Saturday, June 4, 2011

Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, part 2

Having played now for several days, I can say that once you get used to the interface and general mechanics, and allow for certain quirks, Arcanum is a very rewarding and fun game. I decided to take my time getting to Tarant, where Virgil says to go to advance the main quest, and went instead to Dernholm, since the map said it was a feudal kingdom. As a mage, I thought it would be a better place to start than Tarant, since I expect that a large city like Tarant would be more modern and probably tech-oriented, and I was hoping to pick up another companion besides Virgil. There had been a half-orc back in Shrouded Hills (which has a cowboy frontier town feel to it) that gave me a "maybe", but apparently my charisma isn't high enough to hire him. With as many social stats as this game has, alongside the other items to spend character points on, it'll probably be a while before I have it high enough. This game has not only a Charisma stat but also a Beauty stat, as well as a Persuasion skill, plus others for specific situations like haggling with merchants.

Alas, I found no companion in Dernholm either, since the only apparently recruitable NPCs there were a tech-inclined healer who would not join me (since herbalism and pharmaceuticals are considered "technology" in this game) and a shady individual that Virgil advised against (probably evil). The town itself was a disappointment as well, being very small, ugly, and full of rundown, abandoned shacks, despite being called the capital of Cumbria. It seemed to have no particular magical leanings, aside from the king banning technology, which some of the citizens cite as the reason for its decline. I followed up on a couple of quests anyway, including talking to Sarah Toone about the ghost of her mother haunting the Toone mine, and picking up a package for the alchemist in Shrouded Hills.

Dernholm led me to another town called Black Root (which is also spelled "Blackroot" in another listing in my quest log), where I was sent by the king of Dernholm to investigate why he hadn't heard anything from them for a long time, and to try to collect their back taxes. I was rather expecting that the place would be even worse off than Dernholm, and perhaps a ghost town, or a smoking crater of some kind, which would be one possible reason why there had been no communication with their king.

In actuality, they were doing just fine, and it was the best looking town yet -- clean and modern, with a seaport. They had defected from the technology-fearing king and formed an alliance with the thriving city of Tarant, which had thrust them into the modern age. It had a train station, as well! Now I could travel a great distance without the random monster and assassin encounters from walking overland (though the cashier asked me a list of questions about my magic ability and lineage which determined that I had to ride in the mages' caboose, so as not to damage the steam engine).

This is one of the advantages Arcanum has over the Infinity Engine games, by the way: you can travel anywhere without needing locations to be revealed to you or unlocked in any way. You can even manually travel anywhere overland without the use of auto-travel on your map if you really want to. Either way, if you happen to pass near a point of interest during your travels, that location will be added to your map. In fact, the map has a coordinate system, and I've recently heard a rumour in town that there's something of interest at a particular coordinate where I haven't yet been: 617W 528S. I'll be checking out that area whenever I go up that far north, as it's a bit out of the way of anything else I've discovered yet.

There were a few quests in this town, but I was eager to try the train. It only had two available destinations: Tarant and Ashbury. I had no idea where Ashbury was, since I hadn't noticed it on the PDF map that came with the game, so I thought it would be a good idea to travel there and get it on my in-game map. And that's how I ended up on the other side of the continent pretty much fresh out of Shrouded Hills.

Party wrangling and combat in Ashbury Heights

This was another modern-looking town, which I learned was all the way on the east coast, and it looked from the flora to be tropical or subtropical. It also had a bit of a magical feel to it with all the will-o'-the-wisps floating around town, called "love lights". I talked to several people in town, but I never got an option to ask about those lights.

I tried a little diplomacy quest from the mayor to try to settle a town council dispute about building a monument, but failed it, apparently due to insufficient stats in persuasion, or perhaps willpower or intelligence. I reloaded and decided to save that one for later, after I've leveled up those stats a bit or obtained an appropriate potion.

Meanwhile, a haughty and somewhat evil-leaning man was loitering by the cemetery gates, and I decided to investigate the zombie infestation the cemetery was having. I figured if he seemed dangerous I could deal with him later, so I accepted his quest to find an artifact buried with a dead sorcerer that was apparently animating all the bodies. I was also prepared to leave if I found the undercroft to be impossible for me at this level, like the town council one was. I was still level 7, and I only had Virgil with me, but I was also able to summon an orcish champion or two, and I had plenty of molotov cocktails.

