SIDE A: Dungeons Because We Have To
Arcanum has no interest in dungeons. It's a game about the future meeting the past, about dead kingdoms, and ancient religions. In some ways, it's sort of a game about the passing of time and all the pain that brings. It has aspirations above Module A2-H3: Return To the Cavern of Kobolds. So when it engages in mazes and monsters, it sort of sucks.
The Black Mountain Mines are the first real dungeon in Arcanum and they're a total slog. Let's get into it:
- Oh Black Mountain, Ram-a-lam-a-lam
We're looking for the clan that treated with Gilbert Bates. What we find, instead, is a dumb maze full of aggressively unpleasant monsters. Arcanum combat is never great (see SIDE B) but when it works, it's in open areas, against mixed groups of melee and ranged fighters, ideally with some cover. The mines, instead, are a series of curiving tunnels just chock fucking full of irritating monsters. Wolves and kites, yes, but also Seething Masses and Ore Golems and Rock Sprites. These tanky jerks damage your armor when they hit you and damage your weapons when you hit them. And there are lots of them.
This is totally unacceptable and the place where a lot of people quit this delightful game. I talk a lot about good games being offered in sacrifice on the altar of difficulty, and here's a prime example. It feels like someone thought the area was too easy, or there weren't enough consequences to the combat, and added in weapon degredation. But, like many hamfisted attempts at difficulty, this tests the players patience rather than their skill. Having my weapons break every few fights just means frequent trips back to town for repair (unless I spec'd for repair, and remember, specialization is the name of the game in Arcanum). That suuuuuucks.
A game can create that feeling of making increasingly brazen dips into a dangerous place and frequently returning for solace. Troika even does it in Temple of Elemental Evil. But this isn't that. So, if you're playing Arcanum, do what I did, and cheat yourself all the ranks in repair. You won't lose anything from it.
As an aside, does weapon durability ever really work? I can think of games where it doesn't hurt but I don't think it adds much, generally, other than perhaps Shadow Tower.
Anywho, I don't have much to say about the combat here. It's bad. You spend a lot of time in menus repairing your stuff. On the 2nd level, where the clan actually lived, it's slightly more interesting, but this too is hampered. The 2nd level is all about traps. That's all well and good and none are too lethal. The issue is that thieves have attempted to raid this place and every single one of them has a scroll of detect traps. There's really no reason to not have the spell running your whole trip.
Scrolls are better than having to save scum your way through hallways full of instant death traps, but these traps are more mild. If you're a magic user, there's no reason not to just avoid them all. The whole dungeon smacks of lack of vision and tampering. Like one person came through and left the traps and another decided to undo it. Sloppy.
There's some story stuff eventually. First, all of these theives have notes mysteriously signed "G.L." More importantly, you run into Gudmund Ore Bender, the solitary resident of the mines. He's the one who laid all these traps, the last remaining member of the Black Mountain Clan. And he's gone totally mad. You can't actually get information from him and instead read his insanity logs (carved into a pillar!) where he talks about what happened to his clan.
It seems as if Loghaire, leader of The Wheel Clan banished the Black Mountain Clan to The Isle of Despair (former name: Achey Archipelago). This was, of course, due to The Black Mountain Clan sharing technology with Bates. What's interesting is that Loghaire worked with a group of elves. Curious.
All this said, we leave to head to the isle. There's almost nothing good about the Mines other than some treasure and a cool looking garden set piece. Most players agree it's the weakest part of the game. Good riddance.
- Water Wings
When we return to Bates with the news, he has very little to add, though his gigantic half Ogre Chukka will join us if we ask. We ask, because we roll deep. Bates suggests that we hire a ship out of Ashbury to take us to the Super Sad Island of Tears.
Ashbury is pretty sweet. First, it's a bit of a magic centric town. There are will o wisps floating around, comingling with the electric lights. Before we head to The Poopy Diapy Sandbar, let's pick up a companion and do some sidequests.
There's a jerk gnome in Ashbury who, when you get to the city, immediately starts kicking a dog named Worthless Mutt. It's up to you to find the gnome before he kills the dog, and you're not given any indication that he's there. A completionist might find this unfair but I sort of like it. Some players will wander towards the dog and get a badass melee companion that doesn't count against your limit. Others will just find a dead dog. It adds a sense of uniqueness to respective playthroughs.
Much like Dogmeat, the reason Worthless Mutt is so good is that he has a lot of action points. He'll be with us the whole game, as long as I don't get him killed.
