Equally reviled for their game-crashing bugs and glitchy code, and revered for their true, open-world design, the Gothic series of games has legions of both fans and detractors. Spellbound's Arcania: Gothic 4 successfully manages to address many of the issues under the hood, but it's sure to disappoint gamers drawn to the huge, surprising worlds the titles have been known for.
Right off the bat it's easy to see Arcania looks beautiful, with outstanding art design and environments that are bursting with life, detail, color, and vivid effect. Character models and skin textures are outstanding (though Arcania's gene pool must be awfully shallow, since there are so many similar character models). Day and night cycles, weather, breathtaking vistas—they're all spectacular and if playing Arcania was like going on a blind date, you'd be internally high-fiving yourself at your incredible luck.
But like that beautiful blind date who turns out to be a vapid, uninteresting and somewhat annoying dinner companion, Arcania disappoints where it counts. The open-world design of previous Gothic games has been replaced by a simplified, linear, hack-and-slash progression of main quests and mandatory side-quests, grinding, and forgettable, by-the-numbers story.
There's nothing wrong with starting as a weak, nameless hero, but to be successful, an RPG has to eventually make the player feel legendary, larger-than-life, and a truly integral part of a larger story in which their role is critical. Games like Oblivion, Dragon Age or World of Warcraft get it, but Arcania lacks this compelling element. Players who have nurtured their characters into hulking, armor-encrusted, magic-wielding archers (there is a class system but it is possible to level in different abilities) are sent to fetch hats and kill endless low-level critters. Every main story mission branches to a similar round of sub-quests, and while none are lengthy, many require slogging back through previously explored territory. There isn't much in the way of a quick-travel system.
On the PC, the two-button combat system is responsive and allows for some simple strategy and combos. Being able to pause and consume a health potion in the middle of a heated battle takes away some of the challenge but ever-increasing skills and upgrades keep the encounters interesting.
Loot-drops are a staple of RPGs and players have come to expect—and happily anticipate—the rare bit of armor or fire-launching sword dropped inexplicably by the giant forest spider. Arcania's creatures drop loot by the armload, a lot of it valuable and useful, but it's worth next to nothing to the shopkeepers who provide your desperately needed coin. Crafting and enchanting are viable and relatively interesting and the ingredients are plentiful.
Fetch and kill quests are, of course, the meat and potatoes of RPGs, and they populate Arcania in abundance. Unfortunately, in this straight-path-the-end game, those sometimes tedious missions can't be avoided and what's worse, they're introduced by some of the most gratingly awful, tin-eared actors you'll ever have the misfortune to hear. Coming off the top-notch voice acting of Enslaved or Castlevania, the sub-par voice work gives Arcania a low-rent feel that undermines the positive impression left by the visuals. The musical score is, however, a strong element and worth listening to.
Gothic games have been bemoaned for their graphical bugs and sloppy code but things are a lot cleaner and tighter this time around. Gone is the open-world of previous titles, replaced by mundane, rote, disappointingly shallow RPG that lives and breathes in an engaging, beautiful, and invitingly realized world. But for an RPG—as in life—just being pretty isn't enough.
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