Arx Fatalis (Arkane Studios, 2002) is among my favourite games of the last decade. There are numerous favourable comparisons to make between it and Ultima Underworld (Blue Sky Productions, 1992), mostly because it was intended to be Ultima Underworld 3, but the developers could not obtain an appropriate license for the name.
The game takes place in (or rather under) a fantasy world whose Sun has failed. As the Sun dimmed and the world got colder, various species banded together to build vast, underground complexes, to be their new homes. The truce between races didn’t really last once everyone got settled in, however.
When you first load up the game, you’re treated to a historical narrative, by a man appearing to be a mage or priest. He details the history of this particular kingdom, Arx. It’s a traditional sort of title narrative, however as the narrative moves on, and he is about to outline the present crisis, our narrator is murdered, and he never gets to finish relating the background.
That narrative, and the murder itself, is an integral event to the story that will unfold during gameplay, and you’ll be more personally involved in those events.
As for yourself, your character – once created – is first seen surrounded by a crackling blue glow, in obvious agony before collapsing unconscious to the floor. Discovered, and dragged off into a cell by the local goblins, you awaken with no equipment, no memory of your purpose, your surroundings or of your name.
With the help of a man in the next cell, you will be led by the tutorial to an eventual escape from the goblins, and acquire the placeholder name “Am Shaegar” (“He who has no name”). From there, the story really begins to develop.
Character creation involves selecting an appearance from a list of choices (only male characters are available, regrettably) and allocating character points to four attributes (Strength, Mental, Dexterity and Constitution) and nine skills (Stealth, Technical, Intuition, Ethereal Link, Object Knowledge, Casting, Close Combat, Projectile and Defence).
There are quite a few ways to approach things in Arx, so you can specialise your character in a number of different ways.
Arx Fatalis doesn’t really have a conversation system at all. When there’s a conversation, your character will speak and ask questions as he feels is appropriate. Making choices within the game is all about what you do.
Arx has an involved and branching storyline, with some interesting twists and turns to it. Your choices will determine how that storyline progresses. You can approach situations by force, by stealth, by magic, or by guile. Many situations have multiple possible resolutions. Within it, you’ll be a hero, a cad, a spy, a saviour, a detective, and a threat.
Magic in the game is gesture-based. You hold down the control key and cast a spell by tracing the spell’s runes on your screen with the mouse. The more precisely you can accomplish it, the better. While it can be tricky to manage when you’re under fire, you can pre-cast up to three spells, ready to be released.
The runes I mentioned are found (or occasionally purchased) during game-play. Scrolls can tell you how they fit together into spells, or you can experiment and figure spells out. The spells are largely logically constructed, so with the right runes, it is not so hard to discover useful magical effects.
Arx is fully 3D, and played in first-person, which helps lend a stronger atmosphere to the caves, tunnels and caverns that you’ll find yourself in. The right mouse button toggles your mouse-pointer smoothly between mouse-look mode and mouse-cursor mode. It’s kind of awkward at first, but it is something you get used to fairly quickly.
Object interaction is fairly rich, lending additional verisimilitude to the game. Voice acting is quite variable, ranging from poor to excellent. The goblins particularly, are strongly reminiscent of the ones from Labyrinth.
One issue that the game had, however, was its limited video resolution options, and oftentimes laggy performance.
Nevertheless, if first-person action-adventure CRPGs are your thing, then I highly recommend Arx Fatalis.
Now, the very good news.
Last January, the source code for the game-engine was released under the GPLv3 license. Well, most of it, anyway.
Just weeks ago, a team released Arx Libertatis – a ready-to-install-and-play release of that engine, entirely under the GPL license. There are only two catches. One, you will need to buy the game to have the game data for that engine so that you can actually play. Second, there aren’t any binaries available for Mac OSX at this time, though you can get binaries for Windows 32/64 and Linux. You’ll need to figure out how to build and install it for Mac OSX yourself. There are instructions, but that’s best left to someone with programming experience.
The Arx Libertatis version of the engine is smooth. It seems to exhibit none of the lag problems that the original game did, and provides for a large variety of video resolutions, in both windowed and full-screen mode. It will also work with any 1.21 Arx Fatalis installation, so far as I am aware – as well as with the free demo.
One thing, though, it doesn’t like dual monitors under Windows 7. I needed to switch my display to a single monitor, start it up and configure it to windowed mode. After that, I could go back to dual displays again.
Nevertheless, Arx Libertatis is excellent work.
Steam has the free demo, as well as the game (priced at US$4.99 – subject to regional pricing policies).
Alternatively you can pick the game up from GoG (US$5.99 – no regional pricing variations).