Dungeon-crawling had been quite synonymous with the RPG genre for some time, before game-makers eventually obtained the will and technology to bring the genre out of the dark, claustrophobic depths of dungeons, warrens and labyrinths of either the sci-fi or high-fantasy sorts.
Some game-makers had chosen to maintain the tradition of dungeon-crawling, creating surprisingly good games like Ultima Underworld that marked the zenith of dungeon-crawling. Other games afterwards sought to recreate the same brilliance, to various extents and results, but they had not really managed to come close. Arx Fatalis is one such game.
Arx Fatalis is set in a high-fantasy medieval world of its own. It uses the premise of the surface world having gone dark due to the absence of sunlight as the excuse for having much of the game occurring underground, within dug-out caves, tunnels, dungeons and city-labyrinths. There won't be much in the way of exposition of why this happened.
There may have been some attempt by the developer to craft a dark and moody backstory around this occurrence; the manual suggests that the game has civilization, as the inhabitants of this high-fantasy world had known it, gone to figurative hell. The manual and pre-release promotional articles had mentioned that the underworld isn't exactly a good place to derive food supplies from and space is ever a premium in it, so the relations between the races that had sought refuge underground would have quickly frayed due to competition over lack of resources.
Unfortunately, the finalized backstory does not stick to these intriguing themes. The high-fantasy settings gave the developers the excuse to have very convenient elements cover holes in the rationale in the finalized backstory, such as luminescent crystals giving light to otherwise very dark caves and dungeons, magically altered crops that can thrive on the light from the aforementioned subterranean sources instead of sunlight, and the settlements in the game having been conveniently built in abandoned dwarven strongholds and mines instead of being painstakingly carved out of rock and earth.
In other words, the cultures and civilizations that the player will encounter in this game are not really that much more different from those typically seen in so many other high-fantasy franchises, except that they are set underground.
Such convenient backstory designs can seem disappointing to those who had expected more unique themes from Arx Fatalis. It may also strengthen the suspicion that these design decisions have been made to conveniently justify the very limited draw distances and generally small and narrow environments in the game, which will be elaborated on later.
Much like other high-fantasy RPGs at the time, Arx Fatalis has the player creating a player character at the start of the game. However, these options are very, very limited.
Firstly, the player character is ever only male. Secondly, there are only four pre-set appearances that the player character can have. Thirdly, the player character (initially) has no name at all, though the reason for this will only become apparent some time into the game. Otherwise, any player character can have different starting stats compared to any other that the player character would create.
Anyway, after a brief intro that describes the premise of the game as mentioned earlier, the player gets to either create a character manually or have the game generate one automatically. The latter may be more convenient, as there is quite little that the player can manipulate at the start and that the player is given full freedom to develop the player character in any way he/she likes after that.
As for the statistics that govern the player character, there are four of the usual RPG attributes of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Constitution, as well as 15 skills that a long-time veteran of high-fantasy RPGs would be quite familiar with.
These attributes and skills will in turn determine the secondary attributes that the player character has. Most of these will be familiar to the RPG veteran: there are Armor Class, resistances to magic and poison, life energy (i.e. health), mana reserves and the damage that the player can do with the current tool of war (be it steel or spell) at hand, among others.
The primary attributes also affect the skills in the form of bonus points, though the bonuses can be a bit implausible. For example, Intelligence, being a lore- and magic-related attribute, understandably contributes to the skill Ethereal Link, Object Knowledge and Spell Casting, but Strength also happens to contribute to Object Knowledge (somehow), in addition to the more understandable Close Combat skill.
Most of the skills that the player character has will be familiar to veterans of high-fantasy RPGs. There are skills that govern stealth, melee and ranged combat, spell-casting, identification of items, maintenance of gear, etc. There won't be anything excitingly and refreshingly new to be had.
The manual gives satisfactory descriptions of these skills, in addition to elaboration on basic, core mechanics of the game. The manual is also used as a teaser for what lies ahead after starting a new game, which can be amusing to some.
Yet, not all skills can be said to work without hitches; Arkane Studios's attempt to innovate spell-casting in this game is not exactly successful, due to design oversights on its part. These concern the controls for spell-casting, so they will be elaborated on later when expedient.
Starting the game proper, the player will notice that the game uses a first-person perspective, which is fitting as this is a dungeon-crawling RPG. The player can see the player character's limbs, so at least it is evident that Arkane Studios had not taken the easy way out by removing the player character's model from the first-person view.
