This is the fourth game in the Gothic series of fantasy RPGs, but it's the first with new developers Spellbound at the helm. The new "Arcania" title is an attempt to signify a fresh start for the franchise, but there's nothing especially new about Gothic 4.
When the game begins, everyone is dangerously close to living happily ever after. In traditional Gothic style, you play as a nameless hero marked by destiny. He's just proposed to his true love and the happy couple are expecting a child when suddenly, and inevitably, disaster strikes and his idyllic village is razed by the troops of the evil King Rhobar.
With fiancée, family and friends dead, it's time for some revenge. Our man sets out on a mission to find a mystical forge hidden in the mountains, and to obtain the power to take down the mad monarch who wronged him. So begins a seamless adventure that has you travelling to every corner of the island, appeasing needy peasants, looting meandering dungeons and slaughtering boatloads of gibbering goblins.
Arcania's huge, wide-open areas offer a gorgeous, if utterly familiar, rendition of a traditional medieval fantasy world. Rolling farmlands hide dungeons packed with a variety of typical foes. Soggy wooden townships are populated by meadguzzling peasants, and every single one of them has an errand to run.
Mead is murder
You name it, somebody wants it doing. Arcania's inhabitants are some of the neediest I've ever encountered – thanks to some consistently awful voice acting, they're also some of the most irritating.
Arcania is at its best when you're in the wilderness, slaying foes and exploring the beautiful world. The fast and accessible combat system will be familiar to Gothic 3 players: left clicking unleashes melee strikes or magic bolts, while right clicking enables you to block or dodge. Enemies glow obligingly before unleashing their most powerful strikes, and survival depends heavily on getting out of the way and counter-attacking. There are a few disciplines to master, including melee combat, archery and magic, but I quickly fell into the rhythm of the old zap 'n' stab, an ultimately tiresome tactic that got me through every single fight. The slim offering of skills meant there was never sense that I was building my own character, simply opting in to one of several pre-designed combat styles.
Arcania's systems may be shallow, but I still became completely hooked. The game transitions effortlessly from open areas to claustrophobic dungeons, from mountain ranges to tightly packed towns. I fell easily into the rhythm of exploring, fighting off a mob, rounding the next corner and exploring some more. Arcania's greatest strength is its comforting sense of rhythm and its gorgeous, gradually unravelling world. The expert pacing had me rocketing through the 15 hours or so it took to complete the main quest.
Gothic veterans may be left cold by this uncomplicated outing for the series, but for those looking for a good old-fashioned fantasy romp, Arcania has its charms. It's predictable and shallow, with horrendous voice work, but if you go in expecting no surprises, there's some incredibly addictive adventuring to be had.