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Gaming >> Reviews >> Arx Fatalis

Arx Fatalis is a Role Playing Game developed by Arkane Studios and released by JoWood Productions in 2002. The debut title from French developer Arkane Studios, today better known for its recent hit Dishonored, was a modest success at the time of its release, but has since garnered a well-deserved cult following. Arx Fatalis is often considered to be the spiritual successor to the very popular and innovative Ultima Underworld series, even though it was developed by an entirely different team of people. The inspiration is apparent in the look of the game, with its fully 3D approach to the old dungeon crawling formula, but Arx Fatalis has noticeably better graphics than those two older games, and some very interesting game-play twists of its own. The game feels confined, and yet open ended at the same time, with non-linear quests, a low level cap, but which grants powerful new abilities, and a very innovate if sometimes frustrating spell casing system. Arx Fatalis is a very unique game.

So what's it all about?
Arx is the last refuge for one of the last remnants of humanity, following a cataclysmic event that forced all surface dwelling species underground. Over the generations, the many species of the caves have established new civilizations, which have more or less gotten along with each-other on their united goal; survival. Now powerful, evil creature has awakened from an ancient slumber, and is threatening Arx, and all that remains of old world.

Graphics
Arx Fatalis is not as visually stunning as it was 2002, but the graphics do hold up surprisingly well after more than a decade. This is a free-roam game like the Ultima Underworld games that heavily inspired it, meaning that you are free to roam around large areas of the caverns that are linked together, and can travel back to pretty much any place that you have been before; progressing through the game in a fairly non-linear fashion. Because the game is set entirely in one large underground cavern, you would think there is a risk of bland visuals that all look the same, but this is not the case. The different civilizations, such as humans, goblins and ogres, all have their own styles and unique touches that make their areas feel distinct from one another. The city of Arx especially, looks like an ordinary fantasy game town, complete with large castle fortress built into the rock.

I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that the visuals never become boring, and the developers found lots of cool ways to keep things interesting. The textures do look somewhat low-resolution by today's standards, but I would not say they are ugly. Their saving grace is the excellent art direction that really gives character to the places, people and creatures that you encounter in the game. The environments look quite a bit better than the blocky character models, although the characters don't look too bad either. There are some cool spell effects, and even the drawing animation for the spells is pretty neat, along with some cool looking weapons to yield, from swords to axes and daggers. The game may look a bit dated, but the large world is crafted with clever detail that gives it a charm and good feel that made me not care.

Gameplay
At first glance, Arx Fatalis seems like it plays in a way that would be familiar to anyone who has played dungeon crawler RPGs before, but it makes some very bold twists on the standard formula. The biggest twist is the spell casing system that has you literally drawing symbols on the screen, with the mouse. Another thing about this game that really stuck out to me, is low level cap for your character. You do not level up very often in this game, but benefits of each level are substantial. The game is also more open ended than many games of its type for the time, with a nonlinear quest progression, and a free-roam feel. The controls pretty tight and intuitive, even if the inventory is clunky.

Moving around the game-world is easy enough with the default arrow key settings, with the controls being quite smooth and solid, and you can change direction and look at your surroundings by moving the mouse button. For quieter, stealthy movements, you can activate the stealth mode by holding the shift key while walking around. This will make it easier to sneak past enemies or to steal stuff from shops if that's your thing, but you do need to invest fairly heavily in stealth points to make this an effective option. You can also jump with the space-bar, which will come in handy for accessing some usually hidden locations through-out the game. The jumping is thankfully very accurate, and you won't have to spend a lot of time adjusting yourself first, although later you may get access to certain spells that would make jumping pretty useless.

The spell casting system in Arx Fatalis is probably the most unique element of the game. Instead of simply assigning spells that you have learned, to hot keys, you must manually cast the spells by activating magic mode with the ctrl key, and drawing the correct sequence of symbols with the mouse. Of course, you still have to learn the spell from scrolls which can be found or purchased during the game, and it is these scrolls which reveal the correct rune symbols to draw, and in which order to draw them. The runes, like the scrolls can be found in secret locations, usually with a bit of difficulty, and some of them can be purchased from shops in the city of Arx. Unlike scrolls however, once right click on a rune and learn it, it is permanently transferred to your journal for future reference, and disappears from your inventory. The scrolls however, will accumulate and take up your precious inventory space (and it is precious in this game).

