Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura – Staff Review

The Role-Playing genre is rife with fantasy settings and medieval landscapes tailor-made for big, epic adventures.  Less common are science-fiction tropes and plotlines, from space travel to grim, dystopian futures.  But rarest of all are settings that explore the common ground between the two, that take a setting from one and inject a healthy dose of the other.  Enter Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Troika’s sprawling, open-ended RPG that stakes a claim in just such a setting, taking swords and sorcery and meshing it with steam engines and gunpowder.

The innovation featured in Arcanum is both its biggest strength and the factor that most complicates an honest review.  On the one hand, it features a huge, well-developed world that’s rich in detail and brimming with things to do.  The environment is versatile, there are a wealth of options for character development, and the plot allows for multiple, very different paths through the game.  On the other hand, the actual game is a buggy, poorly-balanced mess.  The core engine is lackluster and a resource hog, the character building suffers from balance problems we’ve all seen before in better games, and combat feels like the mutant offspring of Diablo and Fallout, but without the fun of the former and the tactical depth of the latter.

The base gameplay shares a lot of similarities with the Fallout series.  It’s played from a fixed third person perspective in a birds-eye view, with simple pointing-and-clicking to handle movement and interaction.  Combat occurs on the spot when a hostile is encountered, and is primarily turn-based, with each character allotted action points used to move, attack and use spells or items.  Moving far enough away from a given area allows you to switch to a world map for fast travel between cities, and a journal helpfully keeps track of current objectives and notes.  In short, there are a few complexities to master with the engine, but just getting around is unlikely to cause any problems.


Unfortunately, a lot of other things are likely to cause problems.  Combat tends to be stale and uninteresting, consisting of clicking on your target until it’s dead or your turn is over.  AI is simplistic and most things or people will just rush right at you and try to bring you down, limiting the use of ranged weapons; they can be used up close, but it sort of defeats the purpose of having a bow or a gun.  Your party members, should you acquire any, are usually competent and make good use of any spells or abilities, but they sometimes show pathfinding problems or focus on a weaker target while a stronger one is bashing your face in.  There is an option to switch to real-time combat simply by hitting the spacebar, but it moves far too quickly to be manageable and makes certain weapons completely useless.

One can opt for magical or technological skills throughout the game, and both have their uses, but some are clearly superior to others.  Magic, in particular, tends to be overpowered, with select spells (such as Disintegrate, a one-hit kill spell) being virtually impossible to stop.  Conversely, technology consists of acquiring schematics and raw materials used to build items, ranging from unique guns and armor to stat-boosting drugs to various mechanical devices.  Sadly, the complexity of the field makes it far less useful in direct combat than magic.  And this is beside the fact that dexterity directly determines how many action points you have, and thus how much damage you can do in a single turn; high-dex monsters like brute fangs and were-rats can tear the unprepared to shreds before one can make a single move.

The entire game world is instanced at once, meaning you can literally walk from one end of the continent to the other without calling up the world map.  While theoretically cool, this only has a few practical applications, such as finding secret areas near coastlines or mountains, where the world map makes it difficult to navigate.  The major problem with this is that the game is plagued with periodic loading times, often for no readily apparent reason.  Slowdown is not uncommon with a lot of characters on screen, though the graphics typically aren’t that demanding.


The visuals are mediocre on average, with the bad consisting of drab forests and villages, and the good containing more imaginative locations: the industrial city of Tarant, with factories, boutiques and museums, or the Elven city of Qintarra, built onto the tree branches of an ancient forest.  There are only a handful of character models for each race, but a good variety of outfits exist for creatures of all sizes, and there are a few interesting critters to fight.  Combat doesn’t look all that pretty, and the interface is needlessly cluttered and unintuitive.

For many, the above is going to be a deal breaker at some point, and yet Arcanum does bring to the table ideas that few RPGs even touch upon.  The world of Arcanum takes the typical fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, knights and wizards and carries it into an industrial revolution.  Steam engines generate electricity to power entire cities, railroads stitch across the continent, and primitive aircraft are just beginning to take flight.  Bandits may carry pistols and rifles instead of swords, elite soldiers deploy machine guns to put down an orc uprising, and engineers can even build mechanized creatures to do battle for them.  Such options are not just background flavor; trains can rapidly carry you across the continent, electricians can wire up some of their weapons to do electrical damage on contact, and you can both fight and gain the use of steam-powered robots.  The rock golem that damages your sword when you swing at it will fall quickly to a couple grenades or a dynamite trap.

The game engine itself, flawed as it is, does add to the versatility: you can bash open a locked door instead of finding a key or picking the lock, hop through windows, use explosives or magic to blow open a chest, or shoot out lights to make yourself harder to hit.  Major characters can be killed and searched for clues, if you’re not interested in talking to them, and shops can be looted for their inventory when the owner steps out for the night, if you’re short on cash.  A diverse cast of NPCs can be recruited to join your party, and all have their uses; some can help by building tech items you can’t, or slinging spells you didn’t pick up, or even by just carrying more than you ever could.  Some, however, don’t take kindly to traveling with certain others, and will scold, disband or even attack you if they don’t like the way you do things.


The breadth of options is reflected in the character development, which takes a few pages from Fallout but adds some options to keep things interesting.  Players can select pre-generated characters or roll their own, selecting race, gender and one of several dozen backgrounds; these range from being raised by monks to running away with the circus to being Frankenstein’s monster, and they have a wide variety of effects on starting statistics.  One is then issued five points to put towards stats, skills (weapon use, medicine, picking locks, haggling, etc.), tech disciplines and magical colleges.  You gain an additional point for every level gained, with a bonus point on every fifth level.  There is a good variety of viable playing styles, and the system is fluid enough to encourage specialization without shoehorning players that prefer to walk a middle ground between magic and tech.

Bolstering the case for Arcanum is the plot, which is much smarter than it first appears.  You play a passenger of the world’s first airship, the IFS Zephyr, which is shot down during the opening cinematic by fighter planes.  The only other survivor is a dying gnome who gives you his ring and begs you to “find the boy,” and warn him that something evil is coming back.  You are quickly accosted by a local priest who witnessed the crash and seems to think that this is all part of some prophecy, and from there you set out to find the ring’s owner.  It’s not an entirely unusual start to the adventure, but it quickly grows far more interesting, and the writing is leagues above what most games have to offer.  Aiding the story is the excellent audio presentation, with convincing acting by all the key players and subtle, appropriate orchestral compositions on the soundtrack.

At times, it can feel like Arcanum is two games trying to be one.  One is a sluggish, misshapen beast of a game; a haphazard, poorly-balanced monster that will try its best to scare away even the most stalwart of role-playing gamers.  The other is a triumph of gaming ingenuity, featuring a host of great ideas and unique twists that will almost certainly cause one to wonder why more games don’t do this kind of thing.  Sadly, there’s no getting the latter without the former, and it’s that very ingenuity that makes rating this game so difficult.  If you’re really put off by technical problems and mediocre-at-best gameplay, then Arcanum is just not going to appeal to you.  But if you can forgive bad coding for atmosphere you can reach out and touch, for a huge and highly replayable adventure in the spirit of the Fallout games, then Arcanum will reward you like no other game can.

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