Arx Fatalis has created a buzz for over a year prior to its release. After the European release the excitement has all but died out, which usually means bad news for a game. This is why I was a little worried when Arx Fatalis hit the shelves in the US three months later. The fact that the game was the first release of an unknown developer (Arcane Studios) whose key designers had not been credited with ever designing a game didn't give me much hope. To make my expectations sink even lower; Arx Fatalis’ Austrian publisher, JoWooD, is better known for various tycoon games (such as the Industry Giant series) than role-playing games. I am very happy to report that I my worries were unfounded: out of the three major first-person role-playing releases this year, Arx Fatalis alone manages to dethrone The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind as the best of breed.
The game takes place in Arx, a kingdom deep underground. The sun has burned out. Humans, with the aid of other races (ranging from goblins and trolls to the mysterious snake women) have found a new home closer to the planet's warm core. While this undertaking unites all races, time passes and they start to drift away once again. In their squabbles they ignore the increased frequency of earthquakes, which may mean only one thing: the Chaos God is about to return. You wake up in a cell, with complete amnesia. The rest, as they say, is history...
Arx Fatalis is a first-person role-playing game. In the beginning, you create a character and assign him the relative strengths in different areas. There are four primary statistics: strength, intelligence, dexterity and constitution. All these stats affect one or more of the secondary skills in a certain way. These skills include close and ranged combat, casting, sneaking and more; altogether nine skills. You will be able to improve both primary and secondary skills in the beginning, and to a lesser degree every time you gain a level. Once you set out adventuring, the world will be viewed as if through your eyes. You will be able to pick up and combine items, converse with others, or fight them.
Sometimes others will attack you straight away, sometimes they will be friendly to you. In addition to fighting you will be able to sneak around and cast spells. The game features a rarely used spell-casting system, in which you have to draw spell symbols with your hand. Whenever you finish a quest or kill somebody you will gain experience points, and once you reach a certain threshold you will be able to improve your skills.
Gameplay - overview
All of action takes place in an eight-level dungeon. This dungeon includes several cities, temples, caverns and a multitude of enemies. While the story is relatively linear, the dungeon isn't. Each level has multiple sections, many of which are accessible only from other levels. Despite this enormous labyrinth; Arx Fatalis is one of the most linear role-playing games ever. This is not a disadvantage, though. In fact, there's nothing better that could have happened to this game than being very linear. Let's face it: some games give the player a lot of freedom, but also add a certain level of boredom. Within a few days of playing, the gamer starts loosing interest. His character is strong enough to take on most of the opponents, there's very little left to do save for a few quests that are more tedious than challenging, and often there are not enough clues left to tell the character how to proceed. In better games (such as Wizardry 8 or Morrowind) the gamer will run into tougher random monsters which serve to keep the challenge up, but which still get progressively easier over time. In a more linear game (if executed properly) the player will know what to do, will enjoy a more coherent storyline and will always face tough enough opponents to keep his interest going.
This is exactly what happens in Arx Fatalis, which is more tightly controlled by the developer than any other role-playing game I’ve ever played. The control borders with that of an adventure game, but is so superbly executed that you will barely notice it. Only in hindsight will you realize how linear the game was, how few side quests there were and how little you could actually explore before having to unlock another part of the dungeon by finishing certain quests. Over the course of the game, you will meet progressively stronger opponents, but always maintain a thin edge, which will allow you to defeat them if you try hard enough. This control extends far beyond the gaming environment, including your character as well. While you will be in charge of forming your character, you will be limited with only eight to ten (the extreme case, achieved only by few) advancement levels. With a relatively limited number of skills and a very limited number of advancements, there is only so much you can do to improve your character, and the developers have covered all alternatives. The resulting effect is that no matter how you build up your character - whether you create a strong warrior, mage or thief - you will always be able to advance throughout the game, but never get bored because of a lack of challenge.
