Arx Fatalis Game Review: Revisiting a Classic

Ah, Arx Fatalis. This game takes me back to the role-playing past, where the lack of modern RPG comforts were the norm and you had to spend hours traveling. I came upon this 2002 classic RPG while searching for new games to play. The game was available on Steam and the price was a steal. So I thought, "Hm. Why not?" and bought it just for old time's sake.

I go through the motions of installing the game on my PC, and I was thinking- would the outdated graphics and gameplay still hold up to today's standards? Will I lose interest 1, 2 hours in, or would I re-discover the magic and the charm Arx Fatalis provides? Will the lack of modern RPG comforts turn me off, or would it bring back nostalgia and make for a refreshing experience?

Once installation was complete, I double-clicked the desktop icon and I was off! Here's a retrospect of Arx Fatalis a look back at a classic game:

Arx Fatalis- The Manual

At first I saw the 69-page manual and thought no one does manual anymore, except for Nintendo. This manual is supposed to be a handy journal for the player as he goes to explore the relative unknown. In it, you get basic key movements and things you should know about- stats, moves, skills, etc. Arx Fatalis has managed to squeeze in a personal tone that really sets it apart from all the other manuals I've read.

Arx Fatalis is a single player RPG that's done in first person view. It's more of a traditional RPG game (think dice and actual quests) than a straight-up hack n' slash like the Diablo series. You have the staple stats and some extra information such as Life Energy, Mana, Resistance to Poison, Resistance to Magic, Armor Class, etc. Your base stats change depending on your worn equipment. Spend the initial points on whatever you plan to be- Strength, Dex, Intelligence and Constitution. I went for the typical warrior and pumped both Strength and Constitution.

Speaking of skills, what RPG would be worth its salt without the skills? Arx Fatalis has them in spades. There's mainstay ones like Defend, Projectiles, Close Combat and Stealth, and specialized ones such as Object Knowledge (needed to repair weapons, items and armor) and Intuition, which lets the player detect certain hidden passages, objects or traps. There are some more in the game as I went along.

Arx Fatalis- The Story

In the beginning of time there was a great land called Exosta. It was a fair land populated by all manners of creatures- Humans, Ratmen, Orcs and more. Everything was prosperous until a climactic event happened and the sun died. Everything turned to darkness, and all those who survived sought shelter underground. They found refuge in the old Dwarven mines that were called Arx. The races had no choice but to cooperate, but soon there was conflict. Akbaa, the Lord of Destruction caused much havoc between the races. Akbaa gathered several allies, chief among them Iserbius, a human high priest. Both began a cult that worshipped great demons, and a reign of terror started in Arx. A master astronomer employed by King Lunshire was brought to eternal silence when he discovered the dark cult. But he was able to send a cryptic message to Sybarta, which acted as a balance between good and evil. Sybarta then called upon a champion (which they named Arx), to carry out on an important mission to restore balance by shackling back the Lord of Destruction. No one knows what happened to the brave hero, or how he will carry on his mission to restore Arx to peace and order.

Arx Fatalis- The Game

I woke up in a dark dungeon with nary an item or memory with me. As I searched around the dungeon, a prisoner started conversing, and then an opportunity to break out happens. I kill the guard using a bone and crawled out of a tunnel. Then I saw that I was in a goblin keep. Oh boy. Here we go again.

The first part of the game plays like Thief. You'll need to be careful of where you step. Guards are posted on every corner, and you'll need to be clever with your items. It works just like you thought it would- throwing an object and sending it clattering across the room will alert the guards and lead them there. Lit torches can be put out with water. It's a clever engine that will keep you thinking of the possibilities in-game. I grabbed every item I could find and was finally rewarded with a dagger for stabbing the goblins' backs with.

I was a bit pleased to find the goblins are life-like in the game. Some of them walk around and talk to themselves to pass the time, talk to each other as they guard the doors. When they find you, they'll shriek real goblin screams and throw themselves at you. For me, it's the little things that make the game experience better. And so I killed them all, and found my way into a natural cavern filled with huge rats and underground streams.

Eventually you'll find an automap feature, but it doesn't work as intended. It won't be as helpful as far as knowing where you are and where you need to go. The fog of war makes map reading more difficult. The only use I got out of it was knowing where north was. No notes and all that modern niceties. I had to leg it without using the map most of the time.

Press a key and you get into a clunky interface. I'd have to say that Arx Fatalis hasn't aged well. I continually looked for RPG conveniences, which certainly was absent from Arx Fatalis. It'd be best to look at it and try to get used to it in a couple of hours. First, the whole thing loads slowly and you'd need ten or so clicks to get to where you need to be. Does it all have to be frustrating? There was one time when I changed the settings and everything became too small. Inventory is limited and you'll have to make decisions later on- which ones should I keep, and which ones do I throw on the ground? But fear not, because there are bag upgrades later on as you progress in the game.

