Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, part 1

I bought Arcanum in early 2010, during a sale on GOG, based on user reviews. At the time, I had only briefly experimented with a single Infinity Engine game (Baldur's Gate 1), and had not yet touched any others of this sort. After trying it out as far as getting to the first town, I decided (wisely, I think) to postpone further exploration until I'd cut my teeth on Baldur's Gate first. Returning to it now with that experience under my belt, as well as Planescape: Torment and some Icewind Dale experience, and I find myself much better prepared to enjoy Arcanum.

This is my first Troika game, though I know some people might recommend I try the first two Fallout games first. Troika was also responsible for Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, which also has my interest. I've seen some gameplay footage of it on Youtube, showing the different kinds of dialogue and other interactions available to the player depending on variables such as clan, which is most notable if you're playing as a Malkavian. Members of that clan have some kind of mental troubles, and often perceive that everyone is looking at them or talking to them, even people on TV, or inanimate objects.

Arcanum has a similar mechanic. NPCs speak to you differently based on your stats, what you're wearing, your race, and who you're traveling with, and your own dialogue is affected by things such as your intelligence or level of drunkenness (as in the Fallout games, there's an entire alternate script for all characters including the player if you choose to play a character with the intellect stats of a dullard). The replayability of this game looks very high.

Artistic design

The portraits of Arcanum are unique and interesting, made in a period style that I see numerous fans have attempted to replicate, but I'm afraid only a skilled painter could copy such a distinctive style. Almost all portraits display the typical sullen expression found in both paintings and photographs of the time, whether it was a social norm or a consequence of the long sitting times required to make them, during which an expression would be difficult to maintain.

The elves look like Vulcans, which is an appropriate look for such a proud race. Personally, I like the idea of proud, beautiful elves, and since the backlash against that idea as being too "generic" has led to everyone trying to make non-proud, non-beautiful elves these days, the result is that this kind of elf is becoming the more unique conception.

I do wish Troika hadn't opted for a square aspect ratio for the in-game portraits, however. There's a good reason why real-world portraits are taller than they are wide, and that is to reflect actual human proportions! The portraits in this game are all rather cropped on the top and bottoms, with too much white space on both sides for this reason. The portraits don't even show the tops of people's heads, and I expect they opted for such a low framing because part of the atmosphere of the setting would be lost if the picture weren't framed low enough so as to see at least the collars of the antique clothing. All would be mended with a 2:3 aspect ratio, such as in Baldur's Gate.

Uncropped versions of the portraits do exist outside of the game in a proper aspect ratio as shown here, which Crypton made available in a pack for download after finding them in another pack of beta content.

On a different subject than the portraits, the primary critique I have with the art design of the interface is that in the majority of the panels, the wood texture they used is an un-sanded, un-stained, un-polished wood, rough and weathered, and looks more like a piece of wood they found washed up on the beach than the kind of rich polished mahogany that begs to accompany those brass fittings. Wood and brass are indeed iconic materials for Victorian steampunk, but not that kind of wood! It's also a bit inconsistent, since certain select screens do have a better wood and brass texture, such as the main menu and several multiplayer menu screens. It's time for another mod, if I can deal with yet another proprietary image format.

Some linguistic notes

Like the Elder Scrolls games, Arcanum uses the word "fatigue" to mean the exact opposite of its actual meaning (fatigue means "weariness"), such that having "more fatigue" incorrectly means having more energy. They have "fatigue points", which show how much energy you have. They have a "fatigue restorer", which restores your energy. When you "run out of fatigue" in the game, you collapse in exhaustion. The strategy tips in Appendix 5 of the manual mention that a higher Constitution attribute gives you "extra fatigue". In reality, the more fatigue you have, the less energy you have. In reality, the only way to run out of fatigue is to get a good night's sleep. They should be using the word stamina, or endurance. Perhaps even vim, which would be an appropriate word for the Victorian setting.

