Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is a computer role-playing game developed by the ill-fated Troika Studios, who also developed Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines back when the Source engine was new and shiny and a couple of other less-revered RPGs. (Their work on the cRPG conversion of the classic The Temple Of Elemental Evil Dungeons & Dragons module is still one of the most accurate implementations of the 3.5 edition of Dungeons & Dragons in a computer game; however, the game was doomed by a badly-set difficulty level and several serious bugs.)
Arcanum takes place on the fictional continent of Arcanum, a land that once boasted a rich and dense magical history but is currently in the thick of a major industrial revolution. Because of the nature of magic and technology, the two are wildly incompatible, and the presence of one can cause the other to stop working or even malfunction with disastrous results. This has bred all sorts of prejudices across society: practitioners of magic are often seen as backwater and uneducated, while inventors and manufacturers have begun toying with forces beyond their control. The game neatly drives this home when the player attempts to purchase a simple train ticket. Before the teller will accept the player's money, the player must answer a handful of questions about his or her magical aptitude or any artifacts they might be carrying. If their aptitude is too high, the teller outright refuses to sell them a ticket and the player must reach their destination on foot. In true Troika fashion, there are a few ways to get around this (including lying to the teller, which has several consequences of its own), but this is just one of the various issues Arcanum explores over the course of the game.
The combat system should be mostly familiar to anyone who's played Fallout or Fallout 2: combat is turn-based and actions are performed by spending a number of action points, which are determined by a couple of the character's stats. There is also a real-time mode that does away with action points entirely and allows the player to attack almost as fast (or even faster in some cases) than they can click. Character development is completely open-ended: each level, the player is allocated a number of points that can be put into any skills, technological disciplines, schools of magic, or core stats they like, with almost no restrictions. It is possible to locate schematics and special skill teachers over the course of the game; these unlock special item creation options allowing the player to create one-of-a-kind weapons and companions or add special bonuses when using certain skills.
The game starts out with the character aboard the IFS Zephyr, a cross-continental zeppelin traveling on her maiden voyage from Caladon to Tarant. During the trip, a pair of orcs in airplanes (complete with bombardier's caps and goggles) attack and destroy the zeppelin, forcing it to crash land near the sleepy village of Shrouded Hills. The player mysteriously survives the crash intact, and as the wreckage burns an old gnome crawls out and gives the player a silver monogrammed ring, asking them to take it to "the boy" only moments before he dies. Shortly afterward, a religious initiate who introduces himself as Virgil arrives and, in a somewhat Hugh Grant-ian fashion, proclaims the player "The Living One": a reincarnation of a major old-world god come down to Arcanum to help correct the supernatural balance of power. Over the course of the game, the player can explore several large cities in various states of proliferation or decay, the massive ruins of a mysteriously empty city, fight a pirate ghost over a ship's pink slips, visit a prison island and then break out of it, run errands for jumped-up human and elven nobles, help an immortal soldier find his final resting place, and find out exactly what being "The Living One" constitutes.
The amount of flexibility and content inside this game is incredible. It's possible to play a non-combat character and still finish the game, though there's some initial growing pains that come up before you can assemble enough companions to do your dirty work. All of the books in the game have between five and thirty full pages of writing, describing everything from common alchemical formulas to elven history to religious tracts and violent personal diaries. Many of the quests have multiple endings and enough wiggle room to allow a variety of different character types to finish them. In case I'm not being clear enough, I have played through the entire game somewhere between three and six times since it came out, not counting unfinished attempts, and I still have yet to see and do absolutely everything in the game.
The soundtrack is classical, but was arranged for string quartet instead of a full orchestra. It is evocative in ways that not many other soundtracks, movies and TV shows included, ever seem to reach. The composer really does a better job of describing it than I can:
The first thing I was told about Arcanum was the central conflict of the game: magic versus technology. This idea was so interesting and unique that I considered carefully how to best reflect it in the music. I presented a couple of ideas to the guys at Troika, and we finally settled on a sort of musical anachronism: a score centered around the styles and textures of Renaissance, medieval, and early music, but performed by a characteristic ensemble of the Victorian era, the string quartet. This dichotomy is most evident in the main Arcanum theme, but it shows up more obliquely in the chant-like melodies and motives that recur throughout the score, as well as in the texture and motion of the individual parts. [...] The Arcanum score is indebted to the Kronos Quartet's Early Music album, which includes early music transcribed for string quartet alongside contemporary compositions that share an esthetic [sic] kinship with early music. I also remember being inspired by some of Philip Glass' comments regarding his new score to the classic 1931 film Dracula, in which he stated that he chose a string quartet to evoke the film's close, Gothic environments. - Ben Houge1
Even if you're not much into video games, I'd recommend at least giving it a listen. It's free for download from the composer's website along with the sheet music.
Despite all of their lofty goals and excellent design choices, Troika Studios was plagued by a distinct lack of playtesting, not just in Arcanum but in all of their games. The beginning few hours can be pretty arduous and a little sparse. There are no actual tutorials on how to play the game, but the manual can be downloaded for free from several places and serves as a decent introduction to the basics. Some of the abbreviations used for stats on items and the character sheet can be pretty mysterious. There's a few quest-related bugs that can stop the quest in its tracks. Finally, though this really isn't Troika's fault, the game was released when Windows 98 was still prevalent and only runs on Windows XP with a little bit of coercion. I have yet to try it on any other operating system though I suspect the XP Mode in Windows 7 will allow it to run. Fortunately, much like with Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, the cult following dedicated to the game has released an unofficial bugfix patch and a high resolution patch, both of which can be found here.
If some of the more modern-day RPG offerings have left you a bit cold in regards to story and player actions, Arcanum is a good way to get warmed back up. It's arguably more flexible than Deus Ex was in terms of consequences and player actions. One particular quest has the character commissioned to retrieve a specific amulet from an upstart urban socialite over in the market district. Depending on what the character's skills are, you can bribe him out of it, sneak into his room through a locked window and steal it out of the chest while he's asleep in the same room, intimidate him into giving it to you, use some blackmail material from a related quest to force him to give it to you, or just kick in the door and beat him up in his own bed. That's just one quest out of hundreds. By the end of the game you'll have spent anywhere from three to twenty in-game years between the Zephyr's crash landing and the final showdown with the major antagonist (who, I might add, can be persuaded into giving up without a fight - not kidding, I've done it).
If you were a fan of Black Isle Studios, it's worth noting that a big part of the reason Fallout 3 (codenamed "Van Buren" at the time) never got made was because several of the key developers - Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, and Jason D. Anderson among them - had left to form Troika Studios. In a lot of ways, Arcanum is the spiritual successor to the legacy that the Icewind Dale, Fallout, and Baldur's Gate games left behind. If you still look back on those fondly, I'd say it's well worth your time to try and get Arcanum running. Once you get past those first hitches, there's a beast of a game waiting.