Arcania: A Gothic Tale
I've got no problem with one-dimensional games so long as they are up-front about it. Painkiller doesn't pretend to have a deep morality tale under its demon-eviscerating surface. Hell, Mario makes no bones about being anything more than a game about running and jumping on things. Arcania: Gothic 4, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to convince you that it's got a storyline and characters and everything. It doesn't. It barely holds together as a loot-collecting exploration vehicle. Diving past Arcania's surface in search of anything beyond these facile diversions quickly reveals the façade as a paper-thin lie.
It's not impossible to have a good time with Arcania. The world is gorgeous, with real-time shadows cast by the sun passing overhead and hidden secrets waiting to be discovered in hundreds of hand-crafted nooks and crannies. Decrepit watchtowers keep drunken watch over the crashing tides. Trees shiver and toss in anticipation of coming storms, which crash down with thunderous fury when they finally materialize. Terrible beasts lurk in the tall grass of algae-drenched swamps, ready to swarm anyone caught alone in their sodden domain. Dozens of touches like this give Arcania's world a convincing illusion of life, and lend a pure joy to exploring it.
Defending yourself against the threats that blanket the land is trivially easy much of the time, to the point where any experienced RPG player should start out on Hard or even Gothic difficulty. Swordplay has an easy flow to it, with simple timing-based combos and evasive rolls giving skilled players enough to do without requiring Devil May Cry levels of precision or depth. Switching between magic, melee, and ranged attacks is unfortunately clunky, though, which limits the possibilities of exploring unusual hybrid builds for your hero.
Placing the skill points you gain as you level is one of just two avenues of customizing your avatar, and neither it nor the equipment game has enough meat to hold my interest. A mere eight skill tracks offer very little choice in picking skills, especially considering that the three melee skills all impact your play very similarly, as do the three magic skills. The single skill track devoted to ranged combat gives lame passive bonuses and eventually, at very high levels, unlocks extra damage for headshots. Lame. The sneaking track offers no effective utility beyond letting you ambush one enemy for bonus damage, as there are almost no alternate solutions to obstacles – no luring patrolling guards into traps, no slipping undetected into dungeons to free your friends. Just about every situation has one solution: go somewhere, smash a dude in the face until he drops his loot/gives you the information you want/opens the door.
Which brings us to the storyline, characters, and dialogue. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The less spoken about these elements the better. The writing is sophomoric. The NPCs are by turns eye-rolling stereotypes and so bland they're hard to remember after exiting the dialogue. The plot…ugh. Everything about the role-playing part of the game is awful, save the main character's visibly growing frustration at having to navigate every RPG trope of the last twenty years just to get some revenge on the mad king who torched his hometown. I feel you, brother.
Arcania isn't what anyone thought Gothic 4 would be. It's a marginally competent action/RPG with all the depth of a kiddie pool, not the huge open-world role-playing epics the series was previously known for. At least it isn't afflicted by the plague of bugs that crippled Gothic 3 at release. I didn't hate my time with it, and it's by no means impossible to find some value here. Just know what you're getting into before taking the plunge.
[Programming note: The title of the game is indeed Arcania: Gothic 4; it was changed mid-development from Arcania: A Gothic Tale. Due to a technical issue in our web software, we are unable to change the game's page to reflect that. As soon as that is cleared up, we'll be sure to fix the title. In the meantime, please accept our apologies.]
Arcania goes to great lengths to convince you that it's got a storyline and characters and everything. It doesn't.