SIDE A: The Middle
We're solidly in the middle of Arcanum and we're speeding up a bit. This entry, I'll be covering three areas rather than my standard one or two. The big reason for this is that we have another dungeon that, though not as bad as the last one, is no great shakes. Here we go.
- The Isle of Dis Pair (Gestures Cleverly Towards Dick)
In our last entry, we hired a ship to take us to the Isle of Despair to try to find a trace of the Black Mountain Clan. The seas were treacherous and very few people come back from The Isle of Despair, so there's an element of build up. In actuality, it's not that big a deal, though it is pretty cool.
The Isle is a prison colony, self governed and free, and it's surprisingly functional. There's no shortage of skullduggery but the island isn't complete anarchy. This seems to be due to Thorvald Two Stones (actual name: Thorvald Huge Set Brave Boy) and his bodyguard Ogdin. Thorvald's the only dwarf around and getting in to ask him about the Black Mountain Clan is the main quest here. In order to prove yourself worthy of the meeting, Ogdin asks you to fight in the pits.
The pits sort of suck. They're one on one battles where you have to manually ask your party members to wait and then re-recruit them afterwards. They're not terrible fights or anything, and if you're quick enough you can loot the corpses, but there's an easier way.
Ogdin is extremely articulate. Yes, even more articulate than my buddy who named himself after a container for honey wine. If you call him on this, he tells you the tale of his background which hints at one of my favorite quests in the game. Apparently, he used to be a slave until he was sold into indentured servitude to a gnome. He got hooked up with a teacher and started asking questions. Dangerous questions. And he paid the price for his education: being shipped to The Peninsula of Pain itself, The Isle of Despair, the Ol' Inlet of Isolation. There's not much we can do about this just yet, but we'll learn more later. For now, gaining his trust (and having a book in our inventory, which I picked up on accident), allows us to bypass the pits.
The only thing Thorvald knows about the Black Mountain Clan is that they're not here. But he belongs to the Wheel Clan (the clan that banished the BMC) and encourages you to go to them directly for answers. They use a high tech cloaking device to mask the entrance to their city but you can see through this illusion by using a pair of glasses with kathorn lenses. You can kill Thorvald and steal them, or take the schematics from his room, or find a glasses shop and comission them(!), or invite him along. I chose the latter as I am seemingly collecting dwarves.
When you ask him to join you, Thorvald is skeptical. He says that the ship you took here is likely dismantled and its crew dead. However, Edward Teach is far too badass for that, and when you approach, you step over a half dozen corpses of would be bandits.
There's a bit more to do on the island though. Some of it is minor, though evocative (finding a giant wrecked mecha-fish on the beach, hunting down something called the TEMPORAL CRUSHER (really just a monster with timestop powers). Two other quests are important. First, there's the matter of Cynthia Boggs. Cynthia is a young woman who asks you for help because she's consistently mistreated. No surprise but, hey, it's a prison island, right? She probably deserves it. Wrong, actually, because she was born here. It seems that the governing body who created this nightmare island didn't account for people frontrubbing. Cynthia is innocent, and asks you to put her in touch with the women's camp, a group of ladies who have formed their own refuge on the other side of the island.
In a more traditional game, things would go the way Cynthia expects: a daring midnight rescue by amazon bad bitches. However, the women's camp says that Cynthia, having learned zero survival skills, is better off in the prison camp. It's bad there, but it's worse out here with the TEMPORAL CRUSHERS. They give you a broken old pistol to give to her and say good luck. You can give this to her and have her die horribly on her own but I decided to smuggle her out, bluffing that she was my slave. The women's camp reluctantly lets her stay. I also could have brought her back to the mainland but I didn't realize that until it was too late. Poor Cynthia.
The other really cool quest involves bringing moonshine to a hermit. Initially, this seems like a fetch quest but in fact, this hermit has a secret. His name is Maximillian and, if you've been diligent about exploring Cumbria, you'll piece together that this is actually the true king! If you recall, Cumbria sank into ruin due to the mismanagement of King Praetor, a second son rose to power under shady conditions. Some real Game of Thrones shit went down and Max was deposed. If you talked to Lianna Pel Dar in Dernholm, you learned that she's the daughter of Warren Pel Dar, captain of the Dragon Knights, and she is very interested in the return of the true king. Maximilian ultimately relents, for the good of Cumbria, to enlist your aid. You promise to let his supporters know he's here so they can stage a rescue.
