Title: Arx Fatalis (working title: "The Guardian of Arx")
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: JoWooD Productions (PC), Dreamcatcher Interactive (Xbox)
Date Published: June 2002 (France, Germany) October 30th 2002 (US), November 8th 2002 (UK); Xbox version due Winter 2003
Platforms: PC CD-ROM, Microsoft Xbox
ESRB/ELSPA Rating: Mature/15+

Arx Fatalis is the debut title from French developers Arkane Studios. It is a computer role-playing game presented from a first-person perspective, and set entirely in subterranean locations. The game has been intentionally positioned as a 'spiritual successor' to the classic Ultima Underworld games developed by Looking Glass Studios for Origin Systems in the early 1990s. Arkane even hired some ex-Looking Glass employees (Floodgate Entertainment) to work on the ambient sounds effects and English-language dialogue. The game was met with generally positive critical response (most reviews scoring it around the 80% mark).

The game is based around a fairly standard medieval fantasy setting. The world of Exosta is inhabited by an assortment of intelligent species including humans, dwarves, goblins, trolls, rat-men, lizard-men (Ylsides) and snake-women (the Sisters of Edurneum). These races co-existed in a state of constant hostility on the surface of the world, until a cataclysmic event (a meteor strike) occured, causing the sun to disappear from the sky. As the temperature dropped, the warring races had no option but to band together under the leadership of the human king Poxsellis, combining their forces to excavate sprawling underground settlements. The events of the game take place in one such settlement, a cave network mined below the human capital city of Arx. Each race has claimed a seperate level of the underground fortress, with the humans nearest the surface.

The player takes the role of Am Shagar ("The Nameless One"), a man who has woken up one day to find himself in a dank cell wearing only a loincloth. He doesn't even know his name (or whose stag party it was), because he's lost his memory (yes, that old cliché). To add to his woes, it turns out he is being held captive by some goblins. The game teaches the basic controls as the player is given the task of escaping the cell and killing the jailers. Freedom is a mixed blessing however as the claustrophobic underground empire is populated by denizens both friendly and hostile. Early on, Am Shagar makes contact with a human settlement and finds that the humans are being attacked by the Ylsides. The old rivalries between the races are beginning to flare up again, incensed by some shadowy forces behind the scenes. The goblins are busy enslaving the trolls to mine gems for them. A faction of human dissidents have set up their own colony on Ylside territory. A secretive cult is making sacrifices to an interdimensional dark god called Akbaa that wants to make its home in Arx, and it gradually becomes apparent that Am Shagar has been sent by someone or something to prevent this from happening.

The game's storyline is fairly linear, although as with the Ultima Underworld games, there are many optional side-quests that can have no direct bearing on the main plot. These include robbing a bank, foiling a kidnapping and piecing together the location of a hermit's treasure. For the most part it involves travelling from one area to another (solving simple puzzles and killing enemies along the way) taking items from one character to another in return for access to a new area, or to obtain some other plot-advancing item or ability. It is apparently possible - although very difficult - to complete the game ignoring the plot and attacking everyone, which sounds pointless but demonstrates that there should be no events in the game that lead to an unrecoverable stalemate. (Well, this may be true but the game still becomes pretty hopeless if the player causes too many characters to become hostile towards them.)

The magic system in Arx Fatalis is a combination of the systems found in two previous games: Ultima Underworld and Black & White. As the game progresses, the player collects an alphabet of rune stones. Each of the 19 runes represents a concept in the magic system, e.g. 'Create', 'Negate', 'Fire', 'Movement', 'Life', 'Sight', 'Projectile', etc. Spells are cast by invoking sequences of two to four runes that describe the effect of the spell. Runes are invoked using a gesture-based system almost identical to that seen in Black & White: the player holds down the CTRL key and draws the rune on screen using the mouse. (I'm not sure how this is going to be adapted to the Xbox controller...) It is not possible to invent new spells dynamically, although experimentation is encouraged as not all of the possible spells are listed in the manual. Particularly cool spells include the ability to boil people alive and to summon demons and skeleton warriors. There are even some 'secret' spells that activate cheats and quirky visual effects (such as giving all the characters giant heads).

One of the most notable aspects of Arx Fatalis is the highly versatile object interaction system. Many objects that the player can collect during the game can be combined to make new objects. Although all of these combinations are predetermined, this system adds to the illusion of realism and is occasionally satisfying to find that the designers have anticipated for objects to be usable in logical ways. One perversely satisfying inclusion is the ability to prepare and cook food, instead of having your meals packaged in non-descript 'rations' as in some other RPGs. You can, for instance, cook an apple pie by mixing flour and water, rolling out the pastry with a rolling pin, adding apples, and placing the uncooked pie near a fire or other heat source (such as a blacksmith's forge- also perfect for barbecues). Ultima fans will be glad to hear that you can also bake bread. You can even (should you be particularly callous and/or hungry) kill people's dogs and roast the meat. You can use a pestle and mortar to make potions from plants and flowers you collect, and also have the ability to fashion some rudimentary tools such as fishing rods and stakes (useful for banishing zombies). Some of the objects in the game have multiple uses - for instance the pickaxe can be used to prise gems out of the cave walls as well as breaking through weak stone slabs or other barriers.