I discovered that Stealth was an extremely useful skill in Arx Fatalis. Sneak up on an unsuspecting victim, then place a fine blade in between their shoulder blades. Of course I wasn't able to get that much sneaking in with my classic Warrior type. I'd have to create a whole new character, but I decided to stick with the character I have now.

Soon, I made my way out of the goblin-infested cave and finally reached civilization. Wait, what happened to it? I talked to the wounded soldier in the street. He asked me to find his captain and report the detail that a Slither was blocking the path to more accessible routes. That soldier gave me a quest- to find another route and tell the king what befell their kingdom. No further information was given, and the map was useless. Oh well. I spent the better part of the hour navigating the streets and trying to find an alternate route. I went to the city and reported all the details to the king. Then I went shopping.

The city had shops that allowed me to unload some of the items in my backpack for X amount of gold. With the gold, I browsed through some weapons and bought a slightly better upgrade from the rusty dagger I had earlier. Once satisfied, I continued on with the quest and spoke to the king about felling the Slither to make the path accessible again.

Here I was reminded about the X amount of sidequests I kept discovering to move the main quest along. It's a branching, exhaustive element of an RPG that has survived, one that keeps making its way into RPGs. Until they find a more engaging way to move the story along, who was I to complain? After I spoke to the king, he mentioned that some giants will be able to help, but first, I had to negotiate with them about the matter. When I arrived, they had a problem that needed clearing up. The conclave of giants refused to work for the goblins to find valuable gems. They wanted to send me as an ambassador to the goblins. Off I went to the goblins and had to poison the goblin king's fare to get to the throne room. Then, I struck a deal with the Goblin King to access a forbidden area, and in exchange he will deal with the giants. All of these had to be done in order to progress, so I did it as fast as I could.

Arx Fatalis- The Mechanics

Think Elder Scrolls without the teleporting, and you'll have a good idea of how travel goes in Arx Fatalis. You can't escape it, because walking in Arx Fatalis is one of the things you'll do over and over again. The movement is clunky and I feel like I was moving in a molasses-filled world. You'd best shut off your brain or listen to some music to get over the tiresome walking around. As a last minute consideration, the devs thought about putting in fast-travel portals, but it seemed they haven't given it much thought. There are very few portals and they appear late in the game.

Now, let's talk about combat. It's done in real-time. Much like actual combat, you'd need to get in close to swing your melee weapon and hit your enemy. As I mentioned before, movement is slow and therefore combat gets dragged out unnecessarily. The system works in Elder Scrolls, but not particularly well in Arx Fatalis. You'd have to forgive the game because it came out in 2002. Combat is a clicking affair- hold it down to deal more damage. There's only one attack. If you are behind a target and they didn't see you, then you get added backstabbing damage. Critical hit is rolled and decided by how dexterous your character is.

I found some enjoyment shooting the bow and arrow in this game. The mechanics work well, and I didn't have to get in close. Damage dealt is less but you can strafe or step back as you shoot. There's also the spell-slinging mechanics, which don't go well with warriors. You'd have to mix and match rune types that you find in-game. These would give you certain spells to work with. It's all fine until the time comes to unleash your spell. You see, you'd have to draw the runes in the air in order to get it off. This done at the heat of combat will reduce you to a nervous wreck. Good thing I'm a warrior. None of this air-drawing nonsense! Well, until I create a wizard, that is. But that's for another time.

Arx Fatalis is an amalgam of certain mechanics, one of them being Fallout. You see, eating is an integral part of the game. Food can be found and stored in-game. Your character voices out his or her hunger, then you click on that bread in the inventory and give it to him/her. Other than that, it serves little purpose or extra features in the game. At best, it's a mini-game built in, where you can cleverly mix in ingredients to make food, or cook your meat. Potions are made the same way- combine different things to come up with certain potion types.

Gain XP by killing monsters and completing quests. You level up when you reach a certain number of XP. You also get one point you can add to Str, Dex, Con or Int, and 15 points for skill allocation. You won't need to spend them all at once.

Your armor and weapons degrade as you fight. You'll have to repair them constantly or they'll break. Weapons and armor are quite expensive, and it will do you a world of good to keep an eye out on the durability. Find blacksmiths in town to keep them sharp and shiny.

Overall Arx Fatalis starts out interestingly well, but the distance you have to travel and the movement itself will become an annoyance. You'll be pleased with some of the mechanics that have carried over to the newer RPG games and will find that you're missing out on some of the conveniences that make the role-playing experience better. Arx Fatalis strikes a fine balance between tediousness and good old RPG storytelling.

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