This is very cool and a great example of the inverse structure of a lot of Arcanum's quests. Rather than being asked to do a task, you find out that you've already done it. If I wasn't curious and thorough in exploring Cumbria, time spent that seemingly had no mechanical benefit, I would have been locked out of this piece of the story and the good ending for that particular dying kingdom. It's not enough to make your world interesting to explore, you should make it rewarding as well.
- Watchin The Wheels
UGH. Ok, back to another dwarven town dungeon. With Thorvald, we can see the entrance and make our way in. This isn't nearly as bad as the Black Mountain Mines because it's largely a town. A sprawling, poorly laid out town where every wall looks the same. There are a couple of minor sidequests you can pick up here (one which is neat, that we'll be covering in a future side quest wrap up), but we're mostly here for Randver Thunder Stone.
Randver doesn't know what happened to the Black Mountain Clan and sadly, his father is in self exile. He's been that way since the incident because he can't forgive himself for betraying another clan. Hmmmm. Anyway, his father, Loghaire, is holed up in The Dredge, another tedious dungeon. There aren't as many traps, there isn't as much equipment degradation, but it's still boring. Lots of spiders. It just feels like the devs thought, "It's been a little while since we've had a dungeon. Let's make this a dungeon." What is up with dwarves in CRPGs building their towns over horror show monster warrens?
You can actually bypass the Dredge entirely if you pass a speech check with Randver (he's been sneaking some side-dad on the sly via secret passage), but I went through anyway because I love you and I want to suffer for you. Either way you get to Loghaire, it ends the same: he tells you his tale. It seems that it wasn't his choice to exile the BMC. An envoy from The Silver Lady, queen of the elves, demanded it. He agreed in order to avoid all out war. The dissonance was too much; he couldn't handle doing something awful for a good reason. The good doesn't wash out the bad- they both exist separately. So, he saved his people and committed this heinous crime, a crime that required punishment.
However, it looks like it was all for nothing! As you talk to him, you can poke holes in his story. There was something odd about the delegation. Maybe they weren't acting on the Silver Lady's orders after all. He gives you a name (M'in Gorad), a location (Qintarra) and says you should look into it. To get to Qintarra, land of the elves, we have to go through the backchannels of Stillwater first.
It should be noted that you can actually convince Loghaire to give up exile, and ultimately recruit him. It's one of the neatest things Arcanum does: as you progress through the game, you're able to recruit legendary figures from around the world. It really adds to the sense of scale. Anyway, on to Stillwater.
- Still Waters Run Shallow
Stillwater, a snowy mountain tourist town, is really only a blip on our way to Quintarra but it's sort of an awesome blip. There's one main quest and three sidequests here, and they're all interesting.
The main quest involves a verbal sparring match with an elf named Myrth. This childish fuckboy baits you into a "who's on first" style conversation about the location of the elven city (it's in the trees? What trees? The ones in the forest? Which forest? and so on). Eventually, he slips up and you get to give him a taste of his own medicine. He asks if you mind him asking the purpose. You say yes and wait. And wait. And wait. Because he asked if you minded if he asked, you didn't say you'd tell him. This insufferable git appreciates the goof, but wants the pelt of the Stillwater Giant before he gives up the elven city.
This leads to a big charming waste of time where you meet up with a crypto zoologist expert on the mythological beast, claiming it can shapeshift and is currently in the form of a small blue bunny(!). I stalked the fearsome cutie to his lair but sadly, I didn't have the stats to sneak up on him. It's a dead end anyway because the pelt is held by our old friend and slaver HT Parnell. I buy the pelt (obviously two bear skins stitched to some antlers) and return it. Myrth is surprised: he sent me on a wild goose chase. But when I tell him that I acquired it from the world famous HT Parnell, he appreciates me being a good sport and gives me the location.
