Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura | Troika Games Retrospective 1/3


“Broken Masterpiece”
An oxymoron, I know.
But I can think of no better way to describe
the works of the now-defunct game developer,
Troika.
True strokes of genius aren’t conjured from
intellectual property or licenses, and they
aren’t built by amorphous companies or brands.
They are works of passion by individual people.
Designers, artists, coders, composers and
writers who have an inspired concept and the
dedication and willpower to turn that into
a reality.
If you trace the rise and fall of a given
game franchise or genre, you will likely notice
certain names in the industry follow your
favorite games.
If you enjoyed immersive first person sims
like Ultima Underworld, System Shock and later
Deus Ex, you’ll find that Warren Spector
pops up in the credits of each of these.
If you enjoyed old-school RPG writing with
deep worldbuilding and memorable characters,
you’d be remiss not to notice Chris Avellone’s
involvement in role-playing games like Fallout,
Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter
Nights.
Even as developers come and go, change and
reform, talented individuals bring the inspiration
to their projects and development studios,
not the other way around.
The now legendary Black Isle Studios (a division
of Interplay) were the minds behind many of
the greatest computer RPGs of all time.
Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Planescape: Torment
and Icewind Dale all came to be under Black
Isle’s leadership and direction, and their
influence in the industry can be felt even
today.
After what would become one of the company’s
biggest hits, Fallout, was released, designer
and coder Tim Cain and his team started on
a sequel, but shortly after the main story
and much of Fallout 2 was created, things
were on the rocks for the once thriving company.
The scene at Interplay had changed.
The “by gamers for gamers” ethos was giving
way to a more corporate and marketing-driven
development style.
And so several key staff left years before
Interplay folded its PC game development studios.
Tim Cain, Jason Anderson and Leonard Boyarsky
were three key pillars behind the creation
of Fallout: Art, design and coding.
And so they named their new company Troika
Games — which borrows the Russian word meaning
“three of any kind”.
Their debut project was a brand new intellectual
property, but within a similar game system
and genre as Fallout.
Securing a publisher in the adventure game
giant Sierra, this would lead to the creation
of Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magic Obscura.
As much love Troika Games had for their post-apocalyptic
masterpiece a few years ago, they realized
they needed to create something fresh and
different from Fallout or the standard fantasy
tropes of Dungeons & Dragons.
The setting Troika developed is a fascinating
one, and is likely the thing that interested
me most when I first heard about it in the
late 90’s.
You could sum up the world of Arcanum as an
answer to the question, “What would a traditional
fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, dragons
and magic be like if it went through an Industrial
Revolution?”
The result is marvelous.
Jules Vernian-airships, orcs with monocles
and ogres with muskets and bowler hats.
This wasn’t your pop culture “Steampunk”
with gears glued on to top hats and corsets.
No, this was a truly realized world with a
history both known and unknown, and a serious
and logical conclusion — what the magical
elements of a fantasy setting would face in
the shadow of coal trains and zeppelins.
Your introduction to the story begins just
like any great RPG should: with an open-ended
mystery.
You are shown to be on a great zeppelin cruise
in the sky when some crude fighter planes
shoot the vessel down.
In the wreckage you find but one survivor,
a Gnomish man who gives you a ring and in
his dying breath tells you to “find the
boy.”
This sparks a long and arduous journey with
mysterious friends and enemies looking to
intervene at every step.
Interesting themes prevail throughout the
game.
There’s a sort of anxious tension felt throughout
the world, as amplified by the gorgeous string
quartet soundtrack by Ben Houge.
It’s easily one of the most striking parts
of the experience, and a unique way to score
a video game.
Ranging from the dramatic main theme song,
to soothing sweeps of the violin, to unsettling
pricks at the strings in caves or dungeons.
It sounds like no other game out there and
provides an immersive experience as these
instruments existed in the era Arcanum is
set in.
Gentle strings or harsher plucks emanate from
virtually every location.
There are only about three tracks that contain
anything but this combination of violins,
viola and cello.
And as much as it pains me to fault this brilliant
soundtrack, there were times where I felt
it grated on my nerves due to its lack of
variety.
The deliberately dreary atmosphere is curious.
A world shrugging off the superstitions, magic
and monsters of the past into an equalizing
steam-powered future should be an optimistic
one.
But in Arcanum, you can feel the uneasiness
everywhere, in the city streets, in the voices
of its people and in the factories that keep
the society afloat.
In an interesting twist, Arcanum, like Fallout,
is in a way post-apocalyptic.
Exploring the colorful world you’ll happen
across forgotten ruins and artifacts left
behind by Vendigroth — an ancient advanced
civilization long gone.
You find magnanimous dragon skeletons in caves,
and traces of a mysterious history lost in
time.
The current society is divided, with magic
and technology in existential conflict.
Machinery can interrupt the workings of spellcasting,
and mages will be banned from locomotive travel
for fear that they will disrupt the steam
engine and derail the train.
You will come across the busy, booming industrial
city of Tarant, as well as the decaying monarchy
of Cumbria, and it’s clear that technology
is on the rise, and magic is on the decline.
