In 1997, Fallout was released, and its legacy is still going strong today. Whatever you might think of how well the Bethesda sequels do justice to Interplay’s original vision, there’s no arguing that the it’s one of the most successful RPG franchises out there. But while Fallout‘s direct descendants have dominated the CRPG market, there’s a lesser-known cousin on the Fallout family tree that I think deserves some more respect.2001’s Arcanum: Of Steampunk And Magick Obscura was the first title from Troika games, a trio of designers who had been working on the sequel to Fallout before leaving Interplay over a structural dispute. Arcanum‘s conceit boils down to: ‘What happens when a typical Fantasy RPG setting goes through an industrial revolution?’
Industry And Incantations
Arcanum’s world is a magical Tolkienesque world filled with elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs and the like. But it’s also a world in the grip of radical technological and societal change. The industrial revolution has come, bringing with it guns, steam trains, zeppelins, automatons and other such disruptive devices.
The presence of machines causes magical abilities to weaken and fade, and likewise strong magic forces will cause machines to break down or go haywire. In the cities, industry is going full steam ahead, but out in the wilderness, magical elves dwell in their tree-villages and fantasy barbarians cling to old-school sword-swinging.
The characters in Arcanum can be robed sorcerers, barbarian heroes, mad scientists, smooth-talking diplomats, inventors, petticoated debutantes, or pistol-packing knights. All your Tolkienesque and steampunk tropes under one sky! But the story makes it apparent that they can’t all co-exist for long.
Technological progress and old magic are on a collision course, and it’s that tension that Arcanum exploits for great storytelling and world-building.
Can The Magic Kingdoms Of Fantasyland Survive Capitalism?
One of the most interesting things about Arcanum is the way it deconstructs Tolkienesque fantasy tropes with more modern ideas. It’s got to be the only CRPG in which warriors, wizards and dwarves are confronted by problems resulting from the excesses of capitalism.
Steampunk fiction can sometimes overly romanticize aspects of the Victorian era, but Arcanum points out that the captains of industry, who are profiting from all the technological progress, don’t always have everyone’s best interests at heart.
There’s a darkness in the game that owes more to the 19th century than medieval style-evil overlords. The villains don’t wear spiky armor and capes (well, some do), but it’s the ones dressed in suits that are the most sinister.
‘Arcanum’ Uses Its Fantasy Setting To Explore Some Dark Issues From History
The exploitation of factory workers is an issue of contention for Arcanum‘s society, as is racism and classism. Take the game’s treatment of Tolkien’s original monsters, the orc. Typical ‘monster’ orcs roam the map as random combat encounters, but most of the orcs you’ll meet live in the city, where they form an exploited underclass, despised for their ugliness and brutishness but used as factory workers for their strength and expendability.
An activist rallies orcish factory workers to fight against their exploitation via strikes and protests. The player can be hired to brutally repress the strikers, provoke them into more violent methods, or negotiate a solution that leads so success for their movement. This is one of Arcanum‘s greatest strengths—open-ended gameplay which allows quests to be resolved via a variety of different methods.
Even the racial eugenics of the Victorian age get a look in. There’s an in-game book that proposes a solution to the ‘Orcish Question’ via use of a breeding program and removal of a ‘malignant gland’, with unnerving parallels to real world anti-semitic or pro-segregation tracts.
You’ve also got elven supremacists willing to take morally horrific steps to safeguard their magical culture against the more technologically inclined races, including the effective nuking of the most technologically advanced human culture.
Alongside all this, there’s plenty of straight up fantasy adventure going on in Arcanum too. Deathtrap dungeon temples, pirates, demons, barbarians, magic swords and so on abound. But the game’s delicious peanut-butter-and-chocolate blending of traditional and steampunk fantasy elements was let down in part by a lack of polish and care.
Bugs And Uninspired Combat Prevented ‘Arcanum’ From Enjoying The Breakout Success Of ‘Fallout’
Arcanum is full of great ideas, but in terms of game balance and polish, it doesn’t quite measure up to Fallout. The integration of advanced technology alongside sword-and-sorcery elements was novel and fresh, but in practice going tech made the game much more difficult for the player than focusing on magic or melee. In this way one of the coolest design elements of the setting ended up being under-used in actual play.
The game was also pretty buggy on release, a common problem with Troika games generally. Troika only released 2 other games during their lifespan as a company, The Temple of Elemental Evil and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both were tabletop game adaptations, and both were likewise lacking in polish and plagued by bugs.
Arcanum also suffers in its dungeon and encounter design, and even though the quests are interesting, slogging through a maze destroying trash mob after trash mob of uninspired monsters can easily make a player lose their patience with the game. It’s also too easy to level up early in the game, making these kinds of encounters a trivial, if repetitive, task.
But despite these flaws, I’d still recommend Arcanum nowadays to any CRPG fan. Why? Because everything else the game does is just that damn good.
An Unpolished Gem In The RPG Treasure Chest
Arcanum’s strengths are an incredibly flexible character design system and great open-ended story and quests that are rarely matched by modern RPGs. And the intriguing steampunk fantasy setting is just begging for a sequel that re-balances the tech and spices up combat.
Recent years have seen something of a revival of the isometric RPG, with titles such as Wasteland 2, Divinity Original Sin, and Pillars of Eternity being crowdfunded to success and becoming strong franchises in their own right. So far no studio has decided to resurrect Arcanum, although the game was re-released on Steam in 2016. Bethesda has its own steampunk setting going on with Dishonored, so it’s unlikely that they would want to take on Arcanum as they did Fallout.
A whole 15 years after its release and Arcanum remains the definitive Steampunk RPG; a flawed masterpiece of game design. Its setting still offers an experience unique enough to keep me re-visiting it. Most modern RPGs remain stuck in unchanging medieval worlds, kept in stasis by traditional tropes, with the same old quests and same old problems to solve.
Arcanum wasn’t afraid to really shake things up, but sadly fell short of a perfect storm. It’s still as good as it gets when it comes to steampunk RPGs, though I’m holding out for another game in which becoming a character like my old smooth-talking, half-orc, gun-toting, anti-capitalist necromancer is even a possibility.
Did you play Arcanum? What studio would you pick to make a sequel today?
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a few articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.