I like how the Stillwater Giant is a riff on famous hoaxes from the turn of the century. The Cardiff Giant, for example. That sort of, I don't know, smallness to the world where you could be fooled by rumors, bad lighting, and a monkey stitched to a fish. I have a lot of nostalgia for that idea, even if I've never lived it.
The 2nd quest I want to talk about is the Cult of Geshtianna, which isn't mechanically interesting, but is pretty hilarious. The local love/peace/beauty/sex cult worships a goddess named Geshtianna but unfortunately, someone stole their idol. Following some rumors in the bar, I learn that Marley, a local ugmo, is suddenly popular with the ladies. It seems that whoever holds the statue is granted great beauty. Marley gives me quite the "nice guy" speech, ending with a truly epic screed about the all female ghostbusters reboot, before I convince him to give me the idol in exchange for a blessing from the sex goddess.
Returning the idol, the questgiver Brigitte is infatuated with me. I'm holding the idol, you see, and she's willing to give me a private lesson in debauchery before I return it. Given my 2016 sensibilities, a magic idol that makes you super desirable is sooooorta rapey? But what happens afterwards is totally consensual. She offers to let you partake in their yearly fuckfest. I agree, of course, and the screen goes dark. Then I awaken, surrounded by roughly two dozen naked people passed out on the floor the church. This reveal has perfect comic timing. Humor is hard to do in these games, especially visual humor because so little is scripted. The player almost always has control of the timing, so humor is relegated to text descriptions, but here, something as simple as a fadeout works wonders. I also got a blessing to boot.
And that wraps things up for this A side. All in all, a pretty good stretch. The Wheel Clan is a bummer but Loghaire, in particular, is a great character, bemoaning the short sighted nature of humanity and the ethics of sharing the world with people who'll be alive long after we're dead. See you in two weeks (no entry next week) where we'll get elf'd up.
SIDE B: Every Little Thing It Does Is Magic
Magic owns in Arcanum, and it's one of the most unique, alluring aspects of the game. The in game explanation (imposing your will to counteract the natural order) is satisfying and the breadth is generous. It's fun to be a caster in Arcanum because the feeling of bending the world to your will permeates the play experience.
Technology, on the other hand, supports natural law but it doesn't feel natural. Playing a tech character is clunky. It requires reagents and components. The tech character scrounges through the trash for springs and fertilizer. They literally dig through shit so they can make a hat that gives them powers. Magic, despite supressing natural law, feels smooth.
It's empowering but remember, Arcanum is a game that demands specialization. And specialization beyond magic or tech guy. You have to decide what kind of mage you'll be and this is where the system gets cool. D and D has 8 schools of magic that all feel good and distinct. Arcanum has double that. And I won't lie and say they're all viable, I will say that most of them are, which is no easy feat.
That feeling of distinction is really important. A mage focused on Conveyance disarms his foes, teleports around the battle field, and moves his enemies away from him. He's a control character. The four elemental schools create walls to manage battle, harm their opponents, and summon a powerful elemental. Force blasts enemies, mental steals their alliance. You can change your foes into a sheep or trick the local wolves and bears into tearing them apart. Heal, harm, haste or hellfire demons. There are so god damn many possibilities in this system.
One of the reasons it's so cool is because it's not balanced. There are rough edges, ways to break the game and ways to disempower yourself. But with that disparity comes edge cases and with edge cases comes flavor. As a time and space mage (fuck yes), I have a spell called Magelock. This allows me to magically lock a door. For 99% of the game, it hasn't been very useful. But when I wanted to lock the ogre crime boss in his lair while taking out his gang of dipshits, it was perfect. It wasn't casting a debuff on him or giving all of my units +10% frost damage. It was interacting with the world in the way I imagine a real magician would. That's fucking cool.
Astute readers of this blog know I vastly prefer the 2nd Ed D and D magic system of Baldur's Gate to the more polished magic system of Dragon Age. Or hell, even to the magic system of Pillars of Eternity. The reason is that it feels realer to me. Something as cool, something as unnatural as magic wouldn't evolve into four neat sets of combat spells. It'd be big and messy. It'd have useless deadends. It'd allow for individualism. And Arcanum's magic system does that better than any other I can think of.