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Arx Fatalis Review
Review - posted by Exitium on Fri 20 December 2002, 22:32:48Tags: Arkane Studios; Arx Fatalis
French based company Arkane Studios was initially funded by 11 people in the month of October of 1999 with an initial investment of a hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Comprising of developers of various talents from EA, Infogrames, and Interplay, Arx Fatalis was their first and project as a team and the most ambitious one that any of them had ever worked on individually. Published by Austrian publishing house JoWood Productions, Arx Fatalis is the fruit of three years of their long nights at the office. Delve into our review of Arx Fatalis to see if their efforts paid off.
Arx Fatalis is presented in a first-person perspective, in the same vein of the classic Ultima Underworld and this year's earlier RPG release Morrowind. Players acquainted with the two aforementioned titles should have little to no trouble getting into the game's interface. Players who are unfamiliar with the interface will have very little difficulty acquainting themselves with the game's interface because as the game begins, you will be presented with a short in-game tutorial to help familiarize you with the setting.
Arx Fatalis is set in a completely underground setting spanning through eight large levels consisting mainly of caverns, mines, underground streams (Et in arcadia ego…), molten conduits and large underground cities inhabited by the usual assortment of Tolkienesque races and a plethora of classical European monsters. I sometimes wonder why designers and writers do not simply opt to create their own assortment of races and monsters to add to an otherwise stagnant fantasy setting. After all, the word 'fantasy' refers to "imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained," in Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
The game puts you in the role of one whose title is "Am Shagaar", which literally translates into "The Nameless One" in one of the game worlds ancient languages, a character whom players would have guessed is in search to recover his lost identity, and as it so happens, also carries the burden of saving the world of Exosta which is being threatened by a clandestine order whose members worship Akbaa, the God of Chaos who is more or less the incarnation of all that is not right with the world. At this reading, you'll find that none of this seems highly original (in any way), but should you play the game you'll come to realize that story diverges from predictability from this point on so the game's story should prove to be interesting beyond its clichéd basis.
Before you can begin your adventure, you will have to design your personal Am Shagaar and determine the basics of how you wish to play the rest of your game. You are given a total of sixteen points to distribute into your character's four main statistics, including Strength, Mental, Dexterity and Constitution; each of which contributes to the benefits given to the nine of your character's skills which you are given eighteen separate points to distribute into, including Stealth, Technical, Intuition, Ethereal-Link, Object Knowledge (Identify), Casting, Projectile, Defense, and Close Combat. As an option, you can also have the game to randomly generate a character for you if you do not wish to configure one on your own.
According to the statistics and skills of your preference, the remaining four attributes are the standard fare for RPGs, including your character's armor class, health, mana, and the amount of damage your character will inflict in combat.
Depending on the skills that you choose, you can opt to play in at least three different playing styles, including that of a fighter who kills his enemies up front, a spell caster who uses arcane sorceries to dispose of his enemies and his intuition to gleam secrets out of people otherwise left unmentioned, or a rogue who sneaks in the shadows, eluding groups of enemies and poisoning individual enemies and downing them one by one.
One of the downsides to the character generation is that you are only given four avatars to choose from, all of which are men and do very little for variety. The other downside is the fact that character generation can be very unforgiving should you accidentally create a character with very little semblance to the process of designing a good character. Putting too many points into Object Knowledge, for instance, can be prove unrewarding and quite detrimental to the progress your character will make in the game.
Each time your character gains a level, you will gain one point to add to one of your base statistics and fifteen points to distribute among the various skills of your choosing. Progression will occur quite often should you choose to pursue the quests in the game as monsters and foes that provide experience points to your character are generally abundant in quests.
As previously mentioned, the game of Arx Fatalis spans eight levels in the underground world of Exosta a world in which its sun has exhausted, forcing the inhabitants of Exosta to live underground, meaning that the game consists mostly of caves, dungeons, and other places you can expect to find underground.
There's much to do in the game world, although this may not seem evident at the beginning where your character Am Shagaar awakens in a dungeon and has to find a way to escape it. The world really opens up after you leave the first location.
As you progress through the world, you'll come across plenty of combat, some non-traditional and interesting quests that vary from the usual assortment from the typical package deliveries, and some pretty nifty puzzle-based quests, some of which span across a vast area. You'll often find out the answers to these puzzles in a most subtle manner, some of which will be found in some seemingly (at first) unlikely places.
