SIDE A: The Guiltening
I don't want to waste tons of time explaining where the hell this blog has been but if I didn't acknowledge it at all, that'd be weird too. I've been an absentee father for roughly two years, with only a tiny bliplet in the interim. I wouldn't blame anyone for writing the ol Infinity Engineers off for dead. But during these past two years, the blog has been slowly eating away at my heart, like a congenital defect.
- Why the Break?
Lots of reasons, really. First, I obviously have a lot of fires burning. When the going gets tough, it's very easy to drop the little read blog so I can concentrate on the very popular Dark Souls podcast. With the advent of Patreon, keeping popular shows running smoothly is not only a labor of love (it is, always was, always will be) but is also a matter of responsibility.
I also had an exceptionally tumultuous year. Weeks after the last entry of this blog, I broke up with my long time girlfriend. This was heart wrenching (falling out of love, while not as bad as being dumped, is still exceptionally difficult and painful) and it was life disrupting. The breakup went worse than I expected and I was without a home base for a few weeks. After that, it was always something. PRGE, Duckstream, the holidays, finishing the book, etc. There's no shortage of things for me to be doing.
However, in that time, I also played a bunch of non assignment games and almost all of them were worse than Arcanum. Tomb Raider, Arkham Knight, Dragon Age Inquisition: all much less interesting. I had a realization after beating my most recent dalliance with triple A fluffem that I would rather have spent that time at home, figuratively. I'm keenly aware of my death, folks, and that means that my time is very limited. Let's spend it on something with soul.
- Why Come Back Now
The cheeky answer is because Hex Crank relaunched. That's not true though because there's little parity there. Kole and I are both exploring our pet obsessions that are only tangentally appropriate for the podcasts we do, but Kole has always had a wider, more expansive vision for Hex Crank than I do for The Infinity Engineers. I want to create a fun, slow critique of these games that are very, very loosely tied together. Kole is trying to explain and explore the history of the genre, which is awesome and admirable as fuck and he's great at it.
What really happened is a lull in other obligations. I got overzealous in getting ahead for assignment play, coupled with some breezy WOFF games, means ka ching, time wise. Also, I'm experiencing a confidence spell. I go back and forth between feeling like I can do everything I want to and feeling like I'm a grotesque. An imposter who has no business doing this. I can't write, I can't think, I can't speak. When that's at its peak, projects like The Infinity Engineers suffer.
But not right now! I have a couple months of light assignment play and I'm comitted to finishing Arcanum in that time and wrapping up this season on the blog. I'm not saying it will definitely come out once per week, but that's the goal. And I'm looking forward to what I cover next (I'm sort of leaning towards Icewind Dale, for some reason or another).
So onward, upward.
SIDE B: Shrouded Thrills
In the last entry, I said that the crash site was Arcanum's tutorial. That's only half true. Sure, we kill a lot of rats and kites, but there's not a lot of RPG there. Shrounded Hill is our actual tutorial area. And it sort of sucks.
You know what else sort of sucks? Candlekeep, the caves at the beginning of Fallout, the Temple of Trials, Irenicus's Dungeon, etc. As much as isometric, crunchy CRPGs are my all time favorite genre of video game, they have an issue with tutorial areas. They tend to be boring and slow. Too simple to be really compelling. And it's a shame that the first impression so many people get of these games is so bland.
And really, tutorials usually suck, no matter the genre. They suck because they hold your hand. And they feel doubly sucky in open ended CRPGs because we play these games in order to free ball it. Don't hold my hand, mom. I'm a big boy now. In fact, they triply suck in CRPGs because the people who love these games play them over and over again. Jon Irenicus's Dungeon isn't actually that bad. It just sucks to do it over and over again. Shrouded Hills is particularly bothersome, however, because you will likely have difficulty powering your way through quickly, due to what's likely to be a combat encounter at the end. You're here to gain a couple of levels and get past a meat gate.
But despite its general mediocrity, there are pleasures to be had in Shrouded Hills, and not just those found at Shroud Mounders and Mine Cart Larry's Boner Emporium.