They have a school of magic called "black necromancy," which is rather redundant, since the term "black magic" itself is thought to originate from "nigromancy", which is related to "necromancy" by folk etymology. On the other hand, the suffix -mancy is not even a generic "magic" word, but specifically refers to divination (the supernatural answering of questions). Necromancy, at its roots, means consulting the spirits of the dead for answers to questions, and nothing more, just as cartomancy means interpreting a hand of cards for answers to questions, and so on.

It is understood, of course, that the word has accumulated more connotations in modern fiction, but it would be nice if writers would coin a more accurate word for it instead of corrupting a word that means something else, even if it is related.

The manual

The Arcanum manual is extensive (187 pages), and largely written in a style reminiscent of Victorian-era literature and advertisements, as befitting the game's world setting.

It posits an explanation, in the form of a series of scientific lectures, for the clash between science and magic. In this world, the proximity of any magical device causes chaotic fluctuations in an electrical circuit, and even in such simple mechanical devices as inclined planes and pendulums, showing that magic somehow interferes with simple gravity or friction.

It does not attempt to explain the opposite case, of how the presence of technological devices might interfere with a magical spell, though I understand this is also the case within the game world.

It's nice that they tried to give an explanation, I suppose, but when one is as questionable as this, perhaps it would have been better left as a mystery. Absent some conscious guiding principle that would enable the "magic" to discriminate, any force that would interfere so badly with such elementary forces of nature as those used in mechanical or electrical constructs would also play havoc with living creatures, since our bodies and brains also function according to those same laws of physics, chemistry, and electricity.

Interface

Reading the manual has clarified some of the more confusing aspects of the interface that I'd been struggling with when trying to play it before. Turn-based mode is the best mode for this particular game, though I still wish there were a pause feature for times out of combat when I'm trying to click on a moving NPC to initiate conversation. In Baldur's Gate, I habitually pause in order to click on NPCs, especially since I have it running at twice normal speed. The best I've come up with is to temporarily toggle combat mode by hitting "R", which freezes everyone in place if you're in turn-based mode.

The manual has explained why I was often getting fatigued extremely quickly, and it was because I was always overextending myself on my turns. I was not aware that you should only take as many actions as are permitted by the green action-point indicators, and that using more that those would tire you out more quickly. To avoid that, I now click the "end turn" button when my green points are gone.

I was also having trouble with ending combat, because even after a fight was over and I had clicked the "toggle combat" button, my character was still frozen in place, and I couldn't take any actions. I had discovered that entering and exiting the inventory would free me to move, and I had been doing it that way for a while, until I noticed that right-clicking changed the colour of the cursor from blue to its usual orange, and once that had happened, I was free to move again. The blue cursor, I believe, is for selecting a target for spells, and since I'm a spellcaster, my combat usually involves hitting my enemies with spells. I would have thought that ending combat would also tell it I was finished casting spells, but apparently it needs the right-click to cancel casting mode as well. As a matter of fact, I've now found that right-clicking also can cancel combat mode if there are no more nearby enemies, so two right-clicks are usually enough to get things moving again.

Another very useful bit of information that I got from the manual was that you can scroll up to read past status messages after they've disappeared, which they do almost instantly if you're hovering over something else when it appears. Placing the cursor in the upper area of the status message window turns it into an up arrow for reviewing what, exactly, that status sound effect you may have heard was trying to tell you.

Also useful to know, again from the manual, is that the map interface changes depending on your location. When I was near the bridge outside Shrouded Hills, for instance, the local map worked fine, but the world map was zoomed out to show the entire map, with its coloured dots almost invisible at that size, and it wasn't possible to set waypoints. I was concerned that there was something wrong with my game, but the manual assured me that I just needed to be far enough outside of town for the world map to be enabled. At that point it became zoomed in to a more local view, and I was able to set waypoints and initiate fast travel.

