Arcanum. It’s an interesting game to talk about.
In Which Arcanum Is Introduced, and Various Concepts and Mechanics Are Explained
The first of three games by Troika, Arcanum is an ambitious game. The basic hook is an engaging one: what happens as time passes and your standard D&D-esque fantasy setting enters its own Industrial Age? It presents a world where wizards, gadgeteers, and knights with flintlocks all co-exist. A world where orcs toil in factories exploited for their labour, and the traditional force of Magick competes against the rising force of Technology.
But while the setting’s interesting, the most ambitious part is probably in its character-building. Arcanum tries to give you a shocking amount of ways to approach it. Sure, as in Fallout there’s the diplomat and thief approaches. But overlay a frankly ridiculous magick and tech system over that, and things get a lot more complicated. It’s a game where you can kill any major NPC, summon their spirit back from the dead to interrogate them, then bring them back with a Resurrect spell. Gunslinger, summoner, grenadier, super model – all theoretically characters you could make in Arcanum.
So given that ambition, it’s not surprising the game is a mess. Yes, it can be buggy, but that’s not the whole of it. By default, Arcanum presents its combat in real-time. It is blatantly not designed around it. Want to see something fun? Get the Harm spell, then spam left-click on a monster as fast as you can. In a flash you’ll have obliterated your enemy… or knocked yourself unconscious from suddenly exhausting all your mana. Whichever comes first!
You can switch on a turn-based mode, but then the game throws a few too many enemies at you at once for that to be fun. Realistically, you’re probably best off switching between the two depending on situation (which you can do with spacebar).
And in terms of balance, well. Arcanum is not balanced. Both tech and magick are ultimately viable paths, but magick is certainly the simpler one. If a technologist wants to blend in with the wildlife, they’ll have to learn the Animal Scent schematic, fetch ingredients to craft multiple instances of it, and then apply it before engaging. A mage can invest one point into the Charm Beasts spell, at which point they can cast it at-will whenever they so please.
Hell, one of the stats you can pour points into? Alongside Strength, Dexterity, Willpower and all those other things that demonstrably affect your combat performance and non-combat capabilities… is Beauty. It has the main impact of influencing the initial greeting characters give you. It does little else, other than slightly adjusting shop prices… in a game where money isn’t really an issue.
But don’t get the wrong idea. It’s still a game with a great amount of flexibility. Know what you’re doing and you can beat the game without ever getting into combat. Or while killing everyone on sight, whatever floats your boat. Easy to bounce off, yes, and it’s easy to just get lost, but maybe that makes it a good one to Let’s Play. So let’s go on a journey, you and I, to the world of Arcanum. Step one: character creation.
Presuming this gets some comments, I’ll let you responders choose what build exactly we go with, but I can give you some idea of what you’re getting into. First, you can decide if you want to pick a ‘pregenerated’ character or make your own. For example:
If the past two screenshots didn’t make clear, the UI in Arcanum isn’t great. There’s a lot of fiddling between menus to get where you want, the text could be easier to read, and the dialogue interface is pretty bare minimum.
Still, as a female half-orc, Clarisse here gets a boost to her melee skills and the Constitution stat… at the cost of Charisma and Beauty, because half-orcs are despised. It’s usually nothing gamebreaking, but can have some impacts. By default, stats cap at 20, and reaching 20 gives you a bonus. But if you’ve got a racial -2 in a stat, your base stat cap might be 18. You can still boost it to 20 with stat-boosting buffs, potions or equipment, but it will make things just that bit more complicated.
How significant that bonus is, eh, it really depends on stat. Maxing Strength, for instance, will provide a hefty melee damage buff. Maxing Charisma just prevents followers from leaving, but that usually only happens on a Good playthrough if you run around slaughtering civilians.
I’d generally recommend you go with your own character, though. For one, the pregenerated characters use levelling schemes, automatically spending their level-up points to grab certain features. They’re also not necessarily the most well optimised routes. Still, they provide an interesting little starting look into the lore of the world.
Plus you’d miss out on the wacky world of backgrounds. There’s not any specific interactions for each background in-game, but they each have a gameplay impact that ranges from minor to pretty damn significant. Sometimes you might get -1 stat in return for +1 in another. Sometimes, woah, you might even get some different starting equipment.
