After the shamefully buggy release of Gothic 3, publisher Jowood decided that they could no longer count on developer Piranha Bytes to deliver a quality product. After a bit of back and forth, Jowood dissolved their partnership with PB and immediately hired Spellbound to take on the venerable Gothic reins. PB went on to develop the exceedingly brilliant Risen for publisher Deep Silver and now we get to see if Jowood made the right decision in firing PB and bringing in Spellbound. Arcania: Gothic 4 attempts to "right the wrongs" of previous Gothics, while also trying to attract more of an American audience. Unfortunately, Arcania utterly fails at the former task and Spellbound confuses the word "American" with "infantile". If Gothic 3 was the death of my beloved Gothic lineage, Arcania is the decomposing, bowels-voided corpse that got left behind.
Where to begin? Well since the linear nature of the story and dialogue of this supposed RPG pretty much precludes any semblance of role playing, let's talk about the aspect that players will spend 95% of their time with in Arcania - fighting. Combat consists primarily of clicking the left mouse button continuously and occasionally clicking the right mouse button to roll away from a group of enemies. That's it. The few melee abilities that you gain as you level up actually serve to hamper your fighting ability rather than enhance it. The "flurry" skill, for example, locks you into an attack animation that is both cumbersome and useless, as simply pounding the regular attack button works better and faster. Magic is practically worthless for dealing damage, and only really serves as a crowd control supplement (such as freezing an enemy in place) to the standard hack and slash button mashing. Archery is serviceable, if entirely shrug-worthy, as the abilities to surprise attack (using the sneak skill) and zoom in while aiming are actually useful skills. But we've seen that in every fantasy action game since the late 90's so it's hardly high praise. And for those of you thinking that the "Gothic" level of difficulty will save the broken combat, guess again. I breezed through the first 10 hours of gameplay, getting up to level 14 before distributing even one skill point into my character, and I only chose to do it because I thought it might add some fun to the combat, not because I was losing battles. I'm not saying this to brag. Gothic 1 and 2, as well as Risen, all had combat that kicked my ass continuously, even on normal difficulty. Arcania's hardest setting is just that easy.
My character from the first three games is now mindless jabbering idiot? Spellbound really knows how to endear themselves to their audience.
The graphics are adequate, if underwhelming. The bigger problem is one of finishing touches. One gets the sense that with most aspects of presentation, Spellbound developers worked a solid nine-to-five day, then promptly called it quits and drove home, leaving another bit of polish unattempted. The vast numbers of cloned NPCs (I saw maybe six distinct character heads in the whole game). The environment shadows that "skip" across the landscape one foot per second as the sun travels overhead, like a perfectly calibrated pocket watch. The amateurish, clumsy world building that decided not to include a single building or cave that's optional to explore . The times that a single character will switch voice actors more than once in any given conversation. The sporadically random weather algorithms that decide to alternate between torrential rainfall and clear-sky-sunny about a dozen times per day, as if the gods are puckishly flicking a light switch every couple of minutes. The fact that crafting is reduced to a bare-bones menu system with no accompanying animations, jettisoning one of Gothic's signature immersion-enhancing distinctions. The way that...I could go on forever. Arcania's presentation is pretty only at first glance. But almost immediately, the illusion shatters and every second that you spend playing, the game never lets you forget that it is just a game; there's never a momentary chance at immersion.
You know what I'm thankful for? Games that save me the hassle of thinking. Thank you Arcania, for not confusing me with character choices such as "Should I invest in a lock picking skill?" A lock picking tool was unceremoniously handed to me one third of the way through the game (complete with the instant knowledge of how to use it, apparently) when the developers deemed it appropriate that I should be able to open certain chest. Likewise, while there is a sneak skill, it pertains entirely to combat and has no roleplaying value, such as sneaking into shops late at night to steal from the locked chests (another distinguishing Gothic feature). No, in Arcania, Bob the Blacksmith™ pleasantly smiled at me while I conspicuously nabbed the giant axe sitting on the sales counter. It darkens the heart to realize that the living world of Gothic has been reduced to an undead world populated by vacant-eyed zombies.
Man, I can't wait until the game lets me visit that castle. Only three more artificial gates to go!
After the triumph that was Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion, everyone fell in love with scaled game design. Or wait...do I have that backwards? That's right, everyone grew to loath scaled game design. Apparently Spellbound didn't get the memo. But where Oblivion scaled the enemies to your level, in a misguided attempt to offer the player exploratory freedom, Arcania's stifling world simply doesn't let you progress to the harder monsters until you overcome the increasingly obvious gating system that's been set up for you. When you finally get permission to travel from one exceedingly confined wilderness area to the next, instead of fighting Scavenger birds, you get to fight...Wild Scavengers! To add insult to injury, Spellbound was so lazy that they didn't even bother changing the look of the recycled creature. They just slapped an adjective on the name, boosted the stats a little and called it a day. I buy my RPGs from Germany precisely because they aren't made in Japan! And of course, what mock-open world game would be complete without the arbitrary, tacked on collectibles hunt. I'm now playing the unholy amalgamation of the worst parts of three different genres: Grand Theft Gothic 4: A Final Fantasy Tale.
Joking aside, this game does seem suspiciously console-ized (and I mean that in the most pejorative manner possible). From the lack of character building options, to the invisible wall-laden level design, to the lack of any kind of narrative choice, this game has the stink of "lowest common denominator" all over it. In a world where saying the least offensive thing means saying nothing, making the most "accessible" game means making shit in a cardboard box.
One of the cardinal rules of business is "know your product". In slapping the Gothic name on something that is clearly a mockery of what Gothic once was, Jowood all but proves that no one at the company has ever played any of the previous Gothic games. When Spellbound presented this video game abortion to the executives at Jowood, I can vividly imagine everyone in the meeting proclaiming, "It looks exactly like Gothic, but better!" And given that everything coming out of Jowood since it was founded has been an unfinished mess, it boggles the mind to postulate what Piranha Bytes could have done with Gothic 2 and 3 if they had been partnered with Deep Silver earlier.
I will give them credit, the plate armor looks pretty nice. Be glad I didn't go with the mage robes for this picture.
My advice to Jowood is simply this: It's time to pack it in. In all the years I've followed you, you've yet to release a game in good condition and worse still, you use paying European customers as BETA testers for your eventual American audience. Arcania is simply the latest in your long line of half-baked game launches. From the broken (still to this day) Guild 2, to the horrendously imbalanced Spellforce 2, to the mother of all catastrophes - Gothic 3: Forsaken Gods expansion, you have proven one thing loud and clear. You have no goddamn idea how to publish games. I conclude this review with a post I found on an Arcania forum, responding to someone's regret at having purchased the game:
"You got Jowooded. Congratulations! Being Jowooded is the closest thing to being raped."
I couldn't have said it better myself.