Sometimes, as you all know, a good thing slips through the cracks. I can think of several games that for whatever reason were overlooked. There is Beyond Good and Evil, an awesome action adventure game. There is Ico — my personal favorite. And then there is a game that was probably lost due to Morrowind’s influence. Yeah, Morrowind’s a great game. But it caused Arx Fatalis to be an item of obscurity. And those who did pick up Arx Fatalis found a wonderful linear adventure that lets you fiddle with the physical world.
Arx Fatalis follows a man who suffers from amnesia — AND NO! It’s not caused by the usual amnesia crap. (Blow to the head stuff, in reality, never works. Unless you’re Gilligan.) Anyway, he wakes up in the goblin’s level of the underground. “Wait,” you’re probably saying. “Underground?!” Yep. In the world of Arx, the sun exploded a few decades ago, and the world quickly became far too harsh to survive above ground. So instead of freezing to death, the king of the human world decided to move his people inside an abandoned dwarf fortress (and no, not the indie game of the same name) known as Arx. Anyway, our friend Am Shagaer (which means “nameless one” in the game’s universe) escapes from his prison and slowly gets tangled in the dangers threatening the world.
Graphically, one can tell that the game looks a bit dated. (The game was released in 2001.) But don’t let it fool you; tons of details abound. Mold is seen in the cracks of the stones and stalagmites. Torches light up in a flash using a simple spell, and they crackle as they burn. As you cast magic, mystic lights flash as you move the mouse. Certain foods (such as pies) expand as they cook near an open fire. And the fact that it’s underground feels highly claustrophobic. Walls are close together and dark. It’s really neat. Oh yeah, I almost forgot one of the best details of the entire game: If you look down at the floor, you can see the hero’s feet. A feat (pun somewhat intended) that I have never encountered again.
Gameplay is sort of like a role-playing first-person shooter. It sort of plays like Morrowind. (OK, OK, hear me out first, folks, before you start screaming about the comparisons. Both games take the same source of inspiration but channel them in very different ways.) The tab button alternates between combat and exploration mode. The longer you hold the left mouse button, the greater the damage. However, it’s exploration mode that’s the neatest. You can use a ton of stuff, whether it’s moving objects to clear a path, throwing objects to distract an enemy guard and then backstabbing him (or running away or sneaking past him), picking up local flora and then grinding it to create potions, mixing flour and water to create dough ... the amount of physical customization that occurs is staggering! The same is true for character development. How you develop Am Shagaer is completely up to you. Once he gains a level, you get to decide a primary stat to be increased (strength, constitution, mental or dexterity) and 15 points to pump up your secondary stats (or skills) such as combat, defense, objection knowledge, stealth and so on. It all depends on how you want to play through the game. Who says you have to play through a game a certain way?
Arx Fatalis uses runes to create magic. This is accomplished by first finding the proper rune(s). Then you can open your journal, click on the proper spell and close the book. It is at this time you mimic the shape of each rune that is in the upper corner of the screen (or you can bypass the above process entirely if you know the proper runes by heart) by holding down the control key while holding the left-mouse key. It’s cool because it feels like you are casting an ancient spell. However, the game is rather persnickety about the shape of the runes. If it is not exact enough, you can sit there for a few minutes working out the proper shape. Thankfully, you can store up to three spells at a time and release them when needed.
Audio is rather solid. All the necessary fantasy sounds are there: swords and bones clashing against armor, the heavy sounds of armored footsteps, and the battle cries of various beings. There is little music. Instead, it’s just ambience. In a weird way, it adds to the claustrophobic nature of the game. Also, it is important to note that there is voice acting in the game. It is not very good, but it isn’t the worst voice acting ever. It gets the job done, and that is what is important.
Before I forget, it is important to note that game does have a tendency to crash. It’s nothing fatal to my computer’s system or to my saved data. It is annoying though to have a memory error occur every so often. Thankfully, it did not inhibit my desire to play. However, I also have had long times with starting my saved games. At first, I thought it was a bug. But after I set my computer down and got something to drink, my game was ready for me to play. I did this in subsequent plays, and this has occurred almost every time. So my impatience is a major part of the problem for my lack of enjoyment.
Arx Fatalis is a wonderful game. It’s not the most polished game ever made, but it is fun. There are a lot of details that went into this game, and that really shows how much the developers care about it. Unfortunately, there are those moments of crashing. However, if you can absorbed into the world, it may not matter. Even though I could have bought this game back in college, I think I enjoyed it far more than I did all those years ago. I appreciate the elements of the game much more than did when I was 18. Best of all, the game has aged rather well.
Thus, those who are looking for an intriguing action-adventure RPG will probably be content with it. Even though it forces you down a certain path, it wants you to be the hero. Not only because it’s fun, but also because it is the right thing to do. So for about $5 you can download the game from Steam, OR you can pay $6 from GOG.com. Good Old Games dot com promises that Arx Fatalis (and many other games) will work with Vista and XP. Personally, I would go with GOG due to the promised stability (plus you get a bunch of little stuff to go with it). Regardless of which site you choose, it is a great deal, and there is really no excuse not to pick up this game. For some, it might be an odd taste. I believe it is a taste worth going after.