I'm using Drog's high resolution mod, which provides a nice compact alternate interface, as well as an optional runtime parameter to allow me to scroll across the local map as far as I like, which is a virtual necessity for navigating through town. Without the parameter, scrolling is restricted to a rather small window, and so it "stutters" as your character slowly expands the scrolling border in the direction she's walking.

Character creation

I started out by creating the kind of character I usually play -- an elf mage. I was thinking I might dabble a bit in technology as well, though the game is designed to make that difficult. In retrospect, perhaps I should have taken more advantage of the unique setting of this game and made a more steampunk-oriented character instead.

Still, the magic system is slightly different here than in other games, since magic does not use "mana" per se, even though the meter is coloured blue as mana usually is. Performing magic instead draws from your stamina, which I suppose is a natural result of the sheer freedom Troika gave us with this game. Any character can learn any kind of skill, whether it be magic, technological, or other, since there is no class system, and so it makes sense to combine stamina and mana into a single bar. In most games they serve the same purpose for different classes, both being an "energy reserve" that the different classes can call on for their various skills. In lieu of classes, you can instead select a character background, which comes with a colourful little story describing you and explaining why you have bonuses in some areas and penalties in others. There are some surprising variables included in these backgrounds, such as those that give you bonuses to spellcasting during the day and penalties at night, or vice versa.

Although stamina and hit points are separate bars, it's still a near certain death if you run out of stamina during combat, since you'll fall to the ground unconscious, and will probably be beaten to death before you can recover. That's why I can see the mages of Arcanum to be similar to the warlocks of WoW, which rely on high amounts of stamina to use as a mana well, by converting their own life force into spellcasting mana. I'm going to see how well it works to play it that way, by investing points into my constitution stat and seeking items that improve it as well, and investing fully into the spell school of summoning, to provide me with summoned minions.

There seem to be a total of 80 spells that can be learned in the game, which are all visible from the beginning in the character screen. They're broken up into 16 specific colleges of study, of 5 spells each, and they're all learned by using the stat points you earn from leveling up. Each of these 5-spell colleges is a kind of "tree" in the sense that in order to learn the more powerful spells in that college, one must first invest points to learn the simpler ones. Very different from the D&D games, where most mages learn spells from scrolls that are either found or purchased with money, but vaguely similar to the sorcerer class I've been playing. Spells have minimum requirements both for character level and the willpower stat. I wish I'd read that bit in the manual before I started using my stat points, but I'm not going back now.

The technological and non-aligned skills use the same kind of tree structure, though there are fewer of each of those. Tech is supplemented by the ability to find or purchase schematics and recipes, unlike spells. All kinds of crafting are considered "technological", however, which is pretty arbitrary in the case of disciplines like herbalism. I have one point invested in a technological discipline (explosives), which allows me to make cheap molotov cocktails. Very useful for a fledgling mage with only one offensive spell and not very much stamina.

With 80 spells available, I'm quickly going to run out of room on the paltry shortcut bar, which has only 10 slots. I already have several slots occupied by health and stamina potions, as well as the molotov cocktails.

I'm very excited by the promise of this game! I can tell already that I'll be enjoying this game for a long time, and I have much more to write about.

7 comments:

  1. I tried Arcanum once, but didn't really get into it.

    I think they call Black Necromancy black mainly to distinguish it from White Necromancy.

    But the thing I really wanted to write is that when you get around to playing Vampire: Bloodlines, I would suggest playing a Malkavian on your second playthrough. They are my favourite clan but sometimes it can be difficult to decypher what you are saying, which in turn can make it harder to know what exactly is going on. It helps a lot to already have previous knowledge of the game. And be warned that towards the end of the development Bloodlines was rushed so as the game progresses it's quality as an RPG will detoriorate. The finale specifically is pure combat. So while you can get by on diplomacy alone during the early game, you should also develop some combat abilities.

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  2. I thought you would be full of praise for this one, from what I understand of your position on RPGs! But of course it took me longer than a year to get into it myself.

