SIDE A: Year of the Tadpole, The Summer of Cumbria
Before heading to Tarant, the major city in Arcanum, I want to round out the central southern part of the world map. A lot of things are gated by level in Arcanum (companions and quests), so it behooves me to perform a few tasks.
First though, let's check in with my party and build. I'm rolling with Virgil and Sogg Mead Mug. Virgil's my healer, though he's an average fighter too. Sogg is my tank, though I haven't found any Half Ogre sized armor for him. His efficacy will improve quite a bit when I get some protection for him.
I actually made a fairly major change to my character due to a bug (more about bugs in the B side). Arcanum demands specialization. It's not enough to just be a mage, you have to be a specific mage. I LOVE this. It's not a drawback, but it does mean that if something isn't working right, it can be downright crippling. My plan was to specialize in Coveyance (for teleportation and area control) and Summoning (for creating cannon fodder). I also took one point in necromatic so I could use harm as my bread and butter attack spell.
However, my summons just weren't working. My orcs would just stand around, staring into space. I realize they're technically new borns, but I would hope they'd at least have some measure of self preservation instinct. Now, there might be an easy answer to this in the UI, but I couldn't find it (you don't directly control your companions in Arcanum). So, I decided to respecc. I couldn't quite find a trainer, so I used a cheat to give myself some additional character points with the added stipulation that I not use summons. Sorry orcs. I replaced this with Time Magic because being a Master of Time and Space sounds awesome. Guys, I can't impress this on you enough: the magic in Arcanum is so fucking cool. It'll get its own B-side at some point.
So, with that out of the way, where am I, what am I doing?
- Coheed and Cumbria
I'm in Cumbria. Cumbria, the southern kingdom, is in an interesting place in the world. It's the old guard. The land of knights and chivalry and swords and magic. And it's economically in the shitter because it just lost a war with the forces of progress and technology, spearheaded by Tarant. The people live in hovels and talk about the glory days behind them. I hear tales of the Dragon Knights and their last stand, I hear about the new King (who apparently isn't the first born, more on that later, I'm sure), who is a pale imitation of his predecessor. His stubbornness is killing his kingdom.
This story, more or less the events of the opening cutscene, are told through dialogue and the environment. I find a surviving member of these Dragon Knights, with the very likely name of Herkemer Oggdoddler(!), who tells me about how the Tarantian forces just destroyed them with guns. He says how initially there were just elite snipers but since the guns required so little training, soon every soldier held one. The awesome bit is how his pride is characterized. It's not just that they lost, it's that they lost against soldiers with no training. It's that they had to resort to guerilla tactics and ambushes. The acts of a losing army.
You get that sense of a dying kingdom all around Cumbria. The king, who sticks to his thees and thous, despite the fact that the statue bearing his likeness is sinking into the muck in the town square. Really cool world building here.
The world building extends to the quest as well. The King of Cumbria hasn't heard from Blackroot in quite a while and asks me to go collect taxes for them. When I do, I find that they've defected. The economic hardship of living in a dying kingdom is too much and they'ved joined Tarant. Other than Shrouded Hills, this is the only town we find in the kingdom. I convince the town to rejoin Cumbria by taking care of some business for the mayor of Blackroot. My tact is that the Tarantian guards are not doing enough to protect the town either. That's not the only way I can complete the quest though: if I read a certain newspaper, I can mention the upcoming conflict between Tarant and Caladon (another kingdom). The mayor doesn't want any part of that, does he?
The politics and essential conflict are woven into the world really well here. Let's go onto the quests and brief notes about the settlements, before moving on to some leftover optional areas.
This area has several of the standard "go there, give object to guy" style quests, but there's some higher caliber stuff too. First, Dernholm, the capital of Cumbria. The tiny, depressed collection of crumbling buildings with a sad castle in the middle. Here, we do the tax quest, as outlined above, but we also do a cool thing with a lady named Gladys, that, sadly, didn't work for me. Gladys says she's missing a family ring and its likely a man named Archibald has it. When I go talk to Archibald, he's a surly dickhead and threatens me with calling his smaller dickhead son Bernard. I went to go talk to Bernard but he didn't have any new information for me, though, according to the internet, he's supposed to lay out their story for me. Apparently, the ring is how Gladys and Archibald flirt, by passing it back and forth. Since I couldn't get that resolution, rather than talking to Archibald or his son again, I killed him. A sub optimal resolution, to be sure, but I like that the quest results aren't binary.
