Arx Fatalis Review

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Publisher: JoWooD
Developer: Arkane Studios

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 500 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, 750 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM

The world of Arx is a dark one. The sun has faded from the sky, forcing the people of Arx to flee into ancient mines for shelter. Humans, goblins, trolls and many others cooperated for long enough to move all civilization under the earth. With plants magically altered to grow underground, everyone settled into the tunnels prepared to co-exist contentedly. After time, factions began to splinter along racial lines, settlements armed and built defenses, and a spirit of hostility began to suffuse the underground world. Now, Akbaa, a deity of destruction, seeks to enter the mortal world – a transition which could mean the final destruction of Arx.

Kyle Ackerman

Arkane studios brought to life this dark-horse entrant into the realm of role-playing games (RPGs) last year. The game was successful enough to merit a conversion that will soon have Xbox gamers joining the PC users who already had access to this title. The roots of Arx Fatalis go as far back as Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (which took first-person role-playing games from the world of orthogonal walls into a three-dimensional) and clearly takes inspiration from the long-running Elder Scrolls series that most recently manifested as Morrowind. Arx Fatalis takes you into the deep underground of a post-apocalyptic fantasy world in which the sun flared out, forcing everyone to live underground. Airshafts dug by dwarves to aerate their mines and magically altered plants enable the various races to survive in their fortified sections of tunnel.

The game starts you off in a prison as an amnesiac, but you quickly discover that you are a "Guardian." Guardians are the creatures charged with maintaining the balance of power among the powerful and supernatural inhabitants of the universe. While rarely sent to intervene in mortal affairs, previous guardians were given tremendous power when dispatched to meddle. That tremendous power (along with the fact that the transition to the mortal planes can trigger a temporary loss of memory) has upset affairs in other mortal realms. Now, guardians are given an outstanding capacity to adapt and can learn at great speed. This is a pleasant in-game explanation for the rapid leveling process found in most RPGs.

Depth in the Depths

Arx Fatalis is surprisingly engaging with an extensive plot and an abundance of detail. The story involves everything from inter-racial relations to demonic cults to the culinary preferences of the Goblin king. Puzzles and problems support multiple options for different styles of play. The level of detail extends to such things as hunger (which may irritate some RPG fans), but even food is implemented at such a level of detail that you need to cook raw fish, and if you find a fire and the right ingredients you can bake an apple pie. You can mix your own potions and explore the world of Troll art. Where the game suffers, it is usually because the developers favored depth and complexity over accessibility. This problem is most extreme during character generation. You can follow the usual fantasy paradigms of mage, warrior and thief, but you'll find the character generation system cryptic, especially the first time through. If you try to balance elements of the thief, warrior and mage, you may find yourself creating a character that's good at nothing. Of course, once you've completed the initial character creation, Arkane Studios sets you up with an excellent introduction. The early sections of the game are structured as a nicely thought-out tutorial to ease you into the games controls and commands.

Visually, Arx Fatalis is nearly as dark as its themes of evil and demonic sacrifice are. The look is appealing, but not as sophisticated as the most recent slew of PC titles. In well-lit or open areas, the game can be visually engaging, but you'll spend a lot of time in dark tunnels where the palette of colors is almost entirely shades of brown. Light sources are critically important, and you'll be grateful for the simple spell that ignites fires. Occasionally, bright crystalline light sources or magical locations break up the monotony, but the darkness of the underground world of Arx can be grating. That said, the attention to detail is extreme, and can be disconcerting. A goblin can be visibly cut in half while fighting, and a hut in a bandit camp has a small hole cut in the corner for obvious use as a toilet. The graphics can be gruesome – sacrifice is a common theme, and the demons so summoned can be grotesque. Far and away, the coolest visual effects come from the game's approach to magic. While you can store spells to be quickly cast, you need to find runes that teach you motions, and then trace spells in the air while chanting the appropriate syllables. As you perform the incantation, glowing traces will fill the air and illuminate your surroundings.

It's a Wide, Wide World (Entirely Enclosed in Walls)

The details go beyond simple visuals. You'll encounter political rivalries and background conversations between non-player characters (NPCs) when they think they're alone ("Why do Grey Goblins have mustaches? To remind them of their mothers!"). NPCs will even run off to fetch help. All of these nice touches help fill in a world that is truly enormous. The size of the world means you'll spend a lot of time running around (particularly before you figure out how to activate the portals that can instantly transport you between points). Moving from area to area also requires loading different zones, which is something of a constant (if minor) irritation. The auto-map, while a little difficult to use, is ultimately quite useful. There are plenty of regions filled with combat, but it's possible to play much of the early game pursuing only non-violent quests. Unfortunately, the area is so large (and without convenient markers) that you can spend a lot of time stumbling about trying to figure out what to do. Many of the early quests cannot be immediately solved, leaving you to explore the world. Also, after a few hours of play, the journal function becomes difficult to use. All of this means that it's not always clear what the next step should be, which results in hours of aimless wandering. I was only stymied at one point, when I initially missed a dark passageway behind the Troll kingdom.

Don't even think about playing Arx Fatalis without downloading the patch files currently available. Even fully patched, the game is complex enough that you will need to save often lest you get caught in a wall or are subjected to a game crash. There can be sound issues, as well, that make it difficult to follow dialog unless you position your character exactly. For such a complex game, though, some of these issues aren't surprising, and the development team made a genuine effort to patch such issues quickly. Hopefully their efforts (and those of myriad players) will help Xbox gamers enjoy the console version even more. Other aspects of the game can also be difficult. While many of the biggest challenges aren't mandatory, you might find yourself feeling very guilty if you don't rescue little Shany from a demonic sacrifice, and doing so can be exceptionally difficult.

Overall, Arx Fatalis is a fascinating title that will give you many hours of exploration and adventure. The title, if somewhat mature in content, is carefully considered and replete with detailed quests, locations and extensive plot. You'll find a lot to explore and enjoy should you decide to take on the role of the nameless lead character known as "Am Shaegar."

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 4, 2003 10:48 AM.

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