Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, part 1

I bought Arcanum in early 2010, during a sale on GOG, based on user reviews. At the time, I had only briefly experimented with a single Infinity Engine game (Baldur's Gate 1), and had not yet touched any others of this sort. After trying it out as far as getting to the first town, I decided (wisely, I think) to postpone further exploration until I'd cut my teeth on Baldur's Gate first. Returning to it now with that experience under my belt, as well as Planescape: Torment and some Icewind Dale experience, and I find myself much better prepared to enjoy Arcanum.

This is my first Troika game, though I know some people might recommend I try the first two Fallout games first. Troika was also responsible for Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, which also has my interest. I've seen some gameplay footage of it on Youtube, showing the different kinds of dialogue and other interactions available to the player depending on variables such as clan, which is most notable if you're playing as a Malkavian. Members of that clan have some kind of mental troubles, and often perceive that everyone is looking at them or talking to them, even people on TV, or inanimate objects.

Arcanum has a similar mechanic. NPCs speak to you differently based on your stats, what you're wearing, your race, and who you're traveling with, and your own dialogue is affected by things such as your intelligence or level of drunkenness (as in the Fallout games, there's an entire alternate script for all characters including the player if you choose to play a character with the intellect stats of a dullard). The replayability of this game looks very high.

Artistic design

The portraits of Arcanum are unique and interesting, made in a period style that I see numerous fans have attempted to replicate, but I'm afraid only a skilled painter could copy such a distinctive style. Almost all portraits display the typical sullen expression found in both paintings and photographs of the time, whether it was a social norm or a consequence of the long sitting times required to make them, during which an expression would be difficult to maintain.

The elves look like Vulcans, which is an appropriate look for such a proud race. Personally, I like the idea of proud, beautiful elves, and since the backlash against that idea as being too "generic" has led to everyone trying to make non-proud, non-beautiful elves these days, the result is that this kind of elf is becoming the more unique conception.

I do wish Troika hadn't opted for a square aspect ratio for the in-game portraits, however. There's a good reason why real-world portraits are taller than they are wide, and that is to reflect actual human proportions! The portraits in this game are all rather cropped on the top and bottoms, with too much white space on both sides for this reason. The portraits don't even show the tops of people's heads, and I expect they opted for such a low framing because part of the atmosphere of the setting would be lost if the picture weren't framed low enough so as to see at least the collars of the antique clothing. All would be mended with a 2:3 aspect ratio, such as in Baldur's Gate.

Uncropped versions of the portraits do exist outside of the game in a proper aspect ratio as shown here, which Crypton made available in a pack for download after finding them in another pack of beta content.

On a different subject than the portraits, the primary critique I have with the art design of the interface is that in the majority of the panels, the wood texture they used is an un-sanded, un-stained, un-polished wood, rough and weathered, and looks more like a piece of wood they found washed up on the beach than the kind of rich polished mahogany that begs to accompany those brass fittings. Wood and brass are indeed iconic materials for Victorian steampunk, but not that kind of wood! It's also a bit inconsistent, since certain select screens do have a better wood and brass texture, such as the main menu and several multiplayer menu screens. It's time for another mod, if I can deal with yet another proprietary image format.

Some linguistic notes

Like the Elder Scrolls games, Arcanum uses the word "fatigue" to mean the exact opposite of its actual meaning (fatigue means "weariness"), such that having "more fatigue" incorrectly means having more energy. They have "fatigue points", which show how much energy you have. They have a "fatigue restorer", which restores your energy. When you "run out of fatigue" in the game, you collapse in exhaustion. The strategy tips in Appendix 5 of the manual mention that a higher Constitution attribute gives you "extra fatigue". In reality, the more fatigue you have, the less energy you have. In reality, the only way to run out of fatigue is to get a good night's sleep. They should be using the word stamina, or endurance. Perhaps even vim, which would be an appropriate word for the Victorian setting.

They have a school of magic called "black necromancy," which is rather redundant, since the term "black magic" itself is thought to originate from "nigromancy", which is related to "necromancy" by folk etymology. On the other hand, the suffix -mancy is not even a generic "magic" word, but specifically refers to divination (the supernatural answering of questions). Necromancy, at its roots, means consulting the spirits of the dead for answers to questions, and nothing more, just as cartomancy means interpreting a hand of cards for answers to questions, and so on.

It is understood, of course, that the word has accumulated more connotations in modern fiction, but it would be nice if writers would coin a more accurate word for it instead of corrupting a word that means something else, even if it is related.

The manual

The Arcanum manual is extensive (187 pages), and largely written in a style reminiscent of Victorian-era literature and advertisements, as befitting the game's world setting.

It posits an explanation, in the form of a series of scientific lectures, for the clash between science and magic. In this world, the proximity of any magical device causes chaotic fluctuations in an electrical circuit, and even in such simple mechanical devices as inclined planes and pendulums, showing that magic somehow interferes with simple gravity or friction.

It does not attempt to explain the opposite case, of how the presence of technological devices might interfere with a magical spell, though I understand this is also the case within the game world.

It's nice that they tried to give an explanation, I suppose, but when one is as questionable as this, perhaps it would have been better left as a mystery. Absent some conscious guiding principle that would enable the "magic" to discriminate, any force that would interfere so badly with such elementary forces of nature as those used in mechanical or electrical constructs would also play havoc with living creatures, since our bodies and brains also function according to those same laws of physics, chemistry, and electricity.


