Review: ArcaniA: The Complete Tale (PS3)

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Title: ArcaniA: The Complete Tale
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: August 30, 2013
Publisher: Nordic Games
Developer: Spellbound
Price: $29.99
ESRB Rating: T
ArcaniA: The Complete Tale is also available on Xbox 360 and PC.
The PlayStation 3 disc version was used for this review.

Gameplay:
ArcaniA: The Complete Tale is a medieval action/adventure RPG filled with massive amounts of loot, a healthy number of Joshables, over a thousand nasty enemies to hack, slash, shoot, burn, freeze and electrocute, and one very annoying, maniacally committed carpenter.

You begin the game as a nameless shepherd on a non-tropical island with a pretty, albeit whiny, girlfriend named Ivy. Your best-friend is an enslaved but relaxed Orc named Gromar. He likes mushrooms! Anyway, we’ll just call our Hero “Hero”. It saves time from typing “the guy” or “the angry side-questor”.

From the beginning, Hero is charged with various plot-driven tasks. He must make nice with Ivy’s dad by killing some deer to prove he can provide for her as well as chase off Diego, the game’s version of the Dos Equis pitchman. His first task though is to rid a field of giant mutant molerats by clubbing them with a shepherd’s crook.

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Long tutorial short, Hero is off on a fetch quest when the evil horde shows up. I won’t spoil it in case you’re unfamiliar with the game’s specific plot points. Suffice to say Hero is off on a revenge-inspired quest after a gut-wrenching cut-scene lasting a full 25 seconds or so. Unlike The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker we are mercifully saved from actually sailing to the Southern Mainland by a loading screen.

From this point forward the game is pretty typical Action/Adventure RPG fare. Every kill and task completed increases Hero’s XP until the next level is reached at which time you are awarded three skill points which the player is free to distribute among Mettle, Discipline, Vigour, Precision, Stealth, Zeal, Serenity and Dominance attributes. These attributes determine how well Hero wields his one or two handed weapons, how accurate his aiming of bows and crossbows will be, how much health and stamina he has and how sneaky he is.

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I am a Jameson’s and Guinness-loving Irish-American loud-mouth so I played the game with two-handed (meaning you can’t hold a shield) melee weapons, bows and Dominance magics and I was not overly concerned with being sneaky. I would typically shoot arrows at an enemy to get them away from others then shock-to-stun as they neared me and beat the life out of them with either a magic-infused sword or some giant hammer. I rolled away in lieu of a shield. This strategy worked well for me most of the time. When it didn’t work well I would re-group, re-equip and go again.

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The game includes a robust crafting mechanic which is nearly idiot-proof. Hero collects various plants, ores, animal parts like stingers, fangs, claws and even, yes it’s true, ZOMBIE BRAINS. Some of these items are used in crafting everything from a basic health elixir to magic potions to armour and for upgrading weapons if you didn’t sell the upgradable weapons for cash by mistake like I did.

ArcaniA came to me without any written instructions. Due to this fact I had a strange issue with my magic powers. I totally lost them after I completed a section which takes place in an area called “Tooshoo”. I continued playing for hours with no benefit of my electrical shocking ability until I reached a point with several enemies including a kind of boss who I could not defeat.

It was at this point I again contacted the producer of Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams Vladimir Ignatov at Black Forest Games in Germany. Yes. You read that correctly.

I discovered during my research into the history of ArcaniA: The Complete Tale that Nordic Games was not the first home of its development. It began with developers at Spellbound whose parent company JoWood Entertainment went bankrupt. Nordic Games bought ArcaniA after its release on Xbox360 and PC. The demise of Spellbound set the stage for those devs to open their own studio called Black Forest Games which recently released Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams. Vladimir Ignatov was the producer of ArcaniA as well.

So I told Vladimir that I was stuck and the game was hopelessly broken. He asked me to send him my save games so he could investigate what had gone so horribly wrong to create, as he called it, this show-stopper, a term I always associate with great big Broadway tap-dance numbers.

Oh, to have had a game manual! If I had a game manual I would have seen that, although odd, when I added a second magic power the first one did not remain active but rather all magic abilities stopped until I assigned at least one to a D-pad slot. Like Dorothy Gale, I had no idea all I had to do was click my fracking heels. I found this out by reading a PC version manual online and extrapolating the controls. Poor Vladimir. I tortured him so and he was always trying to be helpful. Actually he was very helpful but more about that later.

