By the release of Gothic 3, the Gothic series had become synonymous with hardcore – more precisely, hardcore computer role-playing game (CRPG). When most developers were adopting a more Japanese-centric design philosophy of a story-driven adventure with forced character advancement, developer Piranha Bytes (now Pluto 13 GmbH) went the other route with an open, tough-as-nails quest with real-time combat and flexible character advancement set within an open and interactive world. Six years of releases saw the series become increasingly buggy but also more ambitious, with the game worlds becoming larger, character factions becoming more developed, and player actions expanding. After a falling out with long-time publishing partner JoWooD, Piranha Bytes left the Gothic series behind for Risen, and JoWooD, the license holder, forged onwards with Spellbound Entertainment at the helm for the next installment, Arcania – Gothic 4. Piranha Bytes is sorely missed.
Several years have passed since Gothic 3, and you, having become king, are actually the problem. Well, the 2008 you. In 2010, you are a and known as Shepherd, a young man who started his day trying to win the favor of his sweetheart's father and ended it by seeking out the king who had led the land and his people to ruin. It's an interesting twist, having the Nameless Hero from the series turn on the player, and long-time fans will no doubt get a kick out of tracking themselves down and running into old friends. Beyond the names of a few people and places, though, this isn't the Gothic that they remember – or one that they would want.
I think the best way for me to quickly summarize how much the series has changed is to say that I didn't die for the first time until around nine hours into the game. To put that into perspective for series newcomers, I died within 10 minutes in Gothic II and within the first five in Gothic 3 (thanks to a ravenous wolf). All told, I died only three times in the 18-19 hours that it took me complete the main quest and a sizeable number of side quests on default difficulty. And the other two times were out of sheer frustration after I became lost in a poorly designed city and couldn't find my way to a quest marker; I jumped to my death from a balcony in search of a shortcut the first time, and the second was when a reckless, frustration-fueled run around the perimeter led to the creation of a zombie conga line – which promptly ate me. So the total amount of times that I died while in combat and playing the game as it should be is one. One death in the fourth release of a series that is renowned for its unforgiving difficulty. Something's definitely not right here.
Long-time fans will quickly find that much of what made Gothic has been stripped out or ground down to a stub. The faction and reputation system that had been slowly evolving since the initial release is gone. As a result, your actions feel distanced from the people and their ongoing struggles – as if you're not part of the world but merely visiting. Crafting now requires only a recipe and ingredients and can be done anywhere, anytime. Exploration and the feeling of discovery and excitement has largely been dampened by a world filled with invisible barriers – some are glitches, some intentional – and a last act largely taking place on very narrow paths. Actions in general have been restricted to quest-specific or animal and monster encounters, with non-playable characters off-limits unless they start a fight. Similarly, dialog options have been whittled down to either continuing a conversation or maybe asking an optional question, with any sort of personality being restricted to a mere handful of exchanges. The game also suffers from the same technical problems that have plagued other CRPG titles that have made the move to consoles in recent years (Divinity II, Two Worlds).
The core elements of what make CRPGs so enjoyable and addictive are here, so there will still be plenty of ingredients to gather, loot to plunder, and hidden paths to explore. It's during those moments when Arcania is being what it should be, an immersive quest filled with combat and discovery, that its heritage and potential shines through. Taking cover inside a rundown shack while a storm passes, trying to avoid the creepily awesome land sharks during low visibility, and rummaging through its disheveled interior encapsulates the lone adventure experience perfectly – there's a living world with a history that you're a part of and participating in. But those moments aren't frequent enough, and the veneer doesn't hold up once challenged, but they are definitely moments non-PC gamers don't get enough of.
The upgrade system also has its perks, being free from any sort of class restrictions. If you want to be a fighter, then you can pump however many of the three points earned when leveling up into Mettle, Discipline, and Vigor. If you want to be a ranger, then there's Stealth and Precision, or one of the three elemental classes for mages (Zeal for fire, Serenity for ice, and Dominance for electricity). Each set is composed of a series of single-point blocks that both represent an upgrade (e.g., Health 4%-5%) and progress towards unlocking new moves, abilities, and spells. The moves aren't always of the triggered type either, as experience in Precision will lead to a faster and steadier aim with the bow. It's easy to slowly adjust your upgrade path to create the desired character, which will often be more of a hybrid than a traditional class – Warrior Rangers and the like. The 360 controller also handles the combat and navigation fairly well, thanks to decent responsiveness and several hotkeys. So the core experience is there, and while it definitely has its moments, there's not near enough to make up for what's been lost or, especially for those who view some of the cuts as necessary streamlining, the numerous glitches and bugs.
Arcania is rife with problems, though fortunately few are actual show-stoppers. Aside from the game freezing a few times during boot, the vast majority of technical glitches were in the form of eyesores and uneven performance. It wasn't uncommon to become stuck on invisible objects, have enemies go into walls during combat, and for an entire area's details to suddenly come into view. In fact, on one path, every shadow in my line of sight would disappear and reappear with every third or fourth step. Getting too close to a corner or angling the camera too low would result in the ground polygons disappearing, leaving anything from caverns to an ocean in its place for a few seconds. There were some more exotic problems as well, including about 10 minutes where my view stuck at a side angle while the camera was centered my character, which left me unable to see anything but my character's shoulder and a few feet to the right. There was another stranger, more persistent problem in which a certain non-playable character would trigger a teleport to an above-ground location, regardless of whether we were underground or above a few blocks away. Unfortunately, performance issues and glitches aren't uncommon when CRPGs are ported to consoles, but even those with a more forgiving temperament will still have to face some irritating design hang-ups.
One of Arcania's biggest problems is that its quests are almost uniformly annoying. They are almost all fetch quests, but not just any fetch quests; they are some form of super nested fetch quests. You never just have to do one thing for one person. No, you have to do something for another and another before getting back to the original task. And then, when you finally collect those 10 livers for someone, they want you to return them. By the end of the game, I would shift in my seat every time I went to talk to someone because I knew it meant running around somewhere to collect something. And it's not that fetch quests in themselves are bad, since most games utilize them at some point, but it's that they are only worthwhile when they are presented and designed to be more than what they are - errands. Here, they are simply you going into yet another dungeon or part of a forest to get a book, a case, a bag, a statue, a scroll, and then to have to do another favor in order to complete a simple assignment. It gets so bad that your character actually begins to become annoyed towards the end, increasingly mentioning how he has to do yet another favor and go get yet another item during conversations. But if the designers realized that the string of errands weren't fun, and are sufficiently annoying enough for the hero to vocalize his frustrations, then why are they there? If the hero is annoyed and I am controlling the hero, then what state am I supposed to be in? Instead, you get the impression that they know the quests aren't very good and are letting you know they know, just to do it.
I could overlook the brain-dead AI that spams their charge attacks at an alarming rate, poor script, eerily similar character models, ridiculous easy end fight, and questionable voice acting if only I wasn't made to feel like a prodded pack mule.
Arcania – Gothic 4 suffers from many problems, the least of which is that it doesn't come across in any way like a Gothic title. Save for a few characters and references, long-time fans of the series would have no idea they were playing the latest entry in an expansive CRPG series known for its difficulty and world interaction. With so many elements streamlined (crafting) or removed (factions), what's left is a lot of tedious nested fetch quests that will try your patience as much as it offers any adventure. Arcadia has the core elements of what makes CRPGs so exciting and addictive – discovery, pliable character advancement, and world interaction – they're just watered down and shoehorned in a rudimentary, repetitive design.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)