Black Powders and Black Arts
By Saint Proverbius, posted May 5th 2001
The materialities were not invented in the interest of righteousness.
It would seem that it's been quite a while since we've had a good dose of a Cain and Company RPG, the last one being Fallout back in 1997. Most CRPGs these days seem to center around an endless stream of AD&D based rules and setting. If they aren't AD&D based, they're the standard fantasy setting we've seen countless times before. You have elves and demons, spells and swords, and not much new. This is mainly because publishers tend to veer towards fantasy CRPGs because they sell better, in general.
The nice thing is, Troika has taken it upon themselves to make a CRPG which includes the lucrative Fantasy setting with the rich appeal of, well, shooting people with guns.
In essence, Arcanum is set in a world on the brink of a new revolution. The practitioners of Magick are clinging to their grip of power while a new school of thought it rapidly squeezing them out. This new school is that of technology, using science and machinery to adapt the laws of nature instead of Magick. Like any old power that must contend with the rise of a newer power, there are conflicts of interest.
In to every life, a little blimp must fall?
The first part of Arcanum starts with you, your character actually, being the sole survivor of the wreck of a mighty air ship, the IFS Zephyr, at the hands of some villainous ogres in crude flying machines.
Well, that's not exactly true. You're not the sole survivor. There's a gnome gentleman who survives the crash long enough to give you a mysterious ring to give to a boy, which sets up your first main quest in the game. However, this quest isn't solvable in the demo, since you must go to other towns to solve this mystery.
As if that weren't strange enough, a robed figure also greets you at the wreckage and claims you are the reincarnation of "The Living One" and surviving the wreck is the first part of a great prophecy.
Some days, it just doesn't pay to board a blimp.
Circumstances make man, not man circumstances
Like most CRPGs, Arcanum centers around the player creating a character, tailor made to the specifications of what that player wants to be like in the game. However, unlike a lot of CRPGs, Arcanum features more character options than you can shake a finely crafted walking stick at.
There are several Fantasy style races in the game, running the gambit from Human to Half-Ogre and Elf to Dwarf. Each race brings a little something different to the table. As one would expect, Dwarves tend to dabble in technology and are well suited at playing a primarily technology driven character. On the opposite side of that spectrum, you have Elves who have a natural, innate ability to use magick.
One thing to consider when making a character and picking a race is that the world isn't perfect. Most people don't tend to like being around Half-Ogres and Half-Orcs. Yes, race plays a part in how people look at you. So, if you pick one of those two races, be prepared to have people be down right nasty to you at times. Naturally, this won't stop people from hiring Half-Ogres to protect them, so expect to see them guarding people of influence or bandits.
For the majority of us, the past is a regret, the future an experiment
In addition to race, you can further customize your character by choosing a Background for your character. These are basically things that were part of your character's life prior to boarding that fateful blimp that have changed the way your character is in some significant manner. These changes have both a positive and a negative effect.
For example, one such Background is Escaped Lunatic which gives you bonus resistances to several types of damage, but makes people react in a less positive manner to you. Another Background is Neitszche's Poster Child which gives you a bonus to experience, but makes you critically miss and fumble a lot more, because of the infamous, "That which does not kill you makes you stronger" thing.
As you can see, there's a good deal of humor in the creation of a character in Arcanum, as there was in previous games by the same people.
Consider well the proportion of things.
The final, and probably the most important, part of creating a character lies in the allotment of Character Points, or CPs. When you create your character, you get five CPs you can distribute however you like to your statistics, skills, spells, and technological schematics.
You can read more about those things here, since they have a fairly complete list of everything done already up.
Every level, you get an additional CP to add to your character, so it's important you plan your character wisely from the start. Of course, Troika does make this task fairly simple for the casual gamer by having the character interface auto build your character with each level. You can merely select an archetype from a list of how what you want your character to be like. Each level, it will assign the CPs where they need to be to make your character in to that type of person that you wish.
the principle of give and take--give one and take ten--the principle of diplomacy
Depending on your character, you'll notice that people are either fairly nice to you, or just down right mean when you enter the only town in the demo, Shrouding Hills. Most everyone in the town has their own motivations and agendas. Depending on who you talk with, you can be asked to do simple favors which help the town out, or vile and evil actions which only help out you and the person asking.
