Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Arx Fatalis (PC, 2002)

 I didn't really start playing PC games until around 2005, coincidentally just after World of Warcraft was released *cough*...

So when I say I have a special place in my heart for PC games from the time between 1995-2005 I suspect it must be false nostalgia at play. Or maybe these games just capture the essence of the zeitgeist in gaming for me, story-wise, graphics-wise and game design-wise.

Because of World of Warcraft it took me a long time to get around to actually playing games from this time, but since then I have slowly made my way through games like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock 2 and Anachronox to mention some. If there is something I've learned that the main thing that is stopping me from enjoying these games is how badly the controls have aged.

This ogre makes questionable art.

And now I am at it again, playing the action RPG Arx Fatalis. Arx Fatalis was released in 2002 and developed by the French studio Arkane Studios. They went on to develop the much liked Dishonored games, of which I have played the first and really enjoyed it (you can read my review on that game here).

In Arx Fatalis you start out as an anonymous hero who has, surprise surprise, lost his memory. When you create your character you can choose which stats to focus in. I am not fooled anymore and always go for melee heavy stats, since magic usually turns out to be powerful but difficult to use in PC games of this era. Arx Fatalis is no exception, but more on that in a bit.

You wake up in a goblin prison, probably destined to become the meal of some monster, but fortunately for you getting out of said prison turns out to be quite simple. 

You can tell Arkane went a long way trying to make a control system that would fit everything that you should be able to do and also not be cumbersome. Compared to some of the solutions we have nowadays though they've definitely not ended up with the best system.

Your character can basically enter three different modes - combat, casting and inventory. To wield your weapon you have to press "tab" and to cast you have to press "ctrl" (at least in default setup on my version). You can't wield a weapon and cast a spell at the same time. Combat is straight forward enough, your weapons have a certain damage and durability, pressing the left mouse-button will let you swing it.

Casting is a different beast however. Arkane has opted for a system in which you as a player have to "write" certain magic runes, with your cursor, across the screen to cast them. Not only that, but you have to combine magic runes to do most spells. Add to this that the game is extremely finnicky when it comes to accepting your "drawings" and I pretty quickly realized that combat casting was not going to be a thing in this game. Fortunately the system allows you to pre-cast and store up to three spells to quick cast in combat. You find runes lying around in the game and I have yet to find any combat-worthy ones, so I can't say if magic is useful in combat or not.

The inventory works well, in a similar style to how I remember Diablo working. Basically a grid in which you can store items, certain items take up more slots than others. To use an item in your inventory you have to open it with right mouse-button and press F over the item. It's very unwieldy in combat, which might be intentional, but works fine outside of it. The system as a whole is a bit counter-intuitive to me and if you take a break from the game it takes a while to get back into, but it's perfectly acceptable.

Dark and claustrophobic!

The graphics are typical for the time. Dark and claustrophobic. The game is set underground, which is probably more because of technical limitations than active design choices, the story is just built around it as an excuse. This means everything is candle/torch lit, but it works well enough. Another classic for the time is the color scheme, which at least so far in the game has been 50 shades of brown. If there is music in the game I have not noticed it. The soundscape however is extremely... weird. Items, weapons, enemies are all making noises that work well, but the ambient noise are these odd swirly whirly sounds that just adds an extremely creepy atmosphere where it doesn't really fit. 

As far as I have gotten into the game, about 3 hours of gameplay, the story isn't about anything other than me trying to figure out who I am. As I escape the goblin prison I stumble upon an outpost that requires help from the kind. I promise to deliver a message to the king and then the king asks me for another favor and I reckon it is going to continue this way. Every here and there you come across some character that gives you an odd side quest or there is some other issue to solve. These problems are definitely not self explanatory, but neither are they obscure. Not far into the game I have to get past an ogre, but he won't let me. After trying to figure out how I can appease the ogre, I try to jump into the moat and sneak up the path behind him instead. That worked fine.


  1. Welcome back, Zinn!!!

    FWIW, I didn't play very many games in the period you mentioned because of my workload, moving twice, and starting a family during that time. That being said, those few I did play --Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, Civ III, and Alpha Centauri-- were games that have proven to be seminal games of their genres.

    1. Glad to see you are still around Redbeard!
      Yeah, that time period is a treasure trove of amazing games really. And playing them now is just as fun. I have plenty more waiting for me (BG1 kicked my ass though, but I will give it another chance some day ^^).