Great spellcasting in a fantasy game requires three things: a wide selection of spells to learn and employ, amazing effects that make your spells feel powerful and otherworldly, and a creative and varied system that allows for a spread of different playstyles. I think vanilla Skyrim does a decent job with spells—they look pretty cool for 2011, there’s a healthy amount of them, and you can combine them with stealth and steel to create the type of mage you want to play. But there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, and Arcanum: A New Age of Magic takes spellcasting to a higher plane of variety, power, and flexibility.
With this mod installed you’ll be summoning pillars of energy and tornadoes from the heavens, flinging tremendous and explosive fiery orbs and deadly electrical lances, and even pulling meteors down from outer space and smashing them down onto your hapless enemies. Thanks to Arcanum you’ll finally become a truly powerful spellcaster.
This isn’t one of those mods where you simply install it and open your inventory to find a whole bunch of new spell tomes ready to be used. Even with Arcanum downloaded you’ll still need to put in quite a lot of work to acquire the more than 100 new spells the mod introduces. Some spells you can buy from the usual magic vendors scattered around Skyrim—though it may require repeat visits if they don’t have them in stock. Other spells are tied into custom quests and require defeating some tough bosses added by the mod. And there are also spells you’ll need to create by hand at new magical crafting stations that now appear throughout the world. This drawn-out process of slowly acquiring your new powers makes Arcanum a great mod if you’re starting a brand new playthrough of Skyrim—though it’s still a good pick for characters with a few dozen hours under their belt too.
What’s really interesting about the Arcanum mod is the different ways the elements of fire, ice, and electricity differ from each other. In vanilla Skyrim there’s really not all that much difference between a fireball, a shock spell, or a blast of cold, but in Arcanum there’s far more going on than just flames burning things and ice freezing things—the elements actually comprise wholly different styles of attack.
The fire spells, for instance, are meant as a fast, repeated, almost spammy attack. The magicka cost and casting time of fire spells are typically low, as you’re meant to use them in rapid succession. In fact it’s in your best interest to cast them as fast and often as you can while in combat. For instance one spell called Cauterize summons a fireball that does 50 points of damage to an opponent, but then begins to heal them for 100 points over the next few seconds. So if you’re not quick enough to pummel them with another few rounds of Cauterize, you’ll wind up facing a revitalised enemy. If you use it, you have to be quick and unrelenting. Some fire spells even stack buffs on you with each use, encouraging and rewarding you for a mass of rapid-fire attacks.
Ice magic, meanwhile, is more of a way to slow down, weaken, and debuff your enemies in groups with area effects that can soften them up for other, more focused attacks. These spells can’t be used in the same spammy fashion as fire due to a higher magicka drain, but they can provide debuffs for frost resistance—which is incredibly helpful since so many durable northern Skyrim enemies shrug off frost damage.
Shock spells are great for doing large amounts of damage, but they cost a lot to cast and are typically more focused than AOE frost spells. Chaining electrical attacks is a big theme, with certain spells requiring activation by precursor spells. Plus there’s sometimes the ability to increase the damage of your shock spells by sacrificing your own health in exchange. It’s a risky move, depending on who or what you’re fighting, but damaging yourself can pay off in the extra damage you’ll deal to your foes.
It’s a great system and works whether you want to focus on a single discipline—fire, ice, or shock—or take a handful of spells from each and use them alongside each other. If you drain your own health with shock spells to do more damage, the fire discipline includes healing spells you can use to offset the loss of your hit points. If you’re having trouble targeting enemies with focused fire or shock blasts, summon a whirlwind of ice and snow to keep your enemies in place while you snipe them. It’s fun to experiment with how you can make all three disciplines work together through various combinations of spells.
But there’s also enough variety within each discipline that if you focus only on one you’ll still have a lot of options to play with. And it’s not just about raw power: the spells are interesting and creatively designed too. A fire spell called Warmth summons a hovering ball of flames that heals everyone within a 15 foot radius. That’s helpful for you and your companions when you’re in a battle, sort of forming a magical healing station. But if your enemies wander into range, they’ll be healed too. It’s a nice touch that the spell has both pros and cons to casting it.
Meanwhile a fun shock spell called Eye of the Storm creates a ball of energy over an enemy’s head, which will follow him around, delivering intermittent lightning bolts directly into his dome. One ice spell lets you fling frozen spears at your enemies, dealing health and stamina damage. But more importantly each successful hit feeds you back a bit of magicka making it an effective attack if you’re on the ropes and out of magicka-restoring potions.
Arcanum’s spellcasting effects are fantastic, too. A fire spell called Sol Invictus lets you fling a sun the size of a small house into combat, which does massive amounts of damage and even more when it finally explodes in a huge burst of flames. It’s almost startling to see this type of power on display, even though you’re the one casting it. A tempest spell summons a darkly beautiful and violently swirling tornado that can keep an angry giant at bay while you slam him with focused attacks, or pull groups of scattered bandits together so you can cast AOE attacks on them. Calling down pillars of energy from the sky or setting the landscape on fire with an explosion makes you feel otherworldly in a way vanilla Skyrim’s spells never came close to.
Much as I love Skyrim, there were a few features of its predecessor, Oblivion, that I really miss. First, at the risk of taking major amounts of scorn, was the speech minigame. I know, it was ridiculous having to spin a little wheel as you admired, boasted, joked, and threatened your target, but I liked it. But the main thing I miss was Oblivion’s spellcrafting system. Nothing really makes you feel more like a wizard than hunching over a table and crafting your own unique spells.
Arcanum doesn’t quite restore this missing feature to Skyrim, but it does have a lovely new table to lean thoughtfully over, the Arcane Escritoire. You can craft loads of new spells with it, though you don’t get to customise attributes like duration, area of effect, and damage. Still, it’s spellcrafting, so it’s definitely welcome here, and it gives you access to new powers as you make your way through Skryim’s campaign, slowly gathering the extra tomes and resources needed to craft them.
Arcanum makes use of Skyrim’s expansions as well (and you’ll need to own them), sending you on quests into the areas added by the Dawnguard and Dragonborn DLC to take on powerful bosses, like a massive dragon, a towering frost giant, and an incredibly powerful mage. Defeating these bosses will give you access to Arcanum’s ancient invocation abilities, extremely powerful spells that require multiple steps to cast and do tremendous amounts of damage.
For magic users looking for a load of exciting new spells and effects, and who are willing to put in the work to acquire them, Arcanum might be exactly what you’re looking for. The mod is a work in progress too—it’s still being updated and the modder plans to potentially add over 300 spells in total.
That’s a lot of new magic to learn, so you’d better get started. You can find Arcanum: A New Age of Magic at Nexusmods.com.