It’s always great to be pleasantly surprised with a game. Arx Fatalis received little to no coverage from most American gaming magazines and websites, and it comes from a fairly small publisher. In a year that has seen the release of such high-profile titles as Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, and Dungeon Siege, Arx Fatalis was almost doomed from the start. However, it contains much more than meets the eye. It’s actually a very good game, and it definitely holds its own against some of the better-known releases of the year.
When you first load up Arx, you’ll probably notice a resemblance to Morrowind. Like that game, Arx is played from a first-person perspective and features real-time combat. Once you’ve played for an hour or so, however, you’ll begin to notice that’s about all Arx Fatalis and Morrowind have in common. The game takes place entirely in one vast underground dungeon. This may sound strange, but it actually fits the game very well, and the various areas all have a unique look, so as to make it feel more like an underground world than an actual dungeon.
Like most RPGs of this type, much of the game revolves around solving puzzles and killing things in order to get more experience and better equipment. The puzzles are nicely designed and usually quite fun to solve. As previously stated, combat is almost identical to that of Morrowind. Click and hold the mouse button to draw back your weapon, then release to strike. The longer you hold down the button, the stronger your attack will be, and pressing the movement keys in different directions while attacking. However, when it comes to spell casting, things are done much differently than the norm. To cast spells, the player must first obtain runes, which can be etched into your spell book. Spells are cast by using a combination of runes to obtain various results. For example, using the Aam (create) rune with the Taar (projectile) rune results in a magic missile. This feature in itself is fairly entertaining, but what really makes it fun is the way the spell is actually cast. Holding down the control key will cause your character to raise his arm while magic swirls around his fingers. You must then trace the proper runes in the air, as each has a corresponding symbol. You can also store up to three spells in quick slots, if necessary. This small detail really helps to immerse the player in the game.
The actual development of your character is very simple. There are four fairly standard RPG characteristics: Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, and Constitution. There are also nine “skills”, which range from archery to stealth. Each level-up awards you with the choice to advance one of the four attributes by one, as well as 20 skill points to distribute as you see fit. It’s very simple, and very little planning is required to build an effective character.
The graphics of Arx Fatalis are excellent in most respects, but they do have some flaws. The texturing is excellent, and most of the character models are well-constructed and not too blocky. The environments are especially nice looking, with interesting architecture and plenty of small details. The animation of enemies can be a little less than smooth at times, but that’s really the worst problem there is with the graphics, which is a good thing.
Arx Fatalis has a surprisingly strong story for a game of this type. Unlike most PC RPGs, which let you create a persona for the character and truly role-play, Arx forces the player along a linear path, with no dialogue options and a predetermined personality and name for the main character. The plot itself is interesting enough to keep you playing and contains a few plot twists as well. The story deals with a cult that is attempting to summon a demon from an alternate dimension. This in itself is plenty simple, but once you start dealing with some of the characters, things start to thicken as you learn of past events in the kingdom. It twists and turns just enough to keep you involved, but it’s never overdone.
The control scheme of Arx is very similar to that of Morrowind. Movement is handled just like any other first-person game, and combat is reliant on mouse clicks. Right-clicking at any time opens or closes your inventory, which takes some time to get used to, seeing as right-clicking on items or stats in most RPGs will give you more information. You can also continue to move around while your inventory is open, although mouselook changes so that you must move the cursor to the edge of the screen to look around while doing things this way. This allows for a great deal of interaction between your items and the game world, as you will often be able to do such things as cook raw fish or make bread using the items in your inventory and a fire in the game world.
Music is practically non-existent in Arx Fatalis. Occasionally a bit will play during a cutscene, but it’s nothing memorable. That’s not to say that the game is silent, however. The ambient noise is terrific. You’ll hear your footsteps echo off the walls of the caves and dungeons, water dripping in the distance, and various creatures walking about. The background noise is so good, in fact, that music would ruin the immersion. Voice acting is well done in most cases, although the player character sounds very stiff and emotionless. When learning about evil plots against the kingdom, he sounds as if someone just told him about how they made a peanut butter sandwich. The guy just doesn’t get excited about anything, which gets annoying. The other characters are all voiced well, however.
In the end, Arx Fatalis turned out to be a terrifically fun game to play, and I can recommend it to almost anyone who enjoys PC RPGs. It should be known, however, that there are a few bugs present, and that the patch is almost a necessity. Even then, you’ll experience some crash bugs here and there, but if you save often, you should be all right. If you can deal with these minor issues, you’ll find a lot to like about Arx Fatalis. Just because there are a lot of better-known games out there doesn’t mean you should pass this one up.