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Arcania Review

by VoxClamant, 2010-10-13

This is a very difficult review to write.  ArcaniA was designed for Casual RPGers who will enjoy it a great deal.  I even believe that ArcaniA will help build a new generation of RPGers who will soon want to try traditional RPGs.  But ArcaniA will also be judged by Classic RPGers who will find it a big step back from Gothic 3.  The assessment of ArcaniA depends a great deal upon which set of glasses you are wearing -- Casual RPG or Classic RPG.

A review of the game most people expected to see, as the successor to Gothic 3 in the spirit of a classic RPG, would find ArcaniA to be a very disappointing release.  It is a greatly simplified, linear story with few choices and limited replayability.  Much of the core of the Gothic series has been removed -- Gothic 3 lovers will be especially disappointed.  Classic RPGers (like me) will be very worried if this level of simplification is the new direction for all RPGs.

But the new generation of "Casual RPGers" (more on this, below) will find this to be an excellent title that is a no-brainer to enjoy.  Even some Classic RPGers will find this a good title for those times when you can only steal a couple hours now and then to play, and finding the time to concentrate on an immersive RPG is not possible.

The difficulty lies in that reviewing ArcaniA only through the lens of a classic RPG is unfair.  It is important to remember that a classic RPG is not the game Jowood intended to release.  ArcaniA is one of the first major releases by a leading developer using a solid graphics/game engine aimed at the new "Casual RPGer" mass market that all the top RPG developers seem to think is their future -- customers who demand simplicity and easy accessibility in order to try RPGs.  Kamaal Anwar, Producer for ArcaniA, summed it up very clearly for RPGWatch -- "...The challenge studios face is to avoid chasing away potential fans with too many possibilities and too much freedom. Some gamers more accustomed to jumping into games in short bursts may find the lack of a clear direction daunting". 

So the challenge in this review is to present BOTH sides of the story.  Regular members of RPGWatch will assume I have lost my last marble as they will see two very different views surface here.  One, for the "Casual RPGers" will speak of an excellent game that is a no-brainer to purchase and enjoy.  The other, for "Classic RPGers" (like me) is to pass on this title for now unless you want and can afford a good casual "RPGish" game for when you just want to kill a couple hours. And if previous Gothics are among your favorite all-time games then you will not enjoy ArcaniA much, at all.

 

Caveats

As usual, some caveats so that new readers understand the perspective of this review.  It is based on one complete play-through (a marathon 30 hours or so over a long 3-day weekend).  I played as a mage on normal setting.  For the first half of the play-through I set the "RPG Elements" and "Quest Markers" options to be off.  For the second half I had these options on.

I am a classic RPGer who has been very vocal in my criticism for the industry-wide trend towards simplification of RPGs.  Please consider that bias in any criticism I make of ArcaniA.  I had to work very hard to remain objective when trying to picture ArcaniA through the eyes of a Casual RPGer.

Finally -- this review was based on a pre-release version provided by Jowood.  It is likely that the version to-be-released will be an updated version of the copy I received.  (Please note:  I have never accepted a pre-release version unless I also purchased a copy --  the pre-release copy is returned or destroyed after the review is written.  I pre-ordered a DL copy from GamersGate before receipt of this loaner).  I have zero connection with JoWood other than as a normal retail customer.

 

Casual RPGers -- A Fun Introduction to RPGs

Just about all of the leading RPG developers seem to believe that growth in sales depends on tapping what they see as a mass market of gamers who want a much simplified form of RPG.  These "Casual RPGers" tend to avoid games  "...with too many possibilities and too much freedom..." and that lack "clear direction".  Designing a game that appeals to Casual RPGers means that gameplay needs to be revised significantly from what RPGs have delivered in the past.  

The design goal is to have the traditional RPG elements -- quests, storyline, skills development, equipment upgrades, fighting etc -- in a game with more meat on the bones than just a simple hack-and-slash.  Yet the areas of RPGs that developers feel hinders new players -- having to understand underlying calculations, complex skills trees, difficulty finding and solving quests, difficult choices that can "lose" or significantly change the outcome and the need to rest or eat -- can be simplified.  The target is something much closer to Diablo II than to Baldur's Gate.

ArcaniA does an excellent job of delivering on that goal.

Right from the start you will enjoy the world of ArcaniA.  Graphics are stunning.  The environments and dungeons are well-designed with little or no repetition.  The designers have captured that intangible look-and-feel that makes any RPG fun -- the sense of adventure and exploration as you head into a cave or round a pass in the mountains.  Personally, I found the environments to be among the best I remember from any game.  On my high-end PC, ArcaniA ran much faster and smoother than G3 on the same machine -- even though ArcaniA offers better graphics and full field of view. 