Others can really screw you over if you don’t know what you’re doing, though. Ban yourself from using either any magickal item or any technological one? Might seem wise if you know you want to be a mage, but it could bite you later. Or you can lock yourself into using the ‘dumb’ dialogue no matter how smart you are. Lets you be a dumb technologist, at the cost of permanently locking yourself off from a bunch of quests and diplomatic solutions.
Decide on a race, gender and background and you can get into the meat of things. You start with 5 ‘Character Points’, then gain 1 CP every level henceforth plus an extra CP every fifth level. You can use these to bump up your core stats, directly increase your health/fatigue, grab a spell, learn a schematic, or increase your skills. If you’re familiar with RPGs, you might have a gander at what most of those stats means. If not, everything is annoyingly acronymed, so if you need an explanation:
- Strength: Hitpoints, melee damage and carry weight. That’s right, hitpoints aren’t Constitution! Some weapons, including firearms, have a Minimum Strength Requirement to use properly (due to their weight).
- Constitution: Heal rate and fatigue points. No one really wants to dump this, but since casting spells drains fatigue, it’s mainly of interest to mages.
- Dexterity: Affects how fast you move in combat, and all combat skills require investment in Dexterity before they can be trained. This makes it pretty vital unless you’re actually going for a pacifist build, in which case you’ll still probably want some because it affects Pick Pocket, Pick Locks and how fast you can run through areas.
- Beauty: Affects whether people like you when first seeing you. Pragmatically useless, but maybe worth not dumping if you don’t want everyone to open conversation with racist tirades.
- Intelligence: Offers some extra dialogue options, but mainly of interest to technologists since learning and building schematics is locked behind high-INT. Certain brands of mages may also want investment, as it lets you maintain more buff spells at once. You need 5 Int to be able to learn spells, but you need 5 Int to talk properly anyhow.
- Willpower: The mage stat. Increases your fatigue (which spells basically use as mana) and is needed to learn the highest-level spells.
- Perception: Affects your ability with ranged weapons, and the Firearms skill requires high-Perception to be trained. So does Prowling, perhaps unexpectedly. Finally, it affects how far away you can move the camera from your PC.
- Charisma: The social stat. Unlocks many dialogue options and is necessary to train Persuasion, which unlocks even more. As in Fallout 2, it also decides how many followers you can have at once.
But this is where we get back to the whole “fiddling between menus” thing. See those three circles up top, over at the right?
Those are ‘Skills’, ‘Technological Disciplines’, and ‘Spell Colleges’ respectively. Each is then further divided up. So the full list of skills is:
- Combat Skills: Bow, Dodge, Melee, Throwing
- Thieving Skills: Backstab, Pick Pocket, Prowling, Spot Trap
- Social Skills: Gambling, Haggle, Heal, Persuasion
- Technological Skills: Repair, Firearms, Pick Locks, Disarm Traps
As you can see it’s not the cleanest division. Firearms is really something of a Combat Skill, and Pick Locks is of interest to thieves. The catch is that investing in that final category of skills aligns you closer with technology. Throughout the game, investing in schematics or spells will move you closer to either being aligned with Tech or Magick. Align with one, you get more out of it but the other becomes harder to use. You can try to stay neutral and quote-unquote ‘technomage’ builds are possible, but staying uninvolved is easier than striking a careful balance.
Spells likewise are divided into several Colleges. You can intermingle spells from different schools pretty easily, although the highest-tier spells will require more dedication. If you want the full break-down:
- Conveyance: Disarms people, unlocks doors, and lets you teleport from place to place. Immensely convenient once maxed.
- Divination: Shows you what’s in containers, how people are aligned, etc. Interesting, but less useful for a player willing to just look things up.
- Air, Earth, Fire, Water: Four different Colleges, actually, but similar. Manipulate the elements and summon a College-appropriate elemental to fight with you.
- Force: Shields, lightning and… disintegrating people.
- Mental: The charmer spells. Gradually increasing stuns until you get to the final tier and can mind-dominate enemies to fight alongside you.
- Meta: Antimagic magic. Shuts down spells, spellcasters, and can eventually reflect spells back at your opponent.
