ArcaniA offers you a visual feast, but it might not be enough to sate your hunger for a deep RPG.
Posted by Phill Cameron (October 19, 2010)
You can’t help but admire ArcaniA from afar. The soft curves of her hilly regions, draw distance that seems to go on for miles, and a vibrancy that you don’t come across that often. You exchange furtive glances, and right now, she seems like the fantasy game you’ve always wanted. A dream, even.
But looks aren’t enough on which to base a relationship, and if you think you can get yourself emotionally invested with ArcaniA, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. She might seduce you with all that prettiness, lure you into her world and make you enjoy it all that much more, but if you’re going in here looking for a Gothic game, or even an RPG, she’s going to leave the space beside you on the bed cold by morning.
Because ArcaniA is shallow, in the most superficial sense of the word. She’s a fun romp while you’re playing, and you may even remember her fondly, but there’s going to be no emotional investment here, just something purely physical and visceral, a no-strings-attached experience that passes the time rather than actively engages you. It’s going to toss you around and eat you up before spitting you out the other side, feeling kind of used.
It all starts out so well, though. The tutorial takes place in the mind of a mad king, presenting you with a fully kitted out character, a flaming sword and crown, fighting a tonne of skeletons and demons, the edges of the screen twisting and blurring to represent his lack of sanity. Then, suddenly, it’s over and you wake up as a shepherd on some distant island, concerned with marrying some freakishly tall girl who you’ve apparently knocked up.
This is where the naive nature of ArcaniA’s plot starts to show. You’re a shepherd because all fantasy heroes start out small, with only the barest bones of a character. Of course, within an hour, there’s been some huge event that’s unseated the whole thing, and you’re presented with no choice but to go on a journey to avenge your friends. "Formulaic" is a word that would slot right in here. "Cliche" is another, one that also manages to affix itself to a good deal of the characters. Like the witch who cackles manically between every word. It’d be annoying if it wasn’t so hilarious.
You’re off to find a forge, because the Doomed King is looking for it, and he’s the one who you’re after. However, before you can find the Forge, you’ve got the find the place it’s in, and that requires a series of quests that all boil down to the same basic formula: you need to get through an area, but there’s some sort of blockage or obstacle between you and the next place, and so you need to do some favours for the inhabitants before they’ll help you out. It’s all so very trite.
Partly, this is due to the incredibly linear nature of the game. Beyond going from point 'A' to point 'B' because the current quest dictates it, there really isn’t a whole lot to do. There are a few collect quests, perhaps something requiring you to clear out a goblin camp or kill some big bad monster, but really, ArcaniA doesn’t do a whole lot to provide you with /reasons/, beyond the assumption that you’ll do it because that’s what the game wants, and you haven’t exactly got an option.
What complicates matters is that it’s so very easy to overlook your quest's linear nature for two main reasons. Firstly, everything looks so incredibly beautiful. No matter which section of the game you’re in, there’s always some architectural or natural wonder just beyond your current location, and the anticipation of getting up close and personal to something that looks so good is far more incentive than the paltry story offerings. The town of Stewark is an early highlight, situated on a rocky island thrusting up out of the sea, the buildings seeming to blend with the jagged rock, making it look like a work of defiance more than anything. Amid the mountains, too, there’s some sort of crystal formation, each one overlapping another. It remains a mystery, but you know you’re going to visit it at some point.
The other redeeming feature is that the combat has a certain weight to it. In many ways it’s extremely primitive, with a clunkiness to the controls that means your character isn’t always going to do what you want. But on the other hand, every blow you deal elicits a different response based on what you’re hitting, and the arrows in particular cause some spectacular deaths depending on where you place that last arrow. You’re presented with a few options for countering your enemies, from dodge rolls and preemptive strikes to blocks that allow you to always get out of the way if you keep your wits about you. And manage the crowd.
Which, of course, means you’re going to have to use magic quite a bit if you don’t want to get swamped. I specialised in the Dominance skill, which gave me access to the lightning bolt, something that paralysed my opponents with electricity. When I got chain lightning I could freeze an entire group of enemies with a single bolt. It evolved a natural tactic of bolt to arrows to melee that kept combat a tense affair, without getting overly repetitive.
Did I mention it looks incredible? Beyond the environment, developers Spellbound make sure that you notice quite how good the lighting engine is. Firebolts light up their path with vivid yellow, and when you switch to your magic powers, your hands glow with the respective element you’re about to fling about. Lightning bathes the surrounding area in a warm purple glow, fire lights it up like a torch, and ice chills it down in a neutral white-blue. Even magical weapons course with light, including those not attached to a specific element. It means that the dozens of dungeons and caves you explore always have an interesting visual element, even if they’re not particularly inspiring otherwise. Luminous mushrooms and wall-mounted torches provide some variety, at least.
After about an hour with ArcaniA, I started to play a game. I called it ‘Guess the Stereotype’ and it basically involved seeing a character in the game, and trying to guess what they’d sound like based purely on how they looked. See a guy with a bare chest and a big axe? He’s probably going to sound like a Scottish Highlander. Thick-boned, massive chested Tavern Keeper? Oh hey, she’s Irish and foul-mouthed. Mercenary door guards? Yeah, you got it, they’re dumb as a post and speak like simpletons. That one was given away by the slack-jawed look on their faces and they way they kept scratching their arses.
Even if you pay attention to what’s those characters say and not just their delivery, a good deal of the time it’s not entirely clear what you’re supposed to be doing for every quest. Sometimes you’re told a general direction, which requires a bit of exploration, but sometimes even the direction is misleading, leaving you flailing around blindly, bouncing off the edges of the map before you stumble upon the right location. And, very occasionally, you’re just told that what you’re looking for is ‘somewhere in the town’, resulting in a good twenty or thirty minutes of searching in every bloody house and under every bloody mattress until you find the bloody thing.
Once or twice, you’re presented with an option of how to complete a question, and usually your choices are tied to the basic theology of ArcaniA, which takes a sort of psuedo-Hindi philosophy of a three-god approach, with a creator, a destroyer, and a maintainer. So, more often than not, you’re presented with three choices representing the three gods. Except for when they ignore the maintainer entirely and just give you a good and evil choice. Hey man, it’s their theology; they can take liberties with it if they want.
This might lull you into thinking that maybe you’ll be presented with a choice at the end of the game, however tacked on it may be. You’d be wrong in that thought, though, with the game ending after a somewhat lacklustre boss fight and leaving that final sentence entirely unwritten. It feels like a premature climax, stopping just before you’d managed to read some sort of narrative conclusion, and it leaves you feeling more than a little unsatisfied. Not that this was some sort of hugely engaging narrative anyway, but if you’ve waded through the fifteen hours of game, perhaps eighteen if you do every sidequest and collect each little collectable, I think you’re justified in wanting some closure. Spellbound disagree.
What you’re left with is something that looks almost achingly pretty, from start to finish, with a reasonably interesting amount of variety in the enemies and combat that makes up the meat of the game, but a complete lack of variety in either the quests that you’re offered or your approaches to them. It’s fun, but it’s a shallow type of fun. You’ll enjoy your time with it, probably, if only because the world it paints is so very enjoyable to be a part of, but you can’t help but want to engage with it a little bit more. The game is not interested in that kind of relationship, though. It just wants to use you and toss you out on your arse. I don’t know, maybe that’s what you want.
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