Notes: I have not played Ultima Underworld, which is said to be the inspiration for this game. I have only completed about 7 of the 8 levels (guess that's it).
To start of with the story; you begin in a goblin prison in the world of Arx, an ensemble of tunnels, dungeons, crypts and cities underground that where built as the sun disappeared, and left the upper world a vast land of ice. You can't remember anything; and you'll have to escape. Not a very original start, but the story becomes a lot more interesting after a few hours. It really gets a hold on you and includes some good twists; and subsequently drags the game rating upwards.
Like most RPGs, you start selecting skills: 4 main (strength, constitution, dexterity and intelligence) which all will affect your other subskills such as stealth, close-combat, ranged combat, 6th sense for finding secrets, lockpicking and so on. When gaining a level you'll get 1 main skill point and several subskill points. This would normally lead to the choice of whether becoming a mage, thief, bowman or fighter. However, this game urges you to end up to be a more all-around character to survive, which I didn't like. I prefer, for example, to become a perfect thief, expert in stealth which hopefully would get me through everything. That didn't work well. In addition, the difficulty level is pretty high, and I didn't feel that much of a boost in strength when gaining levels.
The gameplay is satisfying. You'll enter battle mode, magic mode, stealth mode or interactive/inventory mode with four different buttons.
Battle mode is exactly like Morrowind, quite dynamic as you will try to evade the enemy's strike while you are loading up strength for your sword-blow or bow-shot.
The stealth mode works ok, but doesn't turn out to be a skill to prioritize for combat, in opposition to Oblivion where you could kill of most enemies in constant hiding. You get a first or second backstab strike however, which causes more damage. On the other side, you can steal with high enough stealth level, and in comparison to Oblivion, the NPCs say "put that back" or "stop" if they see you, allowing you make it up by not taking anything.
With interactive/inventory mode (RM click) the inventory opens and you can pick up drag, or whatever; very simple and easy.
Last, but definitely not least, the magic mode is very original and interesting. You'll collect runes along your journey with drawings on them; not more complicated than some lines or circles, which you'll have to draw with your hand to cast spells. This becomes hectic in the midst of a fight ( too much for me), so the "precast spell"-function is great here: precast three spells to just activate them buy pushing "1", "2" or "3" on the keyboard. That said, it could have been smart to always be able to preset a spell to one button, not having to recast them every time.
The setting is medieval, and the whole atmosphere is quite dark and a little dull, and fits the game perfectly. The graphics are good, but remember it is an older game. The characters, especially humans, are a bit too square to me. The sound effects are good and quite scary in the crypts for example. The sounds while performing spells are really great, some old magician's voice. I love it.
The dialogues and cut-scenes aren't good enough, and the main character (you) seems completely uninterested: -"I seem to get dragged into a lot of things…alright, King, I will see what I can do.." and his voice is boring. The other NPCs (only a limited number) usually have only three lines, which add to the dullness of discussions. In addition, you are not offered choices in dialogues.
The game is a little linear, I found myself following the main quest. However you'll find a lot just searching around, despite the fact that the levels are quite small. It seems bigger because you'll have to go through many of the same areas over and over again, and the big number of secrets and hidden paths (thank god for the portals that can be activated later on). Despite of the impossibility to make your own choices in dialogue, you'll have the chance to act in different ways during a few selected quests; leaving you with a little feeling of having an impact on the story. Many riddles are difficult and rewarding to solve. However when the riddle involves the main plot, it becomes irritating, and I had to resort to a walkthrough several times. That was also the case when, although the game is quite linear, it is difficult on occasions to know where to go to find clues about your ongoing quest. You'll just have to wander around hoping to find something. In mention, there is only a limited number of subquests. I would also like to add that the game has a high difficulty, both riddles and combat.
Some other aspects of the game I didn't like include the fact the inventory always fills up. There is little space, even with bag, and at one point I found myself carrying over 20 keys I didn't know what to do with. So in the end, I just dropped them all, relying on the lockpicking skill. Turns out, some doors and chests only open with a key. -Edit: I recently found out that you can buy a keyring and an extra bag to upgrade your inventory space.- In the course of the game, I also ended up missing out on some runes which prevented me for learning some basic spells, which made some levels difficult for me. Also mentionable is the fact that I only relied on a few spells: armor, vision in darkness and fireballs. I also found myself playing with the vision spell most of time, which gives a purple, pink and blue color to everything and adds a heavy breathing sound. That was very annoying, but it was easier to play that way (maybe I should have lit a torch?). There are a satisfying number of potions to make and items to cook; the variety in armor and weapons was very low.
Conclusion: There is a lot to put your finger on in Arx Fatalis. Despite of that, I really enjoyed the experience. I loved the atmosphere and story. The graphics are satisfying and sound effects even greater. The major letdowns were the dialogues, the low number of NPCs, the sometimes too difficult riddles (for me) and the lack of choice. I truthfully encourage any RPG fan to complete this game. However if you haven't played The Elders Scrolls, you better play them