Game: Arx Fatalis
Publisher: JoWood Productions
Review Dated: 14th, October 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 9
Average Score: 3.00
Cosmic rules have been broken. It’s written in the stars that all CRPGs must be in the third person and that you have the right to pick your own replies to dialogs with NPCs even if there are only two possible selections. Arx Fatalis takes these conventions and throws them out of the window. Actually, there aren’t any such cosmic rules, first person RPGs are just very rare but they’re there and even in standard CRPGs there are often cut-away movie scenes which deprive you of the opportunity to do or say something other than what the plot dictates. The game is in the first person and you don’t get to pick what your character says. This takes some getting used to. However, fortunately, from the start there are lots of familiar RPG elements that’ll welcome you like smiling faced friends. You begin the game by assigning points to your key attributes, strength, intelligence, constitution and dexterity and if you put enough points in then you’ll receive bonuses to derived scores like armour class or poison resistance. Your character also has a short list of generic skills; close combat, object knowledge, magic, etc.
Ah yes, magic. The magic system is rather interesting in Arx Fatalis, interesting and successful. Your character needs to collect different runes and then combine them together in order to achieve spell effects. Right at the start you’ll get the “Create” and the “Fire” runes and you can guess what you can get up to with that. The clever bit is that in order to cast the spell you draw the shape of the rune in the air with your hand. This is a first person point of view friendly way to cast magic. You watch as your hand appears on the screen and light traces through the air as you wave your hand around. The more complex spells require more runes and therefore take longer to draw; its casting time built in. You can pre-cast up to three spells and by simply clicking on the icon or tap the keyboard shortcut the spell will go off. You’ll discover first hand how much harder it is to casually step back and safely cast a spell on target when a rat-man assassin leaps out from the shadows at you than it is to blindly wave your sword around in the general direction. In case you share the same worries as me – when you collect the right combination of runes and add them to your spell book (well, your generic book that you carry around to record maps and journal notes in) any new spell combinations that can now achieve are slyly noted down there too.
Most CRPGs are in the third person; you watch from above while your character runs around below you. If your character has a badly patch then you’d be watching a baldy patch run around and fight orcs. In Arx Fatalis and other first person games you see what your character sees, this means you spend most of the game watching the edge of your sword or your hands if you don’t have any weapons equipped. You start off in Arx looking at your hands; I think he must be holding them limply at about chest height and walks around like that too. Given that he wakes up in a jail, in only his underwear, probably covered in dirt and then wanders out with his hands held out in front it’s a miracle no one mistakes him for a zombie on the loose. You will be playing a male character, there’s a choice of portraits to begin with but they’re all male. In the cut away scenes (of which there are many) you do see your character dressed in the equipment he’s bought or looted and looking like the portrait you selected in the beginning of the game. The voice is the same whatever the portrait you picked and this is probably why you can’t select a female character. Sorry, there’s no waking up in the cell at the start of the game and playing a woman dressed only in her underwear.
If you’re not used to it then the first person point of view is unsettling. It takes a little while to get used to driving yourself forward by pressing the up arrow while steering yourself with the mouse. Everything is closer and therefore bigger. When you’re wending your way through a series of passageways with inter-connecting doorways then its easy to get lost; all you see is a door and then the choice of one way or another and turning a full circle without realising it or missing the second doorway set in the wall right behind you are likely. If you had a top down view of the same set of passageways then you wouldn’t get lost. If you had a top down view of the same set of passageways then you’d be able to see the goblin creep up behind you. If you try to navigate by map then you can’t see anything except the map, which is annoying, I wish I could have a discreet map up in the corner of the screen. The map doesn’t show edges or falls. If you trust to the map, having it filling the screen and simply watch the red arrow that represents you move then you’re likely to move straight off a wall or cliff edge and that hurts.
In Arx Fatalis you can’t see people creeping up behind you and if you bite of more than you can chew in a fight and decide to run then you can’t see how close behind your opponent is. You can’t see whether you lost your opponent in the passageways five doors ago and unless you can hear footsteps or insults echoing out from behind then you might get an awful surprise when you wheel around with your sword ready just in time to catch the close up leer on the goblin lord’s face and then a close up of the edge of his sword. A first person point of view is far more personal. You don’t want that goblin lord to catch you nor do you want that cheeky goblin to sneak up behind you because death in a pain. Death is a real pain. If you die then not only do you have to go through the usual CRPG trauma of trying to remember when you last saved but unfortunately in Arx Fatalis you have to wait an absolute age while the saved game loads up. I’m playing the game on a machine that easily makes the tech-specs and so I shouldn’t have to wait so long. Diplomacy comes before trying to make mincemeat out of things only because of the waiting-to-load torture.
You will die. You’ll probably die quite a lot at the start of the game when you’re still learning the controls (again this is twice as true if you’re a die hard CRPGer like this reviewer and haven’t played a first person point of view since the original Wolfenstein) and getting to grips with the environment. Arx Fatalis is fully 3D. You’ll learn to dodge back out of the way of an incoming blow and then quickly learn not to do this when you’re on the edge of a cliff. You’ll also learn to look -under- items for hidden keys, there’s more than just looking in chests for piles of gold.