Reading the manual has clarified some of the more confusing aspects of the interface that I'd been struggling with when trying to play it before. Turn-based mode is the best mode for this particular game, though I still wish there were a pause feature for times out of combat when I'm trying to click on a moving NPC to initiate conversation. In Baldur's Gate, I habitually pause in order to click on NPCs, especially since I have it running at twice normal speed. The best I've come up with is to temporarily toggle combat mode by hitting "R", which freezes everyone in place if you're in turn-based mode.

The manual has explained why I was often getting fatigued extremely quickly, and it was because I was always overextending myself on my turns. I was not aware that you should only take as many actions as are permitted by the green action-point indicators, and that using more that those would tire you out more quickly. To avoid that, I now click the "end turn" button when my green points are gone.

I was also having trouble with ending combat, because even after a fight was over and I had clicked the "toggle combat" button, my character was still frozen in place, and I couldn't take any actions. I had discovered that entering and exiting the inventory would free me to move, and I had been doing it that way for a while, until I noticed that right-clicking changed the colour of the cursor from blue to its usual orange, and once that had happened, I was free to move again. The blue cursor, I believe, is for selecting a target for spells, and since I'm a spellcaster, my combat usually involves hitting my enemies with spells. I would have thought that ending combat would also tell it I was finished casting spells, but apparently it needs the right-click to cancel casting mode as well. As a matter of fact, I've now found that right-clicking also can cancel combat mode if there are no more nearby enemies, so two right-clicks are usually enough to get things moving again.

Another very useful bit of information that I got from the manual was that you can scroll up to read past status messages after they've disappeared, which they do almost instantly if you're hovering over something else when it appears. Placing the cursor in the upper area of the status message window turns it into an up arrow for reviewing what, exactly, that status sound effect you may have heard was trying to tell you.

Also useful to know, again from the manual, is that the map interface changes depending on your location. When I was near the bridge outside Shrouded Hills, for instance, the local map worked fine, but the world map was zoomed out to show the entire map, with its coloured dots almost invisible at that size, and it wasn't possible to set waypoints. I was concerned that there was something wrong with my game, but the manual assured me that I just needed to be far enough outside of town for the world map to be enabled. At that point it became zoomed in to a more local view, and I was able to set waypoints and initiate fast travel.

I'm using Drog's high resolution mod, which provides a nice compact alternate interface, as well as an optional runtime parameter to allow me to scroll across the local map as far as I like, which is a virtual necessity for navigating through town. Without the parameter, scrolling is restricted to a rather small window, and so it "stutters" as your character slowly expands the scrolling border in the direction she's walking.

Character creation

I started out by creating the kind of character I usually play -- an elf mage. I was thinking I might dabble a bit in technology as well, though the game is designed to make that difficult. In retrospect, perhaps I should have taken more advantage of the unique setting of this game and made a more steampunk-oriented character instead.

Still, the magic system is slightly different here than in other games, since magic does not use "mana" per se, even though the meter is coloured blue as mana usually is. Performing magic instead draws from your stamina, which I suppose is a natural result of the sheer freedom Troika gave us with this game. Any character can learn any kind of skill, whether it be magic, technological, or other, since there is no class system, and so it makes sense to combine stamina and mana into a single bar. In most games they serve the same purpose for different classes, both being an "energy reserve" that the different classes can call on for their various skills. In lieu of classes, you can instead select a character background, which comes with a colourful little story describing you and explaining why you have bonuses in some areas and penalties in others. There are some surprising variables included in these backgrounds, such as those that give you bonuses to spellcasting during the day and penalties at night, or vice versa.

Although stamina and hit points are separate bars, it's still a near certain death if you run out of stamina during combat, since you'll fall to the ground unconscious, and will probably be beaten to death before you can recover. That's why I can see the mages of Arcanum to be similar to the warlocks of WoW, which rely on high amounts of stamina to use as a mana well, by converting their own life force into spellcasting mana. I'm going to see how well it works to play it that way, by investing points into my constitution stat and seeking items that improve it as well, and investing fully into the spell school of summoning, to provide me with summoned minions.

There seem to be a total of 80 spells that can be learned in the game, which are all visible from the beginning in the character screen. They're broken up into 16 specific colleges of study, of 5 spells each, and they're all learned by using the stat points you earn from leveling up. Each of these 5-spell colleges is a kind of "tree" in the sense that in order to learn the more powerful spells in that college, one must first invest points to learn the simpler ones. Very different from the D&D games, where most mages learn spells from scrolls that are either found or purchased with money, but vaguely similar to the sorcerer class I've been playing. Spells have minimum requirements both for character level and the willpower stat. I wish I'd read that bit in the manual before I started using my stat points, but I'm not going back now.

The technological and non-aligned skills use the same kind of tree structure, though there are fewer of each of those. Tech is supplemented by the ability to find or purchase schematics and recipes, unlike spells. All kinds of crafting are considered "technological", however, which is pretty arbitrary in the case of disciplines like herbalism. I have one point invested in a technological discipline (explosives), which allows me to make cheap molotov cocktails. Very useful for a fledgling mage with only one offensive spell and not very much stamina.

With 80 spells available, I'm quickly going to run out of room on the paltry shortcut bar, which has only 10 slots. I already have several slots occupied by health and stamina potions, as well as the molotov cocktails.

I'm very excited by the promise of this game! I can tell already that I'll be enjoying this game for a long time, and I have much more to write about.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Planescape: Torment, part 3

During this early part of the game in the Hive, many people asked my name during conversations. This stopped happening after the Hive, but while it was going on, amongst the options like "I don't remember" or "None of your business," I was often given the option to offer the name "Adahn". I don't know why that name in particular was a given option, but for all I know it could have been a subconscious memory of my actual name coming to the surface. Another possibility is that Adahn is simply one of the more common names in that setting, and would do as well as any other name in giving the person something to call me. I chose that option once or twice for the sake of not making people suspicious of me, as my earlier self had advised (recall "do not tell anyone who you are or what happens to you"), though other times I went ahead and tried seeing what the truth would get me (which was always more questions).