- Nature: Actually a bit eccletic beyond the nature theming, but can control beasts, trap people in vegetation, and increase the party’s heal rate.
- Necromantic Black: The one that lets you summon spirits back for interrogation and summon an undead follower.
- Necromantic White: Heal spells, eventually including the ability to resurrect people. Useful.
- Phantasm: Blinds people, creates illusions, and eventually lets you turn invisible. Imagine actually investing in Prowling for stealth, what suckers.
- Summoning: Don’t want to do your own fighting? Summon a bunch of creatures to do it for you. Some other schools can kinda do this, but this is the one focused on it.
- Temporal: Freeze people in time, buff the entire party’s speed, and even lock doors and windows. Funny way to ‘deal’ with an enemy if you can finangle it right.
Finally, Technological Disciplines. You get a few schematics from these. Mercifully, there are less disciplines than there are colleges. One of the things making technology more complex, though, is that you can find schematics out in the wild that mix disciplines, requiring investment in multiple of them. But scour around and you can find some pretty bizarre gadgets that start to rival magic. Let’s just say resurrection isn’t only the domain of the white mage…
- Herbology: The technological version of healing.
- Chemistry: Poisons and chemicals that eventually focus on paralysing and wearing down the fatigue of enemies. You can mix these together with other disciplines to create stronger non-lethal weapons that focus on fatigue damage, but actually going that route is a little clunky and takes a while to set-up.
- Electric: Wondrous equipment that does weird and varied things through the power of electricity.
- Explosives: Grenade crafting. Boom, boom.
- Gun Smithy: Gun crafting. Goes hand in hand with firearm builds.
- Mechanical: Robots! Get enough parts and you can craft your own personal Mechanised Arachnid army.
- Smithy: High-tech armour and platemail.
- Therapeutics: Tonics and potions that provide mostly temporary, sometimes permanent stat boosts.
Phew! That was a lot of words and I’m still not sure I really gave you much of a sense of how to build a character. But don’t worry! That’s your problem now. One beginner recommendation is that you look at things from two angles. Imagine you’re picking an approach to the game: Melee, Ranged, Thief, and Diplomat. Then imagine you’re either aligning yourself to Tech, Magick or staying Neutral. But as you can see, that’s a bit of a simplification. A mage could be a lot of things.
Still. If you want, it can be in your hands. Elven mage? Half-orc debutante? Dwarf who only invests in Beauty? Who shall we be?
We can talk more about how Arcanum handles race once we get into it, although there are probably some conversations to be had. The full race list is:
- Humans: You may have heard of them! The most common race and at the forefront of the technological revolution, but not inherently aligned any which way. They have no stat boosts and can do whatever.
- Elf: Magickally inclined, they’re long-lived, perceived as arrogant, and like to live in forests. They have penalties to tech skills, but you can still make them work as a techie.
- Half-elf: Slightly magickally-inclined, but less so. They’re the more popularly-received half-breed.
- Half-orc: Whereas half-orcs, of course, are the less liked one. The game doesn’t really shy away from people being racist towards them and orcs.
- Dwarf: The tech-aligned race, it actually costs double for a dwarf to cast spells. Fortunately they’re all of pretty hardy Constitution. They’re not at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution because they deliberately live isolated from other races in mountains. Alas.
- Gnomes: Ostensibly neutral in regards to Magick/Tech but good businessmen, gnomes get a bonus to Haggle and Willpower. That makes them slightly easier to take down the magick path, but only just a bit.
- Halflings: Small, light-hearted and more in touch with nature. Halflings are said to be likeable, but their stats make them decent thieves.
- Half-ogres: The only race with more drastic stat changes. A half-ogre has +4 Strength but -4 Intelligence, which means they’ll start with dumb dialogue unless you invest in Intelligence (either through a background or a Character Point). They also can’t use firearms or other certain tech items because their hands are too big. A half-ogre technologist is possible, but would be a challenge.
Only humans, elves, half-elves and half-orcs can be female. While there are explanations in lore about why you don’t see the women of other races, my suspicion is that it’s mainly a cost-cutting handwave to avoid making some extra models. Shame, though.
Women in Arcanum get -1 Strength but +1 Constitution, and some quests can be different. It’s relatively minor on the whole, though.