Take the introduction movie and subsequent cut scenes as an example. These are presented as a combination of in-game scenes with surreal hand painted pictures that are scrolled and warped across the screen. Although it may sound cheap, it works beautifully. As a spectator, you're left with enough space for your own imagination, but you still receive a nice dose of artistic direction and overall atmosphere. So much better than watching a botched-up 3D animation, faces stony, movements phony, uncanny valley - you know what i mean, the moment's spoilt (unless we're talking Blizzard and such, of course).
Already the first cut scene shows that what Arkane studios have prepared for you is a rather neatly executed adaptation of the typical hero-lost-his-memory plot. You see more than you can explain with your current knowledge, thus even at the very beginning, you start thrilled and curious about what will happen next.
The storyline takes full advantage from its background settings, which brings some fresh and clever concepts to the game lore: Not long ago, the sun had mysteriously disappeared from the sky and an eternal freezing darkness began. Suddenly, all the inhabitants of the planet found themselves knee deep in the same sh*t, so they ceased all their feuds and started cooperating to save their lives. Together they managed to move their civilizations deep underground to protect themselves from the never ending winter (-nights anybody? ;) - dwarves, humans, goblins, ratmen, you name it. But once all were safe and sound, little by little quarreling started anew...
From this setting, many interesting plots arise - political, economical and personal. The game serves you these in small pieces though, so you're often left with just enough clues to gain a mere insight but nothing more. A very witty and absorbing trick is the way the game handles the reality on the surface of the frozen planet. You get to know a few fragments about it, for instance how some of the boldest daredevils actually roam the frozen plains, establishing a trading guild to deliver crucial goods from one underground diaspora to another. Once you even get to peep at the surface (or rather, just the stars above it). This specific "universe" and your gradual awareness of it create a very immersive atmosphere which makes you want to go and explore, talk to people, discover your purpose.
As if this wouldn't feel realistic (i mean, mature) enough, the authors put you into the shoes of a hero who is anything but your typical swashbuckler, almighty sorcerer or noble paladin. Well, actually, there's much more to him than it originally seems, but at the beginning you start in a loincloth with a thigh bone as your ultimate weapon and it takes quite some time to at least resemble a real warrior.
The voice casting is excellent. You'll hear your hero drop cynical remarks, pessimistic comments and also let out very believable cries and groans, but always within good measure, rarely sounding off topic or inappropriate. When talking to NPCs, he's reserved but witty, his voice strangely subdued and calm. In the gloomy underground atmosphere, I found this a great add-on to the overall experience.
Deliberately, the game does not offer any control over the dialogues. The game is built along a strict line and there are only few sidelines to choose. This drawback is fully justified by the quality of these staged dialogues and the general story as such. That said, it should be noted that many of the quests can be carried out in more than one way, but these options are not handed out freely, it's up to the player to think and act smart.
The game mechanics are relatively simple - character evolvement, weapons system and spell casting aren't very complex. Yet you are bound to be surprised by some very original concepts. Casting spells is carried out through runes similar to those in Dungeon Master - there are several types of runes (shapes, elements, various modifiers) which can be combined into a surprising number of spells. As you gain new runes, you experiment with their combinations and literally learn (you - the player) new spells. Thus your usual magic arrow goes with the runes of Aam (create) and Taar (projectile), while to activate a teleport you will use Mega (increase) + Spacium (space). Now not only that this is fun just by itself, it gets even more interesting in action. The thing is, you don't click the runes in your magic book or in a menu, the runes are literally painted using mouse gestures - when you press the Control key, your character raises his hand (with an impressive drone sound ;) and follows your mouse movements, sketching luminous runes in the air and vocalizing successful runes in a creepy voice. The tricky part is, that the shape tolerance is quite low and you have to be pretty accurate to cast a rune successfully. This is especially true for certain complicated runes or spells consisting of three or more runes. In effect, this system means that not only your character needs to gain sufficient amount of experience to cast a new spell, but also you as a player will need to gain certain skills to become a proficient spell caster.
So as not to lose a certain action go, the game offers three slots for instant spells, which can prepared in advance and used instantly when needed. Even so though, you will find yourself running from a beast, frantically sketching a fireball spell (create / projectile / fire) in the air ;)
The inventory visuals pay homage to the Ultima Series with some nicely pixelled objects and a number of interactive options (although the possibility to place objects anywhere in your bag without being forced to use the inventory grid wasn't implemented here). Generally, objects are pretty interactive - items you find can be of various quality, things you use a lot will wear and tear, items can be repaired, combined, enchanted or even used with special objects found during your journey (such as a forge or an alchemist lab). Seems like an insignificant thing, but hey, using water and flour to create dough and then use the dough on fire (of course you can conjure it up with the runes of Create + Fire ;) to create bread, now that is some feat (considering your character is constantly asking for a grub :). In this manner you can also prepare potions and tools.
What about the negatives, huh? Now a little bit of blasphemy - even though the concept, interaction and story are by far one of the best in the RPG genre, it still feels _somewhat_ raw. There's much more to the world of Arx than was employed in this game - the snowy surface, the dimensions hinted at later in the game; the weapons/combat system could use some refinement and there could be greater freedom when accepting quests or during dialogues. I believe all these flaws are partly for a good purpose too - the implied-but-rarely-elaborated references help maintain the player's curiosity, the monotonous environments create the right gloomy, depressive atmosphere of an underground kingdom, and the scripted dialogues keep the storyline cohesive. In the end though, it feels more like a virtue out of necessity. There are also numerous technical problems - graphical glitches, freezing, sound issues...
All in all Arx Fatalis asks for a grand sequel backed up by some serious budget. Then, I believe, we could get a truly epic marvel next to which any Oblivion would seem like a randomly generated maze for 5 year olds.