I read that giving the name Adahn is counted by the game as a chaotic act for the purpose of shifting my alignment, but I don't see why it should be. Even if all lies are considered chaotic acts (even if it would cause more chaos to tell someone that I don't remember my own name), the fact remains that I don't know whether the name came to mind because it's a faint memory or if it's a convenient grab, though the fact that it's the only name ever given in the options makes me favour the possibility of a memory, in which case it's not a lie. Not to mention that if you consistently identify yourself to people by a particular name, then that is your name in a real sense.

Highlights of the Hive

There was an elderly woman at the memorial in this section of town who delivered a rant against adventurers like us. There were a couple of similar adventurer-related speeches in Baldur's Gate as well, but this one would have better been left for a bit later in the game, because she refers specifically to a peculiarity of this game in particular. The player wouldn't necessarily have had time to notice that the standard opening line in conversation is "Greetings". If she'd been encountered in a different section of the Hive, it would have been better in that regard, though since the reason for her rant was the death of a loved one, I can see why they located her nearby the memorial outside the Mortuary.

More importantly, there were two NPCs at the memorial who are involved in quests. One of them was near the group of professional mourners (all of whom were male, though in the real world, professional mourners are usually female) called Death-Of-Names, who carves the names of the dead into the giant mass tombstone, and never makes a mistake. The dialogue seemed to imply that in a place like Sigil, where belief often makes things real, that if I were to have him scribe the name of a living person into the stone, it might kill them. I never attempted that, so I'm not sure if it was an intended implication. Perhaps it only meant that he can sense whether a person is dead or not.

Nearby, a woman mourned for her sisters, and gave a quest to kill some members of the gang who killed them, though she didn't seem to care if they were the exact same ones. The gangsters are part of the Chaosmen faction, though, and are called "Starved Dog Barking Thugs", so the world would probably be better off without any of them, anyway.

The Post is a nice, unique element in this part of town, standing in front of the bar. It's actually a zombie, being used as a kind of advertising post (and not as a parcel delivery service as I had originally thought) that has apparently been enchanted to point in the direction of any of the businesses who have attached their advertisements to its body, if a person speaks the name of the business. At first it seemed like a simple novelty with no real relevance to anything, but after I pulled a vandal's thrown cobblestone out of its head, I found a graffito of the name "Pharod" -- the man my back tattoos told me to look for. Speaking his name made the Post point in the direction I had to go, which was a welcome bit of information. It was already clear by this time that it was a fruitless endeavour to walk around town asking people if they'd seen a journal or knew where to find Pharod.

I'm not sure if the name was actually under the cobblestone I pried out, or if it was there to be read all along, but I believe it must have been under the cobblestone, because there doesn't seem to have been any other reason to pry it out of the zombie's head. Regardless, I was in no hurry to find Pharod and advance the main plot when there were still several other sections of the city to explore, especially since he was apparently located in a place called Ragpicker Square, which sounded worse that the other options. All the rags I've been finding have been dirty, used rags and handkerchiefs, and it's not like I could combine them with bottles of cheap liquor and make molotov cocktails or anything.

Across from The Post was Annah, standing around and calling out insults any time I passed by, noting my resemblance to a corpse. And she should know, too, since I found out later that she had brought my corpse to the Dustmen just prior to my waking up on their slab. Despite her abrasive personality, I still tried recruiting her, since I only had Morte in my party so far, but I couldn't find any way to get her to join up until later.

Annah (and many other NPCs) called Morte a "mimir", and Morte explained that it's a term for a "talking encyclopedia". I believe this is a reference to Mimir of Norse mythology, who owned a well whose waters bestowed wisdom (Odin himself exchanged one of his eyes for a drink from that well), and who had great knowledge and wisdom from drinking its waters himself. When Mimir was beheaded by the Vanir, Odin kept his head, which continued to issue wise counsel. No word on whether Mimir's head floated around of its own accord, though.

Dungeon crawl

The first dungeon experience of the game, if you don't count the Mortuary itself, is in this area, given by Norochj in the bar. He wanted me to find out why there were a lot of unexplained zombies in the nearby Mausoleum. The place didn't have a door, though, so it was only accessible via a portal to which he gave me the key.

It was a pretty short and simple dungeon. Just one level, and occasional undead. At the entrance a ghost spoke to me, and indicated that they were all restless because there was some other living person stirring things up in there, so I offered to investigate. The ghost agreed, but warned me that the other undead in the tomb would still attack me even though I was working for them. So, I made my way through the place, looting what minor treasure could be found there, and finally found a room where a wizard had set up shop.

Interestingly, it turned out that the wizard was only there because he needed some immortal's blood for alchemical or spellcasting reasons, and he'd been told by an oracle that he would find an immortal in the tomb. Not because there was any immortal in the tomb at the time, but because his presence there would ultimately lead to me investigating what was going on in there, in a situation reminiscent of Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, wherein actions based on knowledge of a prophecy are the things that cause the prophesied events to occur. I also found the writing here to be particularly enjoyable, from the description of the handsome, immaculately coiffed necromancer, to the amusing difference in the dialogue options; self-righteous aggression vs. dry wit. I very much like it when a game doesn't require me to play dumb in order to squeeze a little more background information and interaction from the NPCs, though I do like having that option as well, for times when it might cause the adversary to underestimate me.