The last aspect in this tightly controlled environment is the meticulous attention to detail. Each of your actions will change the game world somehow, and those effects are almost always visible. In one scene, for example, you will come across a ransacked fort with pieces of dead bodies everywhere, one defender even impaled on a pole. Once you get new soldiers to the fort and revisit it, you will see that all the body parts have disappeared and the fort has been tidied up. Even the small vegetable garden has been tended and now offers more food. However, that is not all. Very soon, you will notice that there is a lot of talking going on in the game. People talk among each other, so do goblins and other creatures. Sometimes it is simply fun to stand still and listen. You will be able to catch the latest rumors, judge the attitude of other races towards humans, and more. The attention to detail is almost uncanny and greatly increases the authenticity of the game. However, this tight control has one weak point. As it is often the case in adventure games, there are many spots that allow you to do something stupid. This may increase the authenticity of the game, but it also frustrates the player.
Sometimes, you will be presented with several avenues of action; however, choosing the wrong one may make the game too hard to be enjoyable. For example, in one part, you will need the goblin king to allow you to do something in his domain. The proper avenue of action would be to get him to the bathroom where you can talk to him undisturbed. It is also possible to poison the king, and by doing so the relatively straightforward adventure sequence turns into an all-out slaughter of a whole goblin town.
There's no such thing as a perfect game, Arx Fatalis is no exception. As it is often the case in other games, the interface is the weakest point. While the game adopts a keyboard layout that is standard with first-person games, this is not a shooter, and things like magic and inventory management play a major role here. The magic system was implemented rather well, but the inventory control really hurts the game. At the beginning, you will have relatively little space in your inventory. Considering the fact that the distances in Arx Fatalis are rather small, returning for items that didn't fit into your inventory is not a real problem, especially because before you get too deep into the game your inventory expands.
However, the handling of your items is a different story. Normally, you will be in an exploration mode, where the mouse cursor is locked in the middle of the screen and moving it will turn the head of your character. You will move back and forth and sideways using the keyboard. Once you switch to the inventory mode, however, the mouse cursor will become independent and you will be able to move around only with arrow keys. This should not be a problem; I personally prefer an all-keyboard interface, but in this game, the movement through arrow keys is very limited. The sensitivity is so low that turning around tight corners is almost impossible, and fighting is not even possible. This will force you switch back and forth all the time, and since time moves when you are in the inventory mode; sometimes you will be very unpleasantly surprised and promptly killed before being able to close your inventory. Another problem is closely related to the tight story. You will not be able to choose topics to talk about with the people you meet. Instead, whenever you meet somebody important, the game switches to a cut scene, where you can only sit back and listen. This was the only time that I realized how much I was controlled by the developers in this game.
Players will soon notice another problem: the lack of various weapons and armor. In fact, there is so little to choose from that those who are accustomed to trade for better equipment often will be sorely disappointed. Halfway through the game I have had the best equipment money could buy, a lot of extra money, and was only able to find better equipment while adventuring. This makes magic much more important and somewhat limits the other character classes. The last interface issue I've had problems with is food. In order to make the story more realistic, the designers have included food. After a while, your character will go hungry, and you will have to feed him. This is solved by a very unique approach: you will be able to fish, extract meat from killed animals or mix different products to make something tasty. Nearly everything will require fire to cook.
While this approach is very unique, the developers did not implement it properly. In the unpatched release of the game, your character will consume more food than a small nation, virtually every dozen of steps requiring another loaf of bread or apple cake. There is enough food in the gaming world, but feeding him will become very tedious. After the latest (v.1.15) patch, on the other hand, your character will eat much less, leaving a lot of food lying around. This defeats the idea of rationing, as feeding becomes more a nuisance than a challenge.
The magic system is unusual enough to have its own section in this review. Considering how successful it has been in this game, how much it helped the overall gameplay, maybe in the future the designers will use it more often. In Arx Fatalis, you will collect different symbols, runes, which you will be able to combine into spells. To cast a spell, you will have to draw the appropriate symbols with your hand in the air. If executed properly, the spell will be cast. Many reviews have accused the designers of copying the magic system from Black & White. While the interface may be the same, the idea behind it has been entirely different and has much deeper roots.
