Although released in 2003, one could be forgiven for presuming that Arx Fatalis was written a decade or more before it saw the light of day, so traditional is it in its design and execution that it's almost a totem of nostalgia for anyone who has played an RPG from the 1980s or 1990s.
Set in a rather typical sword n' spells faux-medieval world, Arx Fatalis is not going to throw any curveballs at anyone familiar with the RPG genre. The world of Arx has had its sun go and sputter out on it (how inconvenient) and every race was forced to work together to build an underground utopia and set aside their differences. For a bit. But this would be all too easy, and the co-operation broke down and the Marxist ideal is proved not to work when trolls and goblins, let alone humans, are supposed to work together. Split over nine levels, this underground kingdom is your home for the duration of the adventure. So no wandering off into massive wilderness like in Morrowind, then.
You start off as a prisoner in the goblin sub-sections of the caves (of course) and can't remember how you got there (of course of course). This is where it is immediately obvious how limited in scope this game is - there is very little choice when it comes to customising your character, other than what face you give him (no gender choice annoys me - I like playing games as a girl for some reason) and what skill points you give him as he progresses. This is done in the traditional "explore stuff and kill monsters = more points" method, with skills such as lock-picking, swordsmanship and magic to choose from. So far, so standard.
There is quite a compelling plot though, as you try to figure out who you are, and coming into contact with the humans leads to a main thread that has you traipsing all over through the various levels. Most levels are dedicated to a different race or theme. The ones closest to the surface belong to the humans, then the goblins, then trolls, and then a weird race of psychic snake-women. There is a balance and tension of cultures here - they are there to be spoken with, rather than slashed to bits, which gives the illusion of a funcitoning world, albeit one quite limited in its scope. Needless to say, the unnamed chap you are in control of is required to save this whole world from a second disaster. Again, no surprises, but come to think of it, has there ever been an RPG that doesn't require you to sort out everyone else's problems? There's also not much scope for being a sneaky, evil git either, which is another limitation. Not everyone wants to be the hero, you know...
Dialogue options are limited, and given that this is a traditional 9-level dungeon explororation, so this really does feel like a very linear, constrained game. It is saved, though, by its atmosphere and its (almost) unique spell casting system, apparently taken from Peter Molyneux's groundbreaking god-game, Black and White.
Magic is cast through the use of runes, which are found scattered throughout the game. When used in the right sequence, different combinations produce different magical effects. However, rather than just clicking on the ones that you require, you are required to go into magic mode and physically drawing the shape of the runes (which has the character rather funnily waving his glowing finger in the air like that pencil from Words and Pictures). This is a nice idea, as rather than reducing using magic to just another behind-the-scenes statistic for the computer to sort out, this actually requires some skill from the gamer. It also means you need to anticipate what's coming up, as you can store up to three spells for quick use in advance. BUT this system is nigh on impossible on the X-Box, as the thumbsticks make this intricate task infuriatingly difficult. Best done on the PC with a mouse, then (like most games). And since it's all done in first-person mode, it does add to the immersion of tapping into some ethereal energy, rather than just tapping 'cast' with a twitchy trigger finger.
Combat is quite fun, with various weapons available to butcher your opponents, including axes, swords and bows. Huge gouts of blood fly about as you dismember your foes, although it all looks far too gaudy to be disturbing. There are some neat touches to the gameplay too, allowing you to be resourceful. Use a knife on a stick to create anti-zombie stakes, or combine it with a rag to make a torch. Baking bread, making potions and repairing armour are all in here, which all adds to the experience.
Some of the level design is great, too. On one of the lower levels you are pursued relentlessly by a terrible black monster that makes the Beast of Bodmin Moor look like a hamster, and it's a breathless race to outwit it. Another quest has you sent off into the catacombs of the human settlement, which is one of the most atmospheric and downright unnerving levels I've played in any game. Plunged into a near pitch-black labyrinth of crumbling crypts and prison cells, you are forced down so many stairwells and levels that it really feels like you'll never get out. It feels truly haunted, with objects that move seemingly of their own accord, and strange half-heard whispers hiss from the corner of the room. And when you find out what's waiting at the end, you'll really, really wish you'd never gone down there...
The sound is OK, with wind howling down spiracles from the surface, and echoing chambers filled with the sound of trickling water and shifting rocks. The voice acting is utterly naff though, with most of the actors either hamming it up til slices of gammon come out of your speakers, or sounding so bored they'd rather be waiting to visit the dentist than be in the recording studio.
All in all, this feels more like the product of a group of games designers sitting cobbling something together that reminds them of the games from their youth. In fact, it is so similar in style to the Ultima Underworld games in so many ways (rune-based magic, multi-levelled subterranea with numerous races, interactive inventory items) that the developers tried to push it out as Underworld 3. Thankfully they didn't, as it would have only annoyed even more Ultima fans that had seen the franchise already near-death due to the cack-handed writing of EA's development teams. It also feels rather rushed, as the animations are very clunky by 2003 standards, and there are a fair few glitches. Maybe they needed to get it out before Morrowind hit the shelves and knackered their potential market.
Worth a try if you liked the Ultima or Eye of the Beholder games from yesteryear - if not, don't bother and save your cash for the release of Skyrim in November.
Explore a medieval fantasy world where the sun's light has retreated, and a shadowy new world has been uncovered!