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Arx Fatalis Review

by Sia 'Garrett' Manzari, 2002-08-01

Trapped in a dungeon, all on your own, no way back and the unknown before you, filled with dangerous perils, lurking beasts, dark secrets and great wonders...those were the ingredients of two of the most succesful and highest acclaimed Computer RPGs of all time. I am talking about Ultima Underworld parts 1 and 2, of course. Since then, and 'then' means since 1993, the Underworld fans have waited for a third installment in the series and now, finally the wait is over! While an official Underworld 3 is more than unlikely, the French company Arkane Studios has ended the wait of a decade with Arx Fatalis, a game the developers themselves consider to be the unofficial Underworld sequel. But can Arx Fatalis live up to its spiritual father?

The Story of Exosta

Our story takes place on the planet of Exosta, in the city of Arx, to be more specific. And to be even more specific, it doesn't take place in Arx, but below it. This is because the people had to leave the surface of Exosta after the sun has faded away years ago and have settled in the underground, into an old dwarven mine, where each race was given a level of its own and so the caves are inhabited by humans of course, by goblins and trolls, by some kind of snake women called the Sisters of Edurneum, by Ratmen and by a lot of other beings, like dogs, rats, chicken, but also many unfriendly beasts as well.
The introduction movie, which is being presented partly with the in-game graphics engine and partly with scrolled pictures (like in the Thief 1 & 2) shows a Ratman assassinating a priest, who is just about to explain the story of Arx, about the sun and the caves and about a threat, that is upon Arx in the form of Akbaa - that is all he can tell us before his untimely end!

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Where am I? Who am I?

After the intro movie you generate your playing character, which, despite its 4 attributes strength, intelligence, dexterity and constitution and its 9 skills, including e.g. Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Defense, Magic, Sneaking or Object Lore is not too complex, but leaves enough room to customize the hero (only a hero is available, no heroine, and you can choose among 4 faces for your alter ego) before the game actually begins: You wake up in a goblin prison cell and have no memory, who or where you are. Kultar, the fellow prisoner, gives you the name of Am Shaegar for now, which means something like 'The Nameless' and helps you to escape the prison cell. The escape leads to the first encounter already in which you fight a goblin guard with a bone, since there is no other weapon of use yet.

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Those creatures think!!!

Combat is done with your mouse: You hold down the left mouse button, and the longer you hold it, the harder you hit with one of the three standard types of attacks, namely slash, swing and thrust. The above mentioned goblin is not too hard to overcome and has some nice goodies with him, as you can search almost every dead enemy for his inventory. The next encounters are rats and spiders, before you come back for more goblin encounters. And it is now, that the excellent NPC AI unfolds: Goblins in the prison guard patrol several hallways and rooms and if they hear you, they stop and look for you or whatever made the noise. And if it comes to combat, they call for help and other goblins come really running to assist them. Or, if you hit them too hard, they run away to get help and are really actually coming back and are looking for you - this is something I have never before witnessed in any computer game and totally amazing! On the downside regarding AI, some NPC get stuck in objects or keep walking towards a wall for ages; but this happens very, very rarely (actually only one guard did this in my game).
If a fight becomes too hard, you can swallow a healing potion or restore you mana pool by pressing quick keys, something I missed in the first few hours of gameplay and my First Impressions article, I have to admit.
Later in the game, you will also find a bow for ranged combat, which is very much fun indeed, since it is done simlar to the ranged attacks as it was introduced in Thief 1 & 2: Once equipped and readied, the target is zoomed into your view and you fire the arrow from a hidden or unreachable spot very satisfactory and very effective, because unnoticed attacks seem to be more harmful! I say seem to, because there is no feedback, how many life points have been taken away.
But this is still not all there is in combat, as you can poison your weapons or arrows to do even more damage. You can even enchant your armor and weapons to make them unbreakable or harder for example. But before we continue with more ways of object manipulation, let's take a look at the magic in Arx Fatalis.

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Paint In Magic

Magic is based on runes you will find along your journey though Arx Fatalis. There are 20 runes, each with a different meaning, for example a magic arrow ist the combination of the runes Aam Taar, where Aam means 'Create' and Taar means 'Bolt'. Altogether, the manual reveals 10 circles of magic spells with 4 spells each, but the inventive player will find some more spell combinations, one of which is extremely powerful...
To cast a spell, you have to paint all of the involved runes for it with your mouse and then unleash the spell or save it in one of your three quick spell slots, to have them ready in combat. But even during combat, it can be fun to cast spells; it is a little tricky and requires training, because you have to avoid the attacks at the same time, but it is possible and success is even sweeter then. As said before, you can also enchant weapons or armour with a certain spell, but for enchanting you need reagents, like for example a special stone, that makes items unbreakable or harder or stronger.

