In a week with the release of Dragon Age: Ultimate Edition and Fallout: New Vegas, I'm reminded that I personally have yet to play either series, not to mention Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls. There are several reasons for this, one of which I would attribute to accessibility and the time it can take to get fully in tune with those series'. Another would be the diversity and sheer combination of endings and character paths.
Which is why when I fired up Arcania: Gothic 4 which I have been playing this week, I was pleasantly surprised and nearly instantly hooked on a very satisfying and addictive RPG in the vein of an Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age. Perhaps it's no surprise, but I haven't played any of the previous Gothic titles before (although I've read that they are well received). While not as polished, deep, or epic (for lack of a better word) as some of its counterparts, Arcania: Gothic 4 is a solid open world RPG experience that embraces newcomers and veterans of the genre alike.
Familiar, But Fun
I'll admit, the first twenty minutes of Arcania were not promising. Sure, the premise established in the opening cutscene seemed fine -- a tale of a conquering king whose mind is slipping away from him and has become enveloped in darkness. The once proud king, it seems, is under some sort of dark influence and he's commanding his army to continue their violent invasions of nearby land and islands. But the game opens up with muddy graphics and clunky movement... fortunately, it turned out to be a bad dream, literally. Your character wakes up on his home island. The invasions and war seem far away for our young hero and his fellow inhabitants, but it isn't as far off as they think. It's worth pointing out real quick that you do not get to create your character or name him, but you can certainly customize his skills and appearance throughout the story. For the first hour or two, life on the island seems pretty simple. These first three or four quests provide a nice introduction to the gameplay and controls.
Controls and gameplay mechanics for Arcania are pretty straight-forward and it's easy enough to learn as you go. You take attack with X, block with Y (roll by doing LS+Y), jump with B, and interact with A. Ranged weapons use LT to aim and RT to shoot, while spell-casting is allocated to RB. The LB locks on to nearby enemies, very useful for spotting goblins and Bloodflies in the thick vegetation. LB and the d-pad are used in conjunction to access eight assigned items including a variety of foods, potions, elixirs, and magic spells. You're able to customize these assignments at anytime from the menu where you can also view your inventory and item details, swap out your equipment, read up on quests, look at the map, and so forth.
I thought the controls were well laid out with the exception of the magic spells. Just having to press LB and a d-pad to pick a spell, and then RB to fire it can take a little too long and is just a bit cumbersome. Initially, I also had some trouble with how Y was for block and LS+Y was for roll -- I was rolling unexpectedly, but that soon cleared up and I realized it's far better to just roll around in battle than to try to time blocks.
Looking at the game more generally now, it's largely quest and XP based. Quests are gotten from various sources around whatever area you are presently in. One great feature is that once you're loaded into an area (and these are quite big mind you), load times are practically absent. Combined with the use of teleportation pads, getting around is fast and efficient. Oh, and once you kill some enemies, they're gone -- no respawns, which is phenomenal. That may be how it is is Oblivion and others as well (couldn't tell you), but I love that I can travel through an area, clear it out, and come back later and it still be devoid of enemies. That design choice not only makes sense from the standpoint of players being able to abuse XP earnings, but I think it also makes the game world more believable (not to mention less annoying).
Quests, Combat, Loot
Most quests are not only required but there is generally just one way to complete them. Some quests do give you options -- such as paying for something or using violence to get what you want -- but generally it's just a matter of finding and retrieving something and then taking it to where or whom it needs to go to. It's not uncommon to have a half dozen or so quests open at the same time, and to help you keep track, you can turn on Highlights for up to three quests on the mini-map. With Highlights enabled, the mini-map will have markers on it to show you where to go.
Solving quests in Arcania is pretty straight-forward and will nearly always involve combat. Combat is real time, not turned based, and you can pause the game to change out your gear if you need to. There are three ways to attack, including melee, ranged, and magic. Each of these skills, and several others, including the ability to sneak around for example, can be upgraded as you level up. The HUD keeps track of your earned XP and when you level up, you'll definitely know it. Each level gives you Skill Points to assign. Thus far in my adventure, I've found that keeping my three forms of attack balanced has worked very well. As you level up, attack strength, stamina regeneration, aiming precision, and things like that increase. The combat system works pretty well and I frankly don't have any major qualms with it. Also, thanks to the plentiful sources of health, combat maintains a comfortably easy, yet still satisfying, pace. You can certainly die quickly, but as long as you keep an eye on your health and have some HP restoring items handy, there isn't a whole lot of danger.
No RPG adventure like this would be complete with out lots of loot and Arcania doesn't disappoint in that regard, at least in terms of quantity. It may not surprise you given this game's 'gentler' approach to the genre that you can loot and horde to your heart's desire. There are no carrying limits or shortage of inventory slots. Any chest you see, be it in someone's house or out in the middle of a field, is yours for the taking. It's kind of funny to just walk into a NPC's space and and loot their entire stock in front of their eyes with no penalty. At the same time, I always hated inventory limits, so it's kind of nice to tote around thirty goblin clubs and ten different shields. Of course, you can dump all of your extra crap to various dealers to get items and gold.
As far as the presentation goes, Arcania probably won't blow you away. Graphically, it's not a powerhouse, but the game does do some impressive things from its large outdoor environments. I liked the time of day changes and the moving lights and shadows. The vegetation is also plentiful and many of the animations are good. On the other hand, there are some clipping and framerate issues that mar the experience a little bit. Neither the clipping or framerate trouble is a dealbreaker, but their state goes back to that whole idea of this not being one of those AAA, diamond-polished games. Aurally, Arcania is again a mixed offering. The voiceovers are so-so at best and really bad at worst, but you'll get over them. The soundtrack is pretty quiet but it works, and the effects aren't bad.
With that, let's get to the summary...