Take heed. Hero has eight slots to assign consumables and magics on the D-pad. To get to the second tier of these slots use L1 and assign normally. You must do this with your magic powers as well if you decide to be all mage-y and use more than one.

There are many weapons to collect of varying types. You could play as a sniper, a sword and shield fighter, a crazed two-handed battle-axe swinger, a fire and ice spewing mage. Trying to suss out the situations you encounter and figure out the best way to deal with the different types of enemies from one gigantic troll to a floor covered in burrowing preying mantises is part of the fun of an RPG like this one.

The map has a zoom function that isn’t terribly zoomerific. Parts of the map you haven’t traversed are covered in fog, a usual convention that does add to the tension. If you hit the triangle button you may switch between the caverns view and the overworld but when it comes to areas not yet traveled that can be misleading. Near the end of the game I walked nearly the full length of the map to find I had to go back to where I began because although my destination was above ground I could only reach it via an immense subterranean cave network. There are warp points to help in travel but they don’t really help. Only two are active at once and Hero can’t pick where he goes. It’s this one or that other one. The warp stone problem is annoying and frankly incredibly poor game design even for 2010 when the game finished its original development. They only serve as a glowing reminder that someone was hella lazy.

Hero’s inventory is infinite. He can carry every festering brain, sword, hammer, suit of armor, toadstool, feather and hunk of molerat fat he picks up. He can also sell these things and buy others. In the case of some crafting scrolls there are several copies in which case you press X to learn the technique and then sell the other copies. You’ll know if you’ve learned one because the learn option will be absent for those scrolls.

There are trophies for Joshing collectibles, trophies for milestones like spending 60 minutes total in beds and chairs or Jumping 1000 times, there are trophies for plot-associated benchmarks along the way. But there is a caveat in all this trophy-hoing goodness. That is the notorious Master Chef trophy and by extension the platinum. Apparently in the early versions of the game the trophy for learning all crafting recipes was glitched. The game refused to allow one or two to be learned making the trophy unattainable and thus the platinum as well. Before JoWood bit the dust they announced that they would not be fixing it. I mentioned this situation to Vladimir Ignatov who has no answer for this situation at present but it does seem to me that it’s likely a dead issue. There are many trophies, Yo! But platinum is not likely to ever be one. Clearly if this situation changes PS Nation will shout it from the rooftops.

Visuals:
ArcaniA and its brother included on this disc Fall of Setarrif are straight ports to PS3. As anyone who is reading this is likely to know by now, the architecture of the PS3 is so alien compared to its contemporaries it’s sometimes like trying to get a typical Chinese citizen in Xuancheng to understand your joke about a proctologist in Bangor, Maine. You could probably make yourself understood but you may get punched in the face a few times first.

I contacted Nordic Games about my early concerns regarding some pop-in and other little graphical and auditory imperfections. I wanted all the information available so I could judge the game fairly. PR/Marketing maven Philipp Brock, that’s not a misspelling, forwarded my questions to ArcaniA’s executive producer at Nordic, Reinhard Pollice, also not misspelled. Although Herr Reinhard knew I was reviewing the game for a PlayStation website and podcast his response was both strangely rude and unhelpful. Incapable as I was to just take his answer at face value, I continued to dig for information, as you’ve read above.

In the most basic and dumbed-down layman’s terms, porting a game for PS3 which was developed originally for more standard PC architecture is like fitting a square peg in a round hole with the advantage that you can make the peg a little more round and the hole a little more square until they more or less line up. The less part is when you get something like pop-in because for a moment the two shapes are being squeezed together more forcibly where their edges touch.

The real behind the scenes truth of this port of ArcaniA: The Complete Tale can be seen here in this excerpt from Vladimir’s email to me:

Here, I’ve got an example from our tech team for the rendering system, being a very good showcase for how the different platforms require different implementations to achieve the same goal.

For the X360 we implemented an optimization so that we can do most of the CPU side setup for the rendering system (which could run up to 20ms) on 2 cores simultaneously while the game logic/animation systems were updating (which could ALSO take up to 20ms). This is a simplified description on what is called “multithreaded rendering”. When we switched to the PS3 port, we couldn’t use the same optimization since there is only one core. This means that while the code IS multithreaded, you won’t get any performance benefit since one core is available for processing the work. Not having this optimization also isn’t an option, as running the game without multithreaded rendering would result in a severe frame rate drop (20ms drop to 40ms drop would be the difference between 50fps and 25fps).

