When Arcania: Gothic 4 tiptoed to release in 2010 it was a different landscape in which the traditional RPG found itself. Not so much in terms of the way games are played, or delivery system or even the reliance on online passes and day-one DLC. No, it was a landscape that didn’t include Bethesda’s behemoth Skyrim epic or CD Projekt’s slightly more intimate (in more than one sense) The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Without these powerhouse franchises that have arguably changed Western RPGs forever, Arcania 4 was able to peddle its own brand of tried-and-tested gameplay to gamers without the towering achievement of console gaming RPG titans. So, it’s all a little strange to see Arcania: The Complete Tale – combining Arcania 4 and previously PC-exclusive expansion The Fall of Setarrif – released for consoles so late in their respective lifecycles. Age has not done this franchise any favours, nor the raised bar that Arcania so gracelessly rolls beneath.
Things immediately look shaky when the opening movie, rendered in smudgy CG, suffers from drastic V-sync problems with screen tearing all over the place. Screen tearing during gameplay is one matter, during a prerendered cutscene is unacceptable. The world of Arcania has been plunged into battle putting villages at risk and causing death and destruction willy-nilly. As a young farmhand your unnamed character begins the game living a simple yet contented life in a small village, unaffected by the wider conflict. There’s no character customisation – that bloke on the front cover is how you’ll look – and the introduction to your avatar is basic at best. This is RPG-by-the-numbers stuff, right down to the races, naming conventions and stereotypical plot points that crop up in countless RPG fare. After completing a few “fetch-this, kill-that tasks” that tutorials often masquerade as these days the village is attacked, your fiancée killed and a quest for vengeance ignited.
Taking a look at the world map after these first story beats reveals that Arcania covers a substantial area, opening up in a semi-linear fashion as you progress through the main story. A great deal of exploration is hampered by invisible walls and shortcuts that don’t really work, putting paid to Skyrim-esque wanders into the unknown. Case in point: walking out of one castle and cutting across a rocky outcrop to skip walking down one path and back up another saw my character jerkily glitch across the stones, eventually falling onto the path below. This is a game that is happy to show you a large open area and then require you to stick to flat paths and plains. Like a cardboard movie set, it’s all reasonably pretty on one side and deliberately inaccessible on the other, breaking if you manage to go behind the façade. For a first person shooter this might be understandable; in a post-Skyrim world it makes Arcania, well, less arcane.
Of course, an RPG is really judged by the quests and mysteries that populate the areas. There are plenty of quests in Arcania. Unfortunately they begin as they mean to go on: fetching arbitrary items, killing the requisite number of enemies and clearing dungeons of endless boring hordes. Comparing Arcania’s quests to other RPGs sees it play extremely safe, to the point of inanity. Whereas a quest in The Witcher might see Geralt weigh up the options meeting a beguiling succubus, Arcania present the player with endless daisy-chains of mundane tasks. “Fetch me my amulet” a quest-giver might instruct. Off trots your character to a sign-posted destination on the other side of the map. “Give me the amulet” leads to “I’ll give you the amulet but first you have to fetch this book I’ve lost” and off you go to another distant blip on your map. “I’ve got the book, but first you must kill six of these wolves” says the next charisma vacuum and so on and so on. It’s soul draining and devoid of interesting quirks that keep you pressing on to the next area.
That’s a good representation of the depth of writing in Arcania as well. As if the lines were written by two separate people, conversations see participants repeat each other, have entirely the wrong intonation and occasionally say something entirely different from the onscreen subtitles. Even worse, Arcania has some of the worst voice acting of this generation. It’s not even “so bad it’s a tiny bit good” – it’s just abysmal. Half of the characters sound like Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk from Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and the rest are just cringeworthy. One great example would be a witch who gives you a quest, but not before cackling like nails dragged down a blackboard. It’s worse than pantomime – this is school play levels of acting. The only person who seems aware of the exasperating nature of the entire thing is the poor sod playing your character – with every quest he’s given he gradually becomes more and more peeved, as if the actor knows with every line he reads just how low the writing sinks.
There are a brilliant few mini-games that you can play during the main quest though. My favourite is to time how long it takes textures to pop in every time the camera angle changes. During the back and forth of a conversation it’s like watching two baked potatoes have a chat that, by the time the textures have arrived, it’s about time to change the camera back again. That’s not to say it’s pretty when everything’s there anyway – this is on par with Oblivion in terms of fidelity: a game from the beginning of this generation. Even then the framerate is choppy, glitches abound and the rightly criticised rain showers – sounding like a toilet and lasting about as long as a flush – happening out of the blue. Likewise, the soundtrack sounds like Jeremy Soule’s Oblivion soundtrack albeit without any real personality or consistency, chopping in and out like a hyperactive DJ.
Even if you can look beyond the graphics then the gameplay itself lacks anything revolutionary. Combat is merely an endless press of a button chaining together repetitive combos. Ranged combat is more complicated than it really needs to be – equip a bow with one press, draw back with another press and fire. Spells can also be collected and used though they have less spectacle than a pound-shop sparkler and are about as useful, considering you get limited uses and a mana bar that needs to be full. While there are fire, electricity and other combat spells there are none that heal your character. Lucky for you there are plenty of apples and food items scattered around for you to pick up. One at a time. With problematic item detection. Enjoy.
Skills can be upgraded with XP earned from every completed quest and vanquished enemy although they are an uninspiring bunch of buffs and the occasional skill that you won’t be pressed to use. However, the last straw with combat will often occur when, having successfully fought an enemy into a corner, you’ll find them glitch into the wall and teleport behind you. With that the glitches in Arcania became more than surface problems and cross into broken game country. The longer you play the more you notice quirks that smack of cut corners and poor game design – defeated groups of enemies always carry the same items, maps are confusing blotches of hard-to-decipher shapes and stealth tactics just don’t work.
A decade ago Arcania would be a pretty decent RPG. Time has not been friendly to this game and repackaging something that was never a classic to begin with is a misguided move. The Fall of Setarrif expansion may not have been available beyond PC but that’s not really justification for a full retail release for a game so lacking in polish or even an original idea. To its credit, Arcania has plenty to do and it’s not the worst looking game of this generation but neither does it even compare to the heights of the RPG genre – a class of games that has seen all manner of new ideas over this generation. Arcania would be mediocre if it were a PlayStation 3 launch title, let alone one of the last games released for the system. It’s competent and lengthy but that’s about all Arcania has going for it. Play through every other RPG available and only then consider this game. Not because it’s dire but because it does nothing new. Arcania scrapes the barrel of RPG clichés; only right that it stays at the bottom out of reach then.