Arx Fatalis


Developer:    Arkane Studios

Publisher:    JoWood Productions

Released:   2002

PC Requirements:    Win98/2000/ME/XP, Pentium III 500 MHz or faster, 64MB RAM, 750 MB free hard disk space, 4x CD-ROM drive, 16 bit Direct X 8.0 compatible sound card, 16 bit color DirectX compatible 16 MB video card.




by Singer

Ever heard the expression “a good compromise leaves everybody mad”?  I know it’s cynical, but I have a strong suspicion that this is precisely the result I’ll get from my review of Arx Fatalis.  Based on the buzz this game has generated, there rarely appears to be a middle ground – people love it or they hate it.  Alas, in my Game Review 101 class, the teacher drilled objectivity into my head, so I’ll stay out of the It Sucked  vs. It Rulez argument, and in doing so, please neither camp entirely.

In fact, there is much to both like AND dislike in Arx Fatalis, the first offering from French developer Arkane Studios.  From the opening cutscene to the final credits, my experience ran hot and cold with the game (or more specifically, “up and down”, but more on that later).  If you’re hoping for a quick yea or nay about buying the game, you won’t find it here, because there’s no easy way to help you decide.  Nope, you’ll have to sift through the details, balance the positives and negatives, and determine for yourself if Arx Fatalis is for you.

If you’ve ever wondered where, exactly, “the sun don’t shine”, Arx Fatalis is one of those places.  According to legend, the sun mysteriously died out over the lively, vibrant medieval world of Exosta.  In order to survive the deadly cold, it was necessary for the various races to move underground and rebuild from abandoned dwarf mines.  Cut off from other societies that did the same, this game centers around the subterranean human city of Arx and the twisting passages in outlying areas.

Unfortunately, as if permanently living in a cave isn’t bad enough, animosity runs high between humans, orcs, goblins, trolls, and ratmen, and outbreaks of violence are common occurrences.  To make matters even worse, a secret cult is attempting to bring about the incarnation of Akbaa, the god of destruction.  Thankfully, just before his murder, a royal astronomer sends a plea to the Sybarta (a kind of spiritual peacekeeper) to deliver a guardian who will prevent that from happening. 

This is where we come in, playing the role of the guardian – dubbed Am Shaegar (“He Who Has No Name”).  The catch is, the trip from the ethereal realm is a little bumpy, and we arrive sporting only our skivvies, with no memory of who we are or why we’re here, no astronomer to aid us, and locked up in a goblin prison.  Ahh, the life of a hero…

As the game progresses, your character begins to regain memories, and in pursuing the goal of stopping the cult, uncovers other complex mysteries that tie in either directly or indirectly to the main story.  Overall, the plot is sound, but it is certainly guilty of relying on traditional fantasy clichés.  Really the only truly novel element in Arx Fatalis is the tale of moving underground, which is fleshed out in books scattered throughout the game.  Unfortunately, nothing is ever done with it, and it serves merely to justify locating the game beneath the surface.  I was also a little disappointed by the number of times I encountered a tale that began “no one really knows why…” or wording to that effect.  Once or twice was understandable, but Arx overdid it, and it felt like a narrative cop out at times.  Isn’t the whole purpose of legends to explain the unknown, whether factual or not?

As far as gameplay, Arx Fatalis is an unapologetic dungeon crawl that plays out in a single player, first person perspective, reminiscent of the classic Ultima Underworld and its sequel.  This may be one of the polarizing aspects of Arx – some who loved those Ultima games and have been starved for something similar in the many long years since their release might embrace Arx in a way that others do not.  But any game must stand on its own, and Arx isn’t always steady on its feet.

The first issue at hand is stability.  Arx Fatalis shipped with bugs.  A lot of bugs.  Big bugs.  Show stopping bugs.  You get the idea.  Fortunately, several patches have now been released, and my copy ran fairly smoothly, so anyone playing after this point should be relatively safe after updating with the latest patch.  This news is always a mixed blessing.  It’s fairly inexcusable for a game to ship with the number and type of problems as Arx, but full credit to the developers for following through with the necessary support.  Really the only gripe I have with the technical aspect of the game is its load times upon ascending and descending levels, which are both long, frequent, and unavoidable, even with a full install.

As you begin the game, you’re offered a handful of character models to choose from – disappointingly, all of them male.  There are no varying classes available; just 4 main traits, and an additional 12 secondary traits, all of which will be standard choices to RPG veterans, and clearly described for any newcomers.  An auto-character generation feature is provided, or you can distribute your stats as you wish.  Many players will want the control, although since the game proves to favour a balanced character, it’s probably just as worthwhile to let the computer do it.  Each time you level up, you’re provided one point for your main traits and 15 for your secondary traits to do with as you choose.  I quickly found, however, that Arx offers the fewest opportunities to level up of any RPG I can remember, so there really isn’t much chance to change strategies mid-game.

