Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ten Levels of Arcanum

"And I'm an ape of God
I got a face that made for violence upon"

Marilyn Manson - Disposable Teens

Working subtitles:
The Reload Game
The Quest for Pants.

Though I loved V:tM - Bloodlines, I've always heard Troika's other titles suffered from terrible mechanics and even more bugginess than VtMB at its launch (if that's possible) so never bothered with them. Still, I wanted to give it a chance, so I'm going to play Arcanum through at least level ten.
Hum-dee-dum-dum... might as well pick a race I haven't played in other fantasy games.
Half ogre with the troll blood trait. Ugly, fugly mofo I am, and with the social skills to FUCK YOU!

Level... 0
Opening cinematic bugs out and shows the in-game interface around it. Well, that's off to a good start.

Level 1
Told Virgil, presumably the tutorial NPC, to go stick a crank up his shaft and went off exploring the starter area by myself.
Good night, everyone.
Re-rolled same character next day because I hadn't even thought to save game.
Lather, rinse, kill wolf that killed me the first time.
Died. To a boar. Re-re-created my character, having again ignored saving. Third time's the charm, right?
(just in case)
Real-time combat - off. Success! Wolf after wolf fall to my mighty blows. Oh, so the blue stuff's stamina, not mana? Maybe both? Maybe I should read the manual? Nah.
On second thought, went back and told Virgil he can tag along. Many a boisterous boar bears bi-battering

Level 2!
Minimized to take that screenshot. Game locked up. Screw it, I'm gonna play Dwarf Fortress.
Ok, cooled off overnight. Onwards! Hmmm, ghost wants me to kill evil wizard... might be above my pay grade at the mome. Wait. What's this? I'm the reincarnation of...
Nasrudin? Nasreddin Hodja Efendi? So will I be expected to play the fool, giving seeming non-sequitur solutions to conflicts of social posturing, thereby unmasking unwarranted presumptions of entitlement?
Mmmnnaaaahh. Couldn't be. Maybe I'll just ride an ass backwards.

Level 3!
Decided to ignore Virgil's advice to map teleport to my destination and took the long way around. Dying repeatedly to wolves in a completely linear canyon with absolutely no other interactions or decor available. More wolves. More canyon. More death, completely luck based since my character with his presumably standard 10 DEX, apparently couldn't even hit the ground if he threw himself at it. Die. Reload. Hope for lucky autoattack hits.
Ok, I seem to be past the wolves.
I seem to be past everything. Lots of empty terrain. Oh, wait, so is this a big open world, Morrowind style? Cool.
... Is this a big completely empty and barren open world with absolutely nothing to see, do or pick up? Not so cool.
Fuck this.
Ok, another good night's sleep later, let's give this game a fourth chance.
Map travel it is. Seems very Fallout-y.
Hello Shrouded Hills!
Constable, might you direct me to the... hey, insult my noble half-ogre heritage, will you? DIE!
(Three reloads later, one dead constable.) Okay, maybe shouldn't make a habit of that.
Hm... local doctor wants to shoot some people; one well-placed grenade takes care of that. Thanks doc, pleasure doing business with you, give Hippocrates an extra stiff middle finger from me, will you?

Level 4!
Warning: content potentially NSFW.
Clothing broke. Now everyone bitches at me for blinding them with my half-ogre sexayness. And apparently I'm not allowed to repair a fully broken item. And apparently nobody sells "large" sized clothing. Of any sort, no armor, frilly frock or even a tasteful but useless robe. Wait, was there a half-ogre drinking at the inn? Cm'ere, you.
Hm... all he was wearing were rags... which are also broken. How do you even brea- never mind. Ok, so the armor situation sucks but at least I can work my way to the big city where they're sure to have a big'n'tall shop. Sure enough, the main quest and the side quest from the mine both lead there.
Except the bandits guarding the only bridge out of town are too tough for me (though their clothes might fit) so... how do I even move on?
Clear out every corner of the abandoned mine (more wolves) (plus, oooooh, spiders, what a treat) to maybe level up my fighting skill and take on the bandits?

Level 5!

Skill up melee and dodge. Slowly dragging up my dexterity too as I go... yet somehow my character's still hitting himself in the face constantly during combat.
Bridge bandits, DIE!
Reload. Okay, go level some more.
Critical miss. Critical miss. Died to a bunny. Please, no Holy Grail jokes.
Reload. More wolf killing. More RNG death.
Reload. Run back to do the not-so-evil-after-all wizard quest. Bad guy just stands there and lets me kill him. Bug? Who can even tell?
More wolf killing. More RNG death.
So, I have to wonder... who managed to come up with a combat system combining all the clunky, convoluted redundancy of a D&D adaptation with the mindless repetition of an ARPG Diablo clone?

