Arx Fatalis


Review by · December 13, 2003

RPG-starved Xbox fans have cause to rejoice-or at least get excited-with the release of Arx Fatalis.

If asked to describe Arx in a single word, I’d inevitably go with solid. This port of a PC RPG from last year doesn’t do much of anything we haven’t seen before, but everything it attempts to do, it does well. If you liked Morrowind, odds are you’re going to enjoy Arx Fatalis.

When the game opens, players find themselves in a goblin dungeon with no clue as to who they are or what they’re supposed to be doing. This is just the first time the game’s narrative will cross over into RPG cliché land, but don’t let that turn you off.

Instead of having a major goal in the early going, Arx Fatalis engages players in much smaller objectives-escaping the prison, finding better equipment, scoring a birthday present for a troll, etc. All of this serves the purpose of allowing gamers to get accustomed to the game’s mechanics-and once this is done, the real story begins.

The world of Arx is one bathed in darkness. The sun has gone out, forcing man, goblin, rat-men, and everyone else to move beneath the surface of the planet in order to avoid the bitter chill of the sunless world above. Unfortunately, all this living in close quarters has strained relations to the breaking point between the various races. And, if that weren’t bad enough, it appears as though an ancient and insidious evil has re-awakened-one that threatens the existence of everyone.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and if you’re playing the game, you’re already onboard) is to discover your real identity and hopefully restore the land of Arx to its former glory. Again, it’s not something RPG players haven’t done a million times before…

What makes this repetitive and clichéd storyline endurable is the gameplay. At first glance, Arx Fatalis doesn’t look a whole lot different from other PC RPGs. In fact, it’s got a first person perspective, lots of weapons and items to find, sub-quests to work through, and dungeons to explore. However, like in so many other areas, it’s the little things that really set Arx Fatalis apart from many of its counterparts.

While the game is essentially one giant dungeon crawl (the game’s world is almost entirely underground), the variety of locales keeps things fresh. It would seem there are only so many ways one can portray a cave or cavern, but the developers here have worked overtime to keep things as visually interesting as possible. Because of this, the underground locale never wears out its welcome-which was a major concern of mine early on.

It’s unfortunate then, that the rest of the graphics are pretty ho-hum. Arx Fatalis is definitely not testing “the power of X” in the visual flair department. Characters are blocky and sort of ugly with some stiff animations and weird game-like mannerisms.

The main character of the game doesn’t fare much better-but you don’t see him too often. Since this is a first-person game, about the only time you’re likely to see your onscreen avatar is during cutscenes. However, with only a few different options for faces, there’s not much in the way of customization.

This makes it a good thing that the character itself can be customized in a lot of different ways in terms of stats. There are four core character traits: strength, dexterity, intelligence, and constitution. There are also various skills that are subsets that can be leveled to mold the main character to fit the gamer’s playing style. When a player levels up, they get to advance one of the four core characteristics, and receive points that can be allotted to various skills. Because of this, players can have a fairly different experience in the game world-you can make a barbarian-like tank character, a stealthy thief, a spell-flinging wizard, or any combination of the above. Granted, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking set-up, but it’s implemented into the game world in an effective way.

Combat is very similar to Morrowind, in that holding the trigger for longer periods of time unleashes stronger attacks, and moving the sticks can make for slashes, thrusts, and so on.

What’s unique is the game’s magic system. To learn spells, players must find runes and then combine them to make magic. Casting a spell means the player must use the analogue stick to “draw” the lines on the runes. Doing so correctly will cause the spell to be cast-screw up, and it’s back to square one.

This is an interesting dynamic that keeps players involved in the game. Don’t fear, though-your most-used spells can be slotted on the controller so you don’t have to draw them each and every time in the heat of battle. And, if the whole drawing thing is too much for you, there’s an option to turn that feature off. Using it means you’re missing out on one of the game’s coolest elements, though.

The game controls well, particularly for a game making the jump from the PC (with a keyboard) to the Xbox controller. While I’m sure the keyboard offers a more convenient experience, the Xbox controller handles the game’s main functions without any major problems.

About the only place where the game really falters is in the sound and music arena. I played a pre-release review copy of the title, so I’m hesitant to grade this category too harshly (because, with the numerous delays this title has endured, I’m guessing they may have spent some time working on the sound quality in the retail version), but it does bear at least some discussion.

The ambient noise is great, and what little music there is in the game is also impressive. It’s the game’s spoken dialogue that seems to suffer. First off, players tend to talk over one another. For example, when entering a bar in the early part of the game, I couldn’t tell what the person I was trying to talk to was saying because three other people were trying to talk to me at the same time. Factor that in with fact that a lot of the audio has a weird echo effect (like everyone’s talking to me on a cell phone from the bottom of my toilet) and the problem only gets worse. You’ll adjust to it over time, but it’s definitely something that I hope has been addressed for the retail release.

Arx Fatalis doesn’t do much of anything RPG fans haven’t seen countless times before-but it does everything we’ve seen time and again well. Because of that, and because the Xbox RPG library is so pathetically small, I’m certainly inclined to give this game a hearty recommendation. If you’ve played through Knights of the Old Republic, and you dug Morrowind, then Arx should bring you hours of enjoyment. Don’t expect to be blown away, but do anticipate being entertained.

Overall Score 85
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Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2016-2018. During his tenure, Mike bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs. After leaving RPGFan, he has spent many years as a film critic, often specializing in horror and related genres.