Mostly there were just low-level zombies in there, but there were a lot of them, and I ended up having to go upstairs several times to rest and heal. This is also where I had to learn how to wrangle my companions, because unlike the other games I've been playing, in this one you can't control the actions of your companions. They are extremely stupid, much like Oblivion allies, in charging ahead to attack things as soon as they notice them, which is often into a whole group of enemies that would have been better pulled a few at a time. They also won't flee when they get hurt, and Virgil is very inconsistent about choosing when to heal himself or others. In Baldur's Gate, party members will flee if it comes down to it, and I can directly tell them to drink a health potion or tell a healer to heal them at any time. Here, I'm relying on Virgil to do the party healing, so I don't have any healing spells or skills myself.

This led to numerous deaths, before I got the hang of pulling enemies in turn-based mode, and this is what made the difference between the game having extremely irritating combat and a smooth and even enjoyable combat experience.

My tactic begins with hitting R (toggle combat) immediately after I make my first ranged strike against the enemy I want to pull away from their group -- the one who will aggro as few others as possible. Turn-based combat mode won't normally automatically activate until the attacking enemies close to mêlée range, during which time my party members are idiotically charging into the fray in realtime and screwing everything up. Forcing turn-based combat mode immediately means I can make my pulling strike, then use the rest of my turn to retreat a bit. It's not much, but the important thing is that my party members are frozen in place while this is happening, because it won't be their turns until the enemies have had theirs. So the small number of enemies that I pull come chasing after me, and usually don't get close enough to hit me before their turns are over. Only then do my party members get their turns to attack them, all nice and far away from the group, and they don't aggro the whole dungeon.

After the cemetery, I found an unconscious dog being beaten to death by a halfling gnome. I had actually seen this dog lying dead when I was doing the mayor's quest earlier, but my reload must have gone back to before the gnome started beating it. I thought it was a halfling at first, because he was going to kill the dog for eating a large, expensive dinner he had planned, but it was apparently a gnome, and I'm not sure if Arcanum halflings are gourmands anyway.

So I saved the dog, and found him to be a very useful ally. I wish I'd found him before doing that cemetery quest.

After that, I went back to Black Root to follow up on the quests there, which were probably more appropriate for my level.

Gambling and trivia

While exploring the services and facilities of Black Root, I met a woman in The Sour Barnacle tavern who challenged me to answer a trivia question for a wager of 500 coins, which was a rather significant sum for my character at that point. I had the option of making a counter-offer for a game of dice, as well, but as a character that favours the intelligence-related stats, I accepted her offer as it was stated. She then proceeded to ask me "What is the ancestral home of the elves?" Heh... Did she not notice that I am an elf? Almost everyone else in this town seems to notice, saying things like "What do you want, elf?"

Now, unlike Planescape: Torment, I was not actually told the answer by the game based on my character stats. I'm of two minds about that sort of thing, but I'm leaning toward it being a good thing when it comes to trivia, even though I as a player may or may not know what my character actually should or shouldn't know. In this case, I happened to know the answer, or know it well enough to recognise the correct answer as it was presented in the list of response options: Qintarra (also spelled "Quintarra" in other parts of the game). I knew it because I read that part of the manual (Appendix 2) that detailed the history and background information of the Arcanum races, and especially the section on elves, since that's the race I had chosen to play.

She only offered the one question, and thereafter gave only a general greeting. Out of curiosity, I reloaded to see what would happen, and this time she asked me which race is most industrially influential. Again, this was information that was in Appendix 2, so I guess the question is randomly picked from a list for each game, as a little reward for having read the lore.

For a lot of NPCs, you're given the option to role-play various levels of politeness or rudeness, whether in requesting/demanding a drink from the bartenders or bearing an insult stoically versus responding in kind. Your responses have some immediate effects on the NPC's reaction to you, visible numerically.