After this, there was a FedEx quest to deliver a message to someone in one of the other districts, given by a messenger who was apparently too confused to make it out of the small area he was pacing.

Thinking with portals?

A fetch quest with more flavour was given by a woman from the normal D&D dimension (Prime Material) named Ingress, who, true to her name, had found an "entrance" to Sigil, but didn't know how to summon the egress. Consequently, she has become a fulltime marathon runner, shunning any enclosure that might accidentally lead her into a much worse dimension after her first trial-and-error attempts left her scarred and mutilated.

Her story impressed upon me in this early part of the game that I should beware of portals, since they could be anywhere, and anything I carried, thought, spoke, or did might make me accidentally fall into one that I wouldn't be able to get out of. I had this in mind when I saw my first portal, on taking the Mausoleum quest from Norochj, and I wasn't sure if I should go in or not. This caution remained with me until it became clear that there would never be an accidental portal entry (they're all quite visible and audible), and that I would never automatically happen to have the key to a portal unless I was specifically told what it was. The one time there was a peril with portals was shortly after this, in Ragpicker Square, where there was a portal-related trap. I'll get to that later.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Arx Fatalis

I finished one of my holiday gifts recently (well, finished enough -- more on that later). Arx Fatalis (Fatal Fortress or Fortress of Fate in Latin) is a game which was inspired by the Ultima Underworld series, and was the predecessor to Arkane Studios' more recent Dark Messiah of Might and Magic -- which is a better-looking, but severely stripped down spiritual successor (aren't they all?)

Arx Fatalis is a rather linear RPG-like game. You play as a single predefined character -- a voiced, male-only "chosen one" figure (with a choice of 4 possible faces) who was sent to save the world from an ancient evil (the story isn't one of its strong points). The RPG elements include the ability to put stat points into various attributes upon gaining new levels, optional side-quests, inventory management with buying and selling at vendors, crafting, character specialisations, and a good amount of freedom in your approach to solving various problems. Although you don't get any choices of dialogue during conversations, you do get to make various decisions through your actions, and there are usually multiple choice paths with different advantages.

There are numerous puzzle challenges throughout the game, which I consider one of the strengths of the game. These were almost all enjoyable and challenging, with just the right amount of clues to keep you from getting stuck, but difficult enough to make you think for a while.

Buggy as hell

Of all of my GOG games, this was the only one that gave me significant trouble in getting it to run properly. I was plagued by crashes, bugs, and graphical glitches that made the game unplayable, but eventually, through stubborn perseverance and experimentation with various settings and patches, I got it into a playable state. I wish I could report exactly what combination fixed all the problems, but I tried so many things I can't say for sure.

First, there was the rendering problem. This was noticeable immediately on starting the game, from the first cutscene to the game itself. The frames flickered and stuttered, and although camera freelook view and the movement of my character seemed unaffected, all animated textures stuttered as well, and jumping and crouching were jerky and strange as well. The last official patch from Arkane Studios itself, posted around the time they released the source code (around the holidays of 2010) has an option to "enable rendering fix" which for some reason didn't solve this problem for me at first, but it's working now, and I'm not sure which tweaks did it.

Then, there was the crashing problem. This happened mostly during the transitions from the interior of the king's castle to the city of Arx. Why, I don't know, but the fix was to lower the texture resolution to "low".

Finally, the running speed problem. This one was identified by user Nuky on the GOG forum as being related to the amount of time your computer has been running since startup. Apparently, the speed starts out fairly normal if you're playing the game after recently having reset your computer, but for those of us who keep their computers running for long periods of time without resets, the running speed increases until you shoot down the corridors like The Flash. Thanks to the source code for the game having been released, Nuky posted a fix for this problem, which solved it for me. His fix also improved the speed of the unnecessarily sliding menus (personally, I don't see why they kept that sliding in there when it performed so poorly) at the expense of the font's antialiasing.

In case it had anything to do with the overall fixes, here are my nVidia card settings that I tweaked during the troubleshooting process (items that are set to "application-controlled" are not listed here):

  • Antialiasing - Gamma correction: Off
  • Antialiasing - Transparency: Off
  • CUDA - GPUs: All
  • Maximim pre-rendered frames: 3
  • Multi-display/mied-GPU acceleration: Multiple display performance mode
  • Texture filtering - Negative LOD bias: Allow
  • Texture filtering - Quality: Quality
  • Texture filtering - Trilinear optimisation: On
  • Threaded optimisation: Auto
  • Triple-buffering: Off

After I got all this taken care of, it became a relatively smooth playing experience, with only occasional hiccups.

Overall impressions

This game includes hunger, but no need to sleep, despite the wide availability of beds, and the fact that you obtain your own bedroom early in the game. I thought I would find hunger an annoying feature, but it turns out it just made cooking more enjoyable. Cooking is one of the two crafting disciplines you can practise (three if you count enchanting), the other being alchemy. The difference is that there are no skill requirements for cooking. All you need are the tools, ingredients, and a fire. Most food doesn't even need the tools. Just set some raw fish or rat ribs by a fire, and in a few seconds you have cooked food that'll satisfy your hunger. The fact that rats are the only creatures that regularly drop meat (sentient creatures like goblins or trolls might happen to be carrying some food, but you'll never get goblin meat) makes the many rat encounters in the game slightly less annoying (I daresay at least 50% of the combat in this game is against rats).

But once you've gotten your hands on some flour, water, apples, wine, and a rolling pin, you can make yourself probably the best food in the game: gourmet apple pie. It satisfies your hunger for longer than almost anything else, and it takes up the minimum space in your inventory, unlike the similarly satisfying large ribs.