The humans and gnomes started the industrial
revolution that took the world by storm, but
the elves gathered their kind in their great
forest cities and retained their magical legacy.
Racism and “technologism” run rampant, and
the world has become so obsessed with economic
progress and industry to care about one another.
The main quest travels the world from desert
ruins to lush forests to industrious cities
in search of an ancient enemy long since gone,
but rumored to reawaken.
There are plenty of twists and turns to follow,
and nothing is as it seems.
It’s quite an interesting tale, and the
deep lore you can read up on could have inspired
a series in itself had it met more commercial
success.
The absolute conviction to the setting is
commendable.
Instead of simply name-dropping setting details
in every other line of dialogue, the Arcanum
experience is one to be discovered, not force-fed.
You can read newspapers that describe world
happenings as they occur.
Read up on notes, letters and books to divine
more about the history of the nations at play.
And each character’s unique pros and cons
will ensure you will have a different experience
one from the next.
When it shines, it’s truly marvelous game
design — one that players have adored and
begged for a return to since the game’s
release in 2001.
“Doing what you know” isn’t always a
bad idea, but the Troika team saw the trend
away from turn-based games and decided to
create two divisive combat systems.
One realtime a la Baldur’s Gate, one turn-based,
like Fallout.
The apparent haste in which these systems
were designed is palpable, however.
I found the realtime system to be far too
hectic without pauses and breathers to cast
spells, use items or target specific enemies.
Melees would be over in a few seconds of swiping
and slashing while you frantically tried to
use tactics or skills to keep yourself alive.
Turn-based was more balanced and forgiving,
borrowing the action point system from Fallout,
but with a lot less readability.
Actions no longer have a handy indicator showing
how many points are going to be used, instead
having to rely on a clunky meter at the bottom
of the screen.
Called shots to the head, arms or legs are
now hidden hotkeys rather than an intuitive
anatomy chart like in Fallout, and Arcanum
is what you might call a “Whiff Simulator”,
where combat can go by with miss after miss,
sometimes resulting in what looks like the
world’s worst gladiator fight.
This is likely by design to make both realtime
and turn-based combat viable.
But it shows its underdeveloped and unbalanced
nature when you try to break the system.
There was a fight against a slow, lumbering
enemy where I couldn’t move away fast enough
to shoot him safely in turn-based, but when
switching to realtime combat out of curiosity,
gunshots were quick and movement was rapid,
so I could kite him with brief pauses to shoot,
effectively breaking the combat system and
making an impossible battle easy.
There’s a more complicated damage system too.
Instead of having hit points and possibly
a mana bar, the game features HP and Fatigue.
Sometimes while attacking or taking a hit,
you will also take Fatigue damage as well,
and spellcasters take a hit to Fatigue when
using magic, so you can literally spell yourself
into unconsciousness if you’re not careful
— an interesting physiological and realistic
take on taxing magic use compared to the physical
resource-based use of guns and technological
abilities provided they have enough bullets
or scrap parts handy.
To top it all off, insufficient audiovisual
feedback even from hits is disappointing too.
Most of the time, hits won’t even trigger
an impact sound or a damage animation, making
much of combat seem more like a passive affair,
even when compared to the years-old Fallout
games.
At the core of Arcanum’s setting and mechanics
is the compelling Magic/Tech system.
Each magic item and character point spent
on a magic sc hool will move your Magic Tech
Meter toward magic.
For every gadget, firearm or point spent on
guns, repair or engineering disciplines, the
Meter will favor Technology.
This comes into play during spellcasting and
use of technological skills.
Favoring technology will create a resistance
to magic in general and can even block healing
spells.
Being magically inclined will sometimes negate
tech disciplines too.
Without warning, the Magic Tech Meter can
even swing in one direction or the other depending
on if your character is standing near a train,
factory or other source of influence.
This is a fascinating mechanic but borders
on the obtuse since you don’t get a calculation
or popup that explains what is going on when
things fail for no apparent reason.
There are a metric tonne of technological
disciplines to learn and use.
From smithing guns, armor and swords, assembling
clockwork automatons, mixing ointments, poisons
and acids, and inventing electric tools and
devices for easier adventuring.
There is an underrated crafting system in
the game, which grants you a new schematic
for each level acquired in each discipline,
as well as additional schematics found or
bought in the world.
A schematic is needed to craft a given item
and shows the two ingredients you need to
do so.
Combining fuel and a rag gets you a Molotov
cocktail.
Piecing together a rifle and a looking glass
will get you a scoped rifle.
Mixing charcoal and saltpeter will make bullets.
This is an intuitive system that’s both
addictive and simple.
The only issue I had was that some schematics
for much-needed things were a little hard
to find at times.
The colleges of magic to choose from are equally
vast.
From summoning creatures out of thin air,
raising the dead, channeling fire, earth,
water and air, transforming creatures, charming
animals, healing, creating illusions, manipulating
time itself, psychic persuasion, teleportation,
sensory spells and many more.
I’ve seen few games with such a wide swath
of magic, which range from pretty mundane
tricks to awe-inspiring miracles (though a
little overpowered).
