Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Arx Fatalis: Old School Game in a Modern Skin

Arx Fatalis is a first-person dungeon-crawling action-RPG from 2002 by Arkane Studios, the team who would later go on to develop Dark Messiah of Might and Magic in 2006 and Dishonored in 2012. Inspired by the Ultima Underworld games from the early 90s, Arx Fatalis is a modern adaptation of old school design. The world of Arx Fatalis is set entirely underground, after a dying sun forces humans, goblins, and trolls to retreat to the old dwarven mines and rebuild their cities underground. You play a nameless human who wakes up in a goblin prison cell with no memory of his past or his own identity. While attempting to recover your lost memories, you learn that you were sent to Arx to prevent an evil god from awakening, which becomes your main quest for the remainder of the game.

Like Arkane's other games, the draw in Arx Fatalis is that it offers players a lot of freedom to decide how to play the game, in terms of building your character in an open class system, how you choose to approach situations and solve puzzles, and how you go about exploring the world. This isn't a thorough, in-depth RPG with dialogue options and multiple solutions to quests, or an open-world sandbox game that lets you go wherever you want and do whatever you want, but it takes elements from those types of games and implements them in a more streamlined fashion. Normally, I would consider streamlining a very bad thing in an RPG, but the execution in Arx Fatalis offers plenty of satisfying depth while keeping the game's pace moving forward in a meaningful direction.

As a dungeon-crawler first and foremost, Arx Fatalis is all about venturing deeper and deeper into the "dungeon," by descending through the labyrinthine tunnels of Arx. The map is built mainly of dark, claustrophobic rooms and corridors; it's not a truly open world, since you're restricted by walls in almost every direction, but there's a lot to explore and always something new to discover. Much of the world consists of bland, brown earth tones, but there's a lot of atmospheric variety to experience as well, including swampy sewers, crystalline caves, a mushroom forest, an icy cavern, and a lava pit, in addition to populated places like the human city of Arx, the goblin fortress, the troll camp, the dwarven forge, and the temple of the snake women, among others.

The swampy sewers early in the game.

These areas have a lot of fun mechanical variety as well. The Temple of Illusion features a lot of mind-bending optical illusions and clever puzzles that require you to think outside the box to solve and navigate, while also offering a lot of really interesting surprises. The ice dragon cave has some platforming in it, requiring you to shoot icicles from the ceiling to form platforms. In the dwarven forge, you have to run from a Black Beast that stalks you through the halls and kills you in one hit if it gets too close. The crypt below Arx is haunted with creepy, paranormal magic and zombies that keep coming back to life unless you put a stake through them. The game may be 13 years old, but the level design is unique and timelessly enjoyable.

Like a good Metroidvania game, the world in Arx Fatalis constantly opens up in all new directions as you complete quests and collect new items. It's a type of persistent world where you're constantly going back and forth through the same areas, which helps to build familiarity with the world since everything feels so centrally focused. It also makes it really satisfying when you're finally able to open a door that's been locked for the past ten hours, and even cooler when you get to see how everything links up with everything else. Though it may seem like a confusing maze of corridors at first, as you play through the game you begin to realize there's actually a memorable, navigable structure to this world. It's surprisingly easy to remember where certain locations are, and where the important connections are.

This is an important fact, because Arx Fatalis often requires you to figure things out on your own -- there's no quest arrow telling you exactly where to go or what to do. When you get a vague quest objective like "find a birthday present for a troll," it's up to you to realize that the friend he mentioned earlier might be able to help you, and then it's up to you to remember where the troll camp is and how to get there, and then it's up to you to figure out where to find the item he mentions. It's quite refreshing playing a game that requires the player's own input to progress; it makes you feel more immersed in the setting, because you have to think, explore, and do things logically, rather than just coasting along the dotting line.

The first human outpost you discover. 

There are a lot of adventure-style puzzles in this game, and they strike a pretty nice balance of giving you enough to clues to be able to figure out what you're supposed to do, without being too obvious with the solution. In one quest, you have to find a way to get the goblin king out of the throne room; as you walk around, you notice a cook constantly bringing him pies, and you witness another goblin cry out that he ate too much fish as he runs to the bathroom. Clearly, the game is suggesting you need to do something to the pies to give the goblin king a raging fit of diarrhea. If you poke around a little more, you can find a hidden note from the cook in the king's quarters reminding him not to drink wine, since he's allergic to it. The solution to this quest, therefore, is to pour wine in the cook's dough and let him bake wine-pies.

Interacting with the environment is another thing this game does well. Cooking, crafting, forging weapons, and brewing potions all involve combining items in your inventory and using them on the environment. To make a pie, for instance, you have to mix flour with a bottle of water, and then use the resulting dough on a rolling pin to make a pie crust. If you have apples, you can mix them with the crust to make an apple pie, and then you drag the pie from the inventory and place it next to a fire to bake. Brewing a potion requires you to grind herbs into a powder with a mortar and pestle, put the powder in an empty vial, and then use the vial on a distillery. It's a physical system that makes you feel closely involved with the world around you, and therefore makes you feel so much more immersed in the setting.

Another thing that helps immerse you in the game's world is the fairly unique magic system. In most other games, magic is relegated to a set of hotkeys; you press a button, and the spell takes immediate effect, no different mechanically than clicking the mouse to fire a gun or swing a sword. Casting a spell in Arx Fatalis, by contrast, requires you to draw combinations of rune symbols in the air, in real time -- a system that requires time (with stronger, more powerful spells requiring longer combinations of runes), precision with the mouse (since you have to draw the runes accurately or else fail the spell), and a good memory (since you can't pause the action to consult your spell book in the middle of a fight). Thus, casting a spell in Arx Fatalis actually takes effort, which, once again, makes you feel more involved in the action and more immersed in the world.

