Since its release, Arcanum has been widely regarded as one of the best RPGs to ever hit the shelves. Despite graphics that were dated (even in its time), Arcanum stands above the competition with an unrivaled open-ended style of gameplay and a masterful character development system that directly influences almost every nuance of your playing style. Set in an original world, where the advent of an industrial revolution is clashing with the magical folk of the continent, you are caught in the middle of a great religious event that has been prophesized for ages. The implications of this event spawn out into various consequences that see you being hunted and sought out be organizations of all sorts. It is your mission to find the truth behind all these happenings and fulfill your destiny for better or for worse.
That is only the shallowest description of an amazing storyline that is told across hundreds upon hundreds of quests and events – all of which will shape your path through an imaginative and innovative story arc that will have you wanting to play time and time again. The game does have a primary and central quest that can be fulfilled in various ways, but there are also side quests to embellish your character’s persona, and add depth to the game world. How you approach these quests hinges entirely on your character’s attributes. You can choose to be good or evil, take on the art of magic, or study in the ways of technology. You can adopt skills to become a thief, a swordsman, a gunslinger, a doctor, and more. No matter which path you choose, the game provides you with ways to make use of your ability to progress through the game in a unique way – some more fun than others.
Most skills revolve around fighting. Combat in the game is handled in either a turn-based fashion, or a very fast paced and chaotic real-time mode. The allotted moves in your turn are determined by your dexterity, and your modifiers for inflicting damage are based upon your various stat pools. Magic, while not exclusively combative in nature, allows you to summon creatures and create barriers to aid you and your party while fighting. Technology provides a variety of combat tools, from firearms, to special armors, to robot fighters. Your approach to battle will depend entirely upon your skills, which can be mixed in any way you so desire.
Your party can be an assortment of multiple NPCs, depending on your charisma stat level. You have about 20 party members throughout the game world, each with their own particular history and abilities. These players will be picky about whom they join, so don’t count on attaining the esteemed wizard, Perryman Smythe, if you are a murderous inventor. Your party members generally serve as support during combat but some have handy skills such as crafting and lock picking, which can aid you through the quest. The party AI in combat is decent, but sometimes magical members, or members with special tools, will be reluctant to use them unless the battle is particularly intense.
The subtext of the Arcanum world – magic vs. technology – affects you by your aptitude in a particular area. As a mage obtains more and more spells, he generates an aura of magical aptitude that not only allows his magic to become more effective, but also generates a dangerous sphere where the laws of physics cease to exist normally. Thus, a magical player will not be allowed to make use of some of the technological things in the game, such as the subway, and in extreme circumstances, the train, which is the fastest method of travel across the world.
On the other hand, technology generates an aura that adversely affects magical items and creatures. A player increases in technological aura by learning new schematics and wielding intense technological items such as electrically charged armor. Magical creatures and NPCs will react with scorn and may prevent you from entering magically sensitive areas. This also applies in the reverse for magical players. If one would desire, one could mix both magic and technology to obtain the best of both worlds, but at a slight penalty to effectiveness.
That is just one example of the global gameplay balance that Arcanum features. As you progress through the world, you will establish a record that many people will be aware of because of your notable actions. You will be given many key opportunities throughout the game to commit noteworthy actions that will generate acclaim – positive or negative.
The graphics in Arcanum, as noted, are not overly enticing. The game is displayed in a 2D isolinear view, and provides no option to change camera angles or, in some extreme cases, see into areas hidden by objects. The textures for the world are hit or miss, and while the environments tend to have remarkably detailed texture qualities, much of it is repeated throughout the game and differs very little from location to location. The textures of the characters are solid, but not varied. Generally, any version of a particular type of weapon looks exactly alike, thus two players could have drastically different items, but could look similar or even completely identical.
The sound in Arcanum is decent enough; the musical soundtrack is a calming undertone to both the game’s 18th century-style urban sprawl, and the country villas you encounter. Most of it is performed on string instruments and is soothing when you should be relaxed, and upbeat in times of distinct peril. Sound effects are generally limited. Spells tend to have unique sounds, but many enemies make identical generic sounds, and oddly the clanging of swords against armor is almost non-existent. The voice acting featured in Arcanum is of a satisfactory quality. It is by no measure superb, but it stands on its own as authentic and well delivered.
If you can see past the gritty surface of Arcanum you will discover a game with possibly the single most incredible storyline, quest system, and character-dynamic world featured in any RPG to date. I remember the first time I played Arcanum, I thought it was total garbage, but once I understood the inner workings of the character dynamics and the magnificent storyline tied beautifully to the game world – well, I couldn’t put it down. Since the game is different virtually every time you play, the replay value is immeasurable due to the endless possibility of character types, via mixing and matching. A mod system and mod-based multiplayer can also add to the value of the game if you can find some other Arcanum players who are interested in ?team-bashing’. Arcanum is a superior purchase, reminiscent of the combat style seen in Diablo 2 combined with a Final Fantasy 3 caliber storyline. It’s a must for absolutely any RPG fan.