ArcaniA is a nice third-person hack ‘n’ slash action adventure RPG. According to the loading screens, it is also Gothic 4 but I have no idea what that means.
When a game begins with a mushy romance sub-plot, rather than acquiring it along the way, you know everything is going to end in tears.
Although the tutorial is set in a cave in a nightmare, and the plot is founded on REVENGE, ArcaniA steadfastly refuses to actually succumb to the grimdark. As a fantasy RPG there are obviously crypts and skeletons and demons and whatnot, but they are just there rather than constantly throwing their brown in your face. It’s just good, clean, middle-European fantasy fun.
Okay, sure, that comes with downsides. There don’t seem to be any elves or dwarves, but there are orcs, goblins, wolves and boars to contend with.
There are still some fun additions to the generic creatures, though. The Coastal Goo, for example, is a parasitic slug that has eaten a sea turtle inside out — approaching a few turtles on the beach, I was met with one that unfolded itself into a four-legged, two-armed creature all Transformers-like. At first I was awe-struck, assuming that this was just how turtles functioned in this universe, until I read the handy little Beastiary in the journal that explained everything.
Come on guys, how many games have beastiaries these days? Too few, I say — but then again, who wants to read about Yet Another Variation of the Undead? Good menageries bring the desire to read about them, I suppose. (I’m beginning to think that I’ve been spoilt by the likes of WC3‘s massive selection of creatures; most games I’ve ever played actually don’t offer that much variety. I like animals, okay?)
The RPG mechanics aren’t particularly deep, but are satisfying enough. Indeed, every single skill track offers bonuses to the same stats of health, stamina, mana or melee, ranged and magic power — a bit like Skyrim condensing fun physical attributes down into the three very gamey power bars.
There are only actually three spells on offer, too: fire, frost or lightning. On the other hand, this offers something we don’t usually see — these base-level spells are improved over the course of the game, powering up into better versions, so you’re not left with several useless level one spells cluttering up your skill-bar alongside modern nukes. (Don’t get me wrong, the Infinity Engine classic Magic Missiles always has its uses for interrupting enemy spell casts, but that’s a special case.) Firebolt powers up into fireball and then fireball with napalm residue, lightning turns into chain lightning…
So while the approach to abilities is sensible but strangely unconventional, the game world has a slightly oddball structure too. The island of Argaan is completely seamless — overground, underground, the whole damn lot of it. However, you progress through the game in a totally linear way; it’s not really an open world game. Large open arena-like platters of countryside are opened for side-questing along with each portion of the main story. Once you’re done with an area, some blockade will be opened and you’ll get to go along to the next bit.
It leads you around most of the island visible on the map, but the continuity means the landscape gets a bit samey after a while. Temperate coastline bleeds into temperate forest with the odd cave in between, at least until you get into the obsidian gorges up the side of the central volcano and then into the jungle on the other side of the island.
The thing is that, once you’ve done all the side quests in an area, there’s no reason to go back. I do wonder if a more concrete progression of discrete areas, with more distinct environments and the intervening distance hand-waved by travel montages, might worked a bit better.
On the other hand, it does lead to some moments where the continuity shines — like when the finale leads you back under the volcanic gorges you traversed much earlier in the game and, yep, looking at the overworld map versus the underworld map your position does match perfectly.
Possibly a completely unnecessary touch, but there it is.
Plot-wise, it’s involved enough but often hamstrung by some slightly janky dialogue. All too often handing in a quest will result in a twisted exchange of the form:
- “Do you have the item?”
- “Yes, I have the item.”
- “Give me the item.”
- “Here, take the item.”
Other times, you’ll be able to ask somebody about a character that hasn’t actually been mentioned to you yet. This kind of garbled dialogue means the exposition can trip over itself and make it more difficult to follow than it really should be. It comes across as a bit cheap, since even a cursory review of the script would have highlighted all this awkwardness.
It doesn’t help that the voice actors have clearly recorded most of the lines in isolation too — the already fractured text is frequently shattered into pieces by the wrong words being emphasised, adding more confusion to the mix.
Okay, I can’t rat it too hard; the dialogue is far from perfect, but it’s mostly serviceable. The game’s writing really sparkles, however, with its banterous item descriptions. Crafting recipes, for example, are labelled with a snippet of writing from the document in question, usually a slightly out-of-context piece of the recipe as it would have been written by a scholar in a fantasy world. These finely honed pithy labels stand in stark contrast to the wobbly conversation text.
Crafting is safely confined to secondary screen, but lots of recipes are semi-unique and ingredients don’t grow back — so once you’ve baked some special items, the recipe will just hang around in the list gloating at you.
The finite nature of ingredients is awkwardly meshed with an extremely annoying pop-up that won’t go away until it is impossible for you to craft any item at all. Lots of equipment recipes require common ingredients, like magic ore, which is most easily used to make a crappy amulet. As long as you can make three of these amulets, the notification will remain on screen, even if you’d rather save all the ingredients up for something a bit more special. On the one hand, it’s good to know that I can now make something; on the other, I’d like to dismiss the notification once I’ve checked I don’t actually want to make that thing (or even be able to “forget” recipes I don’t care about anymore).
Imperfect, but plenty fun enough for me. It comes across somehow low-budget despite its sumptuous visuals; I suspect it would have felt better as a slightly more concentrated adventure with smaller but more vibrant areas than as a continous expanse of countryside.
Overall, though, it’s a clean, classic fantasy epic and sometimes… that’s all you want out of life.