Level 6!
More dexterity. Buy melee and dodge training from guards.
More wolves, after much searching. Still hitting myself in the face.
Many, many reloads later, still cannot win the bandit fight, unarmored as I am, despite being fairly combat-specced. (Or at least I sure as hell ain't prettiness-specced.) Well, if you can't beat 'em join 'em. Dynamited the villagers' bridge materials in return for safe passage.
Then got killed by random encounters on my way to the big city. Which is fine because all I have to do is reload until RNGesus takes pity on me. Them's sum good game designerin'!
Still in my underwear.
Luckily all I have to do is grovel a bit and every NPC's disposition toward me shoots up by the dozens. Soooo, what's the point of that, then?
Anyway, first stop, Dernholm, to get the real story about the abandoned mine.
Getting around is getting to be a chore. Architecture by FedEx fails to provide recognizable landmarks, and the map's no help either. Can't place map markers, and the scant few automatically placed by the game are little help. Pathing algorithm's so pathetic it needs several waypoints to move more than one screen.
Game locked up again upon minimizing.
Ok, let's give this a seventh chance.
Walked in on the king in my underwear.
Healer companion refuses to be recruited because I'm not tech-aligned. Huh. Nice touch, actually. Gotta say I'm liking having to ask NPCs their name before it becomes their tooltip. It's these little things that make immersion.
Well, this was a long trip for very little XP. Not much else to do in Dernholm, except play matchmaker to a couple of old cranks, and I'm definitely not the half-monster for that job.
Onwards then, to the bigger city, Tar -
Upon running out of Dernholm, I am torn apart by a random gorilla. A very random gorilla.
Onwards, to Tarant!
But first three more random encounters. Wolves, wolves and more wolves.
Huh... ok, this next bit was surprisingly clever:
I asked the first guards by the entrance for directions and possible quest hooks. The guard just shrugged it off. Two paces later, a colorfully dressed NPC catches my eye. If spoken to directly, she launches into the usual tirade against my ugliness and nakedness. Having spoken to the guard causes her to skip past that straight into offering me a quest. While the guard intro isn't strictly necessary, it does make the second dialogue much clearer and decreases the odds of treating her like another random bystander.
That is quite subtle stuff, by cRPG standards. My hat would be off, could I but locate a half-ogre haberdasher.
Tried talking to an inkeeper and Virgil just randomly attacked him, losing me another 15 minutes of gameplay.
Fffffuuuuck thiiiis.
How many chances is this now? Eight? Nine?
Clerk at Simon & Schuster or whatever wants to stonewall me? DIE!
Down in the zombie-infested basement, I'm dead once again because the combat keeps resetting itself to real-time mode at random times.

Level 7!
Upping my DEX and Melee don't seem to be doing much for me. Maybe crafting's the way to go? Let's see. Herbology. Definitely could use some stam restoring. For now... holy shit, I had materials for 15 healing salves in my inventory? Get in there and cloth tank those zombies, Virgil. Work that robe. I'll lube you up.
Critical miss. Stunned. Eaten by zombies.
Critical miss. Knocked down. Eaten by zombies.
Did I mention these zombies are level 3 and I'm level 7? And my hit chance against them is still officially 25-40% with 11 DEX and Apprentice Melee? And my attacks don't hit anywhere near that often? How much dexterity does a zombie have anyway that they're dodging my blows?
Critical miss. Critical Miss. Out of stamina. Eaten by zombies.
So below the zombie-infested basement was a zombie-infested sub-basement and beneath that was a dwarf zombie infested sub-sub-basement. Finally, boss battle! Evil necromancer dead ahead!
Except he's a perfectly reasonable sort, putting otherwise useless dead flesh to some use, in other words agreeing with my views on necromancy. Huh. And he tactfully omits the little matters of my near-nudity or of me brutally murdering his employee upstairs, and he'll help me out with some info in exchange for not giving his business away. Was not expecting that. Put 'er there, partner, yer awright! Now it's just a matter of asking the dried up husk of his dead father for directions. Good, wholesome plot advancement.