The game’s realistic. Well, sure, you recover health at an alarming rate and manage to store a suit of armour and freshly roasted chicken together in a rollup equipment bag (and without squashing the chicken too) and gold is weightless. Arx isn’t so real that those CRPG “conventions” are sorted out. Arx concentrates its realism on NPCs actions and reactions. If you barge past the barmaid and rummage around in her kitchen then she’ll stop flirting with you and screech abuse at you instead. I do mean screech, all dialog in Arx Fatalis is audio and not textual. If you break off your chat with the king of the goblins because you’ve just noticed a tempting pile of gold in his bedside table and help yourself to his gold then the king will attack you. Good on him too. I’m fed up of CRPGs where good aligned heroes rummage around in people’s houses, helping themselves to whatever they can find while the NPC occupants carry on with their lives regardless and are then strangely pleased to see you when you get around to starting a conversation with them. Arx is better than that. If it turns out that you’re good enough in combat to smack the king about for a bit then he’ll run off shouting for his guards. It’s not just important NPCs either. If you’re beating someone who can run a way then the NPC is likely to run away, get his friends and come back to get you. There were times in the game when my stealthy attacks were completely foiled because the pesky goblin guard didn’t fall dead on the first strike and ran off screaming for help. The audio effects are great. Previously my favourite “Famous Last Words” from a computer game was “Halt Dog!” (again from Wolfenstein) from nazi guards seconds before you dropped them with a shot to the head. Now, with Arx Fatalis, there’s nothing quite like getting the killing blow in just after your opponent tries to taunt you with “You fight like a girl goblin!”
The audio effects are used for more than just spicing up combat though. The whole game uses them. You can creep around in the dark; this means you actually have to be in the dark, you can’t be carrying a lit torch and you have to be quiet. Its easy to make a sound; if you have a go at a passing rat you’ll clash your sword off the ground and people will hear, if you don’t have enough points in Stealth then your foot steps will echo too loudly. It’s worth being quiet when you can, you’ll often come up trumps and hear the NPCs talking around the corner. Once, just by fluke, I stopped trekking around in my clunky chainmail just in time to hear a whispered “Sssh, stinky human is coming,” If you want to distract a guard then you can actually take an item out of your inventory and throw it across the room. The guard will respond to the sound. Those D&D; rouge fans will be tickled pink to discover that if they do manage to creep around silently in the shadows then they can attack with a “back-stab”.
I’ve already mentioned that items can be hidden under other items but the real star game feature from Arx is that items can be poured into one an other (powder into an empty bottle), mixed together, cooked or otherwise manipulated. My hero likes to bake bread. He’ll collect flour from a kitchen (and it’s a shame the floor stays in a solid lump and that you can’t throw it into people’s eyes), mix it with water, turn it into dough and then pop it in to the fire and wait for bread. No kidding. You’ll go to war with your sword in one hand and your favourite rolling pin under your arm. Use the rolling pin to turn the dough into a piecrust and then add an apple before dropping it into the fire and you’ll get yummy apple pie instead of bread. Apple pies and other basic food-stuffs are important; you’ll eat a lot. Your hero’s a typical male and most of his inner monolog will be “I’m hungry” (although if you’re unlucky you might also get “I think I damaged my tools” – oh, yes, lock picks! What did you think I meant?) and if you don’t eat you’ll die. This also means you can crush poisonous plants, distil a poison and carefully apply it to the edge of your sword. Your hero will go to battle in his armour, with his sword and rolling pin and will be sure to pick up pretty flowers on the way.
It’s easy to poke fun at game play quirks like that; most of the time you’ll be in two other modes of play though. The first mode is the boring one; you’re stumped and can’t work out what to do. Since Arx Fatalis is so jam packed with slick graphics, detailed environments, smart NPCs and atmospheric audio effects, much of the game involves sorting out the minutia in the location or running backwards and forwards between two. This can get boring at times and it can get awfully frustrating if you get stuck and can’t work out what comes next. It was a fit of frustration that inspired me to throw a pillow across the cave – and lo – the key I was searching for was hidden under it. The size of the beastiary is limited for similar reasons, there are goblins and bigger goblins and there are spiders, bigger spiders and scary spiders. I don’t think there are more than two-dozen creatures in the game and that’s nothing compared to the latest CRPG releases. The other mode of game play is far better and occurs equally as often; when Arx Fatalis is working correctly then you’re either carefully creeping around the next corner while trying to stay in the shadows or you’re racing back with the treasure from a newly completed quest in order to hand it over and watch the next in the mini-movies which are used for all the important dialogs.
Yeah, as I said, you can’t direct the conversations and so it might be argued that Arx isn’t really a CRPG at all. Even with the trappings of experience points, equipment and character sheets is a game without NPC interaction a roleplaying game? Is it not just an adventure game? It’s a debate that can go either way I suppose. I think Arx is a role playing game but not because of the features mentioned before. You cannot select lines in individual conversations but the consequences of your actions, of your successes and failures impact on the game. You can fight your way through a problem or try and solve it. If you fight then you might make enemies of one group and friends of another. If you solve it then you might never get access to areas of the game that you would have been able to go if you’d removed the faction of NPCs controlling the place.
Arx Fatalis is worth getting to grips too. The game succeeds in providing a host of complex and detailed options through a simple control mechanism. The game is terribly slow to load up saved games but isn’t slow to play; having picked the top of the range quality settings for audio and visual I’m having no trouble with lagging or slow downs. The possible exception is that sometimes the audio skips a beat in a conversation and causes NPCS to miss out a word or two. The game is just as slow to return to play if you Alt+Tab off to another program but at least it returns to play after the multi-tasking and so many non-Microsoft games can’t do this. You’ll pick the game play up, you might struggle for a while but the game will win you over and you’ll be swinging your mouse around in time to pre-empt sneaky rat-men attacks before you know it. If you’re getting fed up with the run of the mill CRPGs then, simply put, Arx Fatalis screams out to be on your shopping list.
512 MB Ram.]