Happy 15th Anniversary – Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Arcanum’s detailed two-page spread encapsulated the game’s unique personality right down to the shotgun and the “No Mages” allowed sign.

Fifteen years ago, Arcanum hit retail shelves in North America as the first CRPG from newly formed Troika Games.

Troika was founded in 1998 by Jason Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky, and Tim Cain, easily lending meaning to the Russian name chosen for the company which roughly means “group of three”. All three were involved with the first Fallout game at Black Isle (a division of Interplay) and did some work on Fallout 2 before leaving the company. According to Tim Cain, the working environment at Interplay began to worsen and Anderson notes in an article for the Escapist that Interplay and the team were unable to come to an agreement on how the team for Fallout 2 would be structured.

Boyarsky notes in an interview with RPG Codex that they “didn’t want to wait around for it to implode” given decisions that were being made at Interplay. Both Boyarsky and Anderson also didn’t want to continue working on Fallout 2 without Cain, who was already unhappy about how things were changing at Interplay for the worse, and submitted their resignations a day after his.

Troika wanted to focus on creating CRPGs that kept the spirit of ‘old school’ gaming alive and Arcanum was to be their first project, published by Sierra, and to that end, the team pulled together their experience to make the game’s setting stand out from any other RPG before or since.

This is a world styled with a clash of inspired Victorian-styled civilization, steampunk wonders, and even magick and half-ogres. It’s a world where magick once held sway and which now finds itself being pushed aside by the growing shadow of technology and encroaching imposition of civilization on all things, where shotguns replace fireballs and Tesla-powered staves can be as effective as a wizard’s spells. It is the way of things, however, and like it or not, the world of Arcanum is marching headfirst into a future of science and industry.

Arcanum came with a neat map (like this copy) on the back of the Quick Keys sheet. The manual, though, was the star of the packaging apart from the great art -- it was nearly 200 pages and written in character, explaining everything from game mechanics to the lore behind the races. Absolutely first-rate stuff.

Arcanum came with a neat map (like this copy) on the back of the Quick Keys sheet. The manual, though, was the star of the packaging apart from the great art — it was nearly 200 pages and written in character, explaining everything from game mechanics to the lore behind the races. Absolutely first-rate stuff from the last few years of a time when that kind of thing was still something of a standard for RPGs.

As for you, you’re taking a trip on an airship when it is brutally shot down from the skies. Somehow you survive and as you crawl through the wreckage, find a dying old man who asks you to give a “boy” the ring he carries and who will know what to do in connection with a dark fate that threatens to engulf the world. That’s not good.

Arcanum follows some of the basic concepts laid down in Fallout with its isometric world, richly detailed backdrop, and essentially leaving it up to the player on how they want to play the game and design their character. If they want to walk around with all of the intelligence of a dumb rock or a technological mastermind with an army of automata behind them, Arcanum gives them all of the levers and switches to flip and pull to make that happen. At the same time, it can also be brutally honest with how it treats certain builds.

Arcanum's character options are thick skinned with tons of crunch to wade through. It can be intimidating at first but offers an impressive array of methods with which to craft your preferred play style.

Arcanum’s character options are layered with crunch. It can be intimidating at first but offers an impressive array of methods with which to craft your preferred play style or experiment to your heart’s content as long as you can survive the consequences. (image courtesy of Shacknews)

Mechanically, Arcanum is filled with options ranging from crafting to magic and allows the player to blend skills and aspects from most anything (as long as the they have the pre-requisites) to build a truly unique class of their own. It can also be brutally punishing in certain aspects (even moreso than Fallout), especially through its turn-based combat whose foes can tear apart less combat-inclined characters before they know it. At the same time, the story, NPCs, and vast world offer up an incredible array of unique encounters and consequences based on how you play the game, treat others, act on certain quests, and even how your character is built. The main story may be fairly linear, but the permutations along the tapestry of choices and reactions along that path are often cited by many as one of its strengths.

It’s that kind of story-oriented focus that makes Arcanum’s world an impressively rich one making it easy to indulge your curiosity. In a world grappling with its own industrial revolution and where magick and science exist side by side as “uneasy” neighbors, ancient secrets and modern industrial wonders work hand in hand to invoke that sense of ‘adventure’ and yearning to know what’s beyond the next hill. It’s been years since I’ve played it, but that’s one of the things that stands out the most to me about the game — how it mixed together a sense of an age of reason with the excitement of being your own Howard Carter in plumbing ancient ruins in a far off corner of the continent in the search of sorcerous science or spells.

As modern as the world is, the undead and the magick that moves their bones are still as real as that scoped rifle you might have put together a few hours earlier.

As modern as the world is, the undead and the magick that moves their bones are still as real as that scoped rifle you might have put together a few hours earlier. (image courtesy of Shacknews)

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Steampunk armor? Guns? Potions and spells? Why not. As long as you can carry all of that, you're good to go.

Steampunk armor? Guns? Potions and spells? Why not. As long as you can carry all of that, you’re good to go. (image courtesy of Shacknews)

Arcanum’s underrated reputation often means that it has slipped under the radar of many, making way for games like BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate or Black Isle’s Planescape.

At the same time, though, it’s often found at the top of the lists put together by longtime, veteran RPG players such as those at the RPG Codex. And there’s little reason why it shouldn’t be at the top and why it still brings a twinkle to many a jaundiced eye for its unique, open world of multiple endings inviting the player to experiment with varied game styles (it was tough for me to pick between being a mage or a technology focused character, but I really wanted some of those guns). Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2) had even done a partial playthrough of Arcanum as part of an effort to help raise funds for Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity crowdfunding project on Kickstarter. Players can still play Arcanum today thanks to services like GOG.com and full, “big boxed” editions sometimes crop up on auction sites like Ebay from time to time.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Arcanum is that it’s another fantastic world that would never get a fitting sequel as Troika Games also lived up to how many games it created. After Arcanum came the D&D 3.5 edition adaptation of Temple of Elemental Evil which was heavily criticized for its buggy state. Vampire: Bloodlines was also another buggy release, though when it works, it’s arguably one of the best ‘vampire’ oriented RPGs made by many measures. Unfortunately, they were unable to secure a publisher for a “post-apocalyptic” RPG they were working one (which later was revealed as a sequel to Fallout that would never get made). In 2005, Troika closed its doors.

As for the “troika”, Leonard Boyarsky went to work with Blizzard acting as lead world designer for Diablo III before coming to Obsidian in 2016 where a number of former Black Isle employees had been calling home. Jason Anderson found his way over to Turtle Rock Studios, but prior to that, also worked for a bit over at inXile on Wasteland 2 prior to its Kickstarter launch. And as for Tim Cain, at the time of this article, he’s also at Obsidian doing what they do best — make RPGs.

Despite Arcanum’s lack of a sequel, that hasn’t stopped fans and newcomers like those found at forums like The House of Lords from talking about and supporting the game with new mods and helping newcomers, however, many years later, especially when digital services like GOG reinvigorate the discussion with its re-release.

Yet as Harebrained Schemes’ efforts have demonstrated for Shadowrun, and as a slew of indies have continued to show, it might only take some time before someone picks up the baton and tries to revive it in a way that fans of the original can appreciate. And when that happens, I hope that I can choose to take the train to wherever I need to go this time instead of the blimp.

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