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Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

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Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (more commonly known as Arcanum) is a single player computer role-playing game developed by Troika Games and published by Sierra Entertainment. It was released in North America and Europe in August 2001 for Microsoft Windows. Debuting at fourth position on NPD Intelect's best-seller list,[2] it was Troika's best-selling title with 234,000 copies sold and with takings of US$8.8 million.[3]

Reviews have been mostly positive, with IGN scoring it 8.7 and conferring the IGN Editors' Choice Award on August 24, 2001.[4] PC Gamer and GameZone awarded Arcanum 90 out of 100,[5] with the latter also conferring its Editors' Choice accolade.[6] The Electric Playground awarded the game 9 out of 10, calling it "the most diverse and open-ended RPG to date."[7] The game currently holds an average review score of 79% on GameRankings[8] and 81% on Metacritic.[9]

The story takes place on the continent of Arcanum, which despite its initial fantasy setting, has just started going through an industrial revolution.[10] The story begins with the crash of the zeppelin IFS Zephyr, of which the protagonist is the only survivor, which leads him throughout the land in search of answers.[11] The game employs an isometric perspective and features an open game world where the protagonist can travel unhindered.


Gameplay in Arcanum consists of traveling through the game world, visiting locations and interacting with the local inhabitants, typically in real-time. Occasionally, inhabitants will require the player's assistance in various tasks, which the player may choose to solve in order to acquire special items, experience points, or new followers. Many quests offer multiple solutions for the player, depending on his playing style, which may consist of combat, persuasion, thievery, or bribery.[12] Ultimately, players will encounter hostile opponents (if such encounters are not avoided using stealth or diplomacy), in which case they and the player will engage in combat, which can be real-time or turn-based.

Character creation

Arcanum begins with the player creating his or her character, choosing from a large variety of races, attributes, technological skills, magical aptitudes, and background traits, or the player may choose a predefined character. Over the course of the game, the character may improve his or her skills by gaining experience through completing quests or defeating opponents in combat.[13] Every time the player gains a level, he can spend one character point to improve any attribute, weapon skill, technological discipline, school of magic, thievery skill, or social skill. Every fifth level, one additional character point is awarded for a total of 64 character points.[14] The player can only control one character directly but may recruit additional followers during the game depending on his or her aptitudes and alignment.

Player characters have the choice of specializing in a technological path which emphasizes constructing weapons, ammunition, and items from various components; a magical path which emphasizes spellcasting; or a neutral path, learning both magic and technology skills, which allows the most flexibility. The game uses a meter to show how biased towards magic or technology the player is; any character points spent on a technological discipline or skill move the aptitude meter towards the technology side and any points spent on spells move it towards the magical side. Character points spent on attributes or any other skills do not alter the aptitude meter.[15][16]


File:Arcanum Wolf Combat.png

Three combat modes were included in the final release of the game: real-time, turn-based, and a faster version of turn-based. Arcanum's combat design has received criticism, with reviews stating that it is poorly balanced, frantic,[17] and overly simplified. The player's combat capabilities are in large part governed by the character's combat skills and weapons. Attacking is performed automatically by clicking on a hostile NPC provided that he is in range of the attack.

Combat skills that the player character can choose from include melee weapons (with an optional back stabbing skill for stealth-oriented players), thrown weapons, archery, firearms, and certain damage-inflicting spells from some schools of magic. Deciding whether or not to use violence in the game sometimes carries consequences for the player's party. Some AI-controlled followers the player makes will find his or her character's conduct morally objectionable, and leave, or even attack the player.[18]

Open-world design


Arcanum's large, free-form world bears many similarities to Fallout with regards to the scarcity of towns, cities, or other locations of interest; however Arcanum's map is much larger than Fallout's. The travel system, however, has some things in common with the Elder Scrolls series in that the world can be traveled across in-game, without the use of the world map, and that the game doesn't rush the player into pursuing the main quest.[19]

The game comes packaged with an editor, called WorldEdit, that allows players to create their own maps, campaigns, and NPCs. The program allows any game-world object to be input into existing and newly created environments via GUI menus. Editing can be done in either isometric or top-down views. Players have charge over the game's variables, such as the skill level required to pick a certain lock or the precise time that an electric light will turn on. Players are also able to create brand new objects via the scenery creator.[20]