The two neat sidequests in Ashbury are the City Hall quest and the Necromancer's quest. The first is truly dependent on your character's intelligence and social skills. The mayor of Ashbury has a problem: the town wants to build a statue of their great hero, Lord Bettington, but no one can agree about any of the specifics. The mayor tasks you with speaking before the town hall. His idea is that since you're an outsider, he can denounce you as a crackpot if they don't like your ideas and take credit if you do. No skin off your back, right?
This opens up a dialogue where you suggest a bunch of directions the town can take with this statue. Who should pay for it? Where should it go? Who should get the contract? What should it be made out of? Your options are determined by your character's intelligence but even substandard answers sound reasonable and can work if your persuasion is high enough. While doing this, you watch a crowd murmur Victorian affirmations at you. "Jolly good!" "I say!" It's charming as hell.
The necromancer quest is only really cool because of who gives it to you. We meet Geoffrey Tarellond-Ashe outside the cemetary. He's a necromancer but he's not responsible for the undead who are prowling the grounds. He's just there to study and he thinks the zombies are swarming because they're attracted to something: an artifact of a famous necromancer named Malachi Rench.
The thing I like about Geoffrey is that he's a pompous dick. At the slightest provcation he'll start talking about his upbringing, his education, his bona fides. You can actually get him to join you if you're evil enough but sadly, I've been too much of a goody two-shoes. So I just go fetch the gem.
There's a neat little bit with a pair of fire elementals in the cremator and a brief quest about fighting a spider robot in a basement, but they're slight. Onward to Edward Teach, the badass seaman, who is going to take us to the Isle. Edward is truly great and has lots of non essential foreshadowing about the dreaded skeleton pirate Stringy Pete(!). More on him later.
To reiterate: at some point I'm going to do missions for the undead pirate "Stringy Pete" on an isalnd of death. So, hopefully that's enough of an incentive to keep you coming back. Next time, however, we're looking at The Isle of Despair and The Wheel Clan. I hope to see you then.
SIDE B: Combating Arcanum's Combat
I recognize that I'm in the minority in liking the combat in Baldur's Gate. And I stand by that. It's tactical, dealing with areas of effect and drawing aggro. Spells, potions, and scrolls make it varied. And your party composition is a complex web of verbs and weaknesses that you have near total control over. It's great.
But I bet that even the person who thinks Baldur's Gate combat is as bad as it gets would agree that Arcanum's is a bit worse. How?
Enemy A.I. is poor and constrained by a limited verb set. Enemy casters are rare, and when they appear, there's no BG style action log to let you know what they're casting. Most enemies simply run towards you or shoot at you with guns and bows. They never take cover, they never heal themselves, they don't buff each other.
Arenas are generally bland. Narrow tunnels mean pathfinding issues. Open fields mean combatants meeting one another in the middle and punching like a fucking final fantasy game.
The action point economy is wasted on the limited verb set. Movement is rarely important. Your placement very rarely matters a whit. Compare with Fallout where moving, taking a shot, and moving behind cover is a valid strategy and range is a critical factor.
All of this adds up to combat that, at its best, is a lil bland and at its worst is The Black Mountain Mines: tedious and trying. What would fix it? A more defined grid, for one. Better AI. Telegraphed ranges. Cover from ranged attacks. A greater emphasis on buffs. Any of those things would make the combat a bit more lively.
However, it's not all bad. Because Arcanum gives you a lot of choices in general, you have a lot of choices in combat as well. Dozens of spells, tons of tech, dozens of companions. Where I'm able to derive some pleasure from the combat is in that whatever force I bring to bear against my enemies, I had total authorship over it. My character is very focused on ranged combat and buffs. The rest of my party is melee focused, so now I'm searching for another ranged combat character. I'm building a complex verb set for myself.
The game doesn't allow much in the way of choice in individual encounters. You just use your strongest buff and strongest attacks while managing health. But I do have a lot of choice on the macro scale. I choose which buffs I want to focus on, and what weapons I want to give my party (Virgil doesn't do much damage so I give him a poison sword to add damage over time to his meager swings, for example).
So, yeah, out of the games I do for the show, Arcanum might have the worst combat (we'll see if I feel the same way when I revisit Torment). But, I'm not playing this game for the combat. I'm playing it to do cool shit with magic and explore this world. So, let's put this dungeon and this subject behind us and get to the Isle of Despair, and ironically, greener pastures.