It is best to write down the combinations on a piece of paper, if you don't have a good enough memory. Initially these spells will do simple things like cast a fireball at enemies, or light fires on which to cook your food, but later you will get access to some crazy levitation and super armor spells. While the idea is very clever, the implementation is a mixed bag. Some of the symbols and spells are easy to draw, and within a few try's they were second nature for me, but some of the more complex symbols were very frustrating to draw, and it could take me up to a dozen times to get it right. Because some of the symbols are similar looking, you have to be extremely precise when drawing the runes, so I often ended up drawing the wrong rune by accident, or just spending way too much time trying to make a spell work. Thankfully, you can queue up spells by holding down the shift key while you draw them, so you only need to click on the spell on your queue to cast it.

Keep in mind though that you can only have up three spells in your queue at a time, but it can be extremely useful, since it is hard to draw a fireball spell in the middle of a fight when you are getting pummeled by a an orc. The biggest obstacle to using magic is how fast your magic meter depletes at the start of the game. You can only cast a finite amount of spells before you need to replenish your magic meter by consuming magic potions. The potions are very scarce at the beginning, but eventually you will be able to buy from shops, and if you spend your kill points correctly, you will even be able to make them from raw ingredients. Potion making is great skill to have in this game, but more on that later.

Of course you also have the melee option in fights and in fact, you will spend a lot more time hacking and slashing monsters than casting spells at them; at least until you have built up your magic skills. The weapons and armor are actually quite neat looking and well designed, and have glowing and animated effects to indicate when they are magical or powerful. The weapons of course range in power, and the weapons that are expensive or dropped by strong enemies, are likewise going to be the more powerful weapons. You have some control over your melee attacks by moving forward, backward, or side to side when striking, which sill cause you slash and stab with different motions. You can also charge up for a much stronger blow, by holding down the left mouse button before releasing it, but of course, this makes you vulnerable to enemy attacks. Your attacks and your armor can be made much stronger by spending skill points when leveling up.

The leveling is pretty standard RPG fair. You gain experience points by killing things and completing quests. The stronger the enemy and the more important the quest, the more experience points you will earn. When you accumulate enough experience points, you level up, which gives you points to spend in your skills, which are split up into important base skills, and secondary skills. Level ups are rare in Arx Fatalis, since the level cap is set at an unusually low number of 10, so you can spend many hours in the game without leveling up your character. The flip side to this is that each level up has the potential to be very potent, and have a big impact your effectiveness in combat, stealth and magic casting. You only get one point to spend on the main skills, but these your most base attributes, and they can have a broader effect on all of your secondary skills. These skills including strength, for your melee effectiveness, intelligence for spell casting and speech options, constitution for hit points, and more.

For the secondary skills, you get a whopping 15 points to spend on each level up. This is a big mix of very different types of skills, and you need to pay attention to how to spend points here, because it can really effect how you play the game. Some of these skills, like stealth, are only important if you want to do a lot of sneaking in the game instead of fighting. However, there are instances where you are forced to fight, so it is not a good idea to ignore your fighting skills completely, in favor of stealth. Casting is a very important one, because it governs how powerful your attacks are, how long spell effects last, and even how resistant you are to enemy magic. Another very useful skill is object knowledge, which allows you to identify items in the game, and also lets you make potions, which is extremely useful. All in hall, potions can be somewhat hard to find in the earlier parts of the game, but you can create your own healing and magic potions at distilleries in some of the cities and castles. All you need are empty bottles (which there are a lot of) raw ingredients and high enough object knowledge.

I would recommend leveling your object knowledge skill up to just the point where it is needed to create the potions, and not any higher. Some other skills like 'ethereal' which detects nearby enemies, I never had any use for, but it might come in handy to a stealth character. You can access your potions in the inventory screen, but this really is not viable during combat, because it takes way too long to click the right buttons and find the potions. Thankfully, the game lets you map potions to the number keys, so it becomes very fast and easy to replenish your health in a fight. You can get into your inventory by either clicking the icon on the right hand side of the screen or by pressing the I button on the keyboard. This is where all your loot and other stuff is including potion, sell-able junk, weapons, scrolls, runes, etc. Getting into the inventory is easy enough, but there isn't any kind of auto sort option, so if you like to be neat and tidy like me, then you will probably spend quite a bit of time managing your inventory.