- Head for the Hills
The reason we're in Shrouded Hills, remember, is two fold. First, Virgil wants us to meet his spiritual guru Joachim, a Panarii bigwig and all around good dude. He's staying at the inn. The other reason is we want to find out more about this ring that the gnome gave us. I'd forgive you for forgetting that. I did myself, actually, but Arcanum has this awesome little feature where it gives you a one line summation of your goal when you load up a game.
Shrouded Hills is a mining town. A few shops and an inn that sprouted up around the Bessie Toone Mine. At first, the player might think the podunk nature of this town is part and parcel with the abstraction that comes with RPGs but this isn't the case. Shrouded Hills is small but Arcanum is a game with proper cities too. We'll be heading to Tarant relatively soon, and it's one of the biggest urban areas in a CRPG of this vintage, giving Baldur's Gate a run for its money.
So, we go to the inn only to find two dead thugs and a note. I was half expecting Joachim to be dead but it seems he's dispatched his attackers. The town isn't to be trusted, he says, and that we should be very careful about who tell about the Zeppelin explosion. That's actually great advice because right outside the inn, there's a gnome charletan who wants our ring very badly. Here's an encounter where Arcanum shines: deception and paranoia.
Little William Radcliffe claims to be the brother of Preston Radcliffe (the gnome from the crash). He's actually a total fraud and an assassin. The reason this is a cool encounter is the way that Arcanum handles lying. I mentioned back in the Baldur's Gate days how cool it is for NPCs to lie to you in these games. It's not something that happens a lot in video games or in JRPGs in particular. Lies are big in scope in JRPGs. Grand betrayals, false churches. In Arcanum, NPCs are constantly lying to you and its not always obviously signposted. It's up to you to question them. Further, the dialogue options that lead to confronting the fibber aren't obvious. There's not a little icon next to them, they're not direct. The first question is innocent and only on subsequent questions do you get more confrontational. Only then does the liar start to stammer and get flustered. Arcanum doesn't just have liars, it has good liars. That provides grit and a banality to the opposition.
The fact that people are consistently asking you about the crash and after you, gives the opening hours a wonderful sense of paranoia too. Great stuff.
The reason I bring up JRPGs here isn't because I like to slam them. It's because Arcanum's macro plot could come from a Final Fantasy game. It's a grand, epic story. The difference is Arcanum is not melodrama. There are small characters. There are minor obstacles. Everything is at a relatable scale, even the otherwordly forces at play.
Though we'll do some side stuff, the critical path brings us to the town constable/mayor, a guy named Owens. When you ask how to get out of town, he says that bandits have taken over the bridge and are charging a toll. You can call him out for this but he's too chickenshit to actually do anything about it. I love the encounter with Owens because, like in many of these little interactions, you can be deliciously condescending in a manner befitting Victorian high society. I ask what his salary is and then ask if I'll be getting that much for doing his job for him. Even the user interface reflects your haughty attitude. Before you learn his name, Owens is just identified as Town Guard. Your character wouldn't know he's important until you talk to him so why should the player?
This sets up a very standard CRPG good/evil split. Take the job to remove the bandits and you can't join them. And vice versa. (Technically you can pay them off but they're asking for 1,000 gold, a huge sum.) I'm playing a good character to see as much of the game as possible, so I agree to clear them out. The bridge is guarded by Lukan the Witless, who's a pure delight on the level of Fantastic from New Vegas. Lukan doesn't know how to use words. He accuses you of being in "collision" with the constable, for example. You can get a bit of his backstory and find out he's a college drop out who teamed up with two kitchen workers (hefty half ogres!) who also felt they'd learned enough from college and wanted to start making some real money. He's a minor character, but fantastically sketched and charming. Sharp writing.
You can persuade him to stand down or murder him. I haven't put any points into persuade yet so I killed him and his jolly band of C students. This opens up the bridge and the rest of the world. I'm generally in favor of meat walls in games rather than real walls. I like my skills determining my progress and Lukan is a good version of this: You must be able to get past this guy to do the rest of the game. I wish there were some more ways it could shake out, however.
But that's the critical path. Let's talk about side stuff and little touches.
