Of all the epic role-playing game franchises that have come and gone in the past decade, Gothic has always been one of the most distinct. The first three games in the series earned developer Piranha Bytes a lot of fans and a fair number of detractors for brutal difficulty, bleak storylines, and idiosyncratic controls. They were definitely quirky games, but at least you could count on a hardcore RPG experience. That has been tossed out the window with Arcania: Gothic 4, a Gothic game in name alone. Everything that made the first trilogy stand out from the crowd has been dropped by German developer Spellbound, which has turned the new game into a kill-and-loot third-person RPG. Where the previous games were perhaps a little too demanding, the current model isn't demanding enough, being little more than a hack-and-slash loot grab noteworthy solely for its incredibly generic personality.
Despite the many changes in gameplay, Arcania takes place in the same old Gothic land of Myrtana. Ten years have passed since Gothic 3, and King Rhobar III has been afflicted by some sort of madness that has made him a teensy bit bloodthirsty. You play as an anonymous hero caught up in a huge war ravaging the realm so thoroughly that his native village is burned to the ground and his pregnant fiancee is killed by Rhobar's troops. Things get awfully bleak after just a couple of hours of play and a handful of introductory quests, in fact, so in this way the new Gothic resembles the old Gothic. Nothing about the story is well developed, though. The world just doesn't seem real, with cardboard characters that aren't fleshed out and that--like their counterparts in so many other games--never even notice if you wander into their homes and loot their chests of valuables. Poor translations and pedestrian voice-acting make the dialogue a blend of the indiscernible and the plain old goofy. Many scenes seem to have been edited strangely or hacked into abrupt endings. The moment when your fiancee dies in your arms, for instance, has as much emotional impact as watching your stepbrother eat beef jerky.
What you're called upon to do in pursuit of vengeance is also hard to get into. Quests never reach beyond the formulaic. Every single person you visit needs a job done, so you play a never-ending game of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." You're constantly traipsing around the countryside looking for specific monsters to slay, artifacts to pick up, herbs to pick, and so forth. Nothing about these fetch assignments is interesting. The exact same jobs have been doled out in other RPGs for a couple of decades now, and none of the characters that you interact with are the least bit memorable. There is no depth to any of their personalities, and the strained dialogue makes it tough to accept any of the non-player characters as real people. Instead of talking to other human beings, it's more like you're pulling random work assignments off a bulletin board that occasionally puts on a dress and pretends to be a fat medieval bar-wench.
A few design issues in Arcania interfere with your ability to wrap up these quests. The map is far too small and limited in scope, with the fog of war seemingly so tight that you can't see anything on the map that you can't see on the main screen. Bull's-eye icons mark quest locales on the minimap, but they show up only when you're practically right on top of the place, person, or thing that you're looking for. As a result, you have to follow the directions given out when you are offered a quest. This generally gets you where you need to go, although in today's GPS world, it's a little annoying to have to deal with vague comments such as "turn east at the watchtower and head up the hill."
Maps are also very big, with outdoor areas loaded with intricate pathways and trails that loop back on each other and circle around hills. Reasonable art makes these sylvan settings look pretty good in an Oblivion-ish sort of way, and seamless transitions between most areas mean you can immerse yourself in the adventure without sitting through loading screens. Still, there are some noteworthy hitches when it comes to frame rate, and a few other quirks. The game is quite choppy at times, especially during larger battles. It doesn't feel as much like the usual Xbox 360 game as it does a PC game being played on a system that doesn't quite meet the requirements. Animations aren't very fluid, and objects like tall grass and shrubs abruptly vanish when you get close to them. Quests are often spread out far and wide, forcing you to explore more than you might expect. Monsters are all over the place, as well, with the game's menagerie of fantasy-game stereotypes (undead, demons, giant insects, wolves, goblins, and so on) heavily populating the great outdoors. You can't walk more than a few feet without being accosted by one gang of goons or another. As a result of all of the above, it's easy to get lost and find yourself in a lot of fights that gradually wear you down to the point you get killed.
The mechanics are just as conventional as the rest of the game. You can't create or customize your starting character. Combat is a basic affair where you mash buttons for melee attacks and lean on the shoulder buttons to fire off spells and ranged weapons. Some combo-type attacks are available, and enemies sometimes surprise you with blocks and special moves that require you to whip out a spell or dodge by blocking and rolling. But there still isn't anything that requires more effort than zoning out and button mashing. Character development is limited. You gain experience points for monster kills and successful quests, as usual, but there isn't much you can do with the skill points earned by leveling up. There are just a handful of abilities that can be buffed, leading to general improvements in attacking, defending, spell use, and the like. Crafting and messing around with alchemy are possible, at least. And the loot drops are rewarding. While this isn't an overly loot-heavy adventure, you do run across a good selection of weapons, armor, artifacts, potions, and other assorted D&D-ish paraphernalia.
Unlike its more interesting predecessors, Arcania: Gothic 4 is a commonplace action-RPG with boring quests, rudimentary controls, and dreary character development. All of these flaws make the game difficult to get emotionally involved in, which is the kiss of death for an epic RPG like this one that demands dozens of hours of commitment.