Hey! I've been gone for a long time. This blog hasn't updated for the better part of a YEAR. I feel like SHIT about that. In the meantime, in addition to school and work and podcasts, I moved and I made a game and wrote a book. But that's not really an excuse. I crave clunky UIs and we're still a few games out from System Shock 2 for Watch Out For Fireballs. So I'm back, baby. I said I'd be back by the end of Summer and I sort of am (depending on how you define Summer).
So getting back into it, let's start Arcanum proper. I recommend re-reading the last entry to get caught up.
SIDE A: CREATING A CHARACTER
Avelle from the Ground Up
Like Fallout (made by several people who made this game), you can either choose some poorly optimized preset characters or create your own. They're not as bad as the presets in Fallout but I'm still going to make a character from scratch instead.
The character creation screen starts simply enough with gender, race and background (there are no classes in Arcanum). Each of these choices is pretty interesting.
Arcanum is one of the very few RPGs I know that features a mechanical difference between genders. Not only do men have a greater choice of races but there is actually a statistical difference. Women are less strong but have more constitution than their male counterparts. I know this is not ideal but, to the games credit, there are a couple of defenses/explanations. First, I'm glad they didn't go with charisma or beauty for the female statistical bump. Constitution is an interesting choice but makes as much (or as little) sense as anything else.
Second, I think that it mirrors the setting fairly well. We know now that those sorts of differences are bullshit but when you're really leaning into the Victorian era Steampunk asthetic, I give it a little leeway. The differences between men and women were more accepted/emphasized then.
The racial options have an ingame and practical explanation. I believe (and it's been a while since I've read the manual) that female gnomes, dwarves, halflings and half ogres don't leave their communities or are otherwise not seen in the world. The actual explanation, I suspect, is that Troika being Troika, they didn't have time to implement all the animations or models for those other combinations.
In either case, it's short of shitty! I mean to explain, not excuse.
The races you can choose depend on your gender, as above, and are stock fantasy races. They have niches specific to the Arcanum world, however, which is really cool. I'll get into some of that when I cover the Arcanum manual in a future entry (it's a top 5 game manual, I'm serious), but for now you can just about comfortably assume that fantasy tropes apply.
One consideration you have to make, however, is magical versus technological aptitude. Arcanum is a setting about the conflict between old and new, magic and technology, tradition and progress and the different races align to different places on the spectrum. Since I want to play a mage, I'm going elf, though gnomes and humans are also good choices.
The backgrounds in Arcanum are pretty basic. They're just short paragraph describing where you came from, conveying certain statistical benefits and penalties. Some are racially specific, though many, like "Afraid of the Dark" or "Tomboy," are applicable to everyone. These backgrounds reinforce the setting/time period as well with such backgrounds as Frankenstein Monster or Mad Doctor. I choose Miracle Child. I used to have a fatal disease but my parents found an unorthodox physician to cure me. It gives me huge benefits to my mental stats and big penalties to my physical stats. Works for me, I think.
(Here's a brief note about the time period before I get further along: I'm going to say Victorian. I don't want to hear about it if it's actually Edwardian or whatever. That sort of pendantry will get you nowhere here. You know what I mean: steampunk. Corsets, pocket watches, gears, top hats, petticoats, monocles.)
After this relatively hassle free set of choices, you're dumped into a very complex point allocation screen. This is the sort of thing I imagine giving Dragon Age players nightmares. We have five points to spend. Let's see how we can spend them:
Arcanum uses 8 stats rather than the standard six from D and D or the SPECIAL system. Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Beauty, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower and Charisma. They start at 9 and 20 is the max. I don't actually put any points into these. My background took care of a lot of that for me and I'm going to be concentrating on getting some needed spells right now. I'll eventually be putting points into Willpower, Intelligence and Charisma.
After that you have three areas you can put points into. Technological disciplines, schools of magic, or skills. Each of these areas contain many, many options, with skills being relatively managable at 16. There are 16 spell colleges with five spells each. There are 8 schools of technology with 10 schematics each. It's god damn overwhelming.
To many, this is going to seem like a drawback. They might wish that the Gordon Ramsey of video games would come in and swear at everyone and get them to reduce their menus to just a few good items. But, and this is a theme I'll keep coming back to on the blog, this sort of complexity breeds interest for me. It just feels better. It's a living, breathing world and the verbs you have aren't always functional in each situation. You can do a lot of interesting things with these spells that you can't in a more streamlined system.
There are some steps you can take to simplify things, however. The three places you can spend points roughly correspond to three different play styles (not classes). Do you want to solve problems via tech, magic or using tools/your brain/your hands? Because the secret is that there's a lot of overlap between the end results of these three disciplines. You can pick a lock with a lock pick or with magic or you could blow it up. All three provide an open door (though they're varying degrees of loud) but all three feel very different. Having different paths to the same goal underlines the flavor and theme of the setting.
