Zen and the Art of Computer Games
I eagerly picked up this title for two main reasons: The first was that some of the designers worked on the excellent Fallout games. This connection immediately shows through, from the fabulous manual design, to the art we are presented with as the game loads, to various aspects of game play. The idea of a game related to the Fallout series was particularly attractive with the chances of Fallout 3 being nil to none. I also understand that the plug was pulled on Black Isle's Torn, which was suppose to feature at least a character system based on the Fallout games.
The second was simply the game world itself. It's always a treat to visit a world that isn't ripe with straight Tolkein ripoffs. Arcanum's Victorian age steamwork machinery mixed with a magical flair contains some small nods to Tolkein (what RPG that features Elves living in trees, Dwarves living in mines and Orcs scaring the hell out of everybody, doesn't?), but overall the world feels quite original.
The storyline pulls the player, at first just an apparent victim of circumstance, into an intriguing plot, filled with many mysteries. Including the main character's possible destiny as the reincarnation of "The Living One". The contradictions between technology and magick are nicely laid out in Arcanum's manual. As the game progresses we slowly learn the hows and whys of how technology entered into a magickal world in the first place. All-in-all the stage is decorated beautifully, unfortunately there are problem areas, perhaps the stagehands used cheap gaffer's tape while building the set.
Counting for a large part of game play, the combat system from Arcanum is an interesting blend. A simple turn-based system, with a generous nod to the turn-based system found in the Fallout games. We are also presented with the interesting option of switching this to a real-time mode much like the Baldur's Gates series.
Neither mode works as well as it should, the turn-based mode often becomes a game of positioning characters so that they can make attacks during the next round, without being attacked themselves during the intervening combat round. This is a strike against suspension of disbelief, combat shouldn't be so heavily determined by speed and initiative.
The real-time mode is mostly a nightmare, with no simple pause control, I often found myself tapping the spacebar repeatedly wishing it would pause combat long enough to get a handle on the situation, ala Baldur's Gate. The only time I found the real-time combat to be of use has been later in the game, as my adventurers have become strong enough to kill the creatures that spawn during random encounters in the woods. (Mostly very angry, ailing wolves with suicidal agendas.) It simply becomes quicker to let these random encounters play out in real time.
The only downside comes from switching back to the options screen to shuffle between turn-based and real-time modes.
The experience system in Arcanum is unique in that characters gain experience for every blow they successfully land, not for every creature they kill. This creates an odd balance, as I found that in turn-based mode my main character was responsible for 90% of actually hitting monsters. While in real-time mode the other characters were always 1 step ahead of the main character, meaning they were responsible for 90% of the landed blows. The main reason for this was in how I chose to distribute heavy objects among the characters, it simply turned out to be more efficient to have a speedy main character.
Combat itself is wildly unbalanced. Early in the game it is very easy to run into darn near impossible battles. (Tip: collect as many rags as possible from garbage tins and buy cheap fuel to make molotov cocktails. They are a true lifesaver and a weapon saver when battling creatures that cause weapon damage). These types of situations are to be expected in a game which allows the non-linear freedom of Arcanum, but things took a wild swing about 1/8 of the way into the game when I discovered blueprints for something called a "Pyrotechnic Axe". An amazing technological weapon that dealt an additional 30 - 50 points of fire damage plus it's normal damage. In game this translates into the ability to kill most creatures with 1 to 3 blows. Creatures with the dodge are harder to kill and Fire Elementals aren't affected by the extra fire damage. But, for the most part I've blazed through the first half of the game without running into more than a couple significantly dangerous encounters that my Pyrotechnic Axes couldn't get me out of.