Retro Saturdays Episode 13 :: Arcanum- Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

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Readers of this column will no doubt know by now that I’m an absolute sucker for crpgs. Name all crpgs ever released since its inception in the 70’s and I can confidently say that I have played at least half of them. Ever since Fallout 2 blew me away at the age of 6, (hey, I’m a fast learner) I have dedicated a majority of my gaming time playing this amazing genre. Computer role playing games have come a long way since. But like many of the so-called rpg purists, my favorite crpgs would be the ones released during the golden age; late 90s to early 2000s. Among these are classics like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Baldurs Gate, Ultima VII, Gothic and a near-forgotten gem called Arcanum- Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Gee that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But don’t let the absurdly long title fool you. This game even with all its faults is one true rpg classic and one of the last original remnants of the golden age rpgs. What makes Arcanum stand toe to toe among behemoths like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout? Well Sonny Jims, sit down and let me tell you a story.

*Puts on nostalgia goggles*

Something Ends, Something Begins

Tim Cain, a programmer at Interplay Entertainment had brought the company considerable success through his ideas and innovations in the creation of Fallout. The studio wasted no time to get a sequel underway. But during the production of Fallout 2, Tim Cain and some fellow employees were disgruntled with the way Interplay management were handling things and decided to part ways with the company. It was no small feat to leave his baby Fallout behind in search of new opportunities. But Cain did it. With Cain were Leonard Boyarski and Jason Anderson, fellow programmers and close friends. Together, the trio decided to pursue their own start-up venture. On April 1, 1998, the trio formed Troika Games (a Russian word “Тройка” meaning “three of any kind”) They went from working under a boss to being their own bosses, a decision the three would come to regret in some form later on. The aim of the studio was to create computer role-playing games in the classic style while pushing the envelope on innovation and ideas.

Since the trio were experienced in making Fallout-style rpgs, their first product would end up a tribute/spiritual successor to Fallout. Thanks to their reputation working under Interplay, Troika were able to find a publisher in the form of Sierra. Expectations were high for the project. Despite being inexperienced managing a company and running into several problems, the studio succeeded in pushing out Arcanum- Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura on 21 August, 2001.Arcanum would feature an original and expansive titular fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution. The game featured open-ended choice driven adventure similar to Fallout, a 2D isometric engine, multiple races and classes to choose from, both turn based and real-time combat, party members to recruit, multiple ways to complete quests, crafting and much more. Arcanum would end up being Troika’s most successful game of all time, selling over 250,000 copies worldwide and receiving high praise from critics and fans alike. But Arcanum was also shipped with several bugs and compatibility problems. The game was found to be incompatible with some video cards, such as Voodoo2, and drivers such as nVidia’s Detonator3. Furthermore, the game’s copy protection software, SecuROM, caused system-component conflicts with particular brands of sound cardsand CD-ROM drives. Such bugs, as well as some gameplay bugs, were one of the game’s biggest criticisms. The latest official patch, 1.0.7.4 was released in October 2001. With the end of the official support several unofficial patches were produced by the game community to fix the many remaining problems and bugs.

Despite these problems, Arcanum established Troika as a competent studio in the ever-changing video game industry, paving the path for their final two games.

 First Date

I first heard of Arcanum having finished my redux playthrough of Fallout 1 and 2 in 2008. I have certainly heard the name before. It’s just that I never paid much attention to it, being buried in heaps of backlog titles one after the another. I quickly searched forums and websites to scour information regarding this absurdly titled game with my Motorola L6 on a 2G connection. People were hailing it as a true successor to Fallout, even the guys from RPGcodex. The hype inside me was building up, getting ready to burst. Niche games weren’t available at the local DVD store. So I had to do it the hard way. Using my 25 KB/S connection I downloaded a gigabyte worth of files in a few days. I used some recommended patches and a widescreen fix and booted the game up. After some intro videos, the game booted itself to the main menu. I didn’t do anything for the next 5 minutes, for I fell head over heels over the fantastic opening theme. It was mesmerizing as well as enchanting. A load of emotions came flooding over me like a hail of butterflies. The exclusively string quartet soundtrack is perhaps one of the best of its kind ever to grace the rpg genre. Don’t believe me? Have look then;

Without spoiling much for the next section, I’ll say this; in just a few hours of playtime, Arcanum became one of the best role playing games of all time in my book. This is no small feat, as I’ve been known to be a harsh critic when it comes to rpgs. Arcanum is unique, special and holds a special place in my heart for all the right reasons. It’s one of those games that I keep coming back to every once in a while, not just to rekindle the flame but to relive the memories of our first time together. It’s been so long that we’ve been together, but our love for each other still goes strong.

Enchanting and Mesmerizing- What Arcanum Did Right

Arcanum is set in an original titular fantasy world. What sets it apart from other Tolkien-esque worlds is that Arcanum is undergoing an industrial revolution. Troika effectively converts the usual fantasy elements into a steampunk fantasy. You got your average humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, ogres, half-elves and half-ogres living under the same roof. Each of these races has varying technical aptitudes. While the long-living elves prefer the solitude of overgrown trees and evergreen forests with a touch of mysticism, the dwarven race use newfound technologies to build machinery and mining equipment. Gnomes are reputed businessmen while orcs and ogres are depicted as the average working class. This contrast between magic and technology is a long lasting theme throughout the game. So much so that, focusing on one effectively prevents the player from using another.