The pre-release version that is reviewed was very stable code.  In one complete playthrough I had just one crash and only a couple odd bugs along the way.  The one significant bug was that all the movie cutscreens were blank black screens with just audio for me.  Once I was trapped below the world for a bit, and once an enemy I was fighting backed through a solid wall and fell two stories to the street.  Oh -- and when I first started it, ArcaniA tried to update itself with a patch to Football Manager!  Other than those isolated errors the game worked smoothly.

The basic storyline has you seeking revenge against for the massacre of everyone on your home island.  You will travel through a half dozen different lands undertaking a wide range of quests to find out who was responsible, and to ultimately face the cause of it all.  The plot takes a few twists and turns along the way and the ending is quite a bit different than you expect when you start out.

The heart of ArcaniA is questing for the main storyline and fighting a host of baddies along the way.  It is a bit like Diablo II updated with modern graphics and far more short-term quests.  Most of the quests are centered on the main story line, though there are a few side quests for scrolls or equipment.  One of the strengths of ArcaniA for Casual RPGers is that most quests tend to be straightforward challenges and there is a choice of difficulty levels for finding the quests.  If you select the "Quest Markers" option in the main menu, then your map and minimap will indicate your target locations.  You can also choose to highlight up to three quests in your quest log -- which makes an arrow appear on your minimap to help guide you.  If you want to increase the difficulty and need to explore and search, then click that option off and no markers or help appear. 

ArcaniA offers three main classes -- mage, warrior, and ranger.  You will find that you want to invest in basic levels of all three before you specialize in any one.  Mages will still need to resort to swordplay at times and a warrior who can cast a basic freeze spell gains a large advantage when surrounded by baddies.  Your choice of where to specialize is important for two reasons.  One is the obvious one -- you do not have enough skill-up points to distribute for all skills before the game ends.  Without the top level skills in your area of specialization you are doomed later in the game.  Second, ArcaniA has an interesting and effective way to keep equipment balanced with your area of specialization.  You find (or craft) weapons and equipment for most body slots throughout the game -- except for your main body armor.  At three points during the game you have to make a choice for one of three armors given to you -- plate, leather, or silk, each with the appropriate bonus stats for the applicable class.  You can find some of these armors on vendors later if you have the gold saved up.

Mages can only start to learn spells once you have reached level 4 -- by then you should have a good handle on the move and melee skills that you need to survive when wearing a robe!  Mages seem a lot easier to master than for most RPGs.  Even a low level mage, with care, can be a potent force.  You have just three basic spells, but will find you can only afford to maximize any two of them.  One is an ice/freeze line, one a fire/burn line, and the third a lightning/paralyze line.  At higher levels you gain the ability to hold the spell before releasing it, which turns it into an area effect spell that hit multiple mobs.

Melee fighting gives you a variety of special moves, plus combinations using a format similar to The Witcher.  If you time your blows correctly (you have the option of enabling or disabling a flashing weapon to help with timing) then you can get special hits. 

All classes can use crafting to make potions or equipment.  You collect materials as you go -- plants, ores, etc.  You find, buy, or are rewarded with scrolls containing recipes.  Just R-click on the scroll to learn how to make an item.  Now, to craft, just open the crafting window, select a recipe, and if you have all the ingredients you are good to go.

Overall for Casual RPGers:  If you are new to RPGs or just prefer a more casual approach to the full-immersion of classic RPGs, then ArcaniA is a no-brainer for you.  All the essentials that make up a fun RPG are there -- developing your character, questing, improving equipment, and fighting to achieve a goal -- with a much easier learning curve than traditional RPGs.  The world of ArcaniA is stunning, with half a dozen lands to explore -- each filled with caves, shrines, dungeons, and baddies.  ArcaniA is the first implementation I have seen on a modern engine of a professional RPG aimed at the new or casual RPGer.  It absolutely succeeds in providing fun gameplay to those gamers who want to take the next step in challenges up from games like Diablo II or Torchlight or Borderlands

Oh, and by the way, my selfish hope is that it will also get new RPGers ready to soon click off the "Quest Marker" option to try an even more challenging version of ArcaniA -- and then to develop a taste for trying the Classic RPGs that so many us relish (like ArcaniA's predecessor Gothic 3 and so many others I could list -- past and present).


Classic RPGers -- A Painful Trend

"In the struggle to make games more accessible to larger audiences, it becomes a question of how much is too much to tone down and sometimes that can be too much".

That comment, also by ArcaniA's producer, Kamaal Anwar, sums up the issue that has been so hot on the RPGWatch forums.  When does the compromise of making a game more accessible turn into "dumbing down"?  We can look at any of the recent RPGs to make this point, including Dragon Age to Mass Effect 2, not just ArcaniA.  Where ArcaniA stands out is that it is the first I can recall that openly set a design goal to attract the new and casual RPGers.  Other than the name (which is a BIG marketing mistake in using the term "Gothic 4") ArcaniA never pretended to be a Classic RPG of the type most of us on RPGWatch seek and prefer.  I would not be surprised, given our very high percentage of classic RPGers compared to most sites, if the reaction in the RPGWatch forums to ArcaniA was mostly negative.

