Arcane Up In This Piece

As I prepare to plunge into another esoteric CRPG, I'm struck by two things about Arcanum.

1) I don't know Arcanum nearly as well as I know Baldur's Gate. I've played through Arcanum once, I really loved it, but without the libretto of Dungeons and Dragons to fall back on, it's a much more alien beast.

2) Arcanum is complicated. For those who don't know, Arcanum takes place in a fantasy version of Victorian Europe, where magic and steampunk technology are at odds. This is expressed in character build and creation. Choosing a magic focused character limits your ability to work with technology and vice versa. This is a good example of gameplay underlining narrative but as far as character creation goes, it's not a binary choice. You can also be a melee fighter or a thief or a gentleman socialite who doesn't raise a hand in anger.

Now, this is one of Arcanum's greatest strengths but also a feature that suffers from its inherent Troika-ness.

Who's Troika, she said, and smiled in her special way

Troika, a now defunct games company, was founded by Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson, Interplay expats who abandoned Interplay after setting up Fallout 2 in order to make a company more like the Interplay of old. This is their first game of a meager three. You'd be forgiven in thinking that a company that only made three games, with this pedigree, was shit and you'd be, well, you'd be half right? Quarter right?

Here's the thing: when I finish this blog, I'll have covered every Troika game in some way. Their other two games are Vampire The Masquerade - Bloodlines and Temple of Elemental Evil. Bloodlines is one of my all time favorite games and ToEE certainly has a lot going for it. Troika make the kind of games I like but they all have something in common: they're buggy messes. They excel at ambitious games that lack polish and stability. This is a bummer but I'd argue each of their games is worth examining.

Because of the just plain Troika-ness of this game, I am actually installing the unofficial patch. For this blog, 90% of the time I'm going to do things naturally but I don't want to deal with broken or buggy things. Baldur's Gate had Tales of the Sword Coast around to fix some of its problems. Sadly, there's no Arcanum: Steamcogs of Fallen Gaslamps.

Hey, this isn't the Infinity Engine

You're right! This is actually a unique engine created just for this game. It's not even a version of the Fallout engine. It's built from the ground up. We'll examine where this is a help and where it's a hinderance over the coming months but this game definitely belongs on this blog. It shares a lot of DNA with Fallout and Baldur's Gate while being very different, both setting wise and mechanically.

Building Character

As I mentioned before, you're given an immense amount of freedom in how you build a character in Arcanum. My first instinct was to play as a technologically focused gunfighter, mostly to switch it up from my mage in Baldur's Gate. However, since this blog focuses on my experiences so heavily, and I'm already at a disadvantage as to expertise in this title, I'm going to go mage. This is for three reasons:

  • I'm comfortable with it.
  • I can contrast the magic system from this and Baldur's Gate effectively.
  • Tech is pretty broken in base Arcanum.

Troika have a habit of presenting player choice without necessarily respecting it and this game is no exception. I guess there's no rule that says playstyles have to be balanced but it's certainly the norm. Here, magic is king and technology is significantly harder to use. Expect a B-side where I examine what makes technology a less attractive option in Arcanum and what I would do to fix it. Not that I have to, mind you, and not that I want this pile of caveats to scare anyone way from playing. Fans have fixed almost all of the problems with this game via patches and mods. If you want to play as a mad scientist in Arcanum, go at it, but after patching the game significantly. Since patching isn't my style for the blog, I shan't.

So a mage is the order of the day. Next entry I'll be talking about character creation and the world of Arcanum before making a brief diversion into a B-side about steampunk in general. I hope to see you then.