I also run into Sarah Toone, as a continuation of The Bessie Toone Mines questline. Apparently, she's not surprised her mom is haunting the mine and calling out her name. It seems that the mine has been in their family for generations and the rat fink son sold the deed. I'm to try to pick it up when I'm in Tarant next. She sets up a standard Baldur's Gate style choice: Give her the deed for karma or give it to her brother for money. The thing I like is she explicitly acknowledges how shitty it is that she can't pay. She says, "If you chose my brother, I'll bear you no ill will. I completely understand."
That's nearly it for Dernholm. There are a few other quests that have tails elsewhere (the true king thing, mentioned above, will end up being a big one). Now, onto...
Blackroot is a harbor town, which, having recently defected to Tarant, also has a steam train. Getting around is involved in Arcanum. If I choose to take the train to Tarant rather than walk, I'll likely have to ride 2nd class in the "Mage's car" in back, so that my magic doesn't derail the train!
Blackroot is a nice little collection of quests, several that are standard CRPG fare, but with added wrinkles and nice touches. Similar to Baldur's Gate, the complexity and nuance is added slowly. This is the equivalent of Beregost on the Sword Coast.
For example, when the innkeep asks you retrieve his item from the blacksmith, you're presented with two options initially: buy the item, spending your own money, or kill the half orc blacksmith. However, if you spend a little time listening to him and hear his backstory, he warms up to you, allowing you to manipulate him.
Getting the mayor to reverse his sucession is pretty cool. His ceremonial dagger has been stolen by some thieves. As mentioned, you can go kill them (what I did) but you can also show him the newspaper and appeal to his self preservation. When you find the thieves, you can kill them or work for them, either getting them some poison (there's an alchemist in town who won't sell to them because they're bastards) or by stealing from a hedge mage. The flowchart for this quest would have five different outcomes (steal from the mayor, convince the mayor, kill the thieves, get poison for thieves, work for thieves). Each of these choices respects a different sort of build and play philosophy. Are you sneaky? Fighty? Do you explore your surroundings fully so that you might find the newspaper? Are you talky? Respect for character choice and build is the number one defining feature of WRPGs. This is why I'm here.
I also run into a halfling wizard who I rather like. He's shirtless, he's in the middle of nowhere, and, it seems, he's a guessing boy and he lives in a guessing land. He wants me to play his simple guessing game. This is a series of riddles, one halfling leading to the next. What's cool about it is that as you complete these riddles, the halflings start hinting at increasingly dire consequences for failure. I'm generally pretty good at riddles (sunglasses emote), so I passed it without difficulty. However, I failed it just for fun and the final halfling starts screaming WRONG WRONG WRONG over and over again, while summoning really high level undead. It's bonkers.
The final quest I want to talk about here is sad tale of the Cameron family. Like the bit with the train, and the king, this is the major theme of the game (magic versus technology, old versus new) being expressed through gameplay. I get the quest from Mrs. Cameron who tells me her son is a tinker and has a workshop outside of town. It seems he's gone missing. I go to the workshop and I find a Lovecraftian apocalypse log.
Liam, her son, is missing and his diary tells me that he's been busy. It seems he's been experimenting and found a magical portal in the woods. His journal details his experiments and observations of the "void creatures" within (jellyfish monsters and lizard creatures). The neat part is that he tries to close the portal with a dispell magic but finds that his affinity has shifted too far toward technology. Magic no longer works for him. In a panic, he creates a technological solution and heads out. That's the last entry.
So you follow him, fighting very tough monsters along the way, only to find his body. He died before setting off the device. Since I'm a mage, I dispell magic on it using a scroll. The actual mechanics of the quest aren't any great shakes, but I love how the player gameplay conceit of magic versus technology is a concern for NPCs as well, and not just narratively. These are the very mechanics of this world, like gravity or magnetism. Everyone plays by the same rules.
That's it for towns here. I don't pick up any new companions. Not because there aren't any, but because I'm either underleveled or too magically inclined. I'll pick up another party member in Tarant.
