Some games are over-hyped, others receive far less credit than they deserve, and every so often a game simply falls through the cracks and gets almost no attention at all. Arx Fatalis
falls solidly into the third category and this is a real shame considering it has the unique distinction of being a decent role playing game for the Xbox.
The best place to start a discussion of Arx Fatalis is with another First Person RPG that received far more attention: Morrowind. Both of these games share enough qualities that if you were a fan of Morrowind's game play, keep on reading. One area in which the two games differ greatly is in Arx's more focused story and progression. Morrowind was a sprawling world with seemingly limitless content that some people considered too aimless. Arx is broken down into specific areas and quests that keep the storyline moving along nicely.
So what is the fate of Arx? Many ages ago the world of Arx was plunged into darkness when the sun decided to disappear. Humans, Dwarfs, Snakewomen, Goblins, Trolls and Ratmen worked together to build a new world underground. Trolls were useful for their brute strength, the snake women provided life giving magic and the Ratmen cornered the market on poisoned assassin's daggers of plus five strength. After a vast underworld had been established the different races began receding to their own areas. It's only a matter of time before they are back at each other's throats.
Players take on the role of Am Shagar, a man with no possessions, no pants, and no memory of his past. In the universe of role playing games, characters rarely retain their memories for more than a couple of weeks before and after taking on major quests to save the world. Am Shagar is introduced to the world of Arx from a grimy jail cell under the watch of a number of very rude goblins. He immediately grabs a bone, and begins plotting an escape.
In the beginning of the game, when you're equipped with a loin cloth and someone's femur, bullying people is not an intelligent choice. A bit of stealth is necessary, which is made possible by the ability to put out torches and sit in the shadows. There is also a meter onscreen that indicates how visible a player is to his enemies. There are also ways to turn the goblins against each other, or trick them into letting you pass. Do not expect solutions to the puzzles in Arx Fatalis to fall into your lap. This game has a few tricky spots, and some puzzles border on frustrating. In most cases there is an option to solve the puzzles through brute force. That is, if you do not feel like finding a secret passage, just kill all of the guards blocking the path.
As in other RPGs players can choose which skills and abilities to improve on over the course of the game. With each new level players can add points to a number of different areas. Typically, experience is gained from killing enemies and completing quests. If you prefer beating goblins over the head to enhancing powerful magic spells, then strength should receive the most attention.
Other areas of skill include stealth, lock picking, ranged attacks, enchantment, and object knowledge. Personally, I am the type of player that enjoys creating a well rounded character and putting in enough time that it eventually excels in all areas. I would not recommend this style of game play for Arx. There are a set number of enemies and quests in this game and once players assign experience to a specific area it can't be changed later. Experience is also limited so choose wisely when doling out those points.
One of the best features of Arx Fatalis is the extent to which items interact. A prime example of this is demonstrated through the food system. Am Shagar will get hungry on his quest and he will let you know when it's time to eat. Munching on ready to eat food like a barrel of apples or some wedges of cheese provides limited sustenance and it will not be long before Am starts moaning with hunger cramps. One solution to feeding yourself involves finding a live chicken. A single attack with a sword will turn the live chicken into a "whole raw chicken," that can be placed into your inventory. In order to eat any sort of meat, Am Shagar will need to prepare it by placing it near a fire. This recipe can also be shortened by blasting a live chicken with a fire spell. Other food related activities involve assembling a fishing rod and discovering the steps necessary for making an apple pie. Prepared items not only satisfy hunger more efficiently they also add to a player's health.
Hack and Slash
Fighting in Arx is relatively simple. Like Morrowind, the right trigger will pull back the equipped weapon and releasing the trigger will result in a swing, thrust, or in the case of a bow: a shot. A diamond shaped indicator at the bottom of the screen will glow brighter the longer the trigger is held indicating a more powerful attack. This system doesn't offer much depth in terms of hand to hand combat. Choose your weapon, hack, slash, and repeat. Weapons and armor can both be enchanted with special attributes to improve Am Shagar's abilities. Armor also comes with a stealth rating that will affect a character's stealth.
Those Magic Hands
One original section of Arx is its handling of the magic system. Players will need to find and equip "ruins" in order to gain access to different spells. In the PC version players used the mouse to literally drawl different ruin symbols in the air. On the Xbox each ruin refers to a different series of button combos and players will need to string these combos together in order to cast spells. The sequences for each available spell are listed in your nifty spell book, however even the simple spell for lighting a torch is a four-button combo on the directional pad. If players choose to rely on magic they will quickly find that it is too difficult to memorize multiple spell combos and constantly checking the spell book becomes annoying.
Luckily the nice people at Arkane have included an arcade magic system which simplifies spell casting to choosing a spell and hitting a single button. Magic is a very powerful weapon in the world of Arx, and with no penalty for using the arcade method players can overcome normally powerful adversaries by casually firing off a series of fireballs. Spells will allow players to levitate, drain resources from adversaries and disable traps on treasure chests. There is also a summon spell which rips a hole into another dimension and calls upon a creature to help players in battle. Casting summon at its lowest level will result in the appearance of a chicken. I enjoyed leaving a trail of chickens across the game so much that I never advanced my summoning skills.
Players can also collect items and build skills towards brewing their own potions, repairing weapons and armor and sneaking around in the dark. These are very nice options, but there is no reason to choose one skill set over another. For example, there are no quests that will rewards players more for using stealth over force.
Overall the game feels slightly sub-par in the graphics department, especially when compared to the outdoor environments of Morrowind. The world feels blocky and has an extremely dull color palette. This is more of an artistic decision than a failure considering large sections of the world are comprised of dirty stone blocks. The world of Arx exists completely underground with the only light emanating from torches and camp fires. A few hours with this game will have players stepping outside to get a look at the sky.
I would routinely cast magic spells just to add some color to the otherwise dark and brooding atmosphere of Arx. However, magic effects are less than spectacular and most spells are graphically boring.
It feels as though the developers were pushing everything towards depressing and claustrophobic and they succeeded.
The character models are average looking, with a few noticeable lip-synching problems. Humans are fairly boring compared to the visual style of the other races in Arx. Spiders and Ratmen are creepy and the Snakewomen of Endurneum are both attractive and grotesque. To clarify, the snake part is gross, the woman part is attractive.
The sounds of Arx successfully add to the enclosed atmosphere of the game. The use of music is sparse, with more attention paid to the crackling of fires, gurgling brooks, and squawking chickens. When music does kick in it's an entirely forgettable affair. Communication consists completely of voice acting and on the whole it is well done. I found the goblins to be particularly entertaining when they are argue amongst themselves.
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