So while the PS3 doesn’t have multiple cores, it DOES have are what are called SPUs. They’re like smaller, less powerful versions of CPUs. While not as powerful as a full CPU core, you do have a great deal more of them (up to 5). The downside is that they have extremely limited memory and require a different compiler, so you need to do extra work to make sure that you can run the same work that you’d do on a CPU. In our case we ended up moving most of our rendering code onto the SPUs. This allowed us to get the same performance increase we did for the X360 with our CPU busy doing the game logic, while the SPUs were busy doing the CPU side of rendering.

While it is highly unusual for a simple game review to include such technical information, I did find this passage very informative and instructional. I hope it brings perspective into these proceedings.

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In short, there are some graphical anomalies during times the system is trying to accomplish several things at once. Occasionally a character will look like his eyes burn with the fires of hell for no reason. None of these things break the gameplay elements. There are long stretches of the game when I didn’t notice any irritating graphical errors at all. In fact, there were some moments when I saw a shadow and turned the camera to see an enemy I wouldn’t have seen if the lighting wasn’t working right. The game isn’t as gorgeous as a shiny new Final Fantasy but it’s not far off of Mass Effect either.

I only wish there was more variety in NPC models. Ninety-nine percent of all NPCs have the same face.

Audio:
The score for the game is orchestral and impressive and the sound effects are realistic when they are cued in the correct environment. Occasionally I noticed barn owl hoots during the day on the beach or crickets during the day as well. Sometimes when moving from one calm situation to a dangerous one or vice versa the music unceremoniously switches like a beginner club DJ having a seizure and slamming one piece of music into the other.

There is a town you enter called Stewark. In Stewark there is a carpenter. He bangs his hammer the whole time you are in Stewark and no matter whether you are within realistic earshot of him or not your sound during that time will be dominated by his constant pounding. Turn your sound off and subtitles on. Do this in remembrance of me.

Hero meets many NPCs along his quest. Almost all of them have the same face. In an effort to help differentiate them there is a seemingly endless parade of the worst voice actors in the history of animated entertainments. Bad, bad, bad. Apparently unlike Josh Langford, these men and women are thrilled to be sat at a microphone. They squeal and giggle or moan inappropriately in the worst fake accents available to their limited repertoires. Something not owing to their lack of talent but humorously evident nonetheless is everyone’s inability to say any word in a uniform manner. An early humorous example is the name “Knut”. One NPC pronounces it “kuh-NEWT” and immediately Hero repeats it as “NUT”. The dialogue director paid no attention at all. The person tasked with directing the voice “talent” for this game should go on to a lengthy career in motorcycle maintenance or maybe lobster fishing. Finally on this topic I have to mention an NPC named Ludd. Ludd is pacing a straight line in the jungle and when approached says, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh….CRRRRREEEEEAAAATUUUUURESSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” It’s so beyond bad that the performance should inspire a new category on Rotten Tomatoes: So Bad You Spontaneously Pooped. You will only have one chance to experience it and it’s quite a ways into the game so look for it and don’t press that X button until you are ready to capture it in some fashion. You will want to relive it, laugh at it and know deep down, “At LEAST I ain’t THAT guy!”

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Online/Multiplayer:
This game is single player only.

Conclusion:
ArcaniA: The Complete Tale including Fall of Setarrif is a massive amount of game. Game play time will vary of course but I have played ArcaniA for 55 hours and now Fall of Setarrif for only 3 as I begin part two of this journey. I’m having a lot of fun and I’m not finished. Not while my people are in danger and there are more skulls to crack!

If you are someone who enjoys a good RPG adventure experience you won’t be bothered long by some minor graphical issues. The gameplay variety is awesome. The choices of play are deep. The terrible acting by everyone, except of course the brilliant Troy Baker who you may all be familiar with most recently as Joel from The Last of Us and who voices Hero in this game, will keep you laughing for sure.

ArcaniA: The Complete Tale is addictive.

Score:
8.5

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Written by Keith Dunn-Fernández

Keith Dunn-Fernández

An actor/director and more lucratively an Administrative Assistant at a small paper company in NYC, Keith loves his games. And he loves to write. And he is a bit of a sarcasmo.

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