Arcanum: Final Thoughts

(This is part of my journey playing through Arcanum.  You can follow the entire series on the Nostalgia Lanes page.)

Arcanum-map2I think it’s come time for me and Arcanum to part ways, at least for now.  As I said a while back, in these playthrough series, I’m committing to at least two weeks of examining a title with the option to keep on going if it’s gripping me.  Well, while there’s a lot of good in Arcanum, it’s become more of a labor than a love to play it for me, so I’m going to step away.

Before I do that, I want to give a few final thoughts.  I’m finding that going back to these older games (or in some cases, trying them out for the first time) is kind of like going to garage sales: You might strike gold with forgotten relics or it might be a waste of time.  Some of these games hold up well over the years, but I don’t feel that Arcanum does.  And that puzzles me.

You see, on paper and often in practice, Arcanum is an amazing RPG.  A lot of props has to be given to its setting, showing a world where magic is being replaced — and is in conflict with — technology.  The Industrial Revolution-meets-Lord of the Rings is a great twist on tired tropes.

And the game is absolutely great when it comes to choice.  You have loads of choices when it comes to your character’s background, your character’s build, and the way you play.  That you can approach the same quest in three or four different ways is applause-worthy, especially when most MMOs these days have just one (“stab it in the eye and take its gold”).  I’ve heard lots of testimony about how replayable Arcanum is, especially when you take a different route.  Want to be a dumb Orc brawler?  A sly Gnome thief?  A Dwarf gunslinger?  An agoraphobic lunatic?  All are possible.

But here’s where we come to the drawbacks, and for me they were enough to eventually put me off of the game.  For starters, Arcanum is just ugly.  I mean, I know it’s over a decade old, but it was ugly even back in 2001.  I think I spoiled myself with the incredible variety of locations and structures in Planescape a few months ago, because the blocky brown houses and brown fields and muted green grass and grey caves just got to me.  It’s not a world that looks or feels alive.

I’m also less-than-fond of its combat.  Arcanum can be stupid hard in spots and has a weird difficulty curve, and each battle I faced could vary from a pushover to insta-death.  Even setting aside difficulty, the fighting itself was… dull.  Just click on an enemy.  Click on him again.  Move a little.  Click more.  Maybe fighting as a spellcaster would’ve been more interesting, but I just did not enjoy fighting one bit.

I guess my last criticism is that the game started to drag.  The storytelling, while adequate, wasn’t that engrossing to make me want to play on, the initial companion I got was as fun as a strip of flypaper, and so much of the space in these towns are wasted — just empty buildings and people who say the same thing over and over again.

It pains me to end like this.  I think there’s a great game here and I know some people absolutely love Arcanum.  But I’ve given it over two weeks and I’m ready to move on.  Perhaps one day I’ll come back and roll that lowbrow half-orc pugilist that I’ve always dreamed of roleplaying.

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5 thoughts on “Arcanum: Final Thoughts

  1. Apologies for going a bit off-topic, but if you (Syp, or anyone else reading this) enjoy the premise of technology replacing magic, I strongly recommend checking out the “Shadows of the Apt” novels by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a very unique and complex series, but one of its core themes is that the mystery and magic of the ancient races is slowly being choked out by the light of reason and science. Most of the main characters don’t even believe in magic — at least at first…

  2. I remember that when it 1st came out I just couldn’t really find a character that I liked to play, so I shelved it for a couple of years. When I came back to it, I found that I loved playing as a mage, and I worked through the whole game and most definitely became quite powerful by the end. But once I was done, I didn’t feel the need to roll a new character to do it again either. And reading your adventures of the past few weeks hasn’t made me feel like installing it again either (yes, I know where my disk is, so I could, just. . . . meh).

    So yeah, I understand where you’re coming from. It was fun enough to play once, but that was about it for me.

  3. I have to say I completely agree with your assesment. I played the game first when it came out and couldn’t complete it.
    At the time it wasn’t *that* ugly but it was pretty hard on your system with looong load tims making for slow progress.
    I’m someone who hates not finishing a story thouh so I tried to get through the game on two consecutive attempts, with some texture upgrade mods e.t.c. The first time I floundered after three weeks and somewhat further into the main story arc. The last time I tried it was with assistance from Gamebanshee so I would keep up the pace, but still flundered at what was probably 85% of game completion. While the story is great, it’s pretty long in the tooth and that combat system is just too dependent on Random Number Generation, even for its time. I mean the icewind Always Save Before Rest Dale’s could be tough that way, but Arcanum’s is the worst.

  4. I just remembered, Troika’s next (and finl) project had much better replay value, though it’s also butt-ugly in its way. Vampire the masquerade: Bloodlines.
    So much fun to replay that as a prescient Malkavian. Heck it was awesome to play it as a prescient Malkavian first time through and not knowing you’re Prescient :-)

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