Casting a spell on an ice dragon.

There are 20 different runes to find in the game, and nearly 50 spells you can cast, ranging from typical offensive spells like magic missiles and fireballs, to buffs and supporting spells like magic armor and healing, to utility spells like levitate and telekinesis. It may seem overwhelming trying to keep track of 50 different spells, but the game allows you to pre-cast up to three spells that you can fire off instantaneously from a hot-bar. Those complex spells you can't remember? Look them up in the spellbook and pre-cast them ahead of time. Worried you'll get ambushed by a surprise combat situation? Have a couple of fireballs and ice fields pre-cast so they're ready to cast at a moment's notice.

It also helps that the runes follow a sensible logic, both in terms of the visual symbol you have to trace as well as their mechanical function. A horizontal line from left to right means "create"; flip it, and it becomes "negate." A vertical line drawn from the bottom up means "improve"; invert it, and it becomes "reduce." Casting a fireball spell, for instance, involves drawing the signs for "create," "fire," and "missile"; casting a healing spell involves drawing the signs for "improve" and "life." There are even several "hidden" spells that don't show up in your spellbook, that you can discover just by playing with sensible combinations. If you choose to play as a mage and rely heavily on the magic system, you actually get to develop a skill that you use in the gameplay -- a sense of mastery over the system that feels engaging and rewarding.

For melee warriors and ranged archers, combat is a less glamorous, more standard ordeal. As a melee fighter, you equip your chosen weapon and then click and hold to charge an attack; a Thief-style gem in the bottom center of the screen steadily fills with light until your attack has reached maximum damage, at which point you position yourself close to the enemy and release the mouse button to perform the attack. Much like Morrowind, you can use combinations of movement to perform thrusts, slashes, and chops, but it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference. Likewise, the game features location-specific damage, allowing you to behead or dismember enemies by attacking specific body parts, but again, it doesn't seem to serve much practical purpose. Archery is basically the same thing -- click and hold to charge the gem, and release to fire an arrow, aiming with the crosshairs.

A spider in the crystal caves.

If you're going to play Arx Fatalis, you really need to be a mage. Magic helps with exploration, and the system is just so unique that you really need to experience it to get the most out of the game. Melee and archery are fine in their own rights, albeit just a little bit clunky, but you can swing a sword or shoot an arrow in so many other fantasy games, and it's not terribly exciting to do in this game. With magic, you also get to feel the system evolve and expand as you acquire more runes; melee and archery remains basically the same from beginning to end, except you occasionally find a newer, better sword. Even then, there aren't many weapons to find -- there's only one type of bow in the entire game -- so you just don't get to feel the same level of progression one would expect from an RPG.

Like any RPG, you gain experience points for defeating enemies and completing quests. Each time you level-up, you get to invest points in four different attributes and nine different skills, all of which determine your efficacy in things like melee combat, ranged accuracy, picking locks, identifying objects, and so on. Leveling up, unfortunately, isn't very satisfying in this game, since the stats and skills are just minor, passive, statistical upgrades, like 5% better stealth detection, or 1% faster mana regeneration. As important as leveling up is to get stronger and survive, it rarely feels like you're making any significant progress, especially since the level cap only goes up to 10. In a fairly exhaustive playthrough, doing everything I could find, I didn't even reach the level cap.

It is an open class system, though, which lets you create your own character by setting your initial attributes and skills, and developing them however you like. You can be an intelligent mage, a burly fighter, or a cunning rogue -- or any combination thereof. Though the game features zero dialogue options, and most quests have only one possible solution, there are usually opportunities during combat and exploration to benefit from your chosen playstyle. When faced with a hallway divided by a long spike pit, you can solve a puzzle to unlock an alternative route, or you can levitate across it, or you can shoot an arrow to hit a button on the other side. Depending on what you do in the world and what quests you complete successfully, you'll even be treated to three different ending cutscenes.

The crypt beneath Arx.

The game shows its age most of all in the cutscenes, where characters basically just stand around motionlessly talking to each other. If you're lucky, you might get some cinematic pans and zooms from the camera, but otherwise, the game could just as easily hand you a page of dialogue that would serve just as well as the cutscene. Most of the voice actors sound kind of bored, the recording quality is a bit messy, and lip-syncing is practically non-existent. Factor in the somewhat clunky interface, which takes a little while to get used to, and you can tell this game was released back in 2002. Apart from those superficial qualities, the game certainly doesn't feel its age, since the gameplay holds up pretty well, and the ambient sound and visual design do a really good job immersing you in the world.

The strongest praise I can give for Arx Fatalis is that it reminds me a lot of classic RPGs from the late 80s and early 90s, like Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Ultima. I've played games from each of these series but have never been able to finish any of them because they just haven't aged well at all; Arx Fatalis, to me, offers a similar kind of experience, but in a streamlined, modernized package. Besides Ultima Underworld, the next closest direct comparison would be FromSoftware's King's Field series, which was the spiritual predecessor to Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. So, if you want to get into those "old school," classic RPGs but can't get past their archaic controls and presentation, or if you want to try the type of game that inspired the Souls series (Arx Fatalis is cheaper and easier to buy than any of the King's Field games, and is, in my opinion, is a better game anyway), then Arx Fatalis is definitely worth playing.


  1. nice review! I played this game for the first time the last year and almost a month later I reinstalled it to play as a mage. As you said, the magic system is very good and requires actual skill. It would be nice something similar in combat and stealth as well. Like in die by the sword or dark souls. Related to this, I recommend you severance: blade of darkness, a very good game also considered predecessor of demon/ dark souls.

  2. Oh, this looks really interesting.

    I definitely fit into the category of "wanting to get into classic RPGs but not being able to get past their archaic controls and what not".