Ben and Colin Explore Arcanum: Part 4

Colin:

Well, we’re a week late on this one- but for good reason. We warned you at the start that Arcanum was a buggy game- Ben paid the ultimate price. After an incredibly busy week, he finally sat down to play some Arcanum only to find his save corrupted. We fought to get him caught up as quickly as possible with a new save, and I think in the end we actually ended up with a character more capable than his last. Character Builds- You Can Screw Them Up.

Anyway, our Faster Better Stronger selves then dove into the former home of the dwarven Black Mountain Clan. Boy. Boy. That place doesn’t mess around. It is a dungeon in the oldest of school senses- a huge excavated cave filled with traps and monsters that feels at times like it goes on forever. This wouldn’t be an issue, but I’ve run into a particular problem- mana regeneration.

Y’see, my favorite spell, Fireflash… well, it costs mana. 15 mana, I believe. And since my character is about as squishy as a wet sponge- and I’m still on the default “Normal” difficulty, which doesn’t play around- I end up using all of that mana in just about every fight. When the fight is done, of course, I need to regain that mana- even if there are no more enemies up ahead, if I take two steps in this particular dungeon I’m going to trigger one of its eight billion traps, and need to heal up with magic. And for all my magical power, I cannot figure out how to raise my mana regen. It is the same as it was at level 1- 3 mana a “tick,” where a tick appears to be something like every 90 seconds. So with eightysomething mana… well, I usually end up leaving the game running, walking away, and talking to my sister for fifteen minutes or something. It’s not great.

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Ben:

In some screwed up way, my corrupted save files were something of a blessing. Colin went above and beyond when he crafted my new character; he went through the grinder until I was level 14, bumped my party size up to 4, and even managed to preserve my persuasive abilities while dumping some points into rudimentary combat skills. As I worked my way into the Black Mountain Clan’s lair, the significance of that last gift truly dawned on me. It’s the type of dungeon that would (thankfully) never make it into a modern RPG, unless it was in the form of some secretive side content with a warning sign hung at the entrance.

In fact, it reminds me of the types of levels I used to build in LittleBigPlanet’s editor. When I was a teenager, I was temporarily obsessed with constructing the most difficult obstacle courses known to man. Of course, my idea of a challenge involved gratuitous death traps. “Why have one spike pit when you can have 80?” “Let’s have every corner of the map spit fire!” “Can’t hurt to have another pixel-perfect jumping sequence!” I never had the desire to play my finished levels more than once, and it took me a few years before I recognized that difficulty does not directly translate to quality.

Black Mountain Clan isn’t nearly as bone-headed as the junk I made in LittleBigPlanet, but its ridiculous size and frequent dangers are a little much. Even with my Colin-approved characters and the difficulty ratcheted down to Easy, I still had to reload again and again before I made it to the end in one piece. Though we’re still in the early stages, my fingers are crossed that the roughest stretch of the game is behind me now.

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Colin:

Wish I could say either way, but we’re now past the point I’ve played up to before. There is side content I’ve seen that we have yet to do, but in the main quest this is the furthest I’ve ever gotten. Despite my enduring affection for the game through the years, the obvious design and stability issues always had me saying “I’ll come back to this at some point.” I’m glad to have even the gentlest pressure nudging me onward- it’s just enough to keep me from setting aside a game I really like and want to see through.

It’s tragic to me knowing that there will never be an Arcanum game  again. The game’s creators, Troika, crumbled after releasing a few more titles, and no publisher on Earth would consider this IP a “get.” Clearly, someone does own it, and is aware of owning it- whoever this is saw fit to put the game up on GOG.com for six dollars. There was work on a sequel at one point, but it died even before the studio did. Besides, what other team could do what Arcanum does? Plenty of teams could improve on the combat, graphics, UI, level design, and more… but you don’t play Arcanum for those. You play it for the smart writing and nuanced worldbuilding that few if any games have matched since. The reveal at the end of the “twins” quest line is staggering and more than a little horrifying… and brave and amazing in a way no team I can think of has the courage to tackle, much less the talent to execute.

Ben:

The world might be without another RPG developer willing to take the same risks, but I’ve found much of the same daring within the television-esque worlds crafted by Telltale. Neither studio nervously tiptoes around the subjects they cover; they simply present things as-is, without the gross layers of “satire” or exploitation employed by tone-deaf writers. You see plenty of games with the big “M” slapped on the cover, rarely signifying anything more than a crass attitude and otherworldly levels of gore. With The Walking Dead, Telltale earned the right to call their stories mature; the hours I’ve spent with Arcanum (and the cult status of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines) have shown that Troika also knew the meaning of the word.

With its innuendo, in-party banter and goofy cast of characters, Arcanum isn’t a poe-faced adventure. Who said being mature meant you couldn’t have fun every once in a while? Troika knows when to bust out the jokes and straightens up when it’s time to get serious. In 2014, such balance is rare; in its time, stumbling on Arcanum must have been like finding a gold repository underneath an outhouse.

Colin:

I’m sure you didn’t just call classic PC RPGs like Fallout, Planescape Torment, and Baldur’s Gate an “outhouse.”

Ben:

Who can say?