Release Date: August 2000
This is a review I write with a heavy heart. Arcatera was one of the two or three games I was most impressed by at E3. I've been pestering Ubi Soft for a review copy ever since.
When you have such high hopes for a project, it's doubly disappointing to find a game that just doesn't have it all together.
There is so much about Arcatera to admire. First of all, it looks great! It takes place in a faux medieval world with convincing buildings, paths, even mud. The perpetual sunset sky is gorgeous indeed.
The story is also intriguing. In the fair capital city of Senora, a black conspiracy is underfoot, and it's undermining the very fabric of society. Sort of an ancient Cosa Nostra, it's called The Black Sun and it's so shadowy no one even agrees whether it really exists or not. And that's just the beginning of an enormous, serpentine plot that deals with corrupt high priests, stolen crown jewels, and even a transvestite prince!
You can choose as your primary character to be an Adventurer, a Thief, a Monk, or a Magician. Each, naturally, has his (or her) own strengths and weaknesses. In an unusual and ambitious move, each of the four characters has his or her own (gorgeous) opening movies and scenes to begin the story! This was a very impressive idea, that the overall story was so large and broad that it could be entered and deciphered successfully from four different directions.
The game has an unusual structure, as well. Billed as an "adventure/RPG," it really comes off as sort of a story-driven RPG mystery. This is a great idea--the idea that your character(s) gain experience points by uncovering bits of the mystery through conversation and discovery.
Unfortunately, none of this translates into effective gameplay. In the first part of the game, you must spend endless hours talking to dozens of NPCs, trying (usually fruitlessly) to uncover some gem of information that will give you experience points and inch the story forward. The ratio of attempts to success in this endeavor is quickly discouraging.
There is an impressive Notebook feature, which keeps track of your progress on the three main quests, plus details on all subquests and characters you've encountered (including highlights from all conversations). The problem is, you spend most of your time stumbling aimlessly around the large city. The third-person perspective and capricious camera angles make navigation quite confusing. Add to this a nearly useless "map" feature, and Lost becomes your default mode in Arcatera. This is a real game killer, considering you are constantly attempting to locate a particular building or person to move a subquest forward. I can't tell you how many hours I spent chasing people around the muddy streets of Senora--I began to feel like a paparazzi reporter. The fact that the characters regularly do bizarre visual things, like walking through each other and disappearing and appearing randomly on the screen, doesn't help.
The music is lovely in Arcatera; unfortunately there's only about sixteen bars of it, and it quickly becomes extremely monotonous.
Worse, the combat system in the game is virtually useless. It's confusing and difficult to control in any aspect, from your character's position to spell casting to weapon attacks.
After reaching a frustrating seeming dead end with one character, I began attempting to play the game with other characters. No better luck. After several hours of chasing characters and engaging in endless tedious conversation, I'd hit the same brick wall. These conversations are made more frustrating by the inconsistent English translation. It seems the vocals and the printed text were translated by two completely different people, with results that are frequently at odds with one another. It's very distracting--and you don't dare turn off the subtitles because the music is so loud (and no audio adjustments that solve the problem) that you're afraid of missing something important.
The interface is clunky in the extreme. The amount of work required to simply move an object from one place to another is just ridiculous. It's also maddeningly easy to "lose" inventory items during this cumbersome process. The game is played in supposed "real time" in which rest and sleep have to occur. Unfortunately, the time factor in the game is also quite confusing and difficult to deal with.
Added to these unfortunate circumstances is the fact that the game is extremely heavy on its feet (it would take almost thirty seconds to go in and out of map mode, for instance), so that after a few hours of play you feel not like you're playing, but like you're dragging an extremely heavy, brown city behind you on a chain.
All games have to have an indefinable "playability" factor in order to be successful. Unfortunately, Arcaterafails utterly in this regard. After a few hours of gameplay, I realized I'd rather be vacuuming my balcony than playing the game. What Ubi Soft has is an intriguing, ambitious game that's virtually unplayable. It's that rare game that I couldn't complete before writing a review.
Few times have I begun a game with more goodwill. Few times have I been this disappointed.
Final Grade: D
If you liked Arcatera:
Watch: The Name of the Rose
Read: The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge
Play: Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos
Recommended System Requirements:
Pentium II 350 Processor
64 MB RAM
12X CD ROM drive
DirectX 7.0 or higher
At least 600 MB hard disk space (maximum install uses much more than this)
This review is copyright Ray Ivey and Just Adventure and may not be republished elsewhere without the expression written consent of the author. Republication of said review must also contain a link back to Just Adventure.