Four titles in, the Gothic series has worked hard to earn a legion of dedicated fans – mainly in Europe, but steadily growing in reputation worldwide. However, the series has never managed to attain either the sterling quality of direct competitors like the Elder Scrolls series, Neverwinter Nights or even Dragon Age: Origins. With that said, it does offer a solid, action-oriented RPG experience with an emphasis on evocative overworld design and loot by the chest-full. Arcania: Gothic IV tries so hard to tick all the right boxes, in fact, that it doesn't actually have a lot of unique personality – and the lack of polish ultimately holds Arcania: Gothic IV, like its predecessors, back.
Taking place ten years after the events of Gothic 3, a nameless hero once again sits at the center of a grand adventure in the divided realm of Myrtana. As the game opens, players get their first taste of the overhauled combat and defense systems, stepping into the role of the increasingly erratic King Rhobar III – rapidly losing touch with his people and, now in isolation, about to have a confrontation with demonic forces.
As this introductory dream sequence dissolves and we're introduced to the game-proper, we also get our first taste of the beautifully revamped and improved engine powering the game. Arcania: Gothic IV's engine is a surprisingly capable and flexible beast, streaming the world (almost) seamlessly. Transitions from sprawling castle towns to rolling countryside and into caves and dungeons is a smooth and natural process. The only load screens you'll see occur when teleporting or just after one of the CG cinematic sequences. Pretty fair.
Vision Engine 7 – the middleware powering Gothic IV – does have some limitations however. On the Xbox 360 version, the engine cranks out organic textures, self-shadowing and dynamic lighting... at the expense of a smooth framerate. The game still runs moderately well, but choppiness is noticeable from the outset and rarely improves. The trade-off is probably fair; the game world is lovingly populated with details, and combat occasionally throws as many as half a dozen enemies at the player at once.
The character animation systems are also slick, with a decent sense of physicality. Unleashing a particularly devastating spell or delivering the killing blow often results in the foe cartwheeling out and away—which is infinitely satisfying. Character designs, however, leave something to be desired; the human inhabitants are decidedly generic – even downright unpleasant looking at times.
Gameplay, on the other hand, is really where your interests should ultimately lie. Being a role-playing game in the traditions of stats-based RPGs, storytelling and combat are the most important elements of a game like this—and Gothic IV is solid but noticeably unpolished on both fronts.
On consoles, the combat is handled primarily with the face buttons – and generally in real-time. The only real exception being that you can break into your inventory at any time by hitting start. This pauses the action, allowing you to buff yourself with potions and consumable items—a decision that arguably makes the game rather easy, given the staggering availability of potions and edible. The pace of the combat puts it more in line with a hack-and-slash adventure, not unlike something like Lionhead's Fable. The combo system can be steadily upgraded with skill points, too. Blocking and defensive rolling are also necessary tactical options – though, we found rolling to be far more handy in practice than raising your shield and still taking damage.
Taking a decidedly modern approach to menus on consoles, Gothic IV wisely opts for radial menus and toggles. The initial menu features your standard inventory at the default central position, and you simply swing and hold the cursor over your maps or quests field to select it. Very slick. The D-pad is your hotkey-equivalent, allowing two layers of four items, weapons and spells at your ready, while the left trigger locks onto the enemy closest to you. The right bumper is used to bring up your active spell selection, which can then be cast by pressing the same button again.
In practice – or in the heat of combat, toggling between the bumpers is a little cumbersome. This is made all the trickier given that the right bumper is also used to activate spells – so you're really juggling as many as four buttons in a row in order to swap from swordplay to spellcasting. In the same stroke though, the learning curve is gradual enough that you'll have the controls mastered inside of an hour – and plenty of restorative spells and potions to ease you into things along the way.
Complementing the combat and spellcasting system, which combines a handy auto-targeting system with great manual aiming provisions, are skill trees that really allow for character customization. While the skill trees are broken up into magic, archery and combat-oriented sub-categories, you're not locked into specializations. The downside of spending your accumulated skill points widely (rather than just in specific trees) is that you're only going to start hitting mid-level skill perks and upgrades as your experience points start to peak.
Extensive crafting and alchemy systems go some way towards filling in the skill gaps. Basically, even if you opt to focus on melee, making your nameless hero into an armor-clad megaknight, wielding health and defense-boosting tank-gear, you still unlock various alchemical and crafting abilities after the first few hours of play. The landscape is also utterly littered with ingredients and raw materials - to the point where, we feel, there's actually too much out there, making spellcrafting and potion-making a little too easy – and devaluing the spells themselves.
Similarly, loot drops appear to be leveled according to your own experience points – and we found weapon and armor drop quality to be a little higher than was probably needed for most encounters. This resulted in a lot of the reward weapons feeling kind of underpowered compared with the standard loot drops. Even the added stat-modifiers (your usual host of health, mana, stamina and strength modifiers) often don't compare with the random loot drops.
Taking cues from The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Arcania: Gothic IV tries its hand at populating the world with all manner of objects to interact with and, handily, steal. The problem with this is two-fold: a lack of moral code and repercussions for stealing anything that isn't nailed down means that you're never lacking items to resell or use. Secondly, it really takes away from the realism and immersion of the world. Walking into a store and simply looting their chests is baffling; there are no repercussions.
This lack of reaction is at odds with the progress the genre has made; games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls series have shown the importance and benefits (particularly for storytelling devices) that these kinds of moral choices can have. As a result, Arcania: Gothic IV feels overly simplistic – and even acerbic – at times.
This also extends to the storytelling. There are only a few real instances where quests deviate from the set 'fetch quest' mentality; you're given a few options on how to resolve quests—through head-on bloodshed or marginally deeper investigation – but never to the extent we've seen elsewhere – even years after Gothic 3. This slimmed-down approach likely stems from a smaller team and tighter budget, but when a game is tackling market leaders like these, it's still a bitter pill to swallow that such options simply aren't catered for.
There are a few modern elements that prove Arcania: Gothic IV's overall worth. The cave systems, checkpoints and gorgeously designed downs and hamlets are still a joy to wander through. The combat system has definitely improved in execution too – now leaning toward a Fable-like system of blocking, parrying, power blows and ranged combat. The overall simplification and improvement to this fundamental area cannot be understated: this is a solidly designed game, even if it's not progressive. Cute touches, like reactive AI characters complaining about rain spoiling their laundry during a thunderstorm, also charmed us.
The score takes cues from the strings and horn themes that have graced traditional fantasy RPGs for the last decade. It's well produced and mixed in nicely with the combat as you enter and leave the vicinity of an aggressor. The environmental audio did cut in and out on our console version, but the world itself – with thunderous waterfalls, windy meadows and thick forest paths – did feel pleasingly lush and alive. Again, good sound to complement a surprisingly rich and flexible engine.
Unfortunately, the non-English-speaking roots begin to strip back the polish on the storytelling, voice acting and, ultimately, our investment in the entire quest. The voice-acting swings wildly from 'acceptable-in-a-daytime-telemovie-kind-of-way' to 'lunch-lady-Doris-is-filling-out-the-cast-list–and-she-has-a-head-cold-and-cannot-read'. Truly, the acting is laughably awful at times. The mistranslations and awkward turns of phrase really stick out when compared to better localized efforts – and for a genre that relies so heavily on story to keep players hooked for a couple dozen hours, Arcania: Gothic IV loses points here.