The player character also moves around in a manner similar to the player characters in first-person shooters. He can run, crouch and crouch-walk indefinitely, and strafe. There is no stamina meter or such other limitation that limit the player's mobility, which some players would appreciate. Those who do not may eventually realize that this is balanced against with the tight and narrow environments of the game, which prevent the player from exploiting the player character's mobility too much.
It has to be mentioned here though that Arx Fatalis had been optimized for machines that are very, very old, e.g. those in the era of the first Xbox, which this game has been made for too. On newer computers, the processing of the game may not be smooth, e.g. weird occurrences like the player character moving at a bewilderingly fast pace compared to other characters may happen. The player will need to apply patches and reboot his/her machine, which can seem like a lot of hassle.
If there is a motion that the player character can perform that is so under-utilized to the point of near-uselessness, it is his ability to jump. His jumping height is quite pathetic, such that there aren't many obstacles that he can really jump over. It is not like there is any reason to anyway: if there is something that blocks the player character's progress, it would be an obstacle that reaches from the floor to the ceiling of a tunnel, or is simply too high to be scaled.
As has been mentioned earlier, the premise of underground settings can be very convenient in imposing restrictions on game designs that would be acceptable to the less discerning of players. That would have still been okay, if the ways that the player interacts with the game world are smoothly designed. They are not, unfortunately.
As an RPG, Arx Fatalis has things such as environmental objects and items that the player character has to interact with. To facilitate this, Arkane Studios had designed another viewing mode for this, and it is also integrated with the way that the player interacts with the inventory system.
The problem with this view mode is that it has to be toggled from the default one, and back again when the player no longer wishes to interact with the inventory and items in the environment; all this happens in real-time, so the player character is vulnerable in this state. Unfortunately, bringing up the inventory view mode is the only way to perform certain actions that are vital in battle, namely switching weapons and accessing healing potions. This gives the impression that the user interface has been clumsily designed and that the developers had not play-tested their game enough to assess its user-friendliness.
Items can be moved around simply by clicking on them, which will change the mouse cursor to the sprites for the items, and placing them where the player wants them to be. While this is simple, there appears to be no feature to move stacks of items around; there is no documentation on this either. Fortunately, there is a feature to auto-arrange items in the inventory, which would endear to pack-rats. This is because the inventory system uses the slot/square-based convention, i.e. items take up space on a panel with limited slots, which represent the player's inventory. However, this feature optimizes the amount of slots left, and does little to organize items in the inventory according to categories of items; it will not stack stackable items together either, if they are not stacked already.
For better or worse, this limitation in the drag-and-drop system is extended to the selling and buying of items, as this mechanic uses the same system too. This can make selling stacks of items a chore. In addition to causing the player some unnecessary grief, it also causes some thematic issues: all shops in the game appear to have their shelves occupied by chests instead of merchandise on display.
This is stacked on top of the appearance that these shops are all located behind lockable doors and opaque windows, which do not reflect well on the (fictional) mercantile sense of the (fictional) merchants. Of course, one can argue that this may be a consequence of underground lifestyle, but this can also be interpreted as lazily expedient design decisions on the part of the developer.
Furthermore, such designs also remove any chances for thievery, which is quite a staple mechanic in high-fantasy RPGs. Of course, the player character can very much pilfer any loose items even within sight of NPCs (without any repercussions), but that they cannot remove any items from the chests in shops gives the impression that the developers had forgone the opportunity to develop a game mechanic for thievery in return for very simplified trading systems.
As for what goes into the player's inventory, virtually all of the items to be found in the game serve purposes of either gameplay or narrative; there are few, if any, items that are practically junk or (figurative) red herrings. (However, there are the usual items that adhere to tropes about narratives in RPGs, such as pieces of paper containing scraps of information and documents detailing dastardly plans, etc. that would cease to be useful once their purposes have been fulfilled.)
Arx Fatalis has the usual swords, axes, bows, armor and other medieval gear that are found in typical high-fantasy games. These perform their functions as are to be expected of such items, though the mechanics of combat and gear maintenance are sophisticated enough that they are worthy of mention.
Much like in RPGs that have themes of survival, Arx Fatalis implements the mechanic of item durability. Weapons like swords and bows will degrade over time with use, gradually losing their effectiveness, unless rendered indestructible by upgrading them with a certain magical stone; when this durability rating reaches zero, they expectedly can no longer be used by the player character, but more importantly, simply disappears from the player's inventory.
The latter consequence can be troublesome, if the player wishes to use special gear that has their own unique name, instead of the more common (and less powerful) regular items. These unique items can degrade to the point of disappearance too, though thankfully, the game does include on-screen indicators to warn the player that equipped gear pieces are about to fail.
