When I first started playing Arx Fatalis, I was hoping for an RPG along the lines of Morrowind. I was looking for a huge non-linear campaign world that would keep me entertained for weeks at a time, maybe months. I also wanted sheer beauty, incredible sound and an engaging plot.
I guess my sights were set a bit too high. Arx Fatalis is a good game, but it is very short-lived and the many flaws with both the game interface and the mission outlines were constantly competing with my ability to enjoy the game. I ended up playing the game all the way though, but several other RPGer friends of mine dropped by the wayside in frustration long before the final battle.
Let’s start with the good. The game is extremely beautiful. Interestingly enough, the entire game takes place underground. The sun over Arx has died. This forced all the intelligent races to seek shelter deep within the ground, inside a convenient dwarven mine. The dwarves themselves gave the upper levels of the mine to the various races, and then simply moved deeper into the ground where they would not be bothered. Now each race, ratmen, humans, trolls, goblins, snakewomen and dwarves reside in their own levels or sections within the mine.
You would think this would make the world kind of boring, but actually you experience a good deal of different climates and textures as you travel, from ice caves to tropical-like waterfalls, to traditional dungeon-like settings to a tiny city and castle within the rock. The snakewomen were able to create light and heat using magic, so the different races are able to grow crops and raise animals pretty much like normal, plus this gives the world its different climates.
The people you meet and the monsters you fight are very interesting. People look realistic and move realistically too. When everything comes together for Arx, the experience is pretty amazing. In the crypts for instance, there is a low fog and you can hear mummies shuffling around. When they pop around the corner moaning "Join us" you may just pop out of your skin for a second.
So the game sounds like a winner, right? Well, not quite. The team at Arkane Studios seems to have gotten all the basics wrong. I was able to solve the game, but I am one of the hardest hardcore RPGers you will find, and even for me it was a constant struggle against the interface.
Let’s start with the sound. The music in the game is extremely loud, yet the voice track seems to have been recorded with all the actors sitting under several blankets. You can never hear what they are saying, especially in cut scenes when you are supposed to be getting important plot details. You can lower the music volume in the control panel which helps some, though with no music at all, the voice track would still be too low. Even if you do monkey with the settings, all your sound settings go back to the default if you have to re-load your game, or if you exit the game and start playing later.
The graphics are also the same way. The default settings are way too dark. You simply can’t see in some areas. You can adjust the gamma controls, and thankfully they do seem to "stick" in place once changed, unlike the sound.
The combat interface also needs work. There is no health bar or any indication as to how your opponent is doing, so there is no way to determine whether or not you actually have a chance to fight a creature and win. There is also no targeting. The game booklet says to try and aim for an opponents weak spots, but since you can’t aim, that advice is a little silly. Also, you have to "hold your swing" to get maximum power from it. Basically the longer you hold it, the more damage you will do. So of course you run around the dungeon with your axe over your head, waiting for a creature to pop out. That’s extremely silly.
The magic system is a double-edged sword. It’s unique and that is good. You need to draw runes in different patterns by hand using the mouse. When you do the right combination, something like a fireball occurs. But it is also very slow and you are only given three spell slots to save spells in. In combat, that is sometimes not enough, and there is no way you can take time to hand-draw a new spell while someone is hitting you.
The puzzles in the game for the most part are either non-existent or ridiculously difficult. A few are good, like noticing that a statue is pointing out which levers to pull in a lever-filled room. But some, like the one leading to the aforementioned statue room involve just walking around a maze randomly pulling levers and hoping for the best without any help or clues.
The worst are the non-existent ones. As an example, at a key point in the game you need a dragon’s egg. You find one, but there is a dragon guarding it. The dragon says that if you give him the number of gold pieces equal to the number of scales he has (all dragons apparently have the same number of scales) he will give you an egg. You can go back to the castle library and find a book with the number, but why bother? You simply drag your huge pile of gold over to the dragon; he takes the right number and gives you an egg. There is no mechanism in the game to give a certain number of coins.
You might think by reading all the negatives that I did not enjoy the game, which would be wrong. I was disappointed by it, but I still had a pretty good time. If the game were held for another few months to fix the bugs and annoyances, it might have been a lot better. I was intrigued by the game, but constantly put off because not enough thought was put into the basics. Of the four people who I know started playing it, I am the only one who finished before deleting it. If you are the one in four hardcore RPGers, then Arx Fatalis is for you. Otherwise, just wait for the next Morrowind expansion.