Alchemy isn't as fun. There are only a few potions you can make (health, mana, poison, antidote, and invisibility), and your object knowledge skill only affects whether you can make them. You need bottles, a mortar and pestle (to powder your herbs), and access to a still to brew the potions. Empty bottles are fillable with water or wine, and drinking or using those items will leave you an empty bottle to use in alchemy, but if you drink a potion, the bottle seems to disappear.

You can also carve wood into wooden stakes (useful for zombies), enchant your weapons with a few possible reagents (and poison them as well), craft and repair weapons at a blacksmith's place (or just repair them at any anvil), go fishing, and mine gems and precious metals from the walls with a pick. These are all less developed than the previous crafts, and money isn't really a problem in this game, either, so you could just skip the mining.

Unfortunately, the world is hardly populated at all. The "city" of Arx has perhaps 20 people living in it, which includes the king, his servants, and the guards. There are 3 merchants (one for gems and jewelry, one for weapons and armour, and one for misc supplies), plus another merchant down in the lower caverns. It makes the slaughter of all the people at the first human outpost you find seem like a terrible loss, since they pretty much cut the human population in half. Not that it seems to matter to the people in the nearby tavern, who never seem to notice or care that there's a body-strewn battleground next door, even though they'd have to pass by it to leave the tavern.

Nearby that same tavern is a small alcove containing the wreckage of a teleporter, which I presume was destroyed by the Ylsides during their offscreen attack on the human outpost. This is the first such teleporter you're likely to find in the game, and it is explained at some point during the main quest how you can use them. "Let me show you how we travel", one of the naga/lamia women told me at that point, and she took me to one of the intact teleporters near the market area of the city of Arx, and showed me a spell to cast to activate the device. Each device must be activated in person before you can teleport there, much like meeting the flight masters in WoW in person before you can fly to their flight points.

I'll be generous and assume that by "activating" them, you're doing some kind of magical attunement to your body so that you can travel through them, and not that they've just all been sitting dormant all this time. But there's one thing I noticed about the teleporters. First of all, once you activate a portal, it'll show up on one of the sides of the device for the rest of the game, and there are a limited number of sides. I had assumed throughout most of the game that one of them would always be broken, because of that wreckage down by the tavern, until I actually did come across one final teleporter. Once I activated it, the final panel of the teleporter opened, with no space left for the broken teleporter. Either this is some kind of oversight on the developers' part, or else we're meant to assume that the wreckage was not the result of the recent attack, but had actually been there for a long time, and one of the teleporters that I had already activated had been its replacement.

The look and feel

It's a somewhat strange ambience in Arx Fatalis, with its goofy, cartoonish goblins and trolls, with quests to get a birthday present for the lonely troll and to sneak into a goblin's room by secretly giving him diarrhea, while on the other end of the spectrum there are copious dismembered bodies, scattered heads, arms, and torsoes, torture rooms, hanged prisoners, and human sacrifice (a woman and a child, who it's possible to rescue), with more sacrifices being referred to in the past.

Aside from the violence, there's also the unexpected but not unwelcome possibility for sex in the game, though it's handled in a very strange and bizarre way. If you return the magic rings to Alia after destroying the meteor, she's so pleased that she invites you to stay with her for a while. After a black screen, there's a very strange after-bed sequence that could be interpreted as a nightmare.

There is no followup or comment to the monster-face "premonition" either in conversation or in the quest log. My thought is that it might have been from a dropped alternate resolution to that part of the story, depending on how you may have handled things before. There are a couple of scenes in other places that play out slightly differently depending on your actions, after all. This might have originally led to a fight with a monster Alia. If there was such a plan that had to be dropped, they may have decided the scene was too good to waste, and so they put it in as a kind of fake-out "dream sequence" just before the "real" conversation.

Compared to Ultima Underworld

As written in game histories, Arx Fatalis was planned to be a third game in the Ultima Underworld series, but Arkane Studios couldn't get the license for it, and thus they retooled it into a similar but original setting. Since I have not yet played UU, I base what I write here on my readings of developer interviews and of gameplay videos.

Since Arx was based directly on it, I won't go into the similarity in setting, or the "chosen one" back story, which was a staple of the Ultima story anyway, in the form of the Avatar. Visually, there's little to compare, since UU was 2.5D like Doom, with 2D sprites moving in a 3D space, and Arx is fully 3D.

But in terms of content, for instance, Arx includes somewhere between 6-9 types of enemy, not counting 1-time bosses or humans, which is a fraction of the creatures in UU, whether or not I use UU1 or UU2 as a representative sample. Arx initiates dialogue only when it wants to, in the form of non-interactive cutscenes, while UU has proper branching dialogue with NPCs, with multiple response options. My only complaint there is that UU uses faux Elizabethan English, as it seems all Ultima games do.

Hunger is in both games, but UU also requires sleep, which I suspect (from the presence of the aforementioned beds and bedroom) was originally planned for Arx as well, but never implemented.

In UU2, not only can you make your own notes on your map, but you can enter your own text in character dialogue in some places, which is perhaps useful in cases where you know the answer to something that your character hasn't actually discovered. This does break the RPG elements, but the game already does that by having you do realtime, manual combat (which Arx also does).

I can't tell how the two games compare in terms of the number of NPCs and locations from what I've seen, unfortunately.

I'm not sure how many of the good UU elements would not have been cut out if Arkane had been able to call it Ultima Underworld 3 instead of making it a "spiritual successor", but the more cynical side of me suspects those things would have been cut for time and money reasons anyway.

