It took me four characters to get me through Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. It’s a testament to the compelling nature of the game that I put up with several lengthy forays into the game that ended with me having to restart the entire game. It’s also a testament to the broken nature of the game that I had to build four characters until I found one that could actually get me through the content.
There’s no getting past the fact that the game is broken. The compelling game world blends a steampunk industrial revolution with a high fantasy universe. While this sounds like an opportunity to create some crazy and creative characters, which you can do, the problem is you often can’t play the game with these characters. Without a generic melee combat build, you’re going to spend a lot of the game getting thrashed.
I could nitpick the terrible combat (a bi-product of Sierra forcing the Troika Games to make the game into a Diablo II competitor mid-production), a handful of poor design decisions, and the obtuse and scatterbrained character creator, but in spite of all these glaring flaws, there’s something undeniably special about the game. It’s Troika’s mesterpiece: an amalgamation of elements that don’t work and yet the game still manages to create a compelling RPG experience.
A lot of credit must be given to the wonderful world-building. In a genre pervaded with Tolkienesque high-fantasy, Arcanum is simultaneously familial and different. You’ll be battling orcs, goblins and other staples of the fantasy genre, but the game throws in some mechanical robots and gunslingers into the mix. And the technological boom leads to a tension between magic-users and technologists who both treat each other with suspicion. This leads to a lot of compelling stories to the side-quests. A magician asks you to sabotage the town’s steam engines. Later in the game, there’s an orc worker strike outside of one of the factories.
The context gives the player a space to define his or her character. Are you someone who seeks to further technological and scientific understanding or do you hold to the arcane magical arts? Or maybe you embrace a mix of both. Your choices will affect which kind of people like you and who you might be able to call upon as a faithful companion.
It’s also interesting to see how this world messes with the fantasy universe. If you give it a bit of thought, you realize how technology would just completely screw over the dwarves. In fact, that’s a big part of the game’s story. If you can make machines that do everything the dwarves can do, but better, they become a dying breed. Orcs become the backbone of industrial labor in the factories, treated as third class citizens. Humans flourish with the boom in technology as they have no personal qualms with all these new wonders. Elves are a bit nebulous. There are still some who live among the human and technology, but a lot of them simply seem content to remain hidden in their magical cities and consider themselves mostly unaffected.
This results in a lot of interesting behavior depending on what race you pick. The general intermingling of species lead to a lot of half-breeds and a lot of people are dirty racists who won’t give you time of day as a half-race. Orcs are hated, as you might expect. The rest will probably depend more on circumstance and context.
There’s a lot Arcanum does wrong. There are stints of the game that are an absolute drag to play, but when the world shines through it all, when you get those moments of interaction and reactivity in the world, Arcanum becomes a unique and distinct RPG experience. Yes, a good chunk of the game is spent in awful combat, but getting past that to the meat of the experience results in something special and wonderful. A flawed, but magnificent, classic RPG.