growling animals and death squeals seem realistic.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is reminiscent of Shadowrun, full of the adventure and intrigue. New features and a solid storyline should keep even the most veteran players busy for quite sometime. While the game isn't flawless, it surpasses most competitors in the genre, and holds up well in the field of fantasy adventuring.
Graphics: The graphics vary in quality. Areas are nicely defined, but some items and characters look a bit flat. More cut scenes would help set the atmosphere.
Sound: The music, made up of haunting instrumentals, is right on the money. Sound effects are consistently solid.
Enjoyment: Schematics are fun to use though some are more helpful than others. Spell effects are fun and useful. A solid storyline and fun action overcome minor flaws inherent in many RPG designs.
Replay Value: Even though the plot remains the same, how final goals are achieved will differ greatly based on specific character skills. Only through creation of multiple characters utilizing the mind-boggling mix of attributes and possible backgrounds is the game's full scope realized. Many side quests are available only to characters with specific proficiencies.
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