In Black & White, this magic interface was included for the sake of novelty, whereas in Arx Fatalis the interface greatly enhances the authentic feeling and level of realism of the game. Casting spells now requires a certain degree of concentration from the player, and time to complete, both of which seem much more realistic than simply clicking on the appropriate spell in a book or hitting a shortcut key. This spell casting system was first implemented in 1989 in the legendary game Dungeon Master. There, too, you had a set of runes (all meaning something different) and combining them has allowed you to cast spells. If you ever played the game and still remember how you frantically clicked on different runes in order to complete the spell while dodging attacks, this feeling is back. Arx Fatalis has brought Dungeon Master's magic system to perfection. Casting the spells this way has two more effects.
First, there are many undocumented spells that you will be able to cast by combining the runes. It only depends on the imagination of the player to explore different possibilities, all of which the designers covered. Second, this system of magic allows for many easter eggs. The designers included a multitude of "secret" runes, which have some interesting effects. My favorite one will change the graphics to those of Ultima Underworld, the spiritual predecessor of Arx Fatalis.
There are two issues at play here: One is a very unique AI scripting, which will please all action game fans. The other is the difficulty level of puzzles, which has gotten me (and other old school gamers) into a state of absolute ecstasy. As soon as you fight the first enemy, you will notice a few peculiar things. Your opponent will try to blindside you, and when injured too much he will run away and call for help. Often, the help materializes in the form of tougher thugs, with your previous victim hiding behind their back. This causes more trouble for you, but also adds a whole new level of realism, never before seen in a role-playing game.
Puzzles are a different story. With the rare exception of one or two puzzles, all are very logical and most are quite hard. The puzzles range from simple lever switches, through devious code cracking, to some rather unique ones, such as navigating other characters to stand on pressure plates for you. None of these puzzles is terribly original, but only very few were ever used in the past seven to ten years, so most players will find them rather unusual. The publisher boasts a gameplay of up to 100 hours. I am willing to believe it, mainly because of the high difficulty level of the puzzles. However, people like me, who enjoyed role-playing games since mid 80s, will have such an easy time that they will shave off up to 40 hours from the projected gameplay time.
Along with the interface, technical issues hurt this game. The worst problem may be very high hardware requirements. Consider that the game takes place underground, offers no separate engine for cutscenes and has not the best graphics around. The hardware requirements (which are higher than those for Morrowind) should not be necessary. On my home computer, a PIII - 750MHz with 256MB RAM, the game resembled a slide show on any but the minimal graphical resolution. Trying progressively better computers, the first one where the game looked good (1024x768 resolution, 32-bit color) was a Pentium IV - 1.4GHz with 512MB RAM. The likely buyers for this game will generally be behind the upgrade curve, mainly due to the fact that this kind of RPGs has been scarce in recent years.
Thus, many of the game's target audience will not be able to enjoy Arx Fatalis the way they should. Other technical problems include very long loading times between levels, relatively frequent crashes and occasionally even corrupted save games. Considering the game was released in Europe three months prior to the US release, I first assumed that all bugs were fixed. Much to my surprise, however, the US version went into print only days before a major patch release. Currently, there are two patches available, but without an in-game automatic update (for those connected to the Internet) and due to the considerable size of those patches (for those of us who aren't), fixing the game is cumbersome. The technical problems, however, are in great part offset by the unprecedented level of technical support you will be receiving. Members of the development team are constantly scanning the official Arx Fatalis message board and offer help. They go even farther: when the player cannot solve the problem, the developers may ask him to send them his saved game, and they fix the problem for him. Such a deep caring for a game is very rare these days, and I appreciate it very much.