Of course there are more aspects to the game than just baking the odd pie. For one thing there is combat- one of the game's weakest areas. You can use melée weapons as well as bows and arrows and offensive spells. Close quarters fighting boils down to holding down the mouse button to wind up your blow, and then rushing toward the enemy, loosing the blow and quickly darting back. The enemy AI is relatively simplistic, rushing to attack until it is nearly out of health, and then scurrying away calling for help for a short while, before advancing to make another attack. The combat interface is slow and clumsy and involves little skill.

Considering that the game is set entirely underground, the locations are surprisingly varied, although they are all rather murky. The goblins have built dirty and cramped stone dungeons, the trolls live in (very natural looking) caves and sloping mine tunnels. The humans have built a city (and even a castle or two) inside very large, high-ceilinged caverns. The lower levels have increasingly exotic and macabre styles of architecture (including a very grisly area that appears to be made of corned beef and human skulls).

There are only a few different kinds of enemies that are encountered throughout the course of the game, but Arkane Studios should at least be given credit for making them very varied. Early on, the player will face goblins, rats and (un-nervingly well animated) giant spiders, but later on they must contend with the undead (including some very dangerous liches), dragons, and a Dune-style tunnel-burrowing giant worm. One enemy in the game will be familiar to players of that classic French adventure game Another World (a.k.a. Out of This World) - the Black Thing, an indestructible leonine black beast with glowing red eyes, that can only be dealt with by luring it into a trap.

The graphics in the game are satisfying enough without ever offering anything hugely impressive. Detail textures (repeating patterns, such as pockmarks or wood grain, overlaid on surfaces when the player moves very close to them) and bump-mapping are used liberally. The flame effect used for fireplaces and torches is quite convincing. The setting prevents there from being any sprawling outdoor locations or much in the way of weather effects. Character models are one of the game's weaknesses, with the other humans the player encounters looking sporting crude, angular faces and slow, stiff walking and fighting animation. Occlusion culling seems to be virtually non-existant in the graphics engine, so the framerate can get noticably bogged down when complex scenes enter the frame. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Arx Fatalis is one of the few first-person games where one can see the protagonist's feet, which is a nice touch.

Sonically, Arx Fatalis boasts some highly atmospheric ambient sound. Torches crackle, footsteps crunch on sand and echo on stone, and faint moans and cries emanate from the darkness. There is a nice lute sting that is played when the player manages to solve a puzzle of uncover a secret. Voice acting is unfortunately somewhat inconsistent. Am Shagar has a suitably deep, heroic Steven Seagal voice which sounds good when he tersely delivers status messages ("I'm hungry...", "I can't break it with my bare hands...", "It's too complicated...", and, excellently, after quick-saving: "I hope I'm not about to do something stupid...") but sounds like he's half-asleep when conversing with other characters at any length. The other human characters are hammed up (with some characters having American accents, always a contentious issue for medieval-style games). The goblins and trolls have the best voice acting of the lot, especially the goblins who play up the classic 'me hate hoomans' pidgin English with relish, taunting Am Shagar as they engage him in battle ("You fight like a girl goblin!").

Arx Fatalis is no classic of its genre, but it is at least above average. In design terms it is very 'old school', sticking closely to Ultima Underworld's conventions rather than incorporating refinements from later games such as System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. Technically the game has some major shortcomings (especially compared to games like The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind) with the animation and the fiddly controls putting a dampener on things. Most of the problems can be attributed to the game's engine, which was apparently written early in the project as a kind of 'proof of concept', and then extended haphazardly instead of ever being rewritten more cleanly. Even after several patches the game is temperamental and occasionally crashes to the desktop. However under the curmudgeonly exterior there is a fairly solid and entertaining game with some interesting ideas. The game is the project that the developers set up in business to make, rather than some contract job that they've taken on to pay the bills, and as such one can appreciate the effort and attention to detail that they have put into it. Hopefully their next title might venture above ground...

Note: Arx Fatalis was the first PC game to include my name in the (manual) credits, so I may have given it the benefit of the doubt on some points. Also, you can blame WyldWynd for the eyebrow-raising prose in the manual. "Your destiny awaits, hero...", indeed... ;)


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