Compared to the Elder Scrolls

Both Arx Fatalis and Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind came out in 2002, and are graphically very similar, so if you're familiar with the more popular Morrowind, you know what to expect graphically -- Good environmental structure and texturing (for the time), and rather ugly character models. Arx beats Morrowind in terms of character animation, though.

Having seen what I've seen of Ultima Underworld, I'm leaning toward the conclusion that Morrowind and Arx were both aiming for the same things, and went about it in similar, but not identical, ways. The first two Elder Scrolls games look a lot like the Ultima Underworld games, the first of which was released 2 years before the first Elder Scrolls game. Of course, Daggerfall deserves a post all on its own, and I'll get to that eventually. But the point for now is that the first two Elder Scrolls games owe much of their look and gameplay to UU, and Morrowind represents their move to full-blown 3D after the Doom-like 2.5D of the first two. That's why it's valid to compare Morrowind and Arx Fatalis, as both of them are basically 3D reimaginings of Ultima Underworld.

Arx Fatalis did not have an intermediate step as the Elder Scrolls did, and jumped directly from Ultima Underworld to full 3D, and I find it interesting that they arrived at such a similar destination as did Morrowind. A natural convergent evolution, or did the two studios influence each other during the design process?

At any rate, the biggest difference between the two is that Arx abandoned the character dialogue options that Morrowind retained, and chopped the character appearance customisation down to 1 race, 1 sex, and 4 faces (down from 10 possible face choices in UU, with 5 for each sex), where Morrowind continued the trend it had established in its previous games where it had expanded the character customisation to several races, with numerous faces for each race and sex. The second most striking difference is the linearity and lack of replayability, due to a much smaller game world with so few side quests.

Compared to Dark Messiah

From reading the TTLG forum, in the Arx forum that I never visited (I was always there for the Thief series), I see that people were anxiously expecting an Arx Fatalis 2 for years after the first one, but eventually it was revealed that Arkane Studios was instead working on Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which was released in 2006. I actually went and purchased that game while I was playing Arx, though I already knew from the forum posts and from the gameplay videos on Youtube that it was even more stripped down from Arx than Arx was from UU. From the gameplay videos, I could tell that it would be a pure FPS action game, and bought it with that in mind. It's a departure from the rest of the Might and Magic line, but I have no experience with those, and the fact that it is such a departure is what makes it worth comparing to Arx Fatalis.

It was, in fact, essentially an FPS compared to Arx, much like the difference between System Shock 2 and Bioshock. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was actually still an inventory and several trees of stats and abilities we could invest points in, but those things are not enough to call Dark Messiah an RPG. It's at best an FPS with a few RPG elements, and it's even more linear than Arx Fatalis. You can't even select an appearance, but it hardly matters since you never see your character.

I did notice quite a few elements from Arx returned in Dark Messiah, though. I'm strongly tempted to believe that this game actually began its life as Arx Fatalis 2, but was repurposed at some point during development when they got rights to a well-known title. Right on the title screen, in fact, one of the game's necromancers is staring menacingly at you, and he bears a resemblance to the Ylsides from Arx. Also making a return appearance are certain kinds of food, certain props, and a functional forge. But once in your inventory, every type of food magically turns into identical "food rations". And since there's no hunger in this game, the only thing food does is restore a tiny amount of health. As a wizard/thief, it takes more than a full stack of food to restore my health bar completely, and I would expect a warrior would get far less benefit from it. In addition, there are arbitrary item-type limits. "You can carry no more than 20 mana potions" (or anything else) no matter how many inventory slots you have free.

Speaking of inventory, I had been finding myself running out of room and getting impatient for the night to end so I could go to the nearest shop and sell off some junk, only to find that there are no shops in Dark Messiah! At one point we went to a tavern, and I thought that was going to be a shop of some kind (and my demon companion said "I think they sell more than just food here,") but the barmaid just walked off into the kitchen and stayed there, not responding to my attempts to speak to her except to yell at me for coming into the kitchen and threatening to call the guards if I didn't leave. No one in that tavern, in fact, appeared to do anything. So don't bother picking up anything you can't actually use, unless you want to be sure to have something on hand to throw at enemies.

The game also commits the exact same kind of offense as Arx did -- namely, introducing a boss fight weighted heavily against magic users. Here, an orc boss challenges me to single combat with the rules specifically prohibiting the use of magic. I'm a wizard with no points in mêlée combat at all, and he can kill me in 1 hit. If I even switch to casting mode, his half-dozen bodyguards immediately attack as well. I found that out by accidentally hitting a key nearby the "kick" key which put me in casting mode. I spent maybe 15-20 minutes reloading over and over, quick-saving as soon as I'd scored a couple of hits and was still in decent health. I have no idea how long it'll take to wear his hit points down, but I'm very sick of it by now. I was also sick of replaying his long speech before he attacked, until I realised you can save during cutscenes.

Dark Messiah is actually a change from my most recent trend of starting with the latest game in a series (even a series as loose as a thread of "spiritual successors"), and working my way backward to the earlier games, which traded graphics for better and more complex content. It is very pretty, with some nice characters, and even includes rope arrows like in the Thief series, but it lacks in depth.

End of Arx Fatalis

This is what I was talking about when I said I had "finished enough." As it turns out, I couldn't finish the game, and I don't plan to. The final boss fight appears to be unwinnable for me, as a non-warrior type, with the final boss' apparently huge health reserve and a tractor beam that forces you into close combat. And since this fight ends the game, I don't feel the need to keep trying. I watched the ending on Youtube for closure.