Arcanum has an exhaustive character creation panel. Not only you can make tuxedo and top hat wearing orcs and dwarves, you can also assign their background (which comes with unique advantages and disadvantages), change their attributes, invest your precious skill points in a plethora of technical and magical schools of disciplines such as illusion, destruction, blacksmithing, trading, alchemy, thievery and a lot more. Your attributes plays a large role in how the denizens of Arcanum treats you. Have enough beauty and charisma, and the people will treat you with respect, as well as try to flirt with you. Have a character with less than adequate points in intelligence, and the game will make sure that your character is a dumbass through and through (even journal entries will become unreadable). If your character is proficient in using firearms, then you’ll be quite effective at piercing the magic veil of casters and summoners. But it will render you unable to use magical items and armors. The aura of magic users inversely affect any and all machinery around them. If you ever end up with a lot of magical proficiency, you’ll be denied from using the steam locomotive that runs throughout Arcanum, as you’ll just end up breaking it. This theme of contrasting lifestyle, the choice between advancement and tradition plays a large role in the story and the gameplay of Arcanum.

One other thing Arcanum does so well is the sense of immersion. Right from the get-go you’ll instantly recognize what the world is intended to be from the opening cutscene to the first time you get control of your character. You play as an unnamed citizen of Arcanum who is on-board the world’s first zeppelin, the IFS Zephyr. Sooner than later, the aircraft is attacked by what seems like orcs in some sort of flying machines (which any of us will recognize as  fighter planes). As a result, Zephyr comes down crashing and you are the only survivor with the exception of a dying gnome. In his dying breath, he gives you a ring and tells you to find “the boy” before dying of mortal wounds. As you stand among the debris baffled, you are approached by the only witness to the crash, Virgil. The story follows the player’s path as he searches for the origin of the ring. Over the course of the game, the player uncovers more about the history of the continent, the motivation of the assassins who are trying to kill him, and the identity of the one threatening to end all life in the land. Despite the limited 2D graphics and art, Arcanum feels lived in just as any other open world rpg. The atmosphere reeks of smoke and revolution. Newspapers tell the player of events that has passed, as well as forebode the events of the future. Each location has its own story to tell. Your discovery of the world and its culture comes organically and not through exposition dumps. Choice is the key word here as you are free to pave your own way through blood or through your witty tongue within the game’s restrictions.

Arcanum’s story is well written and will keep you interested and engaged through all that is happening. It’s a chosen one story did right.  The city of Tarant, in my opinion is the most genuinely made city in any rpg ever. Hell I’ll go as far to say that it’s better than Novigrad from The Witcher 3 itself (I might be biased, but I don’t care). The game keeps Fallout’s tradition of black humor, witty remarks and pop-cultural references alive and well. You’ll run across the game’s versions of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, read funny epitaphs, see references to current world events, locations (like Madame Toussad’s wax museum) and the history and philosophy of mankind in general. Arcanum is packed with quality content from head to toe and never ceases to impress me even today.

Arcanum- The Legacy

Arcanum has its share of flaws. The combat is unbalanced, favoring a magic user over a gunslinger, there were a lot of bugs, graphics was dated even at the time of release etc. But these didn’t stop Arcanum from being a success. A first person sequel to Arcanum, titled “Journey to the Center of Arcanum” was planned. The game was to use Half Life 2’s source engine, which they used to power Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, the studios’ swan song. The Journey to the Center of Arcanum presented in its design document is  heavily inspired by Half-Life 2, Deus Ex and Ultima Underworld, with a storyline based around the search of an extraordinary metal with the power to fuse magic and technology. But Troika went bankrupt after the failure of Vampire and the Arcanum IP was lost to them. A sequel to Arcanum remains a pipe dream, as the IP is firmly in the hands of Activision, a publisher that hasn’t shown any interest in the possibility of resurrecting the property. That said, hopefully we’ll see some of these ideas resurface in upcoming titles especially with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarski currently working on a super secret crpg over at Obsidian Entertainment.

Arcanum- 17 Years Later

Arcanum has a dedicated fanbase keen on fixing the many bugs, compatibility issues and all sorts of stuff. The game is now available to purchase via Steam and GOG. One only need to apply a widescreen fix and some unofficial patches made by the famed “Drog Black Tooth”. Or, if you are feeling lazy, just download Arcanum Multiverse, a collection of unofficial fixes from Steam community and you are good to go. It’s a shame that no one could fix the unbalanced combat. But, despite its age, the game runs and plays well. It’s an rpg that should be on must-play list of every rpg veterans out there, especially the Fallout fans. It’s a wonderful game man.


Well…that’s it for today Sonny Jims. It was an absolute pleasure to ramble about Arcanum, a game that I hold to my heart for all the reasons mentioned above. I hope you guys give this one a try, because it’s a game that’s well worth your time and money. She takes you wholeheartedly and gives all her undying love in spades. I better go before the nostalgia overtakes me and make me write another 2000 words about this game (in the case of Arcanum, I easily would). We’ll see you next week with another forgotten gem in Retro Saturdays. Enjoy the weekend and happy gaming!

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