Not a terrible game but it is no 'Gothic.'
Review: TheMadGamer of RPGWatch.com
Platform Reviewed: PC, US
Arcania: Gothic 4 (Arcania) doesn't live up to the prior games in the series and normally I wouldn't take the time to write a player review for a game I perceived as a 'lesser' game. But as a series, I'm definitely a dedicated Gothic fan and as such felt compelled to write down some words, again from a gamer's perspective, to provide some constructive criticism.
First and foremost, Arcania is not the same kind of game as its successors. I'll get into the details of what I mean further down, but as a Gothic fan, Arcania is a big departure from the established Gothic formula. In theory, such an outcome isn't necessarily a bad thing but in the case of Arcania it is.
Important gameplay elements that were the foundation of prior games in the series were either stripped out entirely, or substantially reduced as to make them trivial. The tragedy of all this is that the final game seems to appeal to no one as evidenced by numerous published reviews (that lean negative or are fiercely negative) as well as the overall negative responses by players on various message forums.
To add insult to injury, the execution of the game itself is done quite well. I experienced ZERO bugs while playing the game and enjoyed smooth frame rates throughout my play – the first time I can say that for any Gothic game. The programmers at Spellbound are quite talented in terms of the engine they created and the overall art direction. The game world is stunning to look at. So it is sad that compelling gameplay just isn't there.
As I started my game on Feshyr Island, the reality of the linearity of this iteration of the Gothic series sank in. This just didn't ring true with my prior Gothic experience and so I went through a series of fits and starts before I sort of got over this and decided to play the game through to the end. Once I had gone through this adjustment, I did find things to enjoy with this game. But my enjoyment was never as deep or intense as it was with prior Gothic games. In a few ways, Arcania felt like a beefed up variety of the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games found on consoles. I played both Dark Alliance and Dark Alliance 2 and found them simple yet entertaining games.
For me, the game worlds of the prior Gothic games were as much a character within the game as any NPC. They were worlds with secrets to be found, obstacles to overcome, puzzles to solve, mysteries to discover, and plots to unravel. In addition to all of that, there was a good level of freedom that the player had in terms of the order he or she might take in tackling these things. Within this framework, there were still some story-driven elements that prevented the player from accessing some locations, but they made sense in the context of the story.
Aracnia is very different in this regard. The developer seemed to take a very one sided approach to designing Arcania – that point of view being that the game world should be segmented into small chunks with some kind of barrier blocking your progress until other conditions are met. This approach is what creates the linear feel that persists throughout the entire game.
But there is also another possibility why the developers chose this type of linear design that continues to nag at me. Creating any level of 'open world-ness' definitely adds more challenge to the development of an RPG. I'm inclined to surmise that Arcania is as linear as it is simply to reduce the development time and perhaps overall costs of production. This is a tragedy, because clearly the engine for Arcania can definitely accommodate a true Gothic-like world found in past iterations of the series.
Quests and NPC dialogs suffer the same kind of linearity-syndrome as world exploration. With the exception of several quests, most quests and NPC dialogs have a singular outcome, severely reducing any notion of role playing. In fact, most quest dialogs simply act as a pause between NPC monologues. Most conversations in Arcania could just have easily been a non-stop dialog between your character and the NPC without any intervention by the player at all –because there are no real dialog choice to make. The situation reminded me of the first Dungeon Siege game – how many players commented that there was so little choice to make during combat that the game practically just played itself. I felt this way about NPC conversations in Arcania.
Crafting and potion making is sort of a mixed bag in Arcania. I actually liked the fact that there were more than just a handful of things you could craft. Gothic 3 was horrifically low in crafting content relative to the sheer size of that game. While Arcania had a lot more content in this area, I rarely felt compelled to craft anything as I didn't really struggle with many fights. And even the few times I did struggle, it was mostly because I wasn't paying attention close enough – a problem solved with a reload.
And then there are the traditional problems with crafting and potion making. That you are not required to use certain in-game assets such as an alchemy table to brew potions, a campfire to cook food, or an anvil & forge to construct a weapon results in the player not having to plan ahead and be prepared for would-be difficult battles. The absence of this gameplay requirement further trivializes roleplaying and enemy encounters.
A special note about brewing potions as it relates to gathering materials. In true linear fashion, the developers populated each section of the game world with a predominant type of flora for potions instead of placing them in realistic ways. When I first encountered King's Sorrel I felt the same sort of excitement I felt playing Gothic 2 and Gothic 3 when I found King's Sorrel – because in G2 and G3 they were rare. But in Arcania, once you get to the map area where they grow, you will find them everywhere in spades – making them just another flora to find. The entire situation reminds me of Pac Man, where each stage presents a new bonus fruit to eat.
Overall, Arcania wasn't horrible. I don't regret playing it. Like I said earlier, it reminded me of the Dark Alliance games and I thought those were fun, simple little RPG romps. But Arcania carried with it the Gothic moniker which establishes expectations that certain gameplay elements will exist – which simply do not exist in Arcania. And tragically, the game seems to miss hitting any demographic audience with the design choices that were made.