    I know that all Troika games have suffered from unfinished aspects, but there were a number of official and unofficial patches for this one and for the Temple of Elemental Evil which aim to restore cut content and fix issues, so perhaps there's a similar community for Bloodlines, or will be by the time I play it. :) But I will certainly develop combat abilities as well. I almost never get to play games solely through diplomacy anyway, and there are usually situations in these games where violence is the correct course of action even when I *could* pass by unharmed.

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  3. I don't remember exactly, but I think I think there were two reasons I didn't get into it. One was that I didn't aproach the game correctly. I was playing an ugly half-orc melee character because my research indicated that would be a strong choice. But it wasn't a very fun choice and especially having to overcome all NPCs' bad initial impression of me was growing rather tedious. And the combat wasn't particularly fun either.

    The second was that I started playing Arcanum around the time Dragon Age: Origins came out. You can probably imagine how that palyed out. ;)

    Since then I've come to realize that my efficient aproach to gaming was killing the fun. So one of these days I'll probably roll up a mage/diplomat and just go with the flow.

    ***

    There exist several unofficial patches for Bloodlines, but as far as I know none of them allow you to finish the game through diplomacy/seduction or stealth. The patch I used can be found here: http://www.patches-scrolls.de/vampire_bloodlines.php

    I know of one other, but the author's description sounded pretty arrogant. They had this attitude like they knew what Troika wanted to make better than Troika themselves. So I decided to go with the first one.

    There is also a mod called "Camarilla Edition" which is supposoedly really good and makes a lot of improvements to the game, but I haven't played it yet so I can't vouch for it. For a first playthrough I'd just go with the unofficial patch or even just the latest official patch. I personally like to first experience a game in "vanilla" form so that I then have a better understanding of what exactly all my mods are doing.

    I don't want to go too far off topic so I'll save most of my Bloodlines related advice for when you actually start playing that game.

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  4. In the second Arcanum post that I'm finishing up, I've detailed some hard-won combat tips that make the experience much more viable, should you decide to pick it up again. The praise you'll see in it is material that I had written immediately after the first post, so it's not a response to your first comment here, though it might seem like it. ;)

    I'll keep those patches in mind, but I'll hold off on downloading them for now, since I plan to play the Temple of Elemental Evil and probably Fallout before Bloodlines. I've already downloaded the high resolution patch for Fallout, in anticipation of playing that, though I don't yet own it.

    I hope to see Bloodlines get released on GOG, too, so I don't have to deal with a disc version of it. Interestingly, I see they've just released the Ultima Underworld games, which I just wrote about recently. There have been some other suspicious coincidences like that with some other games I've written about, too.

    Anyway, I also understand about going as vanilla as possible the first time. I made a few mistakes in my mod selection for my first Baldur's Gate 2 run, which I'm also writing about concurrently, and which you'll see here fairly soon.

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  5. Really looking forward to seeing what you think of Temple of Elemental Evil. I played through (using the "Circle of Eight" mod - see http://www.co8.org/forum/showthread.php?t=1819 ). My understanding is that the game is nigh-on unplayable without it, but I think the mod gives monsters more special attacks, which serves to make them a lot more difficult. Certainly I found the early game extremely hard (and difficult was all over the place later on).

    But in spite of the problems with bugs, difficulty and plot, I found the game to have probably the finest combat system I've come across - way more satisfying that Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age (both of which I loved).

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    1. And over a year later, I've completed my review of the Temple of Elemental Evil. :)

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  6. Not to worry! I mentioned the Circle of Eight mods in my post about Baldur's Gate-eque games, and I've already taken a party to the first town. What you say about the difficulty sounds right to me, though, since my first and as-yet only attempt to take the party to another location led to our horrible deaths at the tongues of some giant frogs.

    I have an Icewind Dale post approaching completion first, and another BG2 and Arcanum post as well.

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