The premise of Arx Fatalis was what had first caught my interest, bringing back memories of adventuring beneath Britannia’s Stygian Abyss or delving deep beneath the forgotten tunnels of the ancient fortress of Stonekeep in search of a lost god only to find a killer bug. And then I watched in horror as the demo crushed my system. The frame rate dropped to the single digits as soon as I tried casting a spell or had started moving around. Since then, I have played other titles that looked on with pity at my rig until I finally took the plunge and buried it in favor for of building a new one. I hadn’t forgotten about Arx, though, especially now with Arkane Studios working on their part in the revival of the “Might and Magic” franchise. Being a fan of the “Might & Magic” RPGs from years before, I was keenly interested in what the French studio had in store for fans. Readying my sword and spells for a new world of adventure, I quickly ran through a low doorway to knock myself out to forget who I was, just to awaken later on the world of Arx Fatalis.
Arx Fatalis was released on both the Xbox and the PC. All goblins were mauled on my PC in the following review with respect to its “M” rating. Also, don’t forget to install the last patch to come out for the title as it fixes quite a few bugs.
Beneath a Black Sky
Arkane Studios has come up with a unique setting for Arx Fatalis creating an excuse to find yourself trapped underground throughout the entire quest. It seems that about twenty years ago, the sun of the world began to fade from the sky. The nights grew longer and the days shorter until at last the sun never returned. Before this tragedy, however, the Kingdom of Arx…along with many others as it would be discovered…had seen the signs of the impending doom coming for them and had made plans to move their city and people underground to escape the grip of ice and snow.
A vast, dwarven mining complex was chosen in a nearby mountain and the races of Arx soon banded together to ensure their mutual survival. Goblins, trolls, dwarves, and humans and others worked to expand the mines as they became their new home. Each race took a level to call their own and so it was that they would survive. But while the old world died, it did not take with it the ancient hatreds and dark secrets that had followed the survivors underground. Old feuds would flare up between the races once more and a powerful evil would soon awaken in the form of Akbaa. A cult worshipping this god of destruction has begun to move in the shadows and they are beginning to be more bold in their actions as people disappear amid the whisper of sacrifices. You will stumble across heads and legs missing their owners, bucketloads of blood, and a kidnapped child on the verge of becoming the next offering to an otherworldly demon.
Here’s where you come in. Conveniently enough, you’ve lost your memory and have no idea why you are in some kind of goblin prison. You’re not alone, though. A prisoner in another cell urges you to find a means to escape and when you do, your adventure begins.
Bone your Foes
Arx Fatalis is a first person action RPG with all of the usual trappings we’ve come to expect with the genre. We’ve got statistics to track, an inventory to fill, spells to sling at your foes. How the game handles these facets is what makes this game more than your typical dungeon crawler. If the unique world doesn’t grab you, the gameplay just might.
To help you, the manual is chock full of information on almost everything in the game. Appearing almost as a small DM guide with both an equipment and monster guide thrown in for good measure, the manual does an almost /[too]/ good a job in laying out a lot of what you might stumble across. Hitpoints for monsters, weapon strengths, and a well described skill level breakdown complete with estimated bonuses are all in there. The manual was a breath of fresh air, offering the player more than just a few pages of fluff as a not-so-subtle hint to buy the proffered guidebook at the counter.
When you start, you get to decide the overall look of your character for the in-game cut scenes as well as his (sorry, only one gender and race here) ‘paper doll’ in your statistics book. You also get a series of points to distribute among your main statistics (strength, mental, agility, and constitution) as well as a decent amount to distribute among nine skills that you can focus on such as close combat, sneaking, or defense. Your main statistics can also improve these skills. Keeping track of both your statistics and skills as you level is also particularly important because many weapons and pieces of armor are tied to how high certain ones are. For example, some weapons can only be used after attaining a certain amount of strength and skill in close combat.
Once you’re satisfied with how your character looks and with the skills you’ve improved enough to start him out with, it’s time to go underground. The start of the game dumps you in a cell where you must find your way out and on your way to freedom. It does a good job in introducing you to the interface by interacting with the world and people around you. After you manage to get out of your cell, you’ll find your first weapon…a bone…and use it to defend yourself against your jailer who isn’t too happy to see you go.
The interface has two modes: interaction and exploration/combat. Interaction allows you to pick up and drop items on the screen, search furniture and chests for goodies, and open doors and unlock others. The exploration, or free look, part of the interface is where you will find most of the action as you explore the vast world of Arx. A single keystroke easily switches between the two. For the most part, the interface felt cumbersome especially when you opened your journal. Closing your inventory or exiting from the interaction portion of the interface did not necessarily close your journal if it was also opened on the screen, for example. With practice, though, I was able to work with it but expect to spend some time with it’s nuances.
Combat is handled from a first person view and a ‘gem’ keeps track of how strong your next bashing or slashing stroke will be. If you’ve played Morrowind, then you’ll be familiar with how to set up different strokes by moving in certain directions. Basically, the longer you hold down the mouse button to hit something over the head, the stronger the blow will land on whoever you’re trying to aim at in front of you. Smaller weapons can be swung faster at a cost to power, while larger weapons like two handed swords will take longer to build up a powerful stroke but are unequalled in creating steak out of your enemies. This works pretty well for the most part depending on your skill with close combat.