The worst part about the inventory is that it starts off with very small amount of space, and larger items like shields and swords can take up as much as quarter of it. Early in the game, I often found myself torn on what to drop, in order to free up space, but everything you drop will stay there on the ground forever, until you pick it up again; that is if you remember where you left it. You can expand your inventory space up to three more times, by finding the 'backpacks' hidden around the dungeons, and this definitely comes in handy. From this same screen, you can access all sorts of other stuff, like your auto map, stat screen, rune screen and journal. The journal keeps track of all of the quests that you are on, but not really in an orderly way, since it actually is written like a journal, and you will have to backtrack through it you forget the specifics of a quest.

The stat screen tracks your skill levels, your maximum hit points and magic points, while the rune screen keeps track of all of the runes you own, and tells you how to draw them. The auto-map tells you where you are in the dungeon, and tabs on the left hand side, let you switch between maps for the different levels of the caverns. The map does not offer any fast travel, and for rather large chunk of the game, you will be doing an awful lot of backtracking, which is really one of the few things about the game that annoyed me. There does come a point later in the game, where travel between the levels becomes much faster, but I will let you find that for yourself.

Arx Fatalis has endured as a classic for a reason. It is an unusual game that experiments with some bold approaches to the RPG formula, and mostly succeeds. The magic system is ingenious, and it makes me wish more games would try stuff like this, even if it has a bit of a learning curve. The interface works well even with the slight irritation of inventory management. Leveling is rare, and it feels like a real satisfying accomplishment when it happens, because the bonuses have an immediate, noticeable impact on the game-play. Arx Fatalis is a rare gem, that no real RPG fan, or gamer in general should skip.

Sound
Arx Fatalis takes a slight minimalist approach to music, but makes it work. There is music in the game, but it is usually very under-stated, and more ambiance, making It hard to distinguish between the music and background sound effects. It works well at giving the desolate atmosphere that an underground gave system should have, and I quite liked it. The sound effects are great too, from the sound of the strange creatures, to footsteps, the game has great atmosphere. The game is fully voiced, although not always to great end results. Some of the character sounds just fine or passable, but others are barely high-school play material. Most likely, many of the actors were employees, and not professional, but the acting wasn't bad enough to really bother me.

Storyline
The sun has mysteriously failed, going out like an old light bulb and leaving the world a frozen wasteland, inhospitable for most forms of life. The sudden apocalypse forced a mad scramble into the underground Dwarf mines, for the many beings of the world that could no longer survive on the surface. Over the successive generations, kingdoms were established for the humans, trolls, goblins, and others. You awaken in a prison cell, with no memory of who you are, or how you got there, and soon realize that you have been imprisoned in the goblin kingdom. With the aid of a mysterious fellow prisoner, you must escape your cell, and make your way to the human kingdom of Arx, for answers.

Despite the interesting post-apocalyptic world of Arx, that world changing event actually has little influence on the game, acting more as a cool back-drop to the story. You start off not knowing anything about the world, or what is going on, but it eventually sinister conspiracies and ancient prophecies come into play, as the story unravels like a good mystery. The quest also brings you across the paths of quite a few strange and interesting characters, all with their own motivations and histories, and you have to know how to play them for your own purposes. The back-story of the game-world, and its many races, are further elaborated on, with books that you can find and read.

I get the impression that this game-world was meant to contain a lot more adventures, and that this was going to be the first in a series, but maybe it just didn't sell well enough. There are a couple of ways you can influence how some of the story threads end and it has to do with whether you complete some optional quests. There really are not many quests in this game as compared to other RPGs, but they are longer, so it all evens out. The story of Arx Fatalis is fun and interesting, with plenty of twists along the way, and set against a fascinating underground civilization.

Replay Value
Arx Fatalis is a fairly large game, with a roughly 15 hour main campaign, and double that if you try to find all of the secrets, and complete every side-quest. You can affect the way the story plays out a bit toward the end, but the overall conclusion is always the same. There are no achievements to unlock, since the game pre-dates those by a number of years. You should get some good play-time out of this game at least once, but there aren't a lot of reasons to return, unless you just want to find every hidden item, and see how some quests play out a bit differently toward the end of the game.

DRM:
None

Stability:
No problems

Arx Fatalis was released with little fanfare, but over the years it took on cult status, and is now rightly recognized for its bold ideas, fun game-play, and interesting world. The game-play is mostly solid, despite a clunky inventory system, and a clever, but hard to master magic system. Leveling up is very rewarding, since the game makes you work a long time for it, but it has an immediate effect on the game. Arx Fatalis is an excellent, old school RPG, but in many ways feels new, because of its unique game-play, that has yet to be replicated.





15 February 2013 - 17:25  | Posted by : Chrono



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