Arcanum was the first game from Troika Games, a studio formed by developers of Fallout. It too is an isometric RPG, but this time set in a fantasy world. What sets it apart from a million other fantasy RPGs was that this fantasy world wasn’t stuck in a medieval setting, but was experiencing an industrial revolution. That’s an interesting concept, and the fact that it was doing this years before the “steampunk” aesthetic both became a thing and became a thing everyone was sick of, made it fresh and exciting.
In Arcanum, you can take a path of magic or technology, but each one has negative effects on the other. The more tech you have, the less magic you’ll be able to use, and vice-versa. Balancing the two didn’t work particularly well, so you’d eventually have to commit one way or another. In addition, the game was non-linear and full of side quests with multiple solutions, so your playing experience was largely up to you. You could construct technology items from seeming junk, which was cool. The game had a lot of offer.
Sadly, it’s also a disaster. There’s a lot in it, but little of it works very well. Should you take the magic route, there are loads of magic spells to choose from, but you’ll never need more than three of them. One of the first combat spells you get will easily carry you through the rest of the game. If you go the technology route, it won’t be long before nothing stands in your way; it’s just plain better than the magic route.
The NPCs continued the fine tradition of NPCs being useless except for carrying items around. In Arcanum, casting spells can fatigue a character, and if you cast too many, you’ll eventually pass out. One of the first NPCs you meet has healing magic, and he’ll bombard you with it as you take incredibly minor damage until he drops unconscious.
I can tell you many people who fondly remember Arcanum and very very few who remember any details at all about the story. It was also very prone to bugs.
Basically, Arcanum was a great idea that needed a lot more polish. While it’s not unplayable or unenjoyable, what it delivers is a tiny fraction of what it seems to promise. It’s probably better known for some of the ideas it brought to RPGs instead of how it implemented those ideas.