The sun has burned out. The world has frozen over. Life has moved beneath the surface of the planet in order to survive. Goblins, humans, trolls, and other races have carved out a niche within the caverns beneath the world in spite of the unspeakable horrors that dwell within the depths. Worst of all, an evil cult is threatening the destruction of the world itself in a bid to summon the dark god they worship. You probably already guessed who’s going to have to deal with all that.
That’s your briefing on the unique world of Arx Fatalis: A first-person roleplaying game released in 2002 by Arkane Studios, the developers behind later smash-hits like Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, BioShock 2 and Dishonored. The game combines elements of classic dungeon-crawlers like the Ultima series with involved combat that would later be refined and expanded into the system used in Dark Messiah. While it managed to garner a cult following in the years after its release and drew acclaim from critics upon release, it was ultimately overshadowed by The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which was released a mere month before it.
Arx Fatalis doesn’t exactly start in the most original way — our protagonist has awakened within the confines of a Goblin jail cell with no memory of who he is or what he was doing before his capture. With the help of a stranger from the next cell over, you escape and learn a bit more about the situation you’re in, along with some of the finer points of the game’s mechanics. Arx Fatalis‘ “gimmick” is that it features a unique magic system that utilizes strokes of the mouse to draw glyphs that you’ve previously found and memorized.
Each sign bears its own significant effect, and when combined with other glyphs in the right order, spells are cast. This casting system is a great idea, but unfortunately has its share of flaws. Due to the way the game processes mouse input, you can only draw each symbol one way as reversing the stroke when drawing will create a sign with the opposite effect in some cases. The recognition for you input is also fairly shoddy, and you have to draw each symbol just right for it to register. Fortunately, the developers realized this and included the ability to pre-cast up to 3 spells for later use via hotkey, meaning you don’t need to panic as much about casting spells during combat.
Speaking of combat, Dark Messiah can’t hide the debt it owes to Arx Fatalis. The same framework of moving the mouse and clicking to alter the direction of your attacks exists but is much more primitive. Unfortunately this more simplistic approach means that a good portion of the battles are comprised of holding down the mouse to charge an attack, swinging for a weak spot, then retreating to charge another. It isn’t anything terrible, but it does get repetitive. In addition, while there are shields in the game, there’s not actually a button to use them. They exist only as stat items, so if a troll is about to drop his thirty-pound club on your skull, by God you’re going to either move out of the way or take that bastard smiling.
This oversight means that later in the game you might get matched against foes who simply have far more range and attack speed than you can defend against. There’s one particular type of enemy that caused me immense frustration because of this, but it’s an end-game enemy that I won’t spoil the fun of.
What Arx Fatalis lacks in depth of combat, however, it more than makes up for in depth of character. The world of Arx feels like no other video game world you’ve seen. Sprawling tunnels, massive open caverns, and underground waterways on the upper levels give way to unusual ruins and molten lavascapes as you journey deeper into the ground. There’s an indescribable feeling that you get when you’re looking up in the city of Arx, and you see nothing but blackness beyond the light of the storefronts and chapel save for sparse stalactites that manage to stretch down into the very edge of the light.
What makes this all the more amazing is the fidelity of the game’s graphics, or lack thereof. It looks like a game from 2002. I can’t judge it on the same scale as a modern release. What I can judge, though, is the level of immersion that the game provides. After playing for a short while, it’s hard not to become engrossed into learning the labyrinthine structure of the caves so you can search every nook and cranny for hidden riches or a side quest. That’s what I really value.
Story-wise though, there’s not anything too revolutionary going on. The plot has a few odd twists and turns, but many of them can be seen coming from a mile away. The inconsistent voice acting doesn’t help the story’s impact much either. It runs the gamut from well delivered and theatrical to awkward and disjointed, and I’m not sure why. I’m not going to spoil anything despite Arx Fatalis being over a decade old, but the game’s “good” ending (there are 4 others with not-as-positive outcomes) raises some very interesting questions and lines things up for more explanation. It’s sad that a sequel never came, but looking at Dark Messiah and Dishonored, we got the next best thing.
Par for the course are bugs. I don’t believe I ever had the game crash on me save for one instance where I accidentally tried putting an item into a chest I had open while the item was on the ground. I did get stuck and have to reload saves more than a couple of times, though. Beyond that and the occasional dialogue skip or graphical hiccup, things ran pretty clean on Windows 7.
All in all, I enjoyed my experience beneath the planet’s surface playing Arx Fatalis. It’s a great snapshot of the transitional period between classic dungeon crawlers like Ultima or Might & Magic and later action-oriented games like Oblivion.
What about you? Have you played Arx Fatalis? Had you even heard of it? What’s your favorite RPG and why? Let us know!
Arx Fatalis might feel clunky at first to youngsters, but it's definitely a classic title that every RPG fan should delve into.