Arcanum begins with a cut scene of the IFS Zephyr, a luxury zeppelin, on her maiden voyage from Caladon to Tarant. Two monoplanes, piloted by Half-Ogre bandits, close in on the craft and commence attack runs, succeeding in shooting it down. An old gnome who is a passenger aboard the Zephyr is now in his death throes under charred debris and tells the player to bring a silver ring to "the boy," and promptly dies. Being the only survivor of the crash, the main character is proclaimed as "The Living One," a holy reincarnate, by the only witness to the crash, Virgil. The story follows the player's path as he searches for the origin of the ring. Over the course of the game, the player uncovers more about the history of the continent, the motivation of the assassins who are trying to kill him, and the identity of the one threatening to end all life in the land.[21]

Arcanum is an example of a non-linear role-playing game. At various points throughout the game, players may take the story in different directions, sometimes permanently removing different paths of action. The game's central quest ultimately develops according to how players navigate its dichotomies, the most apparent being that of magic and technology. Many of the game's side quests allow for more than one solution depending on the player character's specializations and certain portions of the main quest can be solved more easily through dialogue than through combat. The game's magic/technology and good/evil themes also influence what followers a character can attract throughout the game or how other NPCs will react to the player.[22]


Arcanum is the name of the fantasy world in which the game unfolds. It consists of a continental mainland and three islands.[23] The world is inhabited by various races resembling those from the works of Tolkien, including humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, ogres, and various wildlife. Players can choose from humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and human hybrid races, including half-elves, half-orcs and half-ogres as playable races.[24] The continent is divided between several different political entities. The Unified Kingdom is rapidly industrializing. Its two largest cities are Tarant and Ashbury, and it is the most technologically advanced kingdom. The Kingdom of Cumbria is a deteriorated kingdom, consisting of Dernholm and Black Root, and ruled by an old conservative king. The Kingdom of Arland, extending from Caladon to Roseborough, is a small but thriving monarchy west of the Stonewall range. The Glimmering Forest, the largest in Arcanum, is home to the elven city of Qintarra and the dark elven city of T'sen-Ang, and has been untouched by the technological advancements of the time. The Stonewall and Grey Mountain Ranges are home to the remaining dwarven clans: the Black Mountain Clan, the Stonecutter Clan, the Wheel Clan, and the Iron Clan. Many other minor settlements also exist, as well as containing ruins of past civilizations. The biggest of these is the ruins of Vendigroth, the most advanced city on Arcanum, which met a sudden and mysterious end.[23][25]

An important in-game dynamic is the dichotomy of magic and technology in the world. Technology is explained to function by using physical law to produce a desired result, e.g., a bolt of electricity from a Tesla Gun would arc through the most conductive path to its target. Magic, on the other hand, is explained to manipulate physical law to make a lightning spell follow the shortest path to the target, instead of the natural path. The two are incompatible to the point that they overwhelm each other. Technological devices will become ineffective or even permanently inoperative in the presence of powerful magic and vice versa. Much of the population has chosen to embrace technology for its efficiency, accessibility, and permanent results. The elves, dark elves, and some humans continue to practice magic exclusively. This also affects interactions between different characters, as spells cast on technologists or firearms used against mages have a failure rate.[26]

Orcs and ogres are looked down upon as savage, feral peoples by Arcanum's civilized folk, who own virtually all the industry of the major population centers. There is a great enmity between elves and dwarfs, the former being naturally inclined towards magically-defined society, the latter being forerunners of the technology race—and many elves blame the dwarfs for the rise of human technology. Scientists are unwelcome in magical societies like Qintarra or Tulla but will be respected if they are righteous and good folk. Conversely, a mage would be admitted onto a steam train only on the provision that he take a third-class seat on the last caboose, so as not to cause interference with the engine (despite there being no in-game mechanic by which even the powerful mages can affect it). Powerful mages may be denied transport altogether.[27][28]


Arcanum's public beta testing commenced in September 2000.[29] It is the debut title of now-defunct development house Troika Games, which consisted of former Interplay Entertainment staff—most notably Tim Cain—responsible for 1997's critically acclaimed Fallout.[30] On release, the game was found to be incompatible with some video cards, such as Voodoo2, and drivers such as nVidia's Detonator3. Furthermore, the game's copy protection software, SecuROM, caused system-component conflicts with particular brands of sound cards and CD-ROM drives.[31] Such bugs, as well as numerous gameplay bugs, were one of the game's biggest criticisms.[24][32]


In a 2000 interview with, Tim Cain announced plans for an Arcanum sequel,[33] but these plans would not come to pass—Troika Games filed for dissolution on September 30, 2005.