In addition to people asking you to do things for them, you'll also find a good deal of the people in the town also have valuable skills, and they'll offer you some training in those areas for a price. This newly found status will give you a slight bonus to the skills you've purchased with your CPs.
Also, you can get certain people, mainly the shopkeepers, to barter with you if you talk to them. Most shops are specialty shops and will only buy and sell certain items. Each shop has it's own economy, and it is possible for the shops to run low on money. Of course, if you go out of town and wonder around in the wilderness for a while, this gives the shops a chance to restock items as well as get more money. Yes, the road to wealth in the demo is often the one you make pacing back and forth between Shrouded Hills and the Crash Site.
The joy of killing! the joy of seeing killing done
Naturally, like most CRPGs, Arcanum has a combat system, because some people just don't like you. Depending on your character, you probably have some means of defending yourself. If you're a technology character, this usually means having a gun. If you're a melee character, you have a sword. If you're Magick based, you have spells. Of course, you could have a little bit of everything or nothing at all if you're a diplomat.
Combat in Arcanum can be either Real Time, Turn Based, or Fast Turn Based, all of which are selectable by the Options menu when you start the game. However, if you're playing in Real Time, and you feel you are getting overwhelmed, a simple tap of the Space Bar will switch modes for you. Believe me, there's some things you may just want to do in Turn Based mode.
One nice thing about combat in Arcanum is the ability to aim a shot. When selecting a target, simply hold down a selection key, and the cursor will change to reflect the part of the body you wish to strike. An aimed shot is harder to do, but often results in a greater damage yield.
An important note on combat is the concept of Fatigue. Most every action you do in combat will make you more fatigued, especially casting spells. If your level of fatigue drops to or below zero, your character will pass out from exhaustion. This sounds like a bad thing, but it really isn't if you have an NPC in your party. Monsters are less interested in killing people who are passed out than those activity attacking them. In fact, I've used this little trick in combat to keep from getting killed. Playing o'possum can save your life!
The calamity that comes is never the one we had prepared ourselves for
Naturally, the demo is not without problems. While it is highly replayable, it's fairly short for a 258MB download. It basically consists of the crash site, the township of Shrouded Hills, and a few tiny locations on the outskirts of this area. Of course, I managed to get through this demo several times with several different characters, but you can get through the demo fairly quickly once you've figured out everything in the town of Shrouded Hills.
There also seems to be a problem with a few of the spells and some missing graphics in the demo. Summon Orc will make a nice attempt at summoning an Orc, but there's no graphics for the Orc. You end up with a shadow on the ground where the Orc should be. This can also foul up Turn Based combat as well, since the graphicless Orc is considered to be there, and gets a turn, but never does anything because it's not quite there. Of course, this won't be a problem in the final version, but it's just something to consider in the demo.
The interface has a fairly steep learning curve as well. Once you get the hang of it, it's not a problem. The problem is, naturally, the time it does take to get the hang of it. Most things on the interface are obvious, some are not obvious and require you to know what key to press. Depending on where you downloaded the demo, it may or may not come with a Word document version of the Manual. If you have this manual, it's a good idea to read parts of it at least, such as Appendix A-10, the keyboard reference.
The graphics in the demo aren't the best I've seen either. However, I've seen numerous screenshots of other locations in the game that would suggest that the lackluster graphics of the demo are limited to the tile set of Shrouded Hills. Still, it would have been nice if the demo allowed for higher resolutions.
..scrap heap of unverifiable odds and ends which we call tradition.
All in all, the Arcanum demo leaves me with a pleasant, warm feeling. Even a town as small as the one featured in the demo is literally loaded with things to do. If the final version has as many things to do, I can see this game occupying a great deal of time for people who enjoy games with depth.
The character system in the game is top notch by all accounts. Sure, it can intimidate the faint of heart at first, but that's not such a bad thing. It just means lengthy play testing times for gamers as well as an immeasurable amount of dialogue on the subject of building characters.
Congratulations, Troika, I am impressed.