On the docks, there were dock workers who offered to play dice for money. It seemed to be a "craps" type of game. I don't know the rules of the real game, but I know that there is a special significance to rolling sevens and snake-eyes, and those featured in this game as well. Gambling is one of the non-aligned skills, and I have one point put in it (out of a maximum of 5). I won the first time, but didn't have much luck after that.

Magic items

Any magic items found as loot must be magically identified, and the spell to do that yourself is at the bottom of the Divination tree, the rest of which look absolutely useless. You can buy scrolls for it, but that only works once, and they're expensive. So the only real thing I've found to do is to find a gypsy wise woman to identify it for me, for 100 coins. There are gypsies set up on the outskirts of several towns, including Shrouded Hills and Tarant, but I haven't been able to find them in some other places.

No one explained anywhere what a "scroll of exiting" is. Most scrolls give a one-line description in-game of what the spell does, but these scrolls just have a blank line where the description should be. A text-search in the manual doesn't show any description either. Either it's supposed to just be self-explanatory, or that name was also used in some previous games and was well-known in some circles. No one seemed to state exactly what it was for in forums online, either, but I did find some people referring to it, and the context made it evident that they're used to teleport you out of dungeons.

Leveling pleasure

The more I play this game, the more fun it becomes.

Leveling up is a pleasant process. It seems to come more often than in other games, which is perhaps a way to balance the fact that you get only a single point per level to invest in its hundreds of possible stat and skill areas. It forces me to plan out what I want to accomplish with my character, and which skills I want to prioritise. I ended up writing a list to consult when I gain a level. Playing a part in my decisions is whether I expect to be in town for a while, or if I'll be out adventuring for a while. If in town, then I put the points into the social areas I want to improve, such as charisma, persuasion, and haggling. If I'll be adventuring, then I put them into the spell trees I want to unlock, or into the willpower necessary to do so. This judicious parceling out of points makes a new level feel like more of a reward and something to look forward to, and not something to be avoided, such as in games that raise the levels of enemies along with yours. So far it doesn't seem like Arcanum does that, because I've encountered level 30 enemies already, before level 10.

The level-up sound effect isn't very good, though. For many levels, I didn't even know that's what I was hearing, since it's so short and sounds like it could be just another impact or spell sound from combat, and because there's no accompanying visual indicator other than a message in the message area that tends to immediately get hidden by the other text that shares that space. I replaced the sound with the WoW level-up "whoosh" sound effect for better recognition. It looks like any .wav file works if you name it "level_up.wav" and place it in Arcanum\data\sound.

Speaking of lists, I've been finding it useful to take actual notes on certain information, in this and in other games, and I recently decided to unclutter my desk of all the small loose notes and printed maps and reference cards from all these games, and put them all together in a binder with some filler paper for taking notes and graph paper for drawings. (The hard-level modron maze of Planescape: Torment was the first map I've needed to draw out by hand here, so as not to get lost.)

Another pleasant surprise -- you can summon multiple minions! You can even summon several of the same kind! This summoning is a sustained effect, though, so aside from the cost of casting the spell in the first place, it also constantly drains some of your "mana" (actually stamina, but you know). Mana regenerates, though, so it's possible to strike a balance such that it keeps your mana stable if your regeneration rate is fast enough to keep up with it. Alternatively, you can just temporarily summon as many as you need, and unsummon some of them when your mana gets dangerously low.

More to come!


  1. I didn't actually have problems with combat as a melee fighter. It was just plain boring. I would walk up to an enemy and then I'd keeep hitting them until they droped and then I would repeat the process with the next enemy. I didn't really have to think about anything much and was essentially cruising through fights on auto-pilot. And because my half-orc was extremely ugly and not particularly charismatic I couldn't really engage into any social activities either.

    But now it seems the entire problem was that I created the most boring possible character.

  2. I see it advised all the time for any game that includes fighters, mages, or thieves, that a new player should start with a fighter. I never do that!

    I'll probably try a fighter later, though, because I want to try the low-intelligence path, but with high charisma and persuasion, for a "gentle giant" type of character. The background description says that people give you extra praise when you do good deeds with that sort of build, which sounds fun.