In September 2006, one of Arcanum's lead programmers and co-founder of Troika, Leonard Boyarsky, divulged that the studio had originally commenced work on a sequel, going by the working title of Journey to the Centre of Arcanum, which would use Valve's Source Engine. Development was curtailed by disputes between Sierra and Valve, resulting ultimately in the project being shelved.[34]


The latest official patch, was released in 2001.


 Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Reviews
Aggregate scores
Aggregator Score
GameRankings 79[8]
Metacritic 81[9]
Review scores
Publication Score
Game Revolution B-[32]
GameSpot 7.3 of 10[24]
GameSpy 89 out of 100[35]
GameZone 90 out of 100[6]
IGN 8.7 out of 10[4]
PC Gamer US 90 out of 100[5]
RPGFan 86 out of 100[36]
Entity Award
IGN Editors' Choice
GameZone Editors' Choice

Upon release, Arcanum had mostly positive review scores, receiving two Editor's Choice Awards from IGN[4] and GameZone[6] with scores of 8.7 out of 10 and 90 out of 100, respectively. IGN stated that “the story is rich and complex,”[4] praising the character creation, open-ended game play, and size of the game world.[4] They also praised the game for its responsiveness to the player: “A well-adjusted Elf may get more information out of an aristocrat than a surly Half-Ogre, and the conversations you have will be completely different.”[4] IGN did, however, criticize its interface, calling it “[not] very intuitive, bordering on downright clunky”[4] and the in-game user interface “takes up over a third of the screen.”[4] Gamezone called it a RPG with “some extra bite,”[6] also praising the character creation and game play stating, “This one will be on your PC for months.”[6] Additionally, they praised the “incredible range of equipment that ranges from standard[s] such as swords and armor to rags and coal and empty cans.”[6]

I was pleasantly surprised that I could construct Molotov cocktail bombs from garbage. Insanely cool

Gamezone review[6]

The game also received praise from The Electric Playground, which awarded the game 9 out of 10 and calling it "the most diverse and open-ended RPG to date."[7] Game Revolution praised the game, particularly the character creation, stating, “Whomever you are, the world treats you accordingly.”[32] but also criticized the graphics.[32] Game Informer rated the game as 63 out of 100, GamePro gave it 4 out of 5[8] and Mygamer awarded the game 8 out of 10.[37]

Gamespot gave the game a rating of 7.3 out of 10, calling it a “captivating and immersive role-playing experience”[24] and praising the setting as a “great concept.”[24] They did, however, cite its poor combat, lackluster graphics, and unintuitive interface as the main criticisms: “There’s nothing flattering about the dated, washed-out, low-resolution graphics.”[24] The game currently holds an average review score of 79% based on 37 reviews on GameRankings[8] and 81% based on 24 reviews on Metacritic.[9]


Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Original Soundtrack
Soundtrack by Ben Houge
Released 21 August 2001
Recorded Studio X, Seattle
Producer Ben Houge, Jeff Pobst

Composed by Ben Houge, Arcanum's soundtrack features an unusual instrumentation by avoiding the predominantly symphonic orchestration common to RPG soundtracks. Instead, it is scored almost entirely for string quartet. The songs follow the conventional RPG soundtrack format: short, impressionistic vignettes which are looped in-game, with each area using only one song, and an alternative song for combat. The soundtrack was produced by Ben Houge and Jeff Pobst, with Leonid Keylin on first violin, Kathy Stern on second violin, Vincent Comer on viola, Susan Williams on cello, Evan Buehler on marimba, and Ben Houge on djembe, rainstick and synthesiser.[38]