In basic terms, magic is something you can just cast and it costs willpower. Technology requires parts and schematics and often produces a consumable (not always). Skills just require your own meat and a weapon or lockpick. Both magic users and technomancers are expected to dabble in skills but I don't for this first point dump.
I buy five spells from three schools right off the bat. I want the 2nd spell available in the Conveyance school (Cantrip, which picks locks), which means I also get Disarm (also useful). I choose the first two Summoning spells (Insect Swarm, which functions as a single target Slow and Summon Orc, which functions as a summoning of an orc) and I choose Harm.
Harm is my bread and butter attack spell. It scales well, you can cast it quickly and you can get it right away. It'll last me nearly the whole game.
There are a lot of other tempting schools! Temporal is cool, force is cool, and almost all of them feature utility and attack spells. The magic system in this game is SO FUCKING RAD. I can't wait to fuck around with more spells as the game goes on.
SIDE B: Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines
Arcanum has a hell of an intro.
There's a short animated movie at first showing a dark ages knight on a battlefield. The knight slowly stands up to meet a dark figure in battle. The dark figure pulls a gun, however, and shoots the knight. BAM! New meets old. THEME.
When you actually start the game, you get an olde tyme title card showing that you're on the IFS Zephyr, a luxory zeppelin. The soundtrack starts up (which will get its own entry because it's among the greatest game soundtracks ever) as we show some passengers enjoying drinks. Suddenly, orcrish pilots in single engine attack planes open fire, scuttling the aircraft.
You awaken in the wreckage, wander through the flaming ruin, and come upon a gnome. He tells us to "find the boy" and "give him the ring." He says they "did what they had to do" and that "he's coming back and means to destroy everything." It's dramatic and rad.
As the game starts proper, you're approached by Virgil (the name is a bit on the nose). Virgil is incoherent at first, blabbing on about knowing who you are. Apparently, he's new to an Elvish religion (called The Panarii) and he believes you're their reincarnated god. The flaming wreck, you surviving, it's all part of a prophecy.
Virgil is voice acted by Rino Romano, the same person who played Luis in Resident Evil 4 and he does a great job. It's my favorite mix of VO in a game: just a bit in important scenes to get the character across, then let me read. The actor sells the nervous and awestruck young man incredibly well. He wants to take you to his elder to expand on the prophecy.
But first, we're off to look for survivors and fight wolves (and "kites," our version of xvarts). This is the combat tutorial, as it were, the equivalent of the rat cave in Fallout and it's nothing special. As we'll note throughout this series, the combat in Arcanum isn't great. It's on a grid, sort of, and uses an action point economy but there's very little in the way of positioning or tactics. It's mostly preparation and build with fights that play out like Final Fantasy (two groups of people, standing in a line, punching one another).
Interestingly, you can change to real time combat if you like but it moves so quickly that I don't recommend it except for specific strategies.
One really cool note is that all the corpses you find around you are the player characters you didn't choose. Nice touch! There are plenty of bottles of wine and tech scrap on the ground (and one important camera on a photographer named Zapruder, hmmm) but no survivors. Oh, and you find an amulet with a creepy eye. Sure to be important later.
Two other interesting things happen in this area, before we go to town for the next entry. First, there's a cave full of rats. The cave is inhabited by a spirit who says that he and his parter came to a hedge priest and were cursed to go mad and attack one another. He wants you to avenge his death. There's more to this story, which we'll get to, but what I love is that you can question him and poke holes in his story. If you ask, "What do I get out of it?" he says he'll give you the location of a treasure cache. If you then say, "If you had a treasure cache, why were you so poor?" He'll quickly make up an excuse that doesn't really work with what he said previously. It's up to the player to be suspicious but the game gives you the tools to do so.
The second encounter is with a man who's run up the mountain to question you. It becomes obvious a couple lines in that he's trying to determine if you were in the crash. Rather than let you just go on, Virgil interrupts and says that he know show to handle guys like this and asks that you let him do the talking. Do so and Virgil pokes holes in the guy's story left and right and ultimately scares him off.
This guy is a member of a cult and Virgil was right. At any point, you can interrupt Virgil and take over but it's best to let him speak. This is awesome. It signals that your companions, at least Virgil, aren't going to be blank slates. They're going to take an active role in your adventure and they're going to speak their minds.
Second, it reveals a bit of Virgil's backstory. When we learn more, I'll write more, but suffice it to say that Virgil is a wonderful character and there's a lot more to him than it initially appears.
But that's it for now! Stay tuned for more about gnomes, rings, cameras, cults and kites! We'll be exploring the first town next entry for the A-side. The B-side is up in the air but at some point I want to write about steampunk in general. Maybe I'll do it then.