Note: I’ve been playing and am reviewing Arx Fatalis patched to V1.13. I understand from various forums that earlier, unpatched versions were all but unplayable for a variety of reasons. In version 1.13 I didn’t run into any serious showstoppers. Onward with the review!
I’m probably not the perfect person to write a review of Arx Fatalis, I think to myself as I sit at the computer, the screen glowing empty and bluely before me. Because although I grew up as a nerd shut-in, playing paper and pencil D&D games and their variants in my basement with other like-minded nerd shut-ins, I haven’t played an RPG on the computer since, uh, maybe Daggerfall (unless you count Diablo 2, which I don’t). Oh, and I played Dungeon Siege all the way through, but that was sort of an arcade-ish RPG. And I bought a copy of Morrowind, can in fact see the carcass of the box from here, denuded of shrink wrap but otherwise untouched. I’ve got fires to fight and a bathroom to remodel – how can I possibly devote the dozens of hours an RPG can take to slog through? I mostly can’t. And yet for some reason I just felt like reviewing Arx Fatalis, and the guys over at GO said go ahead. It’s not like they could say no to me – I’m the Rorschach; nearly three-year veteran of game reviewing and survivor of gaming horrors that have reduced lesser game reviewers to tears. Such is the magical +2 pen of game reviewing that I wield, and occasionally choosing to review a game simply because I want to play it, even though I’m not exactly the perfect reviewer for the job, is one of the perks. That, and a huge fan base of fourteen year old boys in Singapore. Big, big perks.
So, AF – what did I think of it? I’m kind of unimpressed, if for no other reason than I would have thought that RPGs would have advanced more, technologically speaking, in the however many years it’s been since I played one. I mean, I look at the progression of Warcraft to Warcraft 3, or Civilization to Civilization 3, and if anything AF is in some ways a giant step back. Take the backstory for instance. AF is about a planet populated by orcs, goblins, humans, dwarves and what not in a nearly continual state of war. When it is discovered that the sun is going out, an uneasy peace is declared as all the races work together to move civilization underground. Once everyone is living down there, however, old conflicts resurface. In essence the backstory has given them an excuse to stage almost the entire game underground in dank, claustrophobic caves. The first Elder Scrolls: Arena let me wander around in the wide open spaces over five years ago, so I personally see cave crawling as somewhat less endearing. The caves furthermore cause troubles for their monsters, who often are unable to get around corners or through small openings to pursue you, and I’ve had groups of monsters walk right off bridges or narrow ledges like lemmings because their pathing just doesn’t take such things into account properly. There is incidentally more to the plotline than I’ve written above, but not much, and I’m not going to delve any further into it here.
If I had to describe AF in just a couple of words (which I don’t; I’ve got pages and pages available to me), I’d say “puzzle solving.” Peppered throughout the game are tons of little puzzles, which at first glance seem pretty convoluted (so convoluted in fact that it took me like half an hour to figure out how to repair my weapons given a hammer and anvil). But the more you play, the more you get into the retarded, pharmaceutically-altered, minds of the game designers, and you realize that the puzzles aren’t so hard. Almost like one of the old Tex Murphy Access mysteries, you combine stuff from your inventory to solve them. Put the rope on the pulley, drop the weight onto the button, jam the stick onto the hole. I’m more a roaming handyman than an adventurer. You can also combine things in your inventory to make other things, like flour and water to make bread, or a stick and a rope to make a fishing pole. It seems like there are a lot more puzzles than in your average RPG, a lot more puzzles than really necessary, unless you go in for that sort of thing.
Otherwise, nuts and bolts, AF is a kind of typical RPG. You allocate points among your various characteristics, and get more points to allocate as you gain experience. There are no character classes per se (and the storyline forces you to play as a human) – you become a magic user, or thief, or fighter depending on the point allocation. The magic system, which works on the typical mana reserve that recharges over time, does have one interesting twist. You cast spells using combinations of hand gestures that you learn from rune stones that you find, buy, beg, borrow, or steal throughout the game. You can ‘precast’ and store up to three spells that then appear as icons on your screen to be cast with a single mouse click. It saves you from madly attempting to recreate combinations of hand gestures while in combat, possibly getting one wrong and further enraging the troll trying to kill you because you accidentally flipped him the finger. Combat is a mouse click per sword swing (or other attack) which can turn the combats, unintentionally perhaps, into a clickfest almost akin to a 1st person shooter, except that there is this delay when you swing your weapon. Not a graphic-halting, insufficient CPU kind of delay, but a delay due to your character bringing back his weapon to swing. The alternative that I frequently used is to click and hold the attack button, which causes your character to draw back his weapon and wait, and then I would step in, let the button go, take my swing, and step back to do it again. This has the added bonus of being the way the game implements the hard strike – the attack becoming more powerful the longer you hold down the button. It’s kind of a spastic way to fight, making it more like a dance than a combat, but it got the job done.
The graphics are adequate, but didn’t seem to really be stretching my graphics board too much. There’s some fog, some particle effects, and a little shadowing, but that’s about it. The monster models are good until they move, at which time they become very jerky, like only so many animation frames were created. The caves and tunnels are well drawn, but quickly become very bland, because how many interesting ways are there to draw caves? I’m considerably less enthusiastic about the sounds. The music is OK, but the voice acting sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a coffee can – flat and echoey at the same time. Combat effects are uninspired, though some spells are marginally better. The absolute worst are some of the monster sound effects, stupid growls and hisses and threats, and the spiders sound like they have castanets on their feet.
I think most of all I’m disappointed in the general flow of the AF adventure. Again comparing it to a more than five year old game, the first Elder Scrolls, in that game I could go anywhere and do pretty much anything I wanted to. As a low level character I would sometimes wander into a dungeon way too difficult for me – I would have to come back later when I had more experience – but when I wanted to come back and take another crack was my choice. The claustrophobia of the AF caves extends to more than just the atmosphere – you often have only a single choice of where you can go or what you can do next. I can’t get through that gate until I show the guard a pass, I can’t get a pass until I search that area, so where do I go? I go to that area – I have no choice, no options, no adventure. This plot train rides on the rails with nowhere else to go – all aboard!
So, my first foray into the world of computer RPGs in years is a big letdown. Whatever cosmic forces that lead me to this, that shouted into my brain that this was the game that I wanted to play, is probably lying back and having a good laugh at my expense right about now. And to think that I took a break from reviewing the insipid O.R.B. to play Arx Fatalis, hoping it was going to be a step up, only to find that it was a different insipid game, not a better one. Oh yeah, I look like some kind of moron now. Master of Orion 3 had better save me from all this crap, that’s all I’ve got to say.