Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magic Obscura is a role-playing game developed by Troika Games and published by Sierra in 2001. The game is played from an isometric perspective and combat occurs in real-time. I would say Arcanum feels most like a cross between Diablo and Fallout.
Upon starting the game the player first creates a new character or selects a pre-built character. The pre-built characters have compelling back stories regarding who they are, where they are from, and why they are boarding the IFS Zephyr air ship on their way to Tarant. The entire world of Arcanum has this steampunk feel to it. Some players are best with magic, while others with technology, and a few walk the line between both. There seems to be a great tension in the Arcanum story as to which type of power is stronger and will ultimately win out over the other. After selecting or creating a character, the opening cutscene plays and the player sees the air ship shot down by some unsavory fellows.
After the crash, while fumbling in the wreckage, the player hears someone crying for help and moves debris in order to get to the person pinned down. Upon inspection, it appears the person is an elderly gnome. He gives the player possession of a ring and tasks her with bringing the ring to a boy while talking of unspeakable evil saying that the boy will know what to do. After breathing his last, a shadowy figure is seen approaching through the smoke of the wreckage and the game enters its first load screen.
Arcanum is incredibly rich in story but chock full of technical difficulty. The game lagged constantly while I played it. You can make your character walk smoothly or you can scroll to see more of the surrounding area in a given direction smoothly, but if you try to do both at the same time you will have problems. Entering new areas causes the game to seemingly lock up, though it really just seems to be an extension of the really long load times.
After the first obnoxiously long load time the player meets the shadowy figure from the cutscene, a man by the name of Virgil. He informs her that he is a recent follower of the Panarii religion, that she is the chosen one, and that she must fight the evil one while babbling about her like a half-wit. He suggests they go into the nearby town of Shrouded Hills to meet one Elder Joachim to get some answers. Once she agrees, he joins the player’s party.
I decided to take this time to scavenge among the wreckage and hunt wolves and other hostile creatures I found. From just killing all the unsavory creatures around the downed air ship I was able to reach level 2 and I picked up a sword that was twice as good as my starting dagger. Combat is achieved by clicking on an enemy using the left mouse button. Once a player has successfully slain all nearby enemies, combat mode does not always go away. Clicking the right mouse button will exit combat mode in those cases.
Satisfied I had explored everything and received as much experience in the area as possible, I traversed the clearing that seemed to be part of a road. On the way the party of Virgil and I was greeted by a strange cloaked figure that wanted to know if I had survived the crash. It doesn’t matter what dialog options you use with this guy, he will attempt to kill you. He was apparently there to ensure no one survived.
Once the party is done killing the assassin, it is possible to bring up the overworld map and travel to Shrouded Hills. Alternatively it appears it is possible to just continue to walk through the entire world map without any fast travel, much like in more recent role-playing games such as those in The Elder Scrolls series. Upon fast traveling to Shrouded Hills, after fumbling about in town looking for it we entered the Shrouded Hills Inn. There we found dead assassins in Elder Joachim’s room. He had left a note and bid us to travel to the place where he was safe. It was at this point that I began looking for a way out of town. While looking we ran into an incredibly lucky wolf that got a fatally critical hit on yours truly.
The graphics are superb for when Arcanum was released. The cutscenes are emotionally stimulating and truly make you feel a part of the story. The in-game graphics are a step above Fallout and Fallout 2 though obviously similar in design. Arcanum was developed by Jason D. Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky, and Timothy Cain, all former designers of the game Fallout. The sound and background music is also superb and really places the player in the mood and environment of the story the designers intended to tell.
It’s obvious I am going to have to spend much more time playing Arcanum. There is so much story here, all of which appears to be incredibly deep with well crafted lore. The question will be whether my patience will hold out with the technical difficulties presented by the game’s issues. This would seem to be the perfect title for a remastered version, one where all the bugs are fixed. Troika Games closed their doors in 2005, but given that Arcanum can still be purchased on Valve’s Steam platform, I would imagine that someone would have the rights to make such a remastered version possible.
I would say Arcanum is worth owning for serious computer role-playing game fans who have already played through all of the other more approachable classics such as those from The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Diablo, and Dungeons & Dragons series. Even without the technical difficulties present in this game, it seems to be geared more toward the experienced role-playing gamer. The setup application even suggests the player get familiar with certain chapters of the manual while waiting for the game to install on their hard disk. At the moment I am writing this article, Arcanum is selling on Steam for $5.99. I feel that is a worthy price to have this one in my collection, but be advised this game does not hold your hand at any point. I look forward to exploring this game further as time goes on; perhaps as an angry Twitch stream, that could be interesting.