I tried numerous strategies that I read about, but nothing worked for me. The boss either just stood there and did nothing (after his transformation) while I kept hitting him over and over until giving up, or he wiped the floor with me despite me constantly chugging health potions, or he stood there confused when I levitated or climbed a pillar, but again simply refused to die no matter how many times I hit him with the special sword or threw fireballs at him. I played a combination thief-mage, with high casting skill that could kill an Ylside with 2 fireballs and a lich with 3, but nothing worked against this boss.

Since casters are heavily crippled in this game due to the gesture-recognition system they used, where you have to draw 3 or 4 runes in the air with your finger to cast a spell, and can only pre-cast and store up to 3 of them, it essentially amounts to a 3-spell-per-fight limit, since fumbling around in the inventory for scrolls with no ability to pause while doing so, and trying to draw runes with a mouse (and have them be recognised) are too clumsy for me to want to keep beating my head against that wall.

Nevertheless, despite the buggy beginning, small world, linear story, lack of freedom, anticlimactic ending, and reduced content from its predecessors, I consider Arx to have been fun and enjoyable. Though small in scope, Arkane did take care to make each area visually different and interesting. If you spend as little time in the city of Arx as possible, and spend most of your time exploring the different levels, the illusion of a larger world may persist (though you may end up backtracking a good deal due to getting lost, which is easy to do). On the other hand, what it really makes me want to do is try out its predecessor Ultima Underworld, which I suspect I'll enjoy all the more for what was left out of this one.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Planescape: Torment, part 2

Perhaps if I did more of these entries in a stream of consciousness way, rather than attempting some form of structure, I wouldn't have 5 partially written posts as yet unposted. I'll just get my impressions of the characters out of the way here, and move on to my Planescape experiences.


Hey! Chattering's my best trait!

Morte is a loyal, obsequious follower, who seems like a true-blue friend. I thought it might be annoying to have a yes-man following me around calling me "chief" and "boss", but in truth I find Morte to be quite likeable. There was a time that I started to distrust him, when I found out he had deliberately omitted reading part of the tattoo on my back, which warned me not to trust him, but all that was swept away when I recovered memories of the former self that had pressed him into service in the first place. It's a shame there was no option to try to make amends for that, nor any way to even acknowledge that I remember it.

Considering how many times I've been on this quest, judging from certain people who remember my earlier attempts (such as Pharod), Morte is conspicuously silent about things. Surely he should know some of the things and people I'm trying to find, and where to find them, since he's been accompanying me for years. I'm going to attribute it to fear and dread on his part, though. Having seen some of the things that have happened on previous attempts, and having weathered certain stormier "inspirations" of mine, it's understandable that he would be loath to help me lead us right back into that mess.


Ach! Never have I seen something so ugly, I've not...

Annah's first action in the game is to casually send you off to an alley that could get you killed. That, and her insults, foul mouth, and ill temper, did not endear her to me. I kind of like the way her rat tail calls attention to her buttocks by constantly whipping around, though.

Once I jumped through all the hoops necessary to get her to join the party, I found that Annah makes a good thief, finding and disarming traps, unlocking chests and doors, and backstabbing from the shadows. I've even been able to kill some enemies with her alone, backstabbing them, then running around a corner to hide in the shadows again, then backstabbing them again while they stand there wondering where she went. I'm not a big fan of the fact that her "daggers" are actually "punch daggers", though, which makes her feel more like a brawler than a rogue in fights.


Endure. In enduring, grow strong.

Dak'kon strikes me as the archetype of the wise kung fu master, except that he uses a sword. He's supposed to be elderly according to the dialogue, but I really can't tell with the badly lit 3D portrait of him, and at any rate he's a perfectly competent warrior/mage. I've enjoyed taking his little tests to unlock new spells from his Circle of Zerthimon, though in general I prefer the normal spells. There are generally normal spells with identical effects as his, but the normal ones have icons that you can identify at a glance, whereas all of his spells are circle icons which are identical aside from slight colour differences.

In personality, he seems pretty benign. Not very interesting to have around aside from the Circle tests, but with no particular bad habits, unless you count his constant emphasis on the word know.


You are all tallow for my flames.

Ignus is criminally insane pyromaniac, made especially dangerous by being a mage with a direct connection to the elemental plane of fire. I have not yet met another character in the game who is more pathologically evil than Ignus. He burns both personal and public property and living human beings for fun, looks forward to killing us all (and constantly informs us of this plan), and even gleefully incinerated his girlfriend who had been waiting for him to be freed. Perversely, he's listed as "chaotic neutral" with the justification that he's insane. Not a good enough reason. Garrick the bard and Quayle the gnome from Baldur's Gate were chaotic neutral, and they were miles away from homicidal maniacs!

But, I understand there are few D&D topics that inspire more arguments than the alignment system. For instance, do we classify characters by their intents, or by their actions, or both? A character like Dexter (from the eponymous TV series) I would classify as lawful evil, because he is a homicidal psychopath with no empathy, and the sole reason he restricts himself to only killing other killers is because he is bound to the laws handed down to him by his father. But this is open to much debate, since even though he slavishly follows a set of rules or laws, he is not following the laws of the land, and even if his actions result in fewer serial killers in the world, which is a form of justice and protection of the innocent, it is also vigilantism, and I don't think it would be wise to trust a homicidal psychopath's judgement in life or death matters.

So, I would certainly classify Ignus as chaotic evil, not neutral, based on his homicidal desires, his destructive actions, and the pleasure he takes in it all. He's like a tanar'ri.

One last thing about Ignus: I don't know if this was an error on the part of the developers, or if they intentionally spelled it that way, but it should be "Ignis" (Latin for "fire"), not "Ignus".