Level 8!
Apparently my next step's to find Gilbert Bates, inventor of the steam engine and therefore filthy rich. Oh, ha-ha, "Gil Bates" I get it. And also bet it. And his bitter rival's named Cedric "Apple"by. Oh, I get it. A-haw!
Then a guard warns me off of entering The Boil because it's a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" and this is starting to get annoying. It only takes a few derivative references for them to stop sounding clever and become an obnoxious crutch for lazy writing.
Y'know what, screw Gil, screw the quest for the ring of steam power, screw delving ancient ruins, screw dwarven history and screw all those wolves. I'm on a new quest, a quest for dignity, a quest for warmth, a quest for... Pants!
Wallow's Quality Armour has nothing in a large.
I could try beating up the toughs in the slums, some of which are ogres, but there sure are a lot of the bastards.
Oh what's this?
The fashion palace has me covered, literally. 180 coins is mighty steep but that includes my ugliness, charisma and 0 barter skill taxes.
Gotta say I'm liking Tarant. Much effort sank into making it feel like a real city and not just Questville, from its airy spaciousness to abundant NPCs both quest-related and not, to actual city planning with streets and numbered addresses. With only slightly better map/quest log functionality, it could've been great. Now at long last dressed for success, it's onwards to adventure!
Wait, what did this guy just say to me? You can insult my looks, Cedric Appleby, but not my intelligence. I'll have you know it's a solid ten. DIE!
Wait, did I just pre-empt the invention of "there's an app for that" - ? Score.
Naturally, Appleby's loot includes a second set of large clothes which will now take up space in my inventory pointlessly because I'm scared of getting stuck naked again. Because the universe hates me, that's why.
Alright. It is now Sunday, and I really want to get this over with before the new week starts. So, to-day it's level 10 or bust.
Bust. Bust Appleby's safe open with a stick of dynamite, that is.
What else can I find in Tarant? A P.T. Barnum themed NPC? DIE!
A hobo wants money. Insult him into attacking me. DIE! Free loaf of bread.
A fortune teller? DIE! (and for once I didn't do it (directly))
Obligatory brothel? Ddd- nah, I can't do it. Ya gals are alright.

Level 9!
Lots of little fetch quests, with little twists here and there to keep them fresh. Really, this does make the most of Tarant itself after all the work-hours sunk into it. Making the player constantly look up street addresses might sound annoying, but there's just enough of it to facilitate immersion without becoming redundant, unlike the moronic combat. It most reminds me of Oblivion's Imperial City. Other RPGs with a central quest hub don't usually make such a big point of keeping you busy within it, making it seem alive.
Yeesh. This Sword of the Derian Ka I looted from Apple's vault seems overpowered. Suddenly I'm having no more trouble with basic mobs. Who says crime doesn't pay?
A jaunt through the sewer yields more exp than a bunch of rats have any right to. Add to that several side quest completions aaaand:

Level 10!
Having increased my melee skill to three points to be safe, it's time to start dabbling in Arcanum's magic vs. technology alignment system. With 8 technological skill branches plus twice as many magic ones, there's plenty of redundancy but also plenty of room to mix and match for aesthetic purposes. Do I want to be a volcano god (earth mage flinging molotov cocktails) or an air mage hefting the biggest chaingun / mining laser / rocket launcher I can find or maybe supplement my character's pronounced lack of finesse with divination magic or trap disarming gizmos? Do you want your lightning in the form of bolts or batteries?

The fact is, I don't know. It hasn't come up yet. I've spent most of my first ten levels of a fifty-level game running around in boxer shorts, abusing reloads and being molested by RNGesus, struggling just to keep my character from punching himself to death while my enemies laugh at me. The rest of that time was spent repeating the same three lines of dialogue with one NPC after another to raise their disposition with me. My greatest achievement was managing to finally dress myself, and even that was immediately undermined by sheer dumb luck. I'm still waiting to find that amazing storytelling for which it's so frequently praised, but so far the dialogue's been composed almost entirely of "go there, fetch that" quest prompts.

Arcanum makes an incredibly shitty first impression.

However, at no point was I completely stuck, despite my ugliness and abysmal charisma, my lack of armor and my DIE! approach to random NPCs. In most games, offing the first questgiver (constable whatsisbrokeface) upon entering newbietown wouldn't even be considered an option, much less a viable one. Though many of Arcanum's mechanics and interface options seem infuriatingly obtuse, many dialogues and item interactions are surprisingly logical by comparison. Dynamite works exactly the way you'd think it does. Even using beauty as a dump stat can amount to a blessing in disguise in terms of roleplaying. Though it cuts off access to some dialogue options, having the entire world constantly trying to pick a fight with you makes it that much easier to just... cut loose, once in a while, and cut some heads loose. Growling and snarling in dialogues becomes useful at logical times like when dealing with the underworld. Your choices' influence can be quite extensive. Not only can my half-ogre not find any armor, but my pathetically low charisma limits me to one companion at a time as compared to three to six for most players.

For all its incredibly aggravating bugs and obtuseness, Arcanum really does offer more ways to play than most cRPGs. The wealth of crafting/support options opening up to me now that I've finally raised my combat skill to acceptable levels will, if nothing else, keep me playing.

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