Arx Fatalis

Review by Old Rooster
February 2003

"Today, Evil Is Knocking at the Gates" —Narrator

Welcome to the land of Arx Fatalis—the Fortress of Fate. Welcome to a world shrouded in eternal darkness due to apocalyptic wars, where all societies have fled underground. Common differences are put to one side, at least for a while, until food and water become scarce. Now, we also welcome you to a perpetual state of conflict, among all races—Goblins, Trolls, Orcs, and Humans. Finally, we welcome you to the possible end of times. Rising from, perhaps produced by, this distrust and racial hatred is an unspeakable evil—Akbaa, the Lord of Destruction. All seems lost.

He Who Has No Name

You are thrust into a dank, gloomy cell. Your memory is gone. You can't even recall your name. A nearby prisoner offers the appellation of Am Shaegar—"He Who Has No Name." Your subsequent actions and quests lead you, step by painful step, from your cell into the world of Arx, where you'll discover your fate and help resolve the fate of all of the disparate societies. A Guardian has been promised to deal with Akbaa and his influences. Could you be that One?

Arx Fatalis is a single-player, first-person perspective RPG, the first effort of Arkane Studios. Some of their team members had worked on one of my favorite adventures of a few years ago—Dark Earth. The developers suggest up to 100 hours of potential play, if all side quests are completed. My experience was in the 50-hour range, and I would estimate that the main storyline could be completed in about 35 hours.

You begin, as with all RPGs, by selecting your character depiction (choice of four white males) and balance of skills—strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution and stealth. The "quick generation" (instant hero) seems like the best way to go, since a careful balance of all 18 skill points works best in the forthcoming adventure.

"Listen to Me, and Take Note of What I Have to Say" —Narrator

Arx has a control scheme resembling a first-person shooter (mouse plus keyboard movement controls), with 360-degree rotation. The storyline and logical puzzles lead one to think of adventure gaming. Yet Arx is much (much!) more involved and complex than games in either of these genres. The weakest component of Arx, the interface, includes a quest log, map, book of magic, and diary. Each of these has significant limitations of design, which are as likely to intrude on gameplay execution as to enable smoother play. Indeed, much like Gothic of a couple of years ago, management of keyboard, mouse, map and more requires adaptation to an unfamiliar interface, with a high learning curve (at least for this player). An otherwise compelling game becomes flawed, seriously at times, by this intrinsic level of difficulty.

For example, the much touted Black & White–like spell casting system is a cumbersome affair, using runes for creative combinations. Although looking good on paper, so to speak, as a nice feature, the actual implementation, in the heat of battle, reminds this player of why I don't like flight sims! In spite of the hot keys, the switching and clicking are typically more frustrating than satisfying. It's too bad, since this Achilles heel of design brings our rating of Arx below the coveted Gold Star.

Throughout the game, particularly in the initial stages, there are some timely tutorial hints presented on screen, which is a nice touch within this otherwise awkward-to-manage game. A blue light and musical note may alert you to an important item, even such as a spot on the wall. A direct clue may be given (see the picture of gears on the wall), such as "Double-click on the rope in your Inventory when you have found it and place it on the elevator mechanism." These are thoughtful and welcome.

Blue Skies, Smiling at Me ...

... Nothing but blue skies do I see. Not! Arx Fatalis's graphics, while clear and detailed for a rather dated engine, are done in various shades of brown—no blues, yellows, reds in this world. Even the very fine 71-page manual is mostly done in variations of brown! Having said that, the world of Arx is underground, without the sun, dependent on flickering torches for light. Yet it is evident that considerable designer care has gone into the graphic components of the land of Arx. We not only "dungeon crawl," but also visit temples, busy towns, various huge caverns—most of these bustling with life, although sometimes not the kind of life you want to meet in a dark, brown alley. The level of objects and detail within the environment is varied and impressive, contributing, together with the first-person perspective, to a real sense of "being there." The graphical engine needs at least a midrange system to perform smoothly, however. The game "crawled" considerably on my older PII with a 16 MB nVidia video card, but did run smoothly—with 800×600, 32-bit resolution—on my newer P4 with an nVidia 3.

Environmental sounds are among the best I've heard in any game. My initial reaction to the first few minutes in the prison cell was, simply, "Wow!" Occasional drips of condensation were heard on the stones; the scuttling of rats and cries of tortured prisoners all impact and embellish the graphical level of immersion. Voice acting, as well, is nicely done. Music is largely absent and unneeded. The variation of your footsteps, depending on surface, is accurately done. Indeed, much like the Thief series, you need to be very careful not to attract unwanted attention when sneaking about.

"I'm Hungry" —Am Shaegar

It's 5:30 in the morning, and I haven't had my English muffin yet. No, wait, that's not why I wrote, "I'm hungry." This plea for nourishment is an all-too-frequent complaint of our hero along the path of his adventure (alleviated somewhat by a highly recommended 1.16a patch). This dynamic does contribute, though, to increasing the degree of "realism" and involvement with your character.

The movement of Am Shaegar through his often-treacherous journey of discovery includes the traditional RPG item/spell/inventory accumulation and leveling up. Enemies of various shapes and varieties (Trolls, Rat-Men, spiders, giant rats) are encountered along the way and must be dispatched or avoided. Often there is a choice of action available, which is interesting.

As regards choice, and thinking of a recent discussion in our forums, basic gameplay design (not the interface!) is just how I like it. There are levels or chapters, if you will, that need to be resolved prior to moving on. Within those sections, however, one may choose different routes to accomplish the outcome, starting from the base of character creation all the way to specific actions taken—sneaking versus fighting, for example. Some call this game linear, but I would contend that this balance of relative freedom within the context of a progressive story with levels is the best of both worlds (strict linearity versus complete freedom—cf. Morrowind).

Engrossing, Appealing, Involving ... and Frustrating

In conclusion, Arx Fatalis is an RPG/adventure with a fine and involving storyline, lovely brown graphics, magnificent environmental sounds, and sensible gameplay progression—all within an atmosphere of relative freedom of movement. It offers up to 100 hours of playing time, with replay value due to various actions producing different outcomes.

Unfortunately, Arx is encumbered with an awkward and problematic interface, making an already difficult game even harder, and often hair-pullingly frustrating! Since I only have 12 hairs left, this poses a real problem.

If you like first-person perspectives in RPGs and enjoyed Morrowind (an all-around better game), plus have a high tolerance for the aforementioned idiosyncrasies of Arx, then I would recommend this title to you. It certainly, in spite of the warts, is one of the better RPGs I've played in the last year. This first-time developer is already hard at work on "Arx 2" and has provided good customer support through the publisher. They've done more right than wrong with Arx, which leads to my strong Thumb Up rating.

What I Liked About Arx Fatalis

  • Engrossing atmosphere and world.
  • Graphically detailed and varied, within the context of brown.
  • Solid and interesting story.
  • Great environmental sounds.
  • Creative spell system.
  • Various paths to "success."

What I Didn't Like About Arx Fatalis

  • Very difficult overall.
  • Claustrophobic and "brown."
  • Cumbersome interface, especially map, journal, inventory management.
  • Difficult-to-manage spell system.
  • Prone to crash, even with the 1.16a patch. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Jowood
Release Date: November 2002

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
Pentium II 500 (PIII 900 recommended)
64 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)
8X CD-ROM drive
16 MB 3D DirectX 8.0 compatible video card (32 MB recommended)
DirectX 8.0 compatible sound card
750 MB free HD space

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