Gameplay - 7
Overall, Arx Fatalis features the best concept for a game that I have seen in a long time. It successfully merges features from many classic games, most notably Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld and Thief, to create a very authentic world and a truly engrossing adventure. However, the weak interface and serious technological issues hurt this game considerably.
Graphics - 8
As you explore the world of Arx Fatalis in high resolution, you will be taken aback by the environment. "Lavish" doesn't even come close to describing the graphics. Textures are very detailed, and have more depth that I have seen since the time of Amiga games. I often tried to catch the game at repeating textures, but could not. Most levels have their own theme, very well implemented, ranging from medieval towns, crypts, tunnels and lava lakes. The graphics are so incredibly detailed that even stone steps are slightly slanted towards the middle, as if worn down by decades-old use.
The main problem is the character models, especially humans. They are blocky, and far removed from the organic curves of the walls, clearly not belonging to the setting. It is most apparent during cut scenes, which feature in-game graphics and simply rotate the camera around the people in conversation. This is the only time you will see your character in a third-person perspective and you will notice in a few close-ups that his face closely resembles that of Kyle’s brother, Ike, in South Park: when talking, your character's mouth splits his head into two. This should simply not happen by the end of 2002... I have also noticed another minor problem with the graphics: apparently, they work in layers, and sometimes don't load fully when entering a new level. Even on the fastest computer I tested the game on (P-IV 2GHz, 512MB RAM), atmospheric effects sometimes kicked in with a considerable delay. For example, in the crypt level, (which is supposed to be filled with thick, green-gray fog) the fog appeared occasionally only after I was halfway through the level.
Sound - 10
The game has by far the best directional sound I have ever heard in a game. For a first-person role-playing game, it is extremely important to know whether there is someone behind you, whether a door opened or closed nearby or whether there is an ambush waiting behind the next corner. You will be always aware of those things in Arx Fatalis. If you have ever considered getting surround speakers, this is the time to do so. Voiceovers are also extremely well done, giving a lot of personality to all the characters.
Not only that - each race has its own manner of speaking, and you will soon fall in love even with goblins and their contempt for humans. Sometimes, the voiceovers go a little too far. The goblins are a little cartoonish, which is most apparent in a scene where you follow a trail of coins that lead to a chest, you hear a goblin voice warning others that a "stupid human approaches". The first time I was ambushed here I was laughing so hard at this cheesy trap that I got killed without a fight. There is not much music in the game, which is the way I like it. The tunes are pushed into the background, with the exception of the throne room that features a musician, who plays awful music. That, too, adds to the authenticity of the game.
Replay value - 9
At $40 and 60-100 hours of gameplay, the game is way cheaper than its fair value. While you cannot get as many different characters as in other games (most notably Morrowind), the game is very well balanced and will allow you to successfully finish with all three major classes - a warrior, a mage and a thief. Expect to play the game at least twice when you get it, and numerous more times in the next decade or two. This game is clearly heading to a cult status, and will remain on people's hard drives for a long time.
However, it is very important to note that this game will appeal to only a limited audience. People who never or only occasionally play other role-playing games will get frustrated and shelve the game within hours. Even people who are good with other role-playing games, such as Morrowind or Might and Magic IX may find this game too difficult and unforgiving to enjoy it. If you are one of those who enjoyed Wizardry 8 and other classic role-playing games before it, you will find Arx Fatalis just challenging enough and not frustrating.
Overall - 8.5
Arx Fatalis is the best old school role-playing game I have had the honor to play this century. With its very tight storyline, great combination of features from several older games, challenging but not frustrating puzzles, good graphics and awesome sound: this game beats even Wizardry 8 in its peer group. While technical problems and weak interface take away some of the enjoyment, the game is still very absorbing to people who’ve played role-playing games since the 1980s. However, Arx Fatalis will not appeal to the majority of other players, who may find it overly frustrating. Even so, Arx Fatalis is a worthy successor of Ultima Underworld, Dungeon Master and other great classic dungeon romps.