You wake up in a dark and damp prison-cell. Outside you can see an odd, but obviously not very smart goblin. He’s grinning, but for some reason you can’t remember anything about yourself – who you are, and why you’re in some strange prison. If you’ve played a few classic RPGs over the years, you should be perfectly familiar with the scenario.
Arx Fatalis takes place in an alternate universe, where things were relatively normal for a long time. Arx was a big and proud city where humans lived there lives, but the relationships with the neighbor races weren’t always great. That changed when something unexpected happened – the sun slowly started decreasing in temperature. This became a problem because after not too long the temperatures had gotten so low that none of the races could continue life normally. It hadn’t happened before, but in this time of distress the humans, trolls, dwarves and goblins helped each other, because if they couldn’t live where they used to then they’d make houses underground. For a while this worked well, yet slowly but surely the relationships would crumble. It appears as if a new mysterious evil is entering Arx, and even though you’d just like to reclaim your memory, you’ll be drawn into the fight, and the two may even be related... Throughout the game you’ll learn more and more about the city of Arx, its secrets, its king, and all the nasty creatures that aren’t too kind to adventurers.
Since this is a role-playing game, you can expect most of the basic mechanics we’ve come to love, or at least like, and a couple of new ones. The character you play as, who goes by the name of Am Shegar, has a number of statistics you can spend experience points on. You earn experience points by killing monsters, solving quests and so on, and when you’ve gone up in level you can put one point in either strength, dexterity, constitution, or mental. Additionally, fifteen points can be placed in a number of skills, ranging from combat, to defense, to stealth, to more magic related stuff, to object knowledge, and so on. In most role-playing games you’ll normally want to focus on just one profession, such as warrior or mage, but in Arx Fatalis they overlap a bit. Let’s start with how combat works.
Am Shegar can equip armor, jewelry, and weapons just like in any other similar games. You’ll find daggers, swords of various sizes, axes, and of course ranged weapons. Let’s say you’ve equipped an axe. Not too far from you a goblin is standing around guarding a chest. He doesn’t know you’re there, so you have a few options as to how you want to crush him. If you’re skilled in stealth, you might want to sneak up behind him, stabbing his back with your axe. If he saw you coming and runs toward you, you could try and time your attack so that you connect when he’s trying to hit you, which normally makes you deal twice the damage. Actually doing an attack works a little differently than in other first-person games. By holding the right trigger on your controller you charge up your attack, and at the bottom of the screen you can see a crystal that brightens up as it grows in power. The key is obviously to charge at the right time and attack with maximum power. This isn’t a new mechanic, but it works quite well. It’s a bit of a shame that you can’t see a visual cue of how much damage you’re dealing, unless you spend a number of points in a certain skill. The collision detection in combat works fairly well, but the artificial intelligence isn’t overly impressive. The enemies tend to eventually spot you, but if you hide for just a little while they’ll get all confused; they'll run back and forth a bit, charge some spells, and yell. Also, the pathfinding isn’t exactly great. For instance, enemies may chase you, but they have problems finding their way around objects that aren’t extremely simple, and they may get stuck – sometimes to your advantage.
Magic is also very important in Arx Fatalis, but the casting system is quite new, and was one of the most noted mechanics when the game was first released for the pc last year. Casting a spell required you to move the mouse in various directions denoted by groups of runes. I feared that if this was ported directly users would have a really hard time doing this efficiently in combat, but the developers altered it to a more arcade oriented system. Now you just need to choose a spell and move the directional pad in the appropriate way – much like in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the Gamecube. Also, your character can pre-charge up to five spells, which can be launched at the time you need it the most.
Graphically the game does quite well. It’s a bit unfortunate that so much of the time is spent in dungeons, caves and such, because it can of course get a little monotonous. Fortunately you will get to explore more interesting locations later on. The 3d engine does a pretty good job rendering sharp textures and realistic dungeons, but the performance isn’t always great. The framerate is always playable, but when there’s a lot of highly detailed objects, and maybe even gas, the framerate takes a nosedive. I like dressing up my RPG heroes in as huge armors as possible, with as bulky weapons as possible, and in that regard I’m satisfied. Even though it can take some time to find the right merchant, you’ll get to buy some nice and shiny armors, some of which with magical attributes, or bonuses to statistics. This is great and all, but Arx Fatalis isn’t as much of a hack-and-slash game as Diablo 2, so you shouldn’t expect to spend too much time buying items. Your character can pick up tons of items in the gameworld, ranging from plants of various kinds, chairs, rocks, pies, weapons, or just about anything else. Of course not everything is useful, but you can sell the strangest things to merchants, and while some item may not look useful it could be a great ingredient in a cake. You see, interacting with machines is an interesting part of the game, so if you choose to kill a pig you might get uncooked meat, which you can later throw on a bonfire in order to finalize the item. Doing so will make them more valuable, and by eating them you’ll regain more health points compared to their raw counterparts.
Sound-wise the game also scores pretty well. All of the characters you encounter have voice-overs, all of which are reasonably well fitting. The game doesn’t have a lot of background music, but it’s not a huge minus considering how RPG soundscores tend to get repetitive. On the technical side, the game makes good use of Dolby surround, and I must admit I was a bit surprised when a troll suddenly growled to the left and back of me. Also, the bigger speakers you have the better, because the game uses bass well – most notably in fights, when it really sounds satisfying when you’re hitting some monster and you can feel the bass in your seat.
One of the problems Arx Fatalis suffers from, is that you spend too much time running, backtracking, and trying to figure out where to go. Exploring is fun and all, but the game lacks much of the structure seen in other RPGs, especially when it comes to the map, logging quests, objectives, and so on. It’s very important that you listen during the quest related conversations, because you can forget about an as detailed logging system as the one in Morrowind.
The problem with excessive running is to some extent solved when you’ve played the game for a few hours. Using a spell you can activate portals that’ll take you to other portals, but there’s just 'something’ wrong with the structure compared to for instance many of today’s MMORPGs, such as not being able to use “town portals” like in for instance Diablo 2 and Asheron’s Call 2. On the other hand, not having these luxuries makes you explore more than you probably would with them, and to make that a bit more fun the developers included a load of secret rooms, hidden treasures, and basically neat stuff to find for those who wander aimlessly.
Also, I feel that the cities aren’t as believable as they could've been. It’s understandable that people get depressed living underground, but come on! The people you run by don’t say a whole lot, and they tend to just walk around a little bit, but at the very least you can listen to dogs, pigs, frogs, and the sounds of waterfalls and such.
Arx Fatalis is a good purchase that’ll probably keep you going for a solid number of hours. As long as you like RPG’s and you’re not expecting the best thing since sliced bread, I’m sure you’ll like it.