It is right here that Arx hits its first massive roadblock, and has driven more than one player away in disgust.  The interface is atrociously implemented.  There’s nothing overly complicated about it; it simply doesn’t work well.  Right mouse clicking alternates the mouselook and “cursor” modes, and this simple little function leads to a score of problems.  Not only does it continually disrupt the flow of the game and severely restrict camera control, it results in every action being two or three steps more cumbersome than it needs to be.  The worst aspect of this is that it seems so unnecessary, and proves a colossal waste of the right mouse button, which could have been much better utilized in other ways.  This makes the introduction to the game more than a little frustrating, and even after getting used to it over time, it never feels natural.  Yet this is only the worst offender of numerous non-intuitive actions.

The map feature, while absolutely VITAL in what is essentially an 8-level series of intertwining mazes, is inadequate.  Very few key landmarks are noted, and it dominates the viewing area when called up, so it’s virtually impossible to navigate with the map onscreen.  Inventory is a mixed bag, both literally and figuratively.  There are three separate inventory screens, which saves on clutter, but results in scattered items that can’t be combined or grouped easily.  The journal feature is also woeful.  Not only does it record the barest amount of information, but it always opens at the beginning each time, so flipping through the pages is required.  Again, a case of a simple action requiring far too many steps.  The final culprit is that the manual does such a poor job of explaining these artificially difficult actions, leaving players to figure things out for themselves.  This is HARDLY the way to win converts early, and not everyone will be willing to invest the time and energy in overcoming the hassle.  I sincerely hope Arkane learns from this experience and streamlines their interface in future offerings.

Graphics are one of the game’s stronger features, although not spectacular.  The surprising number of settings was appreciated, and did a good job of conveying a “world” underground.   More than just a handful of differing caves, locations range from an eerie crypt to a royal castle to large caverns with ice and waterfalls.  The scenery changes provide plenty of variety while maintaining an overall sense of claustrophobic confinement.  The unique races were wonderfully modeled (although again entirely clichéd), and there were plenty of small touches, such as your character always appearing in cutscenes in his current armour.  There are a fair number of clipping problems, unfortunately, and I could clearly see the re-draw lines as distant views came into focus, which occasionally proved distracting.  My only other minor complaint is that outside of a few key non-playable characters (NPC’s), each race had only a couple distinct models, including the humans, so everyone looked alike.

The sound in Arx Fatalis is far and away its best feature, as the effects do a fantastic job of establishing an abundance of atmosphere in each of the varied environments.  Whether it’s the echoed water drip in a darkened cave, or the haunting moans of the undead, or the sharp, hissing voices of a mysterious race of snake women, each ambient noise pulled me in like no other aspect of the game.  In another great move, the sound of Am Shaegar’s footfall varies depending on the type of leg armour he’s wearing.  The jingling of chain mail is distinctly different from the clanking of heavier iron armour.  Believe me, you run so far and hear it so much, it’s a wonderful addition.  

Voice work is rather mediocre, and Am Shaegar himself is in need of a cup of coffee or twelve, but the acting is functional.  The lesser NPC’s utter little phrases to themselves that make them seem more relevant.  Whether it’s someone contemplating asking for a raise, or a royal guard wishing he’d become a cook, these were a nice touch.  I only wish there were more of them, because after I’d heard the same ones repeatedly, they’d lost all their initial charm. 

Movement in the game is a definite handicap.  I’m not sure of the physics behind this, but it seems as if Arx is developed around the principle that the deeper in the earth you are, the heavier the gravity, because my character moved like he had lead weights in his boots and rocks in his pockets.  Bad enough that the motion wasn’t always fluid and that camera angles could become disorienting at crucial times, but getting anywhere was so SLOW!  With all the to’ing and fro’ing in this game, this isn’t a drawback to be taken lightly.  As the game progresses, you’ll gain access to teleporters to accelerate movement, but even these are scattered far too few and far between, so much time is wasted just trekking back and forth between familiar locations. 

