I played Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura when it first came out in 2001. I waited for the game only because three of its developers were the people involved in Fallout 2 which I loved, and Arcanum promised a similar game-play, rich story and turn-based combat. I still remember the doubtful thoughts when I’ve learned that Arcanum would not transfer me to a post-apocalyptic world, but instead invite me to the world of fantasy. What interesting and fresh could there be about fantasy in the games mostly dominated back then by Dungeons & Dragons cliches?
Oh, how little I knew. The game had charmed me, and now, after fifteen years, when I came back to the game, it’s still the same.
Arcanum has everything fantasy should have: elves, dwarfs, orcs and gnomes. And magic, of course, it has magic too. But also has airships, guns and a very Victorian era feel to it, because in Arcanum the world of magic and mystery constantly clashes with the one of steam and technology. And with the industrial progress, the balance between the two is disrupted, making it clear magic and technology can hardly exist in the same world, let alone co-exist. You can ride a train from one town to another, but if you’re a magic users, the conductors will put you in the last cart, as far from the steam engine as possible, because your very presence might disrupt the works of the state-of-the-art machine.
Yes, Arcanum offers a unique mix of a classical fantasy and Victorian steampunk, and its world has a rich history, with many secrets to uncover, and though the story is quite linear and focused on the main plot, it offers enough choices and side plots to keep the game play open. It also develops slowly and what at first seemed to be our main goal, becomes just an episode: important, bringing valuable knowledge, but all in all inconclusive while the story develops further, taking quite an unexpected turn.
The game also offers interesting choices for the player to make, and even though most of times it seems quite easy to stay on the path of good choosing it over evil (if you want to do so and enjoy being the hero), but there’s also another layer of choices to be made. Would you act in favor of magic, slowly perishing from the world or support those who want to bring the technological advancement to the world even at the cost of tradition and magic? Or will you carefully thread through decisions, desperately maintaining the uneasy balance between them?
Much will depend on the character you create, and Arcanum allows you to decide whether you’ll focus on magic or technology, offering the advancement trees with multiple skills for both, along with some additional skills. I can tell you that there’s so many things to chose from, there’s never enough points to get them all. The magic is divided in multiple schools and it pays off to get accustomed with what they can do. On top of the typical elemental categories there’s temporal magic, divination, summoning, necromancy… My inner witch squeals at the very thought of so many options. The technical categories seem more limited, but they still provide quite an array of designs and skills. And then you can also become proficient with weapons, learn pickpocketing or some personality skills. Did I mention there’s never enough points when you level up your character?
And the same as in Fallout 2, in Arcanum our character also doesn’t travel alone, enlisting a group of companions along the way, with their interesting stories and engaging personalities. Of course it’s not the level of interaction similar to what Dragon Age series got the players used to, but Arcanum is a much older game. Still, when I launched it recently, just to check if my digital copy works correctly, I instantly got grabbed by the game’s unique mood, and even though after all these years I still remember enough of the story for the suspense to be spoiled for me, I was ready to jump back in the game and relive the experience. That speaks volumes about the quality, doesn’t it?
The game play is easy to grasp and offers no surprises. The battles are quite simple as well, and they don’t require complex strategies, making it clear the focus on the game doesn’t lie in combat. The game allows the choice between real-time and turn-based combat, but with the action speed of the former I can’t imagine anyone willing to go for it except for the most basic skirmishes when the victory is clear.
All in all, Arcanum has aged well, and anyone who craves a good story (with some interesting twists along the way), set in a unique world, is definitely in for a treat. The graphics, even though nearly fifteen years old, are clear, pleasant to eye and matching the mood of the game, while Ben Houge’s music, full of string compositions, enhances the immersion.
- Story: Very High
- Immersion: Very High
- Inspiration: Very High
- Relaxation factor: High
- Procrastination risk: High
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.