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August 30th, 2011, 13:22
Arcania: Gothic 4
Were a higher budget enough for Spellbound to redeem Gothic from its previous title Forsaken Gods?

A quick history lesson
Gothic 1-3 was developed by Piranha Software and managed to get some success with their unusual non-linear and free-roaming titles in which you could go in any direction as you please, with few physical barriers. When it was released Gothic 3 was a very ambitious title, but released too soon an extremely buggy. The fanpatched version is still one of the better RPG’s out there though. In the aftermath Piranha Bytes and the publisher JoWood parted ways. Piranha Bytes went on to make Risen that share many similarities with their Gothic trilogy. JoWood kept the Gothic franchise and got Spellbound Software to make the next title; a standalone expansion called Gothic 3: Forsaken Gods. If you visit Gamerankings and search for worst RPG on PC with at least 1 review, Forsaken Gods is about 12 from the bottom. For my comments on that game, search this thread. Unlike Forsaken Gods, Arcania is a serious title, with much higher budget, built from scratch up by Spellbound.

Spoilers of earlier titles will follow.

The protagonist from the first titles are now a king gone mad, conquering the nations around Myrtana. The new hero in Gothic 4 is a young man from a small village on an island. He is just about to get married when his village is attacked and everyone but him killed. With help by his friend Diego he begins his quest for revenge. Eventually he learns that the attack was not random but done for very specific reasons; he was supposed to die as well.

The story of Arcania builds slowly through cut scenes and dialogue. You spend about 2/3 of the map without really knowing what’s going on, moving from place to place in a linear fashion. Many of the known NPC's from earlier titles reappear to assist you and there are also a couple of reoccurring characters. That said, for some reason I found that Arcania couldn’t absorb me.

Stories in fantasygames are often cliché, but a good story isn’t about how it’s written but how it’s told. In Arcania, there’ just not much happening throughout most of the game. First half you move slowly through wolfs and goblins and meet NPC’s who are often either satirically rude, overdemanding or mad. Even the sensible people you meet were often presented in a such fashion I couldn’t connect. I felt no emotional attachment to anyone, just ticked off. Then there’s a trek through a section which is just a lot of combat until you reach a large city where the game briefly got more interesting to me, thanks to having many of your old friends present at once who rely on you to do pressing matters throughout the city. Had the entire game been made in that fashion, Arcania would have been a much better game for me.

Satirically rude, overdemanding or mad, yes. Much of the time, Arcania feels like satire or parody of RPG clichés. Very few NPC’s you meet feel agreeable and warm. Many quests are delivered with complete bluntness and the player character even comments on this later on “just tell me what monster I need to kill or item I need to find for you and I’ll be going”. The “mad person” quickly became an old cliché in Forsaken Gods and it’s also carried over to Arcania. Most people are crazy in some fashion which might be funny if you think so but to me it was too overused. An even stronger issue with NPC’s were that faces are often reused and voices are often poor (sometimes disturbingly poor). Without looking at the name of people you can barely distinguish them. Later on when a lot of names were dropped in dialogue I found it very hard to remember who were who. All of this made me even more disencouraged to care for NPC’s beyond those who I learned to like in earlier titles.

Without spoiling too much I might also mention that the ending was a lackluster. Gothic 3 had a very powerful ending and really could have been seen as the end of the series, Forsaken Gods teared that ending apart, Arcanias ending made me forced to google it up to verify I got the actual ending which I did.

Engine: Graphics & Sound
The Engine in Arcania is top notch. Arcania simply looks and sounds amazing. The vegitation looks great, monsters look gruesome, boss monsters are unusually large and horrifying, faces look very realistic with realistic looking skin, clothes and weapons are well designed, the landscape is well crafted and the weather system works. Sure, I did have a lot of glaring errors, like NPC's having visual polygon holes right through their bodies and very odd lightning on teeth and in mouths. I just want to mention that this is an example of how excellent graphics can’t replace poor storytelling. Kinda like Oblivion.

But again I have to mention voice acting which is often rather bad. Also many NPC's share similar faces with other NPC's which made it often confusing to remember who's who once the plot begins to wrap up towards the end of the game.

I will not spend too much time complaining over how simplified Arcania is to earlier parts of the series, but I will instead consider how Arcania plays out compared to other traditional designs.

As a whole, combat is solid. The character moves fluid and controls generally works great. I had no issues controlling my character and pull off some great moves.

As a mage I focused on spellcasting and was quickly good enough to hurl fire around me. However, there are only three direct spells you can level up (fireball, icebolts, lightning) and five special runes with special spells in them. Compared to Risen I say that at least the spells are better balanced. The three offensive spells do different things and are useful for different characterbuilds. Personally I prefer to have access to multiple weak spells than one strong through. Had you got access to weaker versions of all three you might have been able to be more varied and strategical in your spellcasting. As it is now you are likely to spend the entire game hurling the same spell over and over again.

Unlike previous titles, Arcania is linear. You follow the plot into a new area that opens up when you make a quest or two, there are no good way to get back except for running long distances. Once in a new area you are likely to talk to all NPC's to get all quests, run around in circles and kill all the monsters, loot all the chests and pick all the flowers, then move on again. Having spent days doing this carefully I cannot say it was worth the extra hassle to chase for the loot. You find ten times more loot that you need and I ended up buying almost nothing and crafting almost nothing since I did not need to.

Most of the quests are delivered in an absurd fashion, almost like the writers tried to insult you for normally enjoying NPC quests, or make a parody out of the traditional "fetch me x items" or "kill x monsters" in other RPG's. Very rarely a quest made me care for its outcome. One interesting thing though is that the game realizes when you did a quest before you get it. When you get your quest your character will automatically say he already did the task awhile back and you still get the XP for doing so. Good stuff.

Now there is something I wanted to mention about the simplification they did. In previous games you had access to lecterns that permanently increased your magic and potions that permanently increase your stats. In many areas this was a reward for exploring. In Arcania you get four quests that spans the entire game. If you find 30 ancient relics, 30 statues, 30 goatskulls or 30 graves you get some really powerful items near the end of the game. This doesn’t make sense to me because the game still have treasure hunting like before, finding the hidden stuff is just as hard as finding the old lecterns and special plants you needed for permanent potions, the only real difference is that here YOU HAVE TO FIND THEM ALL, each and every single one of them, else you get no reward! This is awful gamedesign. It doesn’t make the game more accessible, rather it makes it inaccessible. It exploits people with OCD, it demands a tremendous effort with little reward and high risk of getting no reward. I personally used a map so I would be able to see these special items towards the end of the game, but without the map I wouldn’t even had tried. Imagine putting in the effort for a week just to get cheated on your reward for missing a single hidden item? It’s something about “gotta find them all” quests and achievements that ticks me off and have to stop. I guess it’s a sideeffect of the introduction of Acheivements and Trophies on consoles which developers try to implement without knowing how to make it fun. One better way would be to at least give partial rewards on the road (which is how former games in the series were designed actually), or scatter 60 items when you just need 30. Then you can still enjoy searching for them and still have a chance of reward for being into it. Now if you find a single item and move to the next area you can’t finish the quest. Awful.

Final Conclusion
I believe Gothic is effectively dead and that people who play the series should simply ignore everything beyond Gothic 3 even happened. Spellbound Software just can’t make interesting games or stories. It’s not a question of oversimplification, I could live with that, my problem with Arcania is about the emotional disattachment to the game, a product of bad writing and bad storytelling. Do not make the graphics fool you. New or old, if you care for a good story, npc’s that makes you care, rewarding exploration etc, Arcania isn’t worth your time.
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