Most of the conversations in Arx Fatalis are voice spoken, and are thus completely linear and offer no dialogue choices for the player. Most conversations are played out in a movie style displaying your character in conversation with non-player characters from a 3rd person view. For the most part, the conversations are short enough that they don't completely detract from the first person experience. I however believe that Arx Fatalis would have been much better as an RPG had it offered dialogue choices and a less linear storyline.
However, as linear as the story may be, the game itself is not completely linear. While most areas will require you to complete certain quests or attain certain items in order to advance to newer locations, the quests in the game can be completed in almost any order you prefer and the game offers you a variety of ways to accomplish each of these quests.
The areas that Arx Fatalis comprises of are very long and non-linear and traversing through them can sometimes prove to be both a tedious and rewarding exercise at the same time as some of them will lead you straight into dead ends while others will come to reward you with lost treasure and items for your efforts.
SOUND AND MUSIC
Arkane Studios did a pretty solid job with the sound. With EAX enabled, I could hear the subtle drip of water on granite floors, the soft gushing stream of underground rivers, the loud metal echoing of steel upon steel in a cavern and the echoing screams of the wounded. As with the Thief series, footsteps will change according to the surface you walk on, and in addition to that, the type of shoes that you wear.
Likewise, you'll need an EAX/5.1 capable soundcard like a Sound Blaster Audigy and accompanying speakers to fully experience most of this.
Most of the voiceovers are well acted and with few of the spoken lines sounding exaggerated. Goblins sound like you'd expect them to and dwarves sound like the short clichéd grumpy bearded warriors you've come to love/hate. It's especially funny to hear a wounded goblin run away from you to find support from allies.
The music that you hear in Arx Fatalis is quiet and subdued, but it effectively adds to the ambience of the game. It's nothing memorable, but you won't be clamoring to turn it off.
One of the first things you'll notice once playing Arx Fatalis is the visuals, which feature almost photo-realistic textures that make up the architecture are very pleasing to look at. Characters like humans look realistic and their fantasy counterparts, although with exaggerated features, have a vast amount of detail in their texturing and design. Inanimate objects such as rocks, books, and swords are convincing and well textured.
Most of the architectures present in the game are not without the quality of their textural counterpart, though there are many examples of where the consistency of this quality differs (in an inferior manner) from the norm of the design. While most areas in the game bear an astounding amount of variation in design, meaning that most dungeons and areas in Arx Fatalis do not look the same, certain areas such as waterfalls and lakes look somewhat unconvincing and the unpolished architecture in some areas detract from an otherwise consistent design.
Like the lakes and the waterfalls, the graphical engine isn't without a few niggling problems of its own. The frame-rate, while usually very smooth, has a tendency to become jerky for a couple of seconds after the loading of a new level, which isn't very often, or when an NPC or monster is killed, which happens often.
In terms of graphical quality, the graphical user interface (GUI) that includes the inventory, quest log, and paper doll pale in comparison to the rest of the visuals in the Arx Fatalis. Sadly to say, this isn't the only problem with the GUI, which could have benefited from more thought being put into the organization and design of the interface especially in the inventory layout.
You will notice the lack of an auto-sort feature to arrange the contents of your inventory, as going through your inventory alone can prove tedious, even early in the game. As if the single inventory wasn't bad enough, at a later point in the game, you will gain storage bags for which to place your items in, but this may prove to be an even more tedious process. The problems that arise with the implementation of these storage packs stems from the amount of difficulty it takes to add or remove objects from the contents of their inventory. You will have to enter and exit the storage pack for each separate item you wish to add or remove from the inventory of a pack. As you can imagine, this may prove to be quite trying on your patience; so needless to say, each person only comes with a limited amount of patience. Arx Fatalis would have benefited more from a larger, but more manageable inventory than its implementation of storage packs.
The journal in Arx Fatalis is inadequate and fails to keep track of quests in a manner in which you would find of use. As the journal does not come equipped with any sort of filter or sorting method, you will not find it to be of much use. In any case, you will find that it is mostly filled with unimportant and irrelevant information pertaining to the quests that you take and serve very little information of importance to the quests themselves. It is unfortunate that to say that you will be better off playing the game with a pen and notebook of your own at the ready.
The final issue with the interface in Arx Fatalis is its implementation of an auto-map. You will find that it offers very little help in navigating which takes up the whole screen when it is toggled. You will find it difficult to do much else with it toggled. Thankfully, the developers have listened to the requests of its customers and have taken the initiative to implement an on-screen mini-map for easier navigation in the game's latest and 3rd patch which proves to be a boon towards easier navigation in the game's many dungeons. Unfortunately, the large version of the map does not does not label locations or allow customized annotation meaning that navigation can be difficult.
