I have a serious love/hate relationship with Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. I enjoyed so much about this game that “hate” seems like a strong word, but no other word quite describes the frustration and anger I felt while trying to complete this tragically unfinished masterpiece. Luckily there are a few unofficial fan-made patches and mods that attempt to piece together missing content and allow the game to be played at a higher resolution on modern computers. If you have the patience to overlook some serious flaws, Arcanum is an amazing steampunk-versus-magic adventure RPG. I don’t believe any game is more deserving of a remake.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Aug 22, 2001
(Steam & GOG)
Arcanum is an experience you won’t find elsewhere. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and many other races coexist in a land full of magic and machinery. The arcane arts and technology are naturally at odds. Too much magic causes everything mechanical to malfunction. Machines cause magical forces to weaken considerably. This causes conflicts between emerging industrial nations and the ancient magical kingdoms leading them to the brink of war. Meanwhile, a dark cult secretly plots to reawaken an ancient evil upon the land. The player’s journey beings amongst the fresh wreckage of a zeppelin. You are approached by a seemingly religious acolyte who claims that the crash was part of a prophecy and that you are a reincarnation of an ancient hero. What you choose to do with that information is up to you.
Before the game begins, you are presented with an impressive character creation screen. You have the chance to experience the game through the eyes of a human, elf, half-elf, half-orc, half-ogre, halfling (basically a hobbit), or dwarf. Whichever you choose will have an effect on gameplay. Most races are often a bit racist toward each other. Gnomes are generally accepted by other races, half-orcs are hated by everyone, elves are snobbish and most races dislike them, humans are viewed as short-lived and naïve, half-ogres are dumb brutes, dwarves are traditional and generally keep to themselves, and halflings are stealthy hobbit-like tricksters. All of these are stereotypes, however, and the player can choose to defy these characteristics and develop their character to their preference.
Aside from race, you can choose to develop the usual RPG-type skills such as willpower and strength. Beauty is also an upgradable stat that will determine an NPCs initial reaction in conversation. Charisma is crucial to weaker or less combat-oriented characters because it determines the amount of followers you can have simultaneously. This also affects which dialogue choices you can choose from when chatting with the numerous NPCs. Intelligent characters will also be able to choose more intelligent dialogue options. You also have a wide selection of backgrounds to choose from. Some are restricted to specific races and range from things like having a sheltered childhood, being a bandit, or even a Frankenstein’s monster type character. I made an elf who sold their soul to gain more magical aptitude. The downside was that I always had a -20 alignment, could never truly be a “good” character, and NPCs often hated my guts. It was great but being treated like scum by every NPC got a little old, so I supplemented with persuasion and beauty.
Another awesome aspect of Arcanum is the choice between magic and technology. Some races are more naturally inclined to tech and others are natural magicians. There are 16 colleges of magic, each containing five spells. Not only can you choose to be a mage but you can also choose which colleges to specialize in. This encourages all kinds of different character builds. Some colleges are more suited for offense, some for defense, and others are cosmetic or better used in social interactions. I enjoyed dark necromancy which gave me the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead (even the spirits of my victims!), raise undead minions, and even completely quench the life force from a foe.
On the other side of the spectrum, technology has 56 different degrees to learn within 8 different disciplines. The player can utilize these skills to craft guns, armor, steampunk-inspired gadgets, grenades, and even robotic allies. I found the tech route to be more complicated, but equally (if not more) rewarding by endgame. There are also basic skills that magic and technological characters both can enjoy like persuasion, gambling, and healing. I love character creation. The only thing I wish would have been included is appearance customization. The character sprite is based on race, gender, and clothing only. Even so, I’ve never enjoyed experimenting with characters builds this much in any other game.
Combat in Arcanum can be played be turn based or real-time depending on your preference. The combat animations were very choppy at times. Turn-based combat sometimes would get stuck and a turn might never end. There are plenty of melee and ranged weapon options to choose from and each felt pretty balanced. Some weapons and armors required a certain magical or technical aptitude in order to receive all the bonuses they are meant to grant characters while equipped. There are magical armors and weapons for magic/melee hybrids, mechanical armors and guns for the tech-warrior hybrids, and plenty of standard weapons for those who decide to abstain from both. It is also possible to complete the game without any combat skills at all by leveling up your charisma stat and collecting followers to act as bodyguards during your adventure to do all the fighting for you. Guns are initially hardest to manage because they require ammo and technical aptitude to function correctly. Magic and melee are both roughly equal in power. Regardless of which kind of character you choose, you’re going to need a way to combat the tons of monsters, thieves, animals, and demons you might encounter along the way.
The most interesting and enjoyable aspect of Arcanum, in my opinion, is definitely it’s lore and setting. The blending of steampunk and magic just goes together so well it feels natural. You will explore vast ruins, large industrialized cities, small towns, and many different cultures in this giant nonlinear open world. While exploring these exotic locations you may uncover sinister conspiracies, extinct ancient cultures, inhumane working conditions, and all sorts exciting controversial situations. Just remember not to skip the side quests because many of them are far more than simple fetch quests and have stories of their own or help the player uncover the secrets of Arcanum’s rich history. You are also likely encounter loads of secret areas and easter eggs as you traverse between different coordinates on the map screen. A few companions have their own quests and voice acting, but some only serve as pack mules and never have anything important to say (if they have any dialogue at all after recruitment!) Each playthrough will be a unique experience and leave you craving for more. That is, if you can work past all the bugs and crashes.
Final Judgment: 80%
I would love to give this game a perfect score based on pure nostalgia. Unfortunately this game feels totally unfinished, unpolished, and buggy. The game crashed to desktop at random and quite regularly. Without any kind of autosave feature, this caused me to lose progress constantly. If you’re a RPG regular it should be common sense to save frequently, but consider this a fair warning if you decide to tackle Arcanum. At one point I had lost roughly three hours of playtime and it was absolutely devastating. The various quest bugs are another good reason to save constantly. The unofficial patch does a great job of fixing many of the bugs, but I still encounter quite a few issues due to the game being unfinished. There was just so much potential and so many great qualities in this game that I can’t bring myself to rate it any lower. This is one that will definitely be hit or miss, but I still urge all classic RPG fanatics to give this gem a try. Definitely a “diamond in the rough”, but a diamond no less.
- Amazing setting
- Rich lore and storyline
- Fantastic character creation
- Great character progression
- Choices matter
- Multiple endings
- Interesting characters
- Full of bugs (mostly fixed with unofficial patch)
- Choppy animations
- No appearance customization (skin, hair, etc.)
- Some very underdeveloped followers