Durability ratings are also applied to some items that do not exactly utilize these ratings in the same manner as other gear do. For example, Quivers of Arrows use durability ratings to signify how many arrows are left in them, while certain magical baubles with limited charges like Rings of Regeneration have durability ratings to show how much energy that they have left to perform what they do. Such game designs can seem odd at first glance, and it is unfortunate that the game's documentation does not appear to cover them.
With the mechanics of durability comes the associated mechanic of repairs as well. To repair gear, the player character needs to drag and drop items over onto an anvil, which will direct the player character to attempt repairs himself, or hand them over to a blacksmith (who is usually close to the anvil) for him to effect repairs for a fee. (The player is given a context-sensitive label on how much it will cost when the cursor is hovered over the blacksmith, though there is no prompt to confirm repairs for the sake of those who are having second thoughts on paying for repairs.)
While the latter option will conveniently restore items to full durability, the former is tied to the player character's Object Knowledge skill. As the player character is not by default an accomplished craftsman (far from that), he is guaranteed to damage the gear being repaired as well as mend it; the maximum durability of the item will be reduced at the same time as its current durability is increased; the magnitude of these effects depend on said skill, but also some luck (which may irk those who do not like probability-dependent mechanics). Such limitations of do-it-yourself repairs give an incentive to peruse the premium services of the blacksmiths in the game, if the player would rather not juggle item durability and the player character's Object Knowledge.
Regardless, the player will be encouraged – or rather, forced – to develop the player character's Object Knowledge anyway, as it is tied to two other game mechanics of which there are no premium services that can be rendered by NPCs as a direct substitute for what the player character can perform himself.
One of these mechanics is the brewing of options. While the player can purchase potions from shops, these are limited in number and restock infrequently; they are also quite expensive. The player can find ingredients for potions, but no NPC will offer services for the conversion of these ingredients over to potions, which can be an inconvenience to players who would rather invest skill points into skills other than Object Knowledge. The game can be difficult to beat if the player does not resort to potions.
On the other hand, players who like brewing potions instead of purchasing them off shops would have quite a fulfilling time in gathering and preparing the ingredients needed to brew potions with.
It should be apparent to discerning players that the developers have intended for the brewing mechanic to be somewhat of a compromise between being very simple and as unfathomable as the pseudo-science of alchemy.
Potions in Arx Fatalis have their functions coded to their colour: yellow potions are healing potions, and are consequently made from yellow-coloured ingredients, to cite an illustrative example. This makes identifying potions and ingredients conveniently easy, though this comes at a thematic cost; to illustrate, green potions are poisons that can be dragged-and-dropped onto bladed weapons to envenom them, but they are made using ferns, which are usually not considered poisonous as far as high-fantasy conventions are concerned.
(This colour-centric feature of identifying potions and ingredients is also somewhat lampooned by the developers as an inside joke, as is evident from a certain in-game book that describes the fundamentals of alchemy in a brief but humorous manner.)
The sophistication of the brewing mechanics can be seen in the steps needed to convert ingredients over to potions. Ingredients have to be first crushed into powder using the usual high-fantasy mortar-and-pestle, which is then deposited into empty bottles. Finally, the concoction has to be completed at an alchemic still, and this is where the player character's Object Knowledge comes into play; he won't be able to complete the potion if he doesn't have the required level of that skill.
There may be some satisfaction to be had from completing these potions while having the knowledge that most of them are very useful, but some players would consider the entire process flow to be tedious. This is especially so after the completion of every stage, which deposits the results of that stage in a new slot in the player's inventory; the player has to manually drag-and-drop the product into a stack of identical products, because the auto-arrange feature doesn't do this for the player.
Upon completion of a potion, the player character sometimes uttered a statement of accomplishment. This is probably meant as an aural reward of some sort for the player, but he/she would be reminded of this game's non-English roots when he utters the disjointed and mildly relevant statement of "true alchemist", which suggests a hole in the translation efforts for the game (of which there will be more elaboration on later).
The other game mechanic for which there are no associated premium services is the identification of unknown items. The player will have to rely on the player character's Object Knowledge skill to identify said items. This can be frustrating, if the player knows (usually through third-party means) that said items are powerful but need to be identified to unlock their benefits.
Fortunately, one of the more engaging side activities in the game does not require the statistical development of skills. This is cooking, and it is perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of Arx Fatalis, but ultimately it is of little consequence to the game.
To cook food, the player needs to only know the recipe, either through in-game exploration for these or looking at third-party guides. Then, it is just a simple matter of dragging and dropping the ingredient items onto each other to receive the results of the combination. Usually, the next-to-final result has to be brought to a fire (any fire) to be cooked; the player needs to only physically place it next to the fire, as the game would automatically detect that items have been dropped close to a fire and check whether they are food or not.