- Ghost Lies
The side quest game in Shrouded Hills is sort of weak, to be honest, though there's some pay off later. The issue is that the situations are broken down into that good/evil axis a bit too plainly. Do I want to rob a bank or prevent a robbery? Do I want to side with magic and destroy the town steam engine or do I want to tattle on the mage in question? These are here to give me more combat practice or let me know I can talk my way out of situations. Pretty ho hum. However, there are two quests worth talking about here.
First, the Bessie Toone Mine is pretty cool. It seems the mine has gone sour and some say its haunted. Many locals have an interest in the matter being cleared up, so you plunge into the caves. This is mostly combat featuring wolves and spiders but it turns out that Bessie Toone is actually haunting the mine. Rather than a ghost fight, this is a clue. She keeps calling out to Sarah. When you confront her son with this, he asks you to drop it. He doesn't want you to fix the mine anymore and he certainly doesn't want you to talk to Sarah. It seems Sarah is his sister and she moved to nearby Dernholm. We'll be heading there soon to complete this quest, but it's noteworthy because you get embroiled in a mystery that your client no longer wants you to solve, which feels gritty and a little noir.
I'll be talking about it a lot more but I want to briefly note how ridiculous combat is in the early game. As a weak mage lady who summons orcs and tosses boomerangs(!), combat tends towards the ridiculous. Mostly because my willpower/fatigue/magic power is so low right now. Spells take a set amount of mana to cast. If you dip below your minimum, you immediately faint! I spent a lot of the time in this combat dungeon sleeping while my companions sorted it out. This gets better as I can afford more mana potions and have better stats but it's absurd here. There's also a weird wrinkle with action points but I'll save that for a later analysis of combat in Arcanum.
The other neat quest in the area is the conclusion of a loose thread from the crash. If you recall, we found a bandit ghost in a cave who said that a druid cursed him and his friend to murder one another. So, off we go to the druid.
Since we're playing a video game, of course we get the druid's side of the story. He claims that the two thieves wanted his sacred artifact and killed his wife and child to get it. He theorizes that the thieves killed one another due to greed rather than any sort of ancient curse. This is supported by the fresh graves out front (nice touch). He asks you to retrieve his heirloom.
So, back to the cave to get the story straight. What's cool about this is that we're not only dealing with lies, we're also dealing with characters with incomplete information. The first bandit, Brehgo, could be telling the truth as far as he knows. Is he cursed? Maybe not. Maybe that's just what happens when you die in this world. Was his companion who killed him driven into a magical rage? The druid claims no but Brehgo doesn't know that. Isn't that sort of sad? This piece of shit got stabbed in the back and rather than believing his buddy did it maliciously, he puts the blame on a curse.
Brehgo admits that they killed the family but clams up. I couldn't persude him to give up his partner (who has the artifact) so I had to lie and say that the priest would absolve him if he cooperates. Now I'm lying. When I go to his parter Fahrkus, I lie and say that he's going to be cursed if he doesn't give me the artifact. He doesn't, I kill him, and then I can taunt his ghost about being cursed forever. I can even go back to Brehgo and tell him I was lying about being absolved. That's Alpha Protocol level shit right there. Video games are so bad at evil and malice because it's rarely this delicious. Compare these acts to blowing up Megaton.
The priest then, in a brilliant fake out, tells me he was lying. I brace for combat but then he says he was actually lying about not having a reward for me. He gives me a permanant stat upgrade as a blessing and sends me on my way. I'll be hunting down these blessings throughout the playthrough. They're permanent statistical upgrades you can receive for completing quests.
This is a significant quest with multiple unreliable parties where the player is required to manipulate NPCs to get what they want. That's why I love this genre so much.
Oh, and it's worth noting that I picked up a friend around here. A cheerful drunk half ogre named Sog Mead Mug. He's a badass tanky moron and he's probably going to stay with us for most of the game. The most interesting thing about him mechanically is that, while he's good aligned, he's also a drunk. If you're evil and want to keep him happy, you can ply him with alcohol. That's right: if you make him do evil stuff, you can keep him around by giving him enough booze to cope. RPGS! And his name? Cool flavor bit here: Half Ogres are named for who they are, not for their families.
Next entry we'll be looking at Dernholm, another minor quest hub, and talking about some particularly fiddly bits of Arcanum's interface, some good, some awful. I hope you'll join me.