Like Fallout before it, Arcanum has a classless
system with a few starting molds to work off
of, but if you prefer not having to battle
the sometimes overwhelming options you have,
you can let the game guide your level-to-level
progression using a class-like template.
Arcanum replaces traits with character backgrounds.
Say you were raised by a wealthy family, were
constructed like a Frankenstein’s monster,
or were raised by Orcs.
All these add a sense of flavor during character
creation but also impact your stats in a major
way too.
With the addition of races to the mix (seven
in all), and the two vastly varied fields
of technology and magic, Arcanum offers more
variety than most other games even today.
As you might expect from CRPG design veterans,
Arcanum is as open-ended as any game you’ll
play.
In just about every quest you receive, there
are many ways to tackle them, some not as
obvious as others.
It has one of the most advanced non-player
character interaction systems ever made, with
a complex “Reaction” algorithm which measures
an NPC’s preferences against your character’s
magical or technological affiliation, reputation,
race, physical beauty and mental charisma.
A tinker will turn away mages, a shopkeeper
might sneer racial slurs at a half-ogre, or
flatter a beautiful elf.
The sheer amount of responses and mechanics
at play in your dialogue experiences is almost
mind-boggling, especially when compared to
the more narrow and streamlined dialogue systems
of modern games.
Some side quests even divide up into mini-objectives
that can be completed independently.
In one of the earlier examples you can happen
upon a ghost in a cave hovering over his corpse.
He tells you that he was cursed to eternal
torment by an evil priest when asking for
shelter for the night.
You can blindly follow his request to hunt
down and kill the priest (the spirit promises
to reveal the location of hidden treasure
for your efforts), or you can question him
and hear his side of the story, that a pair
of bandits killed the priest’s family and
stole a valuable artifact.
At this point you can interrogate the spirit
in multiple ways: either by falsely promising
his release from his torture should he help
you find his cohort, or by pushing the revenge
angle of his partner’s betrayal.
Then you can find this other bandit at a shack
and either murder him or threaten him into
giving up the artifact.
And to top all this off, after going well
out of your way for days doing all these goody-two-shoes
deeds and returning the artifact to the priest,
you can STILL kill him and fulfill the spirit’s
dastardly wishes and finish that quest line
too.
Many quests are written in this way, and like
some modern examples like The Witcher 3, much
of what you know or understand of each situation
may or may not be what it seems.
It’s impressive how the narrative of all
these stories, NPC AI and the day/night system
and time schedule all come together to sell
you on this world.
You can watch the whole world go to sleep,
then by nightfall break into a shop through
lock-picking or smashing windows or doors
and loot their valuables.
By dawn they will wake up and perform their
daily duties.
Everything you can buy or acquire are all
stored in accessible containers or on their
person, unlike many modern games which hide
item inventories off-map to curtail exploitation.
Arcanum WANTS you to play it, break it and
exploit it.
Though technologically conservative and its
instability is frustrating at times, it was
a work of passion to bring us a living, breathing
world we’d never experienced before.
Arcanum is a fantastic concept with many great
ideas and some of them executed well, but
suffered from the malady that brings so many
games down — incompleteness and insufficient
polish.
Clearly suffering from a rushed production,
as seen in the dozens and dozens of item,
object or character descriptions using a standard
placeholder icon.
The combat was cruder and more unbalanced
than even Fallout and Baldur’s Gate from
a half decade before.
New mechanics like the inspired Magic Tech
Meter weren’t transparent enough to make
it as strategic and compelling and as it should
have been.
Audiovisual feedback in combat was lackluster
and even compared to the team’s previous
work on Fallout seemed unimpactful and lifeless.
To say nothing of the severe bugs and technological
problems the game faced.
The engine progressively loaded larger maps
as you explore them rather than fully loading
smaller zones all at once, this badly implemented
memory management feature causes the game
to stall for long periods of time even today,
sometimes after traveling but a few feet away
from your last loading pause.
Get used to this spinning clockface, you’re
going to be seeing a LOT of it.
But underneath all this roughness is one of
the more unique and underexposed role-playing
games of the decade, with an incredibly diverse
amount of progression options and play styles
to adopt.
From a swashbuckling swordsman to a diplomatic
psychic, from a beautiful necromancer to a
nimble gunslinger, a shadowy rogue to a robot-building
engineer and many, many more.
Had there been more development time or technology
behind Arcanum, it may have launched a successful
franchise.
As was planned with an Ultima Underworld-style
follow up to the game, called Journey to the
Centre of Arcanum — a Jules Vernian adventure
powered by the Source engine.
Sadly cancelled when disputes between publisher
Sierra and engine creator Valve cut the project
short.
A flawed diamond in the rough, just needing
a finer cut and more polish to see its brilliance
glean on the masses, Arcanum still received
praise for all it did right.
But this is just the beginning of the sheer
inspiration — and travail of Troika Games.
What was your experience with Arcanum?
Are you a Troika veteran, scarred and all,
or are you new to this underexposed classic?
Let’s discuss in the comments.
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Troika Games.
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