Gone, thankfully, are the days when a role-playing game meant little more than a great leap of the imagination, a plot with trolls and gameplay along the lines of a special math paper. Arborea doesn't include any of the above elements, though there are orcs, black elves and shamnirs.
The setting for the game is the island of Arborea, all that's left of a world now underwater since an evil lord threw it into chaos. The reason Arborea remains is that it contains four crystals: Symbols of earth, sky, water and fire. If these can be restored to their sacred shrines then Mogroth, the Lord Of Chaos can be overcome and order restored.
You take the role of Jarel, last prince of the shamnirs in a race against the black elves who want to destroy the crystals forever.
The game begins in time-honoured fashion as you assemble a band of adventurers from a list of options. Three types: warriors, rangers and wizards are available to you, and you'd do well to put together a team which includes two of each. You then allocate points to the characters (a strong constitution for wizards, strength for warriors and plenty of agility for ranges is a good idea). If you don't want to go through this phase each time you can load an old team.
The way you use your team is essential to achieving any success in the game. Warriors are handy in a fight, and rangers make good scouts, but it's best to pair them up, especially since wizards have special powers that can blind, paralyse, fire lightning and balls of flame at enemies. Good men to have around in fight, and Arborea has plenty of combat - played out on a grid almost like a violent version of draughts.
The game is played using an overhead map representation and a 3D view of the island. It's best to begin by splitting up and heading groups off into various directions, the map will show you where they are at any time.
As Jarel you have the benefit of the 3D view of the island, and that's where Arborea really begins to come into its own as a game. Beautifully drawn, Arborea exists at once in your imagination with its forests and marshland - complete with sound effects - giving it a wild isolation that makes it at once beautiful and threatening.
The characters, too, are well drawn. Your own band appear together at the beginning, but it's the rhino-like orcs and the black elves who are the most effectively represented. As the game turns to night they loom out of the darkness with frightening impact. Jarel has night-vision which, when you shift to it, represents things in an effective infra-red.
As you wander round the island, the game begins to open out. There are 16,000 locations, and apart from the crystals, there are their shrines (each has its own, determined by its shape), houses and buildings to explore, objects to examine, all of which provide clues and puzzles essential to restoring order.
Arborea is an absorbing, atmospheric role playing game which uses the established parameters of the genre, yet still manages to be entertaining and original. The fact that every feature in the game randomises, means that you could play it for years and still enjoy the challenge.