A lady must have her secrets.

I don't know much about how the romances are supposed to play out for this game, but I thought at first that I would be romancing Fall-From-Grace. She was the one who comforted me as I was in tears after regaining my memory of betraying Deionarra. She's a Sensate and a succubus (which both spell "sensual" to me), and a nice person, whereas Annah is foul-mouthed and angry all the time. But there never seemed to be any romance starting with Grace. The closest it ever got was when I was able to say I imagined kissing her when I was kissing Ravel, and she brushed it off by saying that it's a good thing I didn't, since a succubus' kiss will kill a man. Er...okay, but there are other things one can do in a romance besides kissing (things which I've been led to believe that succubi are good at), and there is of course the fact that death is not permanent for me. So what's the problem? It seems pretty short-sighted that there is no response available for her statement other than changing the subject, with the option of seeming flustered when I do it (and being flustered at such an idea seems entirely inappropriate for my character).

The rest of the time, all I can do is try to ask her how she feels about me, and she only says "A lady must have her secrets." Alas, Grace is proving far too prim and proper and hard-to-get, and Annah recently burst out her formerly bottled-up tsundere crush on me, which painted her in a whole new light. So, Annah is my romance, against my initial expectations, though it remains to be seen if anything will come of it beyond a singular impassioned kiss and some biting.

Sigil's Hive

Jumping back a bit in time from some of the events I mentioned in the character descriptions, it was a relief to get out of the Mortuary and into the Hive, despite its name and ugliness. Here, I was free to explore and talk to people without having to sneak around. The first person I met there was, strangely enough, someone who could get me back into the Mortuary if I so wished, either by me playing dead, or by actually letting him kill me. I declined the offer, and really couldn't see any reason I'd want to get back in there. Additionally, since I had just woken up from death with no memories and no possessions, I was wary of dying again, thinking I would lose experience points, stats, or even quests! I also took to heart the warning tattooed on my back that said:

And whatever you do, do not tell anyone who you are or what happens to you, or they'll put you on a quick pilgrimage to the crematorium.

The little cutscene that played after I left the Mortuary, showing my slab being surrounded by shadowy wraiths, also indicated that someone powerful was looking for me, and so it was always a surprise when I would see dialogue options that would allow me to reveal my secrets. It also didn't make sense to just keep walking around the city dressed in nothing but the loincloth I was wearing on the mortuary slab if I wanted to remain incognito, but since I'm unable to actually wear anything outside the Mortuary (the Dustman robes I picked up in there were helpfully auto-dropped on the doorstep by the game, so as not to tempt me, I guess), I just have to hope that no one takes much notice of a near-nude grey-skinned hulk of a man, covered with scars, being followed by a floating skull.


The Hive seemed to be full of Dustmen, though that may be due to the location of the Mortuary. The Gathering Dust Bar is probably meant to serve as their hangout after working hours. After my experience in the Mortuary, I tend to see the Dustmen as enemies, or at least dangerous, and their philosophy is pretty repugnant as well. Obsessed with the alleged futility of life, and embracing death, these people wouldn't be so bad if they just followed their reasoning to its conclusion and killed themselves, but apparently misery loves company, because they're also compelled to spread their childish philosophy like a disease to infect as many as possible before they go out.

At least there was one in there that might break free of their hold, since he was right there on that precipice of wanting to die, but being unable to commit suicide. When he hired me to do it, I made as if to do it, then released him when he struggled, with a wry "Changed your mind?" I was pleased to see that the game even let me deliver a stern lecture to him afterwards, and leaving him to think "Hmm, actually, I do rather enjoy being alive. Maybe this doctrine is wrong."

Another offense of the Dustmen is their selling of Dead Contracts, where they offer to pay a pitiful amount of money in exchange for the rights to raise the contractee's corpse as a zombie slave worker in their mortuary, which is described as a kind of living hell. And this being the Hive, where life is cheap, signing such a contract seems like a way to quickly meet with an "accident". Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to help a citizen who had made that mistake, since I couldn't pickpocket or negotiate with the contract owner for it (or I didn't think I could, anyway), and I wasn't inclined to homicide.

It's possible to join this faction, but I saw no reason to do so at the time. Now I realise that I missed out on some quests which one of them would have given me as a prerequisite for joining.

World-building info

I solicited information from a professional "tout", one of several who wander around these areas. Every time I see it, I read it as the French word "tout" (pronounced "too", meaning "everything"), though it's probably supposed to be pronounced to rhyme with "out", and is just a shortened form of the English word "touter". At any rate, they offer general information about Sigil and the planes for those "clueless" who may have never seen planes of existence beyond the Prime Material before.

Morte had some things to say about Sigil as well, such as it being a crossroads connecting all other planes, and that the city of Sigil is located at the top of an infinitely tall spire. He expresses confusion on how there can be a top to something infinitely tall, but I think he fails to take into account that when you're talking about infinity, both directions are infinite. Thus, if we take Sigil as the origin point, and the spire is a ray projecting in one direction from that origin, the spire can reach infinitely far in the "downward" direction, where "down" is relative to the city of Sigil. In an infinite space such as this plane, it would be equally valid to say that Sigil is at the bottom of an infinitely tall spire, but since gravity seems to be pulling from below the city (which would be logical considering how much mass is below them), "at the top" is a better description, even if it makes the infinite spire more confusing.

Anyway, the touts provide some good background information for people like me who are unfamiliar with the Planescape setting, though it was very unclear how much of that information actually applies to this particular game implementation.

For being such a small map, this first section of the Hive is pretty densely packed with quests, so I think I'll save the rest of it for another post and end here.