(There may be hiccups with these scripts though, especially if the player pushes items into fires or drops them from higher elevation instead of placing items next to fires in the first place.)
There are some recipes in the game and all of them result in items with models that are distinctly different from each other (or at least have different textures), but all of them practically serve the same function: feeding the player character. The player character has a hunger rating for which change is independent of all his other stats, but having it drop to dangerously low levels will affect his performance, such as making him subtly slower, and eventually resulting in death. Different foods replenish him at different magnitudes, but that is pretty much all which any food does; there are few, if any, food items that have secondary effects.
The hunger rating is not visible to the player either: the most that the player will get is a brief monologue from the player character stating that he needs to eat, and an on-screen indicator once he is unhealthily close to starvation.
That food has little beneficial effects and that the hunger rating is little more than an additional stat to worry about seems to make carrying food around a hassle, taking up inventory space that could have gone to other things. It would not take long for wiser players to realize that bread is the only food item worth taking around, as a lump of bread can be eaten a few times, each time rendering it down to a lesser model.
Combat is perhaps the only mechanic that makes meaningful use of the underground, claustrophobic settings. Fighting invariably requires the player characters and NPCs to perform animations, e.g. swing or jab their weapons around. However, these animations are not just for show; the hitboxes for the characters' models and those of their weapons will shift too, and these (especially the latter) can collide with those of the environment.
While such occurrences will not affect the animation, they do damage the weapons, though only those that the player character is wielding appear to be damaged. This can be a bit disappointing to players who may be thinking of using the environment against enemies.
In melee combat, making directional inputs together with the attack button will have the player character swinging his weapon in directions along those of said inputs. In addition to avoiding environmental objects, this is important to overcome the guard of any (AI-controlled) enemy attempting to put up a defense, i.e. hitting them at regions where their weapons do not seem to be able to cover.
The player can also attempt to put up a defense, but like his enemies, he cannot impart directional qualities to his defense. Instead, the player will need to shift his entire body to align with and block an incoming attack. This can seem more than a bit cumbersome, though combat tends to happen at a pace slow enough to be manageable.
The player character and enemies are also able to perform power attacks, simply by holding up their weapons and "charging" up for an attack. For the player character, a power gem handily displays the progress to a fully-charted attack, but it has to be mentioned here that the minor mechanic of power attacks has only been simply implemented; "half-way" power attacks cannot be unleashed when convenient before a fully-charged one without losing any charge that had been built-up.
Eventually, a shrewd player will discover that this game just does not reward aggressive, valiant approaches to combat. Instead, he/she will find that most enemies can be defeated by heckling them into missing attacks by dancing in and out of their attack range, and then darting in to make an attack while enemies are still in their recovery animations. This can seem very cheesy.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of close combat is the lousy implementation of shields. They merely impart additional armor when worn and some luck-dependent ability to block attacks entirely, but cannot be used to actively block attacks.
Ranged combat requires that the combatant charge up a shot, e.g. pulling back bowstrings to nock an arrow before releasing it. Unlike melee power attacks, there can be shots made "half-way", but these are so weak as to be impractical. The range of these half-way shots is also poor, further making partially charged shots useless.
The most disappointing game mechanic that Arx Fatalis has is the gesture-based controls for casting spells.
It would appear that Arkane Studios had attempted to implement controls that are different from the usual, simple button-pushing. To cast spells, the player has to hold a button while moving the cursor to trace a symbol. Successfully tracing a symbol completes one of the runes in the combination that is needed to cast a spell.
Unfortunately, the tracing of runes can be a chore for the PC version of the game. The game only accepts virtually straight lines, which can be much difficult to trace with the mouse. This suggests poor implementation of pattern recognition on the part of the developers. (Ironically, tracing runes would be easier on the Xbox version with the Xbox controller.)
The need to gather the runes necessary to unlock the tracing of symbols and the further need to have enough mana to cast spells make the mechanic of spell-casting even more cumbersome to utilize. Insult is added to injury by the fact that spell-casting NPCs do not have to suffer the hassle of weaving runes; they only perform some short animation before releasing their spells.
Of course, there is a feature to "store" completed spells for later casting, but the player still needs to go through the rune-tracing process.
There are some other minor mechanics that Arkane Studios attempts to include in the game to give the appearance that there are a lot of things to do in Arx Fatalis, such as mining gems, but these mechanics and the others mentioned earlier are ultimately limited by the scope of the game. The game world is small, especially when compared to other, better-known RPGs at the time, such as Morrowind.