This game would get bad reaction just because of the name, alone.  It sets all wrong expectations.  One expects "Gothic 4" - yet finds it is a new genre of game, a "casual RPG," aimed at what all the RPG developers seem to think is the new sweet spot in gaming - customers who want simplicity and easy accessibility.  As such, ArcaniA is a very good game, deserving 4+ out of 5 for that "mass market."  Sadly, that is a different genre of game than I was expecting and is very different than I prefer to play.  And I suspect it is also a disappointment to many RPGWatch members.  This is not Gothic 4, and is not a classic RPG even with the "Quest Markers" option disabled.

Ironically, if Jowood had announced G4 was still to come, but in the meantime ArcaniA would be the launch of a "...new, casual RPG based on some of the G3 backstory...", what a difference that might have made.  I would have to believe ArcaniA would get far better reactions from the early reviewers who started with the same (wrong) expectations that I had about what kind of game it would be.

Now -- before I warn classic RPGers why you might want to hold off on ArcaniA for now, I have to reveal my own dirty little secret.  I hated ArcaniA at first but it grew on me.  By two-thirds of the way through, I actually was starting to like it.  No, it will never get even close to making my "A" list of the RPGs I love and will replay many times over.  But it turned out to be an entertaining and fun game that is perfect for an RPGer who wants occasional casual play.  Most classic RPGs require concentration and dedication.  Someone in the forums made an excellent point that I now better understand -- he said he would enjoy ArcaniA, despite being a classic RPGer, because his work and life schedule rarely gave him the opportunity to dedicate time to a more challenging RPG.  He was right: I missed that point.  ArcaniA is exactly the kind of game I look for when I have a couple hours to play and might not get back to it for several days.

Okay -- it would be easier to claim I had a secret desire to marry Margaret Thatcher than to admit to hardcore RPGers on RPGWatch that I ended up somewhat liking ArcaniA

But now, the reasons Classic RPGers will not like it.  Ironically, most of these would be considered "strengths" to the Casual RPGer.  

In random order taken from pages of my notes:

  • The story is very linear with no meaningful choices or options along the way.  There is no way you could actually do anything other than succeed in ArcaniA -- the worst that happens is that you lose a fight and reload.  I discovered no choice in the entire game that would have a meaningful impact on the story.  Most of the dialogue is just a single line for you to "choose" so the dialogue box is little more than a way to pace your reading. 
  • Storyline linearity means that replayability is limited to trying the three specialties of mage, warrior, and ranger.
  • There are lots of "named" in the game -- but at best they are minibosses of no consequence.  Most seemed to be just slightly stronger versions of the rest of the pack you were fighting.
  • Even with "Quest markers" turned off, you are pretty much led by the nose through quests, if compared to traditional RPGs.  Targets are easy to find, dungeons usually are pretty clear in what direction to take, areas you should avoid are "locked," etc.  The worst example of this was one time when you actually would have had to search a large area to find someone -- a mage cast a special spell that made bunches of swampweed glow along the path he took.  When you approach the NPC who is the target of many quests, the game will go into an automatic cutscene so you cannot miss him.
  • Graphically weather and daytime changes are impressive, but they have no discernable impact on the story
  • Steal anything anytime.  Take it right off the table where someone is sitting.  There are no consequences for taking anything in the game.
  • No need to have a lockpicking skill.  All chests open in the first part of the story.  After that you get a "special key" that lets you play a minigame to open any locked chests.
  • No hidden traps, only a couple visible traps, and no disarming in the game.  I found just one instance where a trap could be disabled (by a lever if you were able to get through some fireballs).
  • Skills and spells were deeply reduced from G3.  There are no trainers.  There are only eight major skills, including just three spells.
  • All attribute level-ups are automatic.
  • Fighting seems much easier, at least on normal.  Arrows fly in a straight line.  Targeting is "kind" for ranged and casting.    As a mage I was able to die just twice in the first 3/4ths of the game.  Fighting did become much harder in the final quarter of ArcaniA.  There is no friendly fire and you cannot harm yourself with area spells.  Other than burning, I did not find any other damage over time (like poison) that could affect you.  Melee attackers seemed to come one at a time -- ranged attackers did fire at will.  All mobs tether back to their starting point if you run far enough.
  • Crafting is a simple select-and-click if you found/bought the recipe and have collected the ingredients.  Craft anywhere -- no workbenches or forges needed. 
  • No needs for repair, rest, food.  There are no limits to inventory quantity or weight.