- Monsters and Mazes
There are two miscellaneous areas in this region that are worth touching on briefly for completionism. I'll be coming back to one of them, but I want to mention them here so fans of the game don't think I missed them. The first is the Wolf Cave, which is a cave with wolves in it (monocle falls into drink).
The second is the Ancient Maze. This is part of a quest later but for now, this is just some ruins with some high level monsters. I spend some time here fighting above my weight class to gain some levels and test my mettle. Fighting things out of sequence is one of my favorite things to do in games that allow it.
SIDE B: Rough Gem
Many of you will never play Arcanum and that's totally understandable. Crunchy, vintage CRPGs aren't for everyone but Arcanum is uniquely hostile in a lot of ways. There are times where it feels like the designers had never played another CRPG, and instead invented everything from the ground up. I wanted to recognize some of these quirks, flaws, and features in one place to underline exactly how different Arcanum plays from other games of its ilk.
Before I do so, I want to mention one other reason you might not play this: it's hard to get to run well. The game has a hard time with modern systems and getting it to run at all is a challenge. Once it's running, it often runs at an unacceptable framerate. I'm no Total Biscuit. I don't really care about frames in most cases. But vanilla GOG Arcanum can run at something like 10 fps without work.
So here! If you do decide to play, follow the instructions in this post, specifically the ddrawfix. You're welcome!
Ok, what's weird?
Maps: Arcanum uses a waypoint system for most navigation. It's actually one big continuous world, weirdly enough, but if you want to do any fast travel, you open the map and set way points. You can't always walk directly. You have to set way points across bridges and around mountains. What's weirder is that this system is super useful in town. If you want to get across town, set 5 or 6 way points and check twitter.
Arcanum uses a mostly inscrutable action point system. First, there's nothing obvious that indicates how many action points a specific move will use up. Second, action points change color when you're nearly out. If you go into deduct, you then affect your fatigue. This took me forever to realize (why do I keep going to sleep in combat?) but I actually think it's pretty awesome. It's a lot like the system in Divinity Original Sin. If you want to push it for extra juice, you can, at the cost of resources. And since weapons can damage your fatigue as well as your health, it becomes a really interesting tactical choice.
Specialization: As I mentioned above, you can't really play Arcanum as a generalist. I don't know many other games that use this philosophy. By limiting your points and giving you many, many skills to spend them in, you're encouraged to master things. Each spell and each tech discipline has a cool ultimate ability or gadget and you're likely to be able to see 2 of them out of 16 or so, and that's with mildly neglecting your stats. In a way, this is harsh because you're unlikely to know what's good from the outset. In another way, however, you always have this tantalizing ultimate ability at the end of the rainbow.
This applies to non magical/tech skills as well. Not only do you have to invest a lot of points to max out a skill, you also have to find trainers. The first few levels of training just cost money but to master a skill, you often have to do an involved, dangerous quest. This sounds like a pain but it's actually awesome. I love the idea of hunting donw these legendary figures and convincing them to teach you their secrets.
To Hit penalties are handled in an amazing way. When you hover over an enemy, you see your to hit chances, as well as anything impacting them. So if you only have a 20% chance to nail a kite, you might see a little lattern, a weight and an eyeball there. That means its dark, you're encumbered and they're outside your range. I wish other games would adapt this, to be honest. When playing Fallout, I never know why I can't hit things.
Fate Points: for accomplishing certain difficult tasks or advancing the plot, you get something called Fate Points. These allow you to make someone like you, fully heal, become immune to magic for a time, succeed at a skill, etc. This is such a cool mechanic and one with direct tabletop roots, mirroring modern pen and paper games where some of the GM's power is shared with the player. They're rare enough to always be a reward but common enough that you can use one without sweating it. And the game is balanced for them. Arcanum is a tough game, if you don't go out of your way to break it, and Fate Points stop you from pulling out your hair.
Next time, we'll be heading to Tarant, which, according to one guide, has 40 associated quests. If that's true, we'll definitely spend two entries on it. Future B-sides include entries on the Arcanum soundtrack, an in depth look at its combat system, a lore wrap up, and a bit on its place in CRPG history. I hope you'll join me.