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Reviewed: ArcaniA: Gothic 4
Producer: Dreamcatcher/JoWood
Required System: Xbox360, PS3, PC
Overall Rating:
Author: Michael Ahlf
Date: November 30th, 2010

The Gothic series has had a stronger following in Europe than in the US, slowly gaining over time; if anything, it's a series that seems almost destined to the realm of "cult following", with fans quite ready to snap up the next game in the series but not noticed much beyond its core audience.

That being said, it's an interesting idea to pick up ArcaniA: Gothic 4. The first three Gothic titles were coded by Pirahna Bytes, while JoWood severed the relationship and passed on the mantle to Spellbound Entertainment for ArcaniA. After the original Gothic, two sequels, and numerous reviews that basically amounted to "nice game if it weren't for all the freaking bugs", it's not difficult to see why: Pirahna Bytes went off and launched their own title, Risen, which has kept the original Gothic line's "sandbox world" variety gameplay and mechanics more or less intact.

Spellbound, meanwhile, have delivered something that is an intriguing mix. In one sense, it looks like ArcaniA wants to be similar to an Elder Scrolls-style game, with a main quest for the player to follow and plenty of exploration and sidequests to distract along the way. In another sense, it's wanting to be a "kill everything that moves" title. Unfortunately, there are a few things that hold it back from being truly A-list.

Storyline-wise, ArcaniA is a classic tale of revenge. Players start out on the island of Feshyr, in a quiet little farming and fishing village, playing the role of a somewhat lazy shepherd who's managed to get his girlfriend pregnant and needs to get her father's permission to marry her - fast. The resulting series of tutorial quests take the player just about completely through the game system, while at the same time establishing a rudimentary reason for the character to care when, to no one's surprise, the forces of the kingdom of Myrtana swoop down, pillage and burn the village, kill the fiance and unborn child, and set the scene for the player to go chasing off after revenge.

In terms of basic combat mechanics, there's ranged weaponry in the form of bows or crossbows, a variety of one- or two-handed weapons, and three varieties of magical attacks plus scrolls. Unlike the previous games, there's less emphasis on picking the "role" of an archer, fighter, or magic user and more "put your points where you will", with players spreading development points out to new skill lines at three points per level. Realistically, picking one or two stats and working them up as fast as possible works better than spreading them out, especially when trying to combine magic with melee or ranged, since each mode operates independently of the others. There's also an option to wear a shield and block attacks, but since rolling to dodge is engaged with the same button and rolling completely negates damage and doesn't leave the player open to as many combination attacks, few players will ever try for the sword-and-board approach.

The landscape has an intriguing and well-developed map system, including not just an overland map but an actual "underground tile" map that covers each individual map section for the exploration of dungeons. If anything, the one thing clearly missing is the ability to get more detail from the map, which cheerfully lists teleporters and one or two quest points, but often leaves the character to wonder where in the heck the next mission objective for a side mission is. Especially daunting is a quest involving finding 12 cobwebs in a swamp, given that the cobwebs have a tendency to blend in with the vegetation.

For players who are used to other titles where vegetation vanishes at distance, be ready for a shock - in the engine ArcaniA uses, vegetation hangs about at distance. So do many of the land's native nasty beasts, rendered at a pretty good viewing distance, though sometimes seeming to render at a low frame rate when caught "just right" on the edge of the draw-in distance. The result is an engine that can create some incredible landscape views. The price to be paid, though, is that vegetation vanishes close to the camera to help avoid obscuring dead bodies, lootable chests, and collectible items like healing plants and herbs. Watching the leaves denude themselves from a tree branch three feet from the character is just kind of creepy, even if it does keep a clear view of the surroundings handy. Collectible objects are also somewhat schizophrenic in how they are indicated: bodies give off a rising fog effect, herbs and plants appear to have sparkling moths hovering over them, chests have nothing at all until "selected" by moving close and putting the reticle on them, and likewise for dropped weapons. The rising fog can be a trouble in swampy areas where fog naturally occurs, and the occasional loss of dropped weapons is usually not a problem, but became one when a strong hit sent a named NPC's corpse flying and stuck his weapon partly down in the ground, where it wasn't easily selectable.

ArcaniA hits plenty of the right notes for a modern, western-style RPG, and in some senses, that feels like it could be the problem. The questing system offers plenty of quests from NPC's, but the map doesn't really integrate it well. The crafting system has the ability to make all sorts of potions, with effects ranging from night vision to healing to mana recovery to movement speed boosts, ut at the same time none of them are really necessary to win any of the fights - either just staying back and dodging while lobbing lightning bolts, or rolling around and swinging away with a two-handed axe, should be more than sufficient to dispatch most of the game's enemies on all but the highest difficulty level. Crafted items aren't necessarily better than the items found from quests, and the stuff monsters drop is basically just trash to be traded in to the next vendor over and over and over again in order to buy enough glass vials to store all the healing and mana potion to be made from the plants you're plucking while walking around in the wilderness. There are even a large number of "nod to the camera" moments in which the character, getting increasingly impatient with the side quests and delays, actually threatens to (and does!) simply beat the answer or directions to the next part of the story out of an NPC. It's an intriguing development, not playing a character who's a mere goody-two-shoes, even if most of the dialogue trees only have one branch to explore rather than offering decisions.

There are also a large number of "interactable but does nothing" items in the game - stewpots to stir, bedrolls to lie down on, drums to bang, lecterns to "speak" from. While intriguing at first, it quickly becomes a nuisance; you're trying to loot the bodies of the goblins you just slaughtered in their own camp, and instead of picking up one of the goblin clubs from the ground, you're instead stirring their dinner.

At one point, I did find myself contemplating the standing question of how the heck people even survive in the world - if I'm regularly being attacked by packs of 4-5 creatures that are called "Razors" and look suspiciously like velociraptors, or packs of 5-8 carnivorous wasps the size of bald eagles, then I've got to wonder how in the world traders ever get from one village to another. Heck, just going up the hill from a set of two fishing huts to the nearby pub in the first actual area of the game, I was attacked by 20 wasps and four wild boars. If I'm a seasoned adventurer who's armed to the teeth and these things are running around all over, it's a wonder that the entire world isn't nothing but human carcasses.

Setting aside that question, however - let's face it. ArcaniA is supposed to be medieval fantasy, and medieval fantasy with a smattering of spellcasting is what you get. It wouldn't be much of a title if you simply could run through the wilderness without ever facing down wild animals or hostile orcs. And on the whole, if you're waiting along for the next solid title in the genre, ArcaniA is a pretty good way to spend your time.

Added:  Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf
Page: 1/2

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