The world of Arx Fatalis is a world of change. Once it was a bright, sunny place but the death of the sun put an end to that. The bitter cold set in, so many of the races that were previously involved in petty conflicts now joined together and cooperated as they moved below ground to the abandoned dwarven mines. Alas the peace didn't last, before long they split once more into their racial factions, dreaming of supremacy and treating each other with suspicion. And now an even greater misfortune looms!
This is where you drop in, literally. In a 'flash' you find yourself, minus your memory, deep underground in a goblin prison. And this is where I stop telling the story because you can learn plenty about it in the game, and soon enough you'll know who you are and why you are there!
The City of Arx is where the story is set. It's a warren of underground passages and caverns much like the setting of Ultima Underworld and it did bring back fond memories with a single character, first person viewpoint; a similar real time combat system; and a similar (though mechanically different) magic system where you are in search of runes so you can build up your spell repertoire. It certainly does pay homage to Ultima Underworld and, although it has its hitches, it's a curiously engrossing game and should be judged on its own merits.
The interface has a short learning curve. There are basically two modes: combat mode and interactive mode and you can tweak various settings to suit yourself. Swapping between modes is just a keystroke or a mouse click away and apart from movement, which is via keyboard, most of the functions have mouse or keyboard alternatives that can be remapped in the options menu.
After the brief introduction your first task is to create your character by allocating the available points. It's very simple with just 4 main attributes (strength, intelligence, dexterity and constitution) and 9 skills: stealth, technical skill, intuition, ethereal link, object knowledge, casting, close combat, projectile and defence. Most are self-explanatory but you can read a short description of each and how they might affect each other.
It's time to set off and though Arx is definitely a dungeon crawl, it's a foreboding and fascinating one as the graphics, aided by the first person viewpoint, really create that feeling of claustrophobia and dread as you wind your way through the murky world. Admittedly there isn't much colour, but the locations are surprisingly detailed and the echoing sound effects and, at times, creepy background music keep you continually on alert.
In the beginning when you are just a puny novice you don't want to run into conflict unprepared, even the rats can be troublesome. As you progress, although there isn't a huge range of creatures to contend with, some of them, particularly the trolls and goblins, are really brought to life. They both found a place in my heart, the trolls because they are so dumb and so willing to be friends, and the goblins ... well because they're goblins. These two races always have something to say and are continually mumbling to themselves. It might even pay to listen to their chatter, you never know! The goblins don't like you very much and 'Stupid humans' or other comments like 'me hungry' are constant refrains. Some of them will have you for dinner if they get the chance and they are tenacious little fighters. They'll beg for their life if they get into too much trouble, retreat momentarily, but they'll be back if they're trapped. Give them half a chance they might even flee yelping 'help, help', and return with reinforcements.
As well as rats and trolls and goblins there are lethal spiders, mummies, undead, and particularly potent liches that can freeze you on the spot and relieve you of your life. However, you don't have to kill everything, you can make friends or sneak by tricky situations. And be careful, even your friends can turn on you if you get caught stealing or commit some other transgression. The town guards will put up a good fight and so will the evil Ylside. I didn't dare cross the magical Sisters of Edurneum because their hissing voices warned me not to. It is worth noting that you can kill characters that will eventually have a pivotal role in the story ... when I ignored a guard and intruded on a restricted part of the royal quarters, everyone turned on me, including the King. I don't know what would have happened without his friendship ... or without him if I'd ended his life ... what would have happened to the story?
The game has a lot of combat although it certainly isn't relentless. Between the combat there are interludes of button pressing and lever pulling to open up pathways or activate lifts/elevators. There are also chests to open and plenty of equipment and food to gather. Eating can be entertaining as you don't have a taste for raw food so you might cook some rat ribs on the fire, or even bake some bread. Items are easily combined in your inventory to add water to flour for bread, or to grind herbs into powder and transfer to flasks. If your skills are good enough you can make potions or enhance weapons. There's plenty to do in quiet moments, and if you aren't partial to cooking or fiddling around with flasks there's sufficient edible food around and more than enough cash to buy all you need.
But, of course, you will have to fight for your life as well, which is just a matter of left clicking and swinging your sword. The longer you hold down the mouse button the harder the hit. If you are a seasoned fighter you might even partake of all the side-stepping and dodging moves but due to my aversion to memorising keystrokes I survived purely by sword swishing. And I recall severing a few heads and limbs, so be prepared.
Magic in Arx Fatalis is unique in my experience of roleplaying games. When you collect up the relevant runes your magic book will automatically display the spells available. Then it's a matter of tracing the symbols in the air to cast a spell. It's very pretty, but there is a downside. Although you can pre-cast up to three spells and simply zap them during combat by pressing the relevant key, it's not nearly so easy to concoct another spell in the heat of battle. Whilst you're frantically trying to trace the symbols (and get them right) your adversaries have no compassion, they'll keep right on hurting you. That desperate spell could be your last.
This dangerous method of spellcasting is, perhaps, one of the most annoying aspects of the game, more precast spell slots would have helped. But really, this type of single player adventure doesn't lend itself particularly well to specialisation in the magic arts because you can't 'protect' a puny mage when you are always in the front line. It's best to have a generalist character who can get in some magic damage initially, then back it up with a few solid sword swings. This worked for me and, with the exception of a couple of battles, it wasn't too gruelling. Thank goodness for the keyboard shortcut 'H' for gulping health potions.
Another reason to have a generalist character is the lack of a lockpicking spell. If you can't open doors in this game you miss out on a side quest and a bit of fun thievery, not to mention some valuable experience. A specialist magic user is disadvantaged here because there isn't a compensatory quest. I'm not even sure that brute force would do the trick so don't forget to attend to your thieving skills.
Arx Fatalis is a roleplaying game so, of course, along the way you're going to be drawn into the story and learn what needs to be done to save the world. As well as the main quest you can get involved with the Arx world and do favours for your friends. Some are simple fetch and carry jobs to further your own ends, but with others you can just use your initiative and help out. Nice touch, I thought, you get that warm fuzzy feeling when you do a good deed. J
All main quests and essential information are recorded in your journal. Unfortunately this trusty tome always opens at the first page, so there is a bit of page turning to do as you progress in the game.
Also at your disposal is a level-by-level book of maps and you can keep a small map in the upper right hand corner of the screen for easy navigation. Maps are always useful and they are even more useful if you can add your own notes, an option that this game doesn't offer. Other than that the only other improvement I would wish for is for your character to be a bit more enthusiastic. Your own voice borders on monotonous or else I would have suggested that the main character have more incidental dialogue to draw out his personality. The other voices are fine and the goblins and trolls are quite apt for their respective 'races', even comical at times. All the game dialogue is subtitled but the cut scenes are not consistently captioned, so deaf players will miss out on snippets.
Well Arx Fatalis does have a few annoyances, but what game doesn't? Compared with some more recent party based roleplaying epics it's a shorter trip, but sweet nonetheless, and the first-person viewpoint is a welcome change. I do enjoy that feeling of 'being there' that this perspective brings, and in Arx Fatalis you are there. You can almost feel the damp and the cold, and the echoing 'plink' of unseen dripping water or disembodied moans and a myriad of dungeon clangs and creaks haunt your every step.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2003.
All rights reserved.
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, Pentium II 500 (P III 900 recommended), DirectX 8 compatible sound and graphic card -16 MB (32 MB recommended), 4 x CD-ROM drive (8 speed recommended), 750 MB free hard disk space.