Overall for Classic RPGers:  Hardcore RPGers will want to pass on this.  Even less-than-hardcore RPGers like myself will want to consider this title mainly if you can afford the purchase for casual play when time is limited for a more immersive RPG.

 

Gothic Lovers -- A Major Disappointment

If Gothic 2 or 3 is on your list of top RPGs from the past and you are looking to ArcaniA to continue the Gothic series for you, then you only will be very disappointed if you try ArcaniA.  The connection between ArcaniA and G3 is very thin.  You will see many of your old friends (Gorn, Diego, etc.) and will share some of the previous backstory.  But most of the rest of Gothic mechanics and interplay have been eliminated. 

Linearity, theft, and exploration were covered above.  Some of the other elements from Gothic (and other classic RPGs) eliminated include:

  • Crafting locations -- no need for alchemy tables, or forges.  Just open your crafting window and click on what you want to make.  If you have the supplies, it appears in your inventory.
  • Factions --  eliminated completely
  • Resting -- beds are for-show only
  • Skills -- far fewer options
  • Trainers -- eliminated.  As you level up you get three points to distribute in any of the skills you choose.  For trades, you collect or buy recipe scrolls to be used in your crafting window.  A couple "trainers" are found in the game, but they merely have short quests to give you a scroll or two.
  • Lockpicking -- eliminated as a skill that you need to invest level-up points in.  Chest opening is automatic for the first third of the game.  After that most chests are still unlocked, and you play a minigame to open the rest (using a "special lockpick" you receive.
  • Repair and sharpen -- eliminated
  • Whetstones and lecterns -- eliminated


Overall for Gothic lovers:  there is very little similarity between G4 and the prior Gothics in the essentials of gameplay.  You would do well to think of ArcaniA as a whole new game, and not as G4 at all.

 

New RPG Options -- Hope for the Future?

One aside from ArcaniA is worth mentioning.  ArcaniA is the first tier one game that I recall (I think Eschalon and some Indies have tried this) that employed option settings to enable/disable RPG items.  I find this to be a very encouraging sign (though it might turn out to be wishful thinking).  I believe Fallout: New Vegas is going to be shipped with some similar options.

What I find encouraging (with the glass half full) is that this might become a way that a strong RPG could be made more accessible to casual RPGers.  If a game like BG2 (to use an old example) were shipped with the options to add quest markers, eliminate repair or rest needs, etc., then I would welcome such a possibility.  It would let both the casual and classic RPGers enjoy the games they most like.  Ironically, one of the best mods to Gothic 3 was a rebalance that added similar options.

I am deeply concerned that the trend we have seen in DA, ME2, now in ArcaniA might continue -- being nice I would call it making games more "accessible," but when I am discouraged, I would not be as generous and use the term "dumbing down."  Options to eliminate quest markers from a game already greatly simplified cannot suddenly turn it into a great, Classic RPG.

The fundamental truth of using options with RPGs is that they can only work one way.  Options can make a Classic RPG more accessible  -- but options can never make a simple game challenging.

It will be interesting to see what the introductions of the new Spellforce, Divinity, Drakensang, Two Worlds II and their successors do when they launch later this year and next.

 

The ArcaniA Demo

This is one time where playing the demo first, armed with the insights of a review like this, can help you a great deal in your purchase decision.  The demo (with one major exception) turns out to be very much like the rest of the game.  I was one who, based on my expectations for G4 being the logical successor to the Gothic series, did not register the degree of simplification that occurred in the demo.  I just figured "...it's a demo --  the real game will be much different."  I was wrong.

The demo is pretty faithful to the start of the story.  The one exception is that the final cave crawl.  There were many additional equipment drops, the whole portion after the spider (beetle?) queen dropped with the skellies was added just for the demo, and the final scene approaching the king never happened.

 

The Bottom Line

Your reaction to ArcaniA will vary widely depending upon what pair of glasses you are wearing.  If you are a new or casual RPGer, then ArcaniA is a fun game that you will enjoy greatly.  Even for classic RPGers it will be a nice game to have if you can afford it for when you do not have the time for a more immersive RPG.  At the other extreme, if you are a fan who hopes to continue the Gothic series with the same game mechanics and experience you had back exploring Myrtana and Nordmar, then you will be sorely disappointed with ArcaniA -- for it is a very different game than you would expect.  As a classic RPGer somewhere in the middle, caveat emptor.


Pros:  The graphics, environments, landscapes, game smoothness, stability, and dungeon design

Cons:  Depends heavily upon what pair of glasses you are wearing!

Box Art

Information about

Arcania: Gothic 4

Developer: Spellbound Entertainment

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
Europe
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2010-10-12
· Publisher: JoWooD

North America
· Arcania: A Gothic Tale
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2010-10-19
· Publisher: Dreamcatcher

Europe
· Arcania: A Gothic Tale
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2010-10-01
· Publisher: JoWooD

More information


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