If the slow-mo movement affected only travel, that would be tolerable, but what is totally unacceptable is that the problem plagues combat, as well.  Arx Fatalis is not one of the most combat-intensive RPG’s, but there’s enough to become frustrated by the wretched real-time fighting system.  Even at its fastest speed, a single weapon thrust takes an interminable length of time, but to achieve a stronger blow requires holding the mouse button down until the weapon “powers up” (go ahead – ask me why a melee weapon needs to be powered up…).  So combat consists of a ridiculous series of sword swinging, backing up to power your weapon and moving forward to strike again.  Except as I just said, your character moves so slowly that any enemy can advance on you as you’re retreating, so you’ll soon find yourself trying to wriggle free so that you can start backing up in a DIFFERENT direction.  Fun wow.  The majority of the smaller encounters are manageable if you’re properly equipped, but the battles against the major enemies can be particularly grueling.  As a first person game, the movement should measure up to the quality of current shooters, and Arx falls a fair bit short in this department. 

There aren’t very many enemy types, but the few presented are well done, and some are extremely nasty (and I mean that in a good way, the little rotters!)  AI isn’t a particularly strong suit, as most baddies will simply lumber over and attempt to go toe to toe with you (evidently unimpressed with your pokey technique), but they’ll occasionally run away a short distance when wounded.  A word of caution to the squeamish, however - there is definitely some gore in this game (decapitation, anyone?)

Whenever weapons combat fails to deliver, normally I’d suggest turning to magic… but not this time.  The method of casting magic in Arx has been trumpeted as the latest and greatest thing in RPG’s.  Well, Arkane, you’ve done it again – you’ve taken a wonderful idea, displayed lots of promise, and yet still managed to shoot yourself in the foot with it (or at least cast a fireball at it). 

The idea behind the magic in Arx is to collect runes which can be combined into spells.  When you acquire the necessary runes, you then “draw” the rune combinations onscreen to cast the spell.  There are many spells available in total, and the system is designed to give the player the sense of really being a spell caster, and it succeeds in doing that.  Unfortunately, this same accomplishment that favours and delights some players will discourage and alienate others.  First of all, it’s necessary to trace the runes (between 2 and 4 per spell) EACH TIME you want to cast a spell, so memorizing the correct complex sequence or constantly looking them up is necessary.  The “drawing” system is not very forgiving, either.  Although not complicated shapes, many many times I traced runes the game wouldn’t recognize as correct.  Given these factors, casting magic in the middle of combat quickly becomes a near impossible task (there’s no pause feature, either).  The game does offer 3 “quick cast” slots that you can prepare in advance, but 3 is not nearly enough to be much use in tougher battles, and once you use them, they’re gone.  While I recognize and appreciate what the developers were trying to achieve, I won’t pretend that it worked, and whenever I could help it, I used magic only before and after battle in a support role.  So the highly touted spellcasting element was a fun (but needless) little “you are there” diversion, but making hand to hand combat UNrealistic and spellcasting TOO realistic is not my idea of fine game balance.

The strongest feature of Arx Fatalis is its abundance of atmosphere, and the game has a real “adventure” quality to it, with a focus on exploration and plenty of puzzles to offset the battles.  The gameworld offers plenty of interactivity, as a huge number of items can be picked up, bought and sold, made into potions, or even cooked and eaten.  The latter is a requirement, as your character will periodically inform you that he’s hungry and must be fed, so it’s important to keep a significant supply of food on hand to satisfy his piggish appetite.  The environments aren’t overly populated by inhabitants, but there are enough to give the sense of a dynamic world, and the presence of such animals as mice, chickens, and little puppies is a welcome touch.

The game is not overly long, and follows a largely linear path, with only a few optional sub-quests in the mix.   If not for its obvious drawbacks in other critical areas, I would wholeheartedly be recommending this game as a good crossover title for adventure gamers looking to break into the RPG genre.  As it is, I can’t quite bring myself to do so.

What Arx does well it does QUITE well. Unfortunately, what it does poorly, it does VERY poorly.  This will understandably disappoint some gamers, which is all the more a shame because the problems appear to be design decisions rather than flaws in the execution.  So the final question is, is it FUN?

All in all, the pluses do ultimately outweigh the minuses, but not by nearly as much as they easily could have.  Whether or not the game will appeal to you will be a personal matter and highly dependent on your expectations going in.  I’m not as willing as some to overlook the game’s glaring weaknesses, but I’m glad I persevered through its failings, because there’s a reasonably good time to be had if you can find it.  Much like the city of Arx itself, it’s an impressive, interesting world that’s regrettably hidden deep underground.  

Final score: 67%

Played on:

Win XP

P4, 2 Ghz

512 MB RAM

GeForce 4


This document may not be distributed without express written permission of the author and the content may not be altered in any way.

For questions or comments on this review,
Please write to: Singer

design copyright © 2003 GameBoomers Group

 Reviews Index