Arx Fatalis (2002 game) Impressions…

Arx Fatalis (2002 game) Impressions after the break…

Arx Fatalis (2002 game) Impressions…

“Ultima Underworld” (UU) is credited with merging the complexities of role-playing games with the immersiveness of the first-person gaming experience. Despite using the “Ultima” intellectual property (which was quite popular for it’s time), however, the title failed to impress where it often matters most – The cash register. Although a sequel was produced for the series, “Ultima Underworld III” was not meant to be. The age of Massive Multiplayer Only Role Playing Games (MMORPGs for short) had arrived and anything that wasn’t third-person and / or multiplayer and / or console-compatible friendly was either mauled into being one of those three or simply canceled.

A game developer by the name of “Arcane Studios” attempted to secure the Ultima Underworld IP but failed in doing so. Undaunted, they decided to alter the game’s storyline and release the game anyway. The result was 2002’s “Arx Fatalis,” a game that has since gone on to have a bit of a cult following under the notion that it is the “unofficial” Ultima Underworld III. Did it succeed? Well…

To say that “Arx Fatalis” has a ‘bromance’ with the Ultima Underworld storyline would be expressing that viewpoint politely. Both games involve an underground metropolis – In Underworld, the underground kingdom was a voluntary utopia that (predictably) turned sour. In Arx Fatalis, the underground kingdom was imposed upon the above ground residents when their Sun disappeared and the world turned cold. Real-world astronomy aside, this kingdom has also frayed around the edges, with various biped species segregating themselves onto different levels. the games share, in fact, several game play elements that would be considered “hard core” today – Characters need to eat, object manipulation is emphasized, cooking is encouraged… There are a lot of “real world” game play elements in both.

Yet, when one begins to play Arx Fatalis, it is hard not to see that some of the role-playing edges have been rounded off. There are no dialog trees in Arx Fatalis – You either talk to people or don’t, you either say what the game wants you to say or don’t. I found this lack of dialog freedom somewhat disturbing for a game that wanted to emulate UU so closely. Also, the “buy / sell” game play mechanism is so primitive as to be laughable – You place items into certain chests and take them out of chests to perform your exchanges. Did they really have that much trouble with a “buy / sell” screen for merchants?

Make no mistake – Arx Fatalis is not a first-person shooter. Indeed, magic is really not encouraged as an aggressive solution. Magic must be “drawn out” on the screen, with your player’s hand emulating a touch screen to shape out symbols to create certain spells. This game play mechanic is outright irksome and while some proficiency may be gained (yes, I did smile when I could cast “create fire” without messing up five times in a row), the computer is not lenient in it’s interpretation in how the runes should be drawn. Is that downward slash slightly diagonal? Too bad. Is that diagonal too curved? Sorry. I hope someone learns to draw without a significant right-handed or left-handed slant or else magic might not be right for you. While the game allows up to three spells to be “memorized” (used on the spot without drawing them in real time) such a reserve is a pittance when fighting even modest enemies.

There are several aspects of Arx Fatalis that I found amusing, if only in a slightly nostalgic way. The actual “kingdom of Arx” level (where the king and castle are) is irresistibly amusing as the ceiling is blackened, making the whole city feel like an elaborate set piece for a college play with cardboard cutouts resembling houses. The chunky graphics combined with the absolute dearth of citizens makes the whole experience surreal and I couldn’t help but feel like I was in one of those “Renaissance Faires” where everyone is trying too hard to emulate the ideal Renaissance experience rather then the history that actually occurred.

Yet the human level was the only level that really resonates – There was a snake woman level that looks very sharp and forbidding but with few residents, it doesn’t feel occupied or real. Again, the lack of dialog freedom and citizens hurts the immersion. The Goblin Kingdom doesn’t impress or contrast significantly with the others and the Troll kingdom is nothing more then a bunch of tunnels.

There’s no faulting a game that was made in 2002 for graphics but even for 2002, the graphics look dated and clunky. While I can’t profess artistic prowess, a commercial game should have higher standards.

Arx Fatalis might allow the player to move about freely but it is no sandbox game – The game expects you to play the main quest. Side quests are optional although hunting them out and solving them is more beneficial then not. the side quests in Arx Fatalis allows a bit of humanity to seep through – One quest has you searching for a birthday present for a lonely Troll; Another has you helping find a merchant’s daughter before she is sacrificed. Unlike the Elder Scrolls games of late, there is “hand holding”; You have to figure the quests out yourself.

Yet, despite the hard core RPG elements, the game ultimately leaves one feeling cold. It’s great that one can bake cakes but who do you sell them to? It’s great that you need to “draw” your spells but what good does that do for combat?

Make no mistake – RPGs of the era were hardly better; Morrowind had a lot of citizens but they all possessed standard lines and felt as “dead” as the silent streets of Arx; Morrowind had a lot of locations but most of them were simply non-descript dungeons placed for the expressed purpose of those wishing to kill more and think less… Slaves that couldn’t be freed… Factions that couldn’t be joined… Morrowind was simply “different,” not “better” or “worse.”

I have a hard time finding the enthusiasm to continue with Arx Fatalis. It’s an intriguing setting but executed in a rather lackluster fashion. A tavern that should be full of life is merely a collection of NPCs that sit around and do nothing. The tavern feels almost more lifeless with those NPCs then with them which gave me an idea – Now that Arx Fatalis (the engine, not the actual game) is open source, perhaps someone could mod the engine and remake it so that the character is the only character around, exploring a dead dungeon and trying to piece together what life was like and why it perished the way it did. That’s not too much different from what a player must do now but at least the game would be honest and actually admit it.

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