The game world is separated into nine levels, with each level being further separated into a few maps, each of which in turn requires loading into memory. The developers have conveniently designed the quests in the game to advance only with triggers on certain levels, thus requiring the player to travel to-and-fro levels. Granted, RPGs of that time typically have the player backtracking to previously explored areas to complete quests, but backtracking is only entertaining when there is something to be gained from backtracking, e.g. seeing changes in the scenery or having script triggers on the way back to make it less uneventful.
However, there are little of such occurrences to be had in Arx Fatalis, at least not until the last third of the game, when the story becomes more suspenseful.
Making backtracking even more unremarkable and tedious is the fact that the player is not able to make notes on the map, which is a disappointment as most other RPGs already have implemented note-making to assist the player in keeping track of exploration work. Travelling around is made even harder by the very lousy map, which is composed of various shades of ochre. There are very few icons other than one for the player character, making looking for specific locations difficult.
The worst complaint is that the map does not update very well. Initially all maps are shrouded, and portions of them have to be revealed by travelling to these areas; the game will update the maps by "drawing" onto them. Yet, the portions being revealed do not match the player's efforts at exploration well. For example, the player may have the player character skirt along the wall of a cave, but the game will fail to update the map to include the walls.
Arx Fatalis' non-English roots would become apparent soon enough - perhaps even sooner if a player reads the manual. The text in Arx Fatalis has plenty of hiccups and mistakes, such as phrasing the plural form of "bonus" as "boni". Fortunately, localization efforts prevented the writing and voice-overs in the actual game from having such lingual guffaws, but that the documentation for the game has not been given the same treatment can be quite disappointing, as there is little in-game content that is designed to help the player familiarize himself/herself with the game mechanics.
For a game of its time, Arx Fatalis has graphical effects and options that were quite up-to-date, such as bump-mapping and lighting. These can be seen in the intro movie, which can be rather pretty to look at.
However, while the game's graphics may leave a good first impression, an observant player would eventually notice that Arkane Studios had exploited the game's themes to limit the potential of the game's graphics. The first of such disappointments can be seen in the limited draw distances. Although the short draw distances may be understandable in dark places, even in well-lit places like the insides of a royal palace with lots of torches are subjected to this graphical limitation too.
While the game has pretty good textures, these textures go onto models with shapes that do little justice to the former. The polygons for these models have very uneven contours, especially those for characters, which can look like they have odd bodily proportions. How odd these models look is further worsened by sometimes poor animations for them, especially those for the non-human characters, which can look rather clumsy. Human characters do not fare much better either: when they are not engaged in combat, human characters appear to walk around so slowly that one would wonder whether their animations have been deliberately slowed down to fulfill some purpose of graphic technicals.
The game's sound designs perhaps hold even more disappointments, though they also have their upsides. The game's ambient sounds and musical soundtracks are well-composed, creating atmospheres that are generally well suited to the current level that the player is in. For example, dark and foreboding caves and dungeons will have suitably eerie ambient sounds, as well as ominous soundtracks to go along with these. Arx Fatalis also has EAX sound effects, which certainly improves the ambiance of dungeon-crawling in this game, though surround-sound hardware was a luxury to anyone interested in video games at the time of this game, of course.
However, the implementation of the sound designs has its flaws. Ambient sounds can be rather loud compared to the soundtracks, even when the volumes have been tweaked, and the source of the playback for music is not centred on the player character (to give the impression that there is always uniformly-played music wherever he goes), but rather certain spots in the levels themselves. The music can be very faint when the player is at the edges of the map or anywhere else far away from these sources; this can be especially heard at levels which contain settlements.
The same complaint can be made about the voice-overs for the game, and more. The source for voice-over playbacks can be placed at the wrong locations within the level, resulting in sometimes very loud playback or playback that sounds like its source was at the other side of the room that the player character is in. This would have been less of a problem if the subtitles can make up for this, but sometimes they fail to appear and even if they do, they are often written differently than what is uttered (if it can even be heard at all).
Although Arkane Studios appears to have collaborated with partners that are somewhat reliable enough at translating and dubbing the game, the results are just barely decent. Some characters can be poorly voiced, such as the trolls and the bigger members of the goblin race; the game's attempts at making them appear uncouth and crude made them sound silly. There are also odd, disjointed utterances, such as the one mentioned earlier when the mechanics of alchemy in this game were described. Perhaps the most disappointing voice-over belongs to the player character, who sounds very uninterested in whatever that he has to do.
In conclusion, Arx Fatalis had great potential to have very interesting game mechanics and story themes, but "partway-there" implementation of these hurts its chances.