The game begins to earn it’s “M” rating right here, getting more intense as the story progresses. Amidst the talk of sacrifice and kidnappings, pieces of foes will continue to go flying in the game as limbs and heads sometimes go darting off in opposite directions. There’s also a liberal amount of blood everywhere you go as it spews and drenches the tunnel floors, castle bricks, and wooden paneling of just some of the things around you. It doesn’t hold back with the consequences of a good swinging slash or crushing bash and the critters in the game know it. Many of them will try and run away if the going gets a little too good for you, calling out to allies for help if there are any still alive to help them. The only things that take away from this are the occasional odd times when the monsters get stuck on some of the geometry whether it’s a column, some kind of support, or a large rock that their pathfinding can’t get them around.
Spellcasting is handled in a remarkably unique way. Scattered around the world of Arx and available for purchase are rune stones that can be added to your spellbook which might remind quite a few dungeon crawlers out there of Ultima Underworld. Fortunately for you, you didn’t have to attend Spellcasting 101 (or have read the manual) to know what runes make up what spells. As you add runes to your book, the book automatically lists the spells associated with any possible combinations from those runes. If you really want to know what makes up what spell, the manual’s charts take some of the guesswork out of figuring out whether or not you should buy that Yor rune. Every spell is listed along with the runes that make them up so you won’t have to wonder whether or not you really should buy that Yok rune or throw out the Tera rune taking up space in yoru backpack.
To cast a spell, you hold down your spellcasting key and mouse the shapes of the runes that form the basis of the spell you want. If you forget a particular combination, you can click on the spell in your book and it will briefly display the runes that make it up on your screen. Most spells are made up of several runes and mousing the shape of each one ‘builds’ the spell you want to cast. You can even store these spells in a sort of ‘pre-cast’ mode to trigger with a simple keypress when tracing symbols in the air just won’t cut it in the face of a swordsman running over to kebab you. The pre-cast spells are also sequential, meaning that if you pre-cast another spell, it removes the oldest one from your three slots. If you have a specific arrangement in mind, there is no way to adjust this order other than in pre-casting the sequence of spells you want to be ready. There weren’t too many instances where I felt three slots weren’t enough, but more would have certainly felt welcome.
This isn’t Undermountain
There are eight levels that make up the world of Arx Fatalis and you will be going through all of them before your quest is complete. Once you make it out from the first dungeon, though, and open up a few more passages by completing one or two more errands, you pretty can pretty much go anywhere you want as long as you can walk, run, or jump to get there. The graphics in the game create a world in portraying every dirt covered brick, broken rafter, and darkened crypt in the claustrophobic passages that fill the underworld of Arx. You can even see your own pointed feet and the edges of your arms and even your shield, if you’re carrying one. The sense of being underground in darkness is handled particularly well and the sight of torch light can be a welcome reprieve while it’s sputtering death can have you cursing not having left enough room in your backpack. Fortunately, an automatic map tracks your progress so getting lost in the dark isn’t always a lost cause.
The living and the dead in the title look just as dirty and and as desperate as they sound and many of them will have something to say when you click on them if they’re not already trying to kill you. Everyone from the guards, the trolls, goblins, and the other dark creatures that lurk deep beneath the ground look the part. Many of them know how to fight and do so with their own styles. Rat men try for sneaking attacks, goblins run at you like morons, and trolls lumber towards you, rearing their arm back to crush your chest in with one punch. As for the scenery, the graphics do a good job in creating the underworld of Exosta where the city of Arx continues to live. While they might not be the most detailed graphics with pointed polys and more than a few flat textures on display on most everyone and everything compared to what we have seen with other titles today, the job that they do is still enough to take you into a dark and dank place especially when mixed in with the sounds.
The sounds in the title bring the underworld of Arx to life with strange underground effects, clashing sword blades, exploding fire, and the occasional musical interlude to add just the right amount of ambiance to a particular location. Almost every one of the key characters in this game are voiced and if you’re a fan of the Thief franchise, you’ll be happy to know that your favorite actor (Stephen Russell) is back although not in the lead which is a bit unusual. The character you play certainly sounds as if he were Garrett. The low, dry voice of the main character smacks of cynicism and dry humor with everyone that he talks to bringing back fond memories of shadow skulking and blackjacks. Aside from the lead, the voice work extends to most everyone else with angry goblins and trolls coming at you with broken english and dead wit. Several of the characters, most notably the main ones, have decent voice work attached to their faces but much else of the rest (including the narration for the cut scenes) aren’t as good as the actors almost sound bored with their lines. The title also makes great use of positional effects with EAX and a lot of it helps to bring many of the scenes to life as you turn around to face something moaning for your flesh behind you, the distant clatter of a steel grate dropping open when you flip a lever, and the shuffle of something else just beyond your vision ahead of you in the dark passage.
