Ben and Colin Explore Arcanum: Part 6

Colin:

In the end, good will always triumph, because no one even wants to talk to evil.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but Arcanum taught it to me in short order when I decided to start a second, evil playthrough. An early dialogue choice slid my alignment meter to -1 (it goes from -100 to 0 to +100), and the very next person I talked to told me I was garbage and I needed to get out of town before they decided to erase my filthy existence from their home. Whoa whoa whoa. All I said was that I didn’t care to check a wreck for survivors. Granted, that wasn’t nice of me. I said it trying to be an evil fella. But come on, I’m not Doctor Doom yet! I’m just mildly inconsiderate!

That aside, this second playthrough is also a technology playthrough, which has been interesting. My main magical character now has the ability to teleport to any location I’ve been to, raise the dead (not as zombies, it’s a true resurrect), and of course baptize the world in a sea of fire. Tech seems like a slow burn, and I’m uncertain as to whether it will ever be as powerful as magic. I appreciate that they didn’t homogenize the two specializations in the name of balance, but as of yet tech seems just plain worse, which is troubling. Still, it’s early going yet. We’ll see what comes of tech.

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Ben:

I’ve been at this game for over a month, and I feel like I’ve gotten used to the way it plays by now. Switching to turn-based combat has made it easier than ever to step back, plan my moves, and come away with a victory. I’ll still die to bad luck or a mistaken plan now and then, but I’m a lot sturdier than I was even a week or two ago, when Colin boosted my character. It feels lovely to approach a battle and think “Yeah, I can take this!”

Unfortunately, sprinting into dungeons is still a pain in the ass because of one fatal flaw (a flaw that Colin himself struggled with earlier in this series): mana takes an eternity to regenerate. After a rough battle, healing just one party member can use up all of Virgil’s magic, and then it takes five minutes before he’s back to full strength (if he doesn’t need to mend anyone else in the meantime). I could trek onward, but the dungeon inhabitants tend to be dirty little rascals that booby-trap every few inches of the place. I take a few steps forward, and BAM, half of Magnus’ health is gone, courtesy of an invisible poison arrow! Now I have to wait for the poison to fade, wait for Virgil’s healing touch, and wait until the crew is back in fighting shape… before I take another step forward and get thrown into the exact same predicament.

These periods of cooldown and regeneration add only frustration, tedium and length to an already gigantic game. In the time that it takes one of these cycles to finish, I can send a verbose email, play a full game of Threes!, or listen to three or four songs. These obnoxious interludes suck the fun right out of the dungeons, and if Virgil happened to restore his mana rapidly after a fight, nothing of value would be lost.

Colin:

The burden of following a set series of goalposts behind me, I finally took the opportunity to do some real exploring in Arcanum. When you free yourself to wander, the heritage of the dev team really shines through- it really is steampunk by way of Fallout. The map is vast, and full of long stretches of empty space. It doesn’t feel empty itself given that it’s an overworld, but it communicates just how much of this land is yet unchained and untamed.

You have to wander a little ridiculously close to an undiscovered location to reveal it, and for some reason your party doesn’t travel in the straight lines you draw. These two things combine so that even if you know generally where a location is, revealing it is a bit of an ordeal- you have to zigzag back and forth across the target area. Interestingly, though, there is no indication from the world map of what the size or importance of the location. A small cave with a single family of wolves looks the same as a elven village among the treetops. It forces you to actually explore a given location- you can’t write anything off until you’ve actually checked out what’s there, and even then sometimes there’s hidden relevance that can become clear later.

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Ben:

After my disastrous save corruption, I started making unique files for every significant milestone and hammered the quick-save key after even the simplest of decisions. This proved to be invaluable when I accidentally ruined my trip to a treacherous island, but it also allowed me to survive a few big screw-ups. You want to be REALLY careful when starting a conversation with your allies; one click of a dialogue option will irreversibly send them away (or in the half-orc’s case, grant them their freedom), and unless you’re some savant, surviving without a healthy stable of fighters seems nigh impossible.

From rolling a character with pitiful stats to dismissing vital members of your party, Arcanum truly gives you the freedom to absolutely ruin your own game. Sierra’s games were much more devious (part of me still fumes over the easily-missed trinkets that instantly turned a game unwinnable if left behind). It’s a generous display of trust, but on my part, I wish they were a little more careful before throwing me the keys to their Ferrari. It feels rather awful when I make a wrong turn and turn their intricately-crafted creation into a smoldering wreck.

Colin:

I was going to say that that’s a trademark of this era of PC game design- and I don’t think that’s untrue- but it’s also just this genre in general. Divinity: Original Sin came out this year and everyone I know who’s played it has had to restart after realizing they had built their team improperly, misunderstood the way stats worked, or frequently, both. It comes back to that balancing act- making things all viable and equal, versus providing the variety to make each player’s experience unique.

I understand wanting the player to explore the systems naturally, and figure out what works for them without worrying about what’s best… but players won’t do that. If you don’t service the information as to what is the most effective in certain contexts, player will just struggle until they figure out it, and then do that anyway. Developers call this the First Order Optimal Strategy (FOOS)- figuring out what has the most effect for the least effort. Gamers have been trained to do this by decades of games that mercilessly punish them for trying less than optimal strategies. It feels like to me a lot of the old CRPG developers just didn’t respect this basic rule of game design.

It’s terrible because an FOOS isn’t fun. It’s the thing that works so reliably it becomes a crutch. Meleeing nonstop in Left 4 Dead, Kick13 in Devil May Cry, the infamous “noob tube” in Call of Duty. Players feel like they have to use them to succeed, and in so doing they fail to explore the possibility space and learn what’s really possible in the game. I think CRPGs try to avoid presenting the data necessary to discover a FOOS in order to force players to explore the systems, and hopefully what is actually fun to do… but in so doing, they simply make the players all the more desperate for anything that seems to be effective against the game’s savage difficulty.

I guess we’ll see more as the game goes on, but right now, Arcanum seems so old in its design that it’s amazing. Amazingly beautiful at times, with bold choices and a faith in the player’s competence that would terrify modern developers… and amazingly frustrating at others, as you try to figure out just where you’re supposed to go. We’ll keep trucking on, and having a good time… but it’s not a game we can take lightly, that’s fer damn sure.