The soundtrack, composed by Ben Houge, was not commercially released but is available for free download.[39] The sheet music is also provided.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Original Soundtrack
No. Title Length
1. "Arcanum"   2:37
2. "The Demise of the “Zepher”"   1:33
3. "Wilderness"   2:12
4. "Tarant"   2:07
5. "The Tarant Sewers"   2:13
6. "Caladon"   2:39
7. "Caladon Catacombs"   2:55
8. "Dungeons"   3:00
9. "Battle at Vendigroth"   1:34
10. "Tulla"   3:11
11. "Towns"   2:01
12. "The Isle of Despair"   2:27
13. "Mines"   2:41
14. "Cities"   2:20
15. "Radcliffe's Commission"   1:35
16. "The Vendigroth Wastes"   3:05
17. "Villages"   2:46
18. "Qintarra"   1:56
19. "The Wheel Clan"   2:06
20. "The Void"   0:50
21. "Kerghan's Castle"   2:25
22. "In Memoriam (bonus track)"   2:45

The track "In Memoriam" was unused in the game itself and was later released by Houge in an interview.[40]


  1. Game Credits for Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (2001-08-21). Retrieved on 2006-10-16.
  2. Arcanum debuts at number four. Gamespot (2001-09-06). Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  3. GameBanshee News Staff (2005-03-01). Troika Games' Sales Figures. GameBanshee. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 IGN Staff (2001-08-24). Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. IGN. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Staff (2001-08-22). Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Reviews. GameRankings. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Rgerbino (2001-08-30). Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review. Gamezone. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Jason (2001-08-24). Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review. Greedy Productions Ltd.. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 GameRankings Staff (2001-08-22). GameRankings: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. GameRankings. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Metacritic Staff (2001-08-21). Metacritic: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Metacritic. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  10. Interview to Tim Cain. (2000-04-23). Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  11. Witecat (2002-05-27). Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Review. Gamefaqs. Retrieved on 2009-07-06.
  12. Rabbi Guru (2008-03-01). Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura Review. MobyGames. Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  13. Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura Review. Gamespot (2000-05-17). Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  14. Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura Review. Steve Metzler (2002-12-01). Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  15. Gestalt (2001-02-18). Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura Preview. Eurogamer. Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  16. Arcanum Review. RPGamer (2001-08-24). Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  17. Arcanum Review. Gamespot (2001-08-21). Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  18. Staff (2008-02-03). Point & Counterpoint 8: Best Overlooked RPG — Arcanum. CaffeinePowered. Retrieved on 2009-07-11.
  19. IGN Staff (2000-06-08). Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Interview. IGN. Retrieved on 2007-05-14.
  20. Arcanum: Behind the Scenes, pt. 5 - Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  21. Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura Review. Allgame (2001-08-22). Retrieved on 2009-07-12.
  22. Chimpan-A (2001-08-21). Arcanum of Steamworks & Magic Obscura review by Sierra. Game Monkey Press. Retrieved on 2009-07-12.
  23. 23.0 23.1 The World of Arcanum. Retrieved on 2009-07-03.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 24.4 24.5 Gamespot review of Arcanum. Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  25. Arcanum Uber-Faq. Retrieved on 2009-07-03.
  26. Arcanum Uber-Faq. Retrieved on 2009-07-03.
  27. Arcanum Uber-Faq. Retrieved on 2009-07-03.
  28. Arcanum Uber-Faq. Retrieved on 2009-07-03.
  29. Dimensions of Arcanum - Game Beta Testing. Dimensions of Arcanum. Retrieved on 2006-09-28.
  30. Tim Cain's profile at MobyGames. Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  31. Dimensions of Arcanum - General Game FAQ. Dimensions of Arcanum. Retrieved on 2006-10-04.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 Arcanum of Steamworks & Magic Obscura review by Game Revolution. Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  33. Interview to Tim Cain - Intervista. Retrieved on 2006-10-06.
  34. Terra Arcanum. Journey to the Centre of Arcanum. Retrieved on 2006-10-18.
  35. Arcanum of Steamworks & Magic Obscura review by Gamespy. Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  36. Cavner, Brian. Arcanum review by RPGFan. Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  37. Arcanum review at Retrieved on 2009-07-02.
  38. Arcanum Soundtrack credits. Retrieved on 2009-07-03.
  39. Ben Houge, Arcanum Soundtrack. (2001-09-19). Retrieved on 2009-10-19.
  40. Ben Houge, audio. Retrieved on 2008-05-15.

External links

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