The world of Arx is also filled with a large variety of items that you can pick up, carry, and sell to merchants. In fact, most of everything can either be picked up, broken, or contains something that you might want to take with you for later like rat ribs that you may want to throw on the fire for your own personal barbecue action when you get hungry. With the right equipment and ingredients, you can also create your own potions, food (if you start to tire of the cave dweller’s diet of rat ribs and fish…pshaw!), and the odd piece of equipment such as stakes to help keep the undead…ah…dead and buried. You can also make use of a blacksmith’s anvil to maintain your armor and arms, both of which will take some wear and tear as you adventure. There’s even a pick that you can carry with you to pry loose gems from cave walls to sell or break open tombs like a grave robber.
There are even puzzles that need to be solved throughout Arx, some which protect much needed clues to the next quest while others protect powerful artifacts that would look good on your character. The puzzles are creative for the most part with one or two in particular making great use of the environment. Fortunately, the puzzles won’t drive you into the insane asylum and the means to solve them are there if not in plain view. However, the downside to a few of these are those puzzles that require special items or spells to get past them. If you’re an explorer that likes to sell everything and dump what you think you don’t need, you might find yourself leaving behind a valuable piece of a solution or the means to get past a particular obstacle. Packrats are rewarded.
The story is told through the quests that you undertake although you can decide to ignore it and explore on your own. The game’s open structure also allows you to go completely postal if you decide to depopulate Arx just as Morrowind allows you to run across Vvardenfell like death’s wind. As an action RPG, it plays a lot more to keeping focused on the main quest and your character. How you get to that end depends entirely more on how you develop your skills and what you can find than in what you do or who you screw to get there.
With a journal that helps you keep track of important events and quests, you won’t find yourself wondering what to do next too often. The only thing that the journal does not keep track of are some of the finer details in the quests that you follow which could get annoying when you find yourself wandering a level and forget to take down what so-and-so may have said about the McGuffin leaving you to guess at what you might have to do next. The journal, though, has the annoying tendency to always open at the first page forcing you to skip ahead to where it had left off. There are even books available in-game that explore the backstory behind Arx, setting the foundation for what could be a great franchise filled with possibilities. However, little of it is realized outside of what you have to do to save the world.
Arx is entirely focused on the fairly linear and typical ‘save the world’ story that your character is pulled into. What might be seen as a downside to the this, however, is that there is very little else to do outside of the main quest despite the freedom that you are given to do what you want and in how best to develop your character to meet the challenges ahead. Before I knew it, however, I had beaten the last foozle and saved the world from imminent annihilation.
The world is also a lot more sparse than I had thought it would have been. The game boasts hundreds of NPCs, but what it doesn’t mention is that most of those are the monsters that you will be turning into mush as you continue to explore the depths of Arx Fatalis. Your only interaction with most of these NPCs is in visiting death upon them in one of a variety of ways instead of with the sweet, honeyed words of a silver tongued master negotiator. The great city of Arx consists of little more than a few hovels and buildings feeling less of a city than as a street with a citizenship count of a small town. There was even mention of the Guild of Travelers, brave souls that journey out from Arx and across the frozen surface of the world to the other cities that have been driven underground, but you never get a chance to see what that is all about. There is quite a bit of background lore scattered around, but little of it sees any actual use in the title except to further whet your appetite for a sequel.
Players looking for side quests with which to explore the world of Arx Fatalis even further or to help develop their character will find a surprising dearth of those here as the title remains steadfast in its singular focus on the central plot. The few NPCs that you can try and interact with without slaughtering in the game won’t help much, either. Players looking for more quests to take part in from the locals might be disappointed in the lack of opportunities to do so.
There are other, more technical, issues that had dulled its edge. Despite patching this to the latest version, I’ve run into instances where NPCs tend to wander into passages and block them, have gotten stuck on some of the geometry in the game, and have been dumped to desktop for no apparent reason on more than a few occasions. While these were random events, they certainly had my finger on the quick save key more often than I would have liked.
There were also issues with the sound, especially with the in-game cut scenes that would occasionally pop up to help push the story along. Oftentimes, the characters would start talking…and I would hear nothing except watch as their mouths moved in silence until someone else started talking. This would also occur while playing the game. I would click on someone to hear what they had to say and the person I was ‘speaking’ to would do the same thing with my character picking up the conversation in asking a question in regards to what I couldn’t hear. Reloading would oftentimes fix this issue allowing me to catch up with the story, but it certainly wasn’t something that I wanted to rely on throughout the game.
As Cool as Ice
With a unique spellcasting system, interactive world filled with everything needed to make poisoned apple pie, and a mature…if not somewhat linear…storyline, the underrated Arx Fatalis can easily provide hours of dungeon crawling entertainment. It has an old school appeal for veterans of titles such as the Ultima Underworld series and provides quite a bit of RPG action and adventure for others simply looking to dive deep into another dungeon. If you can find it and have the craving for a good action RPG, this should help satisfy your sword blade or spellcasting urges as you save another world from certain doom. Just don’t forget to patch it.
– World 1-1