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Object Interaction

Items in Arx Fatalis can break and need repair, which decreases their overall durability, if your repair skill is too low - therefore having items repaired at the armourer is recommendable in the beginning. You can also enchant items or merge them into something new, for example, when you want to bake bread or a cake you mix flour with water and put the dough in the oven, add apples and you have a cake or add poison and you have a poisoned cake, which also impacts NPCs, if they eat it. You can also mix potions, if your skill is high enough, where you need different flowers for different potions, which regenrate life or mana, make ou invisible, or heal poison.
Furthermore, you can move a lot of things in Arx Fatalis, to reveal hidden items or to throw them at opponents or block a way or the possibilites are almost endless and the objects do fly and fall physically correct (as far as I can judge that at least). Something which I didn't like in object interaction, is that you cannot have someone else identify something for you, you will have to wait, until your skill is high enough or never know the meaning of an unidentified object.

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Character Interaction

Closely related to object interaction in character interaction, which is merely done by clicking on characters, which opens dialogues, but leaves no multiple choice answers, which is a pity and would add to gameplay a lot. You can also use key items on NPCs, which opens a cutscene or dialogue, leads to a fight or a new quest. When you are being assigned a quest or something important happens, it is always recorded in your Journal.

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The Journal

The Journal consits of a character sheet with all the equipped armour and weapons, the current level, the XPs, attributes and skills - here you also distribute new points when you level up. Then we have the spell book, with all the runes you found so far and all the spells you can cast with them. Quests and plot changes are also kept track here, in the journal segment, automatically and there is no real quest log or even a subheader with quests and done quests.
Another aspect that needs improvement is the automap, which shows the ground you walked upon only, but no walls of houses or castles, and unfortunately, you cannot take your own notes on it either and the book it is in covers almost the whole screen, so you can't really move while in the map, instead the right hand side of the book shows a useless zoomed view of the nearer environment again. A transparent map like in Diabo or a resizeable one like in Morrowind would have been a lot more useful, still it is ok to use, since the level design is good enough to remember most of it without a map.

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The Looks of Arx

The game offers resolutions from 640x480x16 up to 1600x1200x32, where the latter totally rocks and is still very smooth with a fast machine and a GeForce 3 or 4 Ti. The levels are put in scene extremely beautiful, where the style of the graphics changes from medieval in the city of Arx, via a rough environment in different dungeon levels to somewhat spacey in the Edurneum outpost. The textures are very detailed from the low distant also and add a lot to the atmosphere. Spell effects are state of the art and NPC animations are quite smooth for women or the Sisters of Edurneum or quite rough for trolls or other clumsy animals.
My favourite dungeon in Arx Fatalis is the crypt: I really was afraid here, because behind each door or corner there could be an undead waiting for you. And because the line of sight is limited in this area, before you know where they are, you first hear them, saying something 'come here become one of us ' in a very creepy voice!

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The Sounds of Arx

Which brings us to the audio aspect. The sound effects are, I put it directly, the best I have ever heard so far. EAX works great and this adds a major portion of the game's fantastic atmosphere. Your footsteps, for example do change according to the ground and the type of armour you are wearing. Different NPCs and monsters have different footsteps and ambient sound, be it water or wind is realistic as well.
The voice acting is very professional too. I have played the German version, which offers one of the best localizations ever (by the way, the english version is done by Floodgate, Ex-Looking Glass' Paul Neurath new company, so I trust it will be equally great).
Finally, the audio aspect includes music, where Arx Fatalis offers none, almost at least. Now, nobody was more surprised than me, that a RPG Music junkie as I am can enjoy a game without an actual Soundtrack, but it works! The sound effects and ambient sounds do an excellent job and maybe even draw you deeper into the game as if there was music playing.

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So, I have told you a lot about the game now, but the most important question is: Is it fun to play? In one word: YES!
A great story unfolds, with some twists and turns, excellent atmosphere, great graphics and wits! Yes, you need all your wits in Arx Fatalis, more than in any other RPG I know. Arx Fatalis is the RPG with the highest number of puzzles and secrets, it is not a simple hack'n'slay RPG. Most puzzles or quests are solvable in more than one way, you can for example either fulfill the quest in the way the quest giver means it or steal the reward from the quest giver. You can play good or bad, and still can solve the game, which is what I call intelligent game design! Or, there is actually one level in the game, where there is only one (!) enemy, and this one enemy cannot be defeated by simple combat, but by using your wits Kudos, Arkane, very well done!

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Everything in Arx Fatalis, beginning with the clever dungeon design, the exciting story or the challenging puzzles makes it the most intelligent RPG these days! If you love sophisticated gameplay (or are an Ultima Underworld Fan), there is no way for you to avoid Arx Fatalis, if not, go ahead and play Diablo or Dungeon Siege, but be sure you will miss something very special.

The Verdict
Graphics (15%) 90%
Sound (15%) 90%
Control (25%) 85%
Fun (45%) 95%
Overall 91%

The ups and downs:
Immersive and exciting storyLong loading times
Very good graphicsBad journal
Outstanding SoundNot so good Automap
Innovative Spell SystemNo multiple choice dialogues
Free character developmentNasty bugs before v 1.12
Many Secrets to explore
Many puzzles
Excellent Dungeon Design

Reviewer's System
Version: 1.12
CPU: Pentium 4 1.8 GHz
RAM: 512 Rambus
Graphics Elsa GeForce 3
Sound SB Live Platinum
OS: Windows ME

Average Reader Ratings: 7.95 (337 votes)
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