Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura

Tolkien vs the Industrial Revolution.

26_1What if a somewhat conventional fantasy world – replete with elves, orcs, and magic – was given a steampunk makeover? That’s the fundamental question that lies at the heart of Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and by the time the game is over you will become genuinely interested in uncovering the answer. Arcanum is a slowly seductive game, a deep and demanding affair with a steep learning curve and a voracious appetite for your spare time. It’s all the more impressive that the more time you devote to the game, the more time you will be willing to surrender.

Decisions are an integral part of the experience from the very beginning, with an intricately detailed and somewhat intimidating system of character creation. Want to play a cursed wizard who sold his soul to the Darker Powers in exchange for arcane secrets? Arcanum has you covered. Or a spoiled rich kid with an unhealthy interest in firearms? Again, a definite possibility. Perhaps you are more in the mood to play the mad scientist? You can be that too. The game subtly acknowledges your choices; people will call you either sir or madam, or elves will react to a dwarven character differently than they will to a human character.

2_1The game gives you almost too many choices right out of the gate, in fact, and that may sour some players on the whole experience before they even get started. A window that pops up during installation recommends that you take a look at the manual, and you’ll probably want to go even further and read it all the way through, perhaps more than once, before you fire up the game. Unlike Fallout’s elegantly simple character system, Arcanum presents you with an awful lot of data to remember.

Magick Happens

The premise of Arcanum, at least at first, is both very simple and universally compelling. You are a passenger on IFS Zephyr, an experimental dirigible that is shot down on its maiden voyage by a pair of orcs in fighter planes. Stumbling through the wreckage you find a mortally injured gnome, who implores you to find “the boy” and gives you a ring bearing the initials “G.B.” just before he dies, leaving you as the last survivor of the crash. After that you’ll find yourself dodging a constant stream of assassins, quests and item hoarding.

As with real life, certain events are out of your control, but the game never fails to offer the opportunity to choose how you will react to those events. A group of ruffians have set up an impromptu tollbooth just outside the town of Shrouded Hills. Do you pay them their outrageous fee to use the bridge, or do you do the townsfolk a favor and kill them? Perhaps you could sweet talk your way past them, or even cut a deal and gain passage by helping the ruffians destroy a cache of supplies that the townsfolk plan to use to build a new bridge further downriver.

There is no single “right” answer to any problem in Arcanum. Quests are rarely simple affairs—the standard laundry list of tasks to accomplish so that you can earn experience points—but rather a series of choices that dictate how both the story and your character’s personality develop. Some quests you may want to approach in a fashion that suits your character’s temperament, others you may want to avoid altogether. The sum of all your actions determines your character’s current alignment, which in turn affects your ability to recruit followers. Non-player characters may opt to join you on your quest (as in Fallout, you do not control them directly) if your goals and morals are similar enough to their own.

A brilliant backdrop

Though your character’s antics will steal the spotlight, it helps that those antics take place against a highly compelling backdrop. The setting is a clever conceit that turns the tired Tolkien-inspired fantasy genre on its ear, a Victorian-era fantasy world in which gaslights cast their warm glow on the cobblestone steps of the local magick shop, where half-ogre servants dress in coattails and bow ties and orc factory workers protest poor wages by threatening to unionize. The contrast between magick and technology is the basis of both the setting and the story. Every element of the game (right down to the manual, which is written with an infectious nineteenth century formality) is infused with consistent character and style.

You can travel pretty much anywhere you want in the land of Arcanum, though certain areas of the continent can only be unlocked by accomplishing specific goals. You will need a ship if you want to travel to any outlying islands, for instance, and you’ll need to find a way to get past the mountains if you want to visit the northwestern portion of the continent. Still, there are many interesting locations that you can discover, sometimes by following up on rumors, sometimes by accident.


Seting sail to new adventures.

In light of its non-linear nature, the game does an excellent job at keeping you from wandering aimlessly (though you can do that if you want) or losing track of your overall goals. The length of the game varies greatly depending on how you play it, but it’s not a short game by any metric, and the degree to which it manages to sustain interest and present new challenges is impressive. The game even gives you a multiplayer mode, along with a special multiplayer scenario and the complete game editor (so you can create your own). It’s the gift that keeps on giving. You stop worrying about the game’s minor quirks and start marveling at the story and setting that unfolds before you.

System Requirements: Pentium II 233 Mhz, 64 MB RAM, 1.2 GB HDD, Windows 95

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