As you traverse through the game's large underground world, you'll advertently come to discover many weapons and gear to equip yourself. As with the variety of foes that you will encounter in the world of Arx, are a variety of weapons and equipment to dispose them with. Most equipment in Arx Fatalis require maintenance, much like their real life counterparts, or they will otherwise break and become of no use to you. In the early stages, you will often have to compensate your equipment in battle with a variety of weapons and equipment should the ones you are using lose their durability. This can prove to be both interactive and tedious, a factor which seems to be a pattern with most of the features in Arx Fatalis as it adds to the realism factor while detracting from an otherwise straightforward combat experience, which may or may not suit your preference.
The amount of interactivity you have with the game world is exceptional, as you can interact with almost any of the items that you find. You can for example combine string and a wooden rod to create a fishing pole to which you can put to use in catching the fish in streams and pools that you'll need to eat. But before you can eat the fish, you'll have to find a fireplace or build a fire to cook the fish because you won't be able to eat them raw. Several other combinations of items will allow you to construct several unique items such as weapons and equipment that you'll find over the course of your journey. You can also brew potions and salves to replenish your health and mana. You can be certain that most of the items you'll find will have some use or another, and this in itself can prove to be a fascinating and enjoyable experience. As a rogue with limited combat ability, you can opt to poison your enemies to death by combining some of the materials you'll find in the game.
One of the features in Arx Fatalis that promotes a sense of 'realism' is the fact that your character requires food to survive. Like many of the other features in the game, it both adds to the immersion factor as well as detracting from a straightforward experience.
Close combat in Arx Fatalis revolves around holding down your left mouse button and releasing it as soon as you close in on an opponent. This usually results in running back and forth towards your enemy which may seem somewhat uninteractive. Using bows and projectile weapons in Arx Fatalis offers a more exciting challenge due to the implementation of some ballistics and trajectory. Player acquainted with the Thief series of games should feel at home with these projectile weapons.
Magical spells are rune based, and also come in the form of scrolls as one-use spells. In order for your character learn to cast new spells, you will have to attain rune stones which are rare and difficult to find. Once you possess them however, you will be able to cast the spells should you have enough potency in casting skill and mana to do so. Spell casting is performed by drawing runes on the screen with your mouse while holding down the right mouse button in a manner similar to the spell casting in Black and White, which is thankfully much easier to perform in Arx Fatalis. It is unfortunate that players with trackballs instead of mice will find the feat of casting spells almost impossible to perform on their tracking devices.
Casting your spells can sometimes prove difficult to memorize. In this regard, the game will tell you which runes to draw in the upper right corner of the screen when you select a spell you wish to cast in the spell book. As you draw the runes individually, the corresponding runes in the upper right corner of the screen will highlight, and will disappear altogether once the spell you intend to cast is completed.
For further convenience, the game also allows you to queue three spells for quick use which are cast by the 1, 2 and 3 number keys on your keyboard. Unfortunately, you will have to memorize these spells again if you wish to cast them again. It would have been a much better decision if the designers made it so that you did not have to repeatedly memorize your spells. The interactivity offered by spell casting is, like many other features in the game, both interactive and tedious.
Arx Fatalis ships with a large host of annoying game-stopping bugs that cause the game to crash randomly and have compatibility issues with certain Sound Blaster Live! sound cards. Thankfully, most of these bugs are purged with the latest patch, including most of the hardware incompatibilities.
Arx Fatalis does not attempt to make any drastic changes to the RPG genre, but it does offer several new features that may add or detract from your enjoyment of the game depending on whether you consider the interactivity that these features provide worth the tedium. However, problems like an ineffectual journal and disorderly inventory interface remain as the game's biggest flaws.
Although Arx Fatalis possesses a linear storyline, which otherwise detracts from significant replayability, the story itself is significantly long and engaging enough that you won't finish it in under a week unless you play for eight hours a day. The game's long term appeal lies in the method in which you choose to progress through the game (i.e. thief versus spell caster) although the story itself will play through in exactly the same manner.
Despite its flaws, Arkane Studios and JoWood Productions have made a worthwhile effort at creating a very playable game that manages to hold its own against other contenders in the market. Certainly, Arx Fatalis isn't one for the casual gamer. However, if you don't mind the niggling interface and the tedious/interactive 'features', Arx Fatalis will definitely hold your time with its interactivity, puzzles, enjoyable quests, and variety of underground locations.