Arx Again Later: How Arx Fatalis Blended RPG Eras

Confession time: I don’t like dungeon crawlers. The very name says it all. Why would anyone want to go to the non-sexy kind of dungeon? And crawling – the form of movement reserved for times of serious injury and distress – around a dungeon? It’s a recipe for a dreary, ugly casserole, served by a skeleton archer in a rusty slime-edged prison bucket with a bowl of kamikaze rats.

But then there’s Arx Fatalis [official site], released in 2002 by Arkane Studios. I should hate it. It’s made of brown tunnels echoing with ambient dripping and distant wailing. It’s full of goblins and trolls and spiders and rats. You start in an Easily Escapable Prison, naked, with amnesia. It should bore me rigid, but through some arca… through some recondite formula it turns these uninspiring tropes into an imperfect, but unique and underappreciated brew.

It starts with the setting. A stock fantasy world is hit by a meteor, forcing survivors to live in underground networks connected only by the hardy few in the Travellers Guild, who brave the surface for trade like their counterparts in Metro 2033. Humans are on top, their allies underneath, and more danger the deeper you go. Naturally, this also gives rise to the game’s basic structure, where you the stabbing-addicted hero alternate between offloading junk onto shopkeepers, and plumbing the depths to maim and pillage anything that doesn’t look like you.

I said “unique” earlier and that’s not really fair, as Arx is clearly a tribute to Ultima Underworld, powered by then-modern hardware and design standards. Arkane dared use the unholy concept of streamlining, and the results speak for themselves. They were more concerned with the player’s actions than on creating a perpetual murder machine, giving it a plot-driven, fairly sedate pace. There’s less focus on loot and redundant items, as most swords and armour are either better than what you have or not worth carrying back. This means your equipment will likely remain static throughout much of the game, and progress is defined more by events and your stats, and you spend less time comparing your Stick of Greater Snailpoke to every Egg Of Anonymous Screeching you find.

So far so underwhelming. But where Arx Fatalis comes together is in its sense of place. While the setting limits its size and palette, the caverns and tunnels that make up its world feel right. Human areas are open, stubbornly timber-heavy miniatures of a typical fantasy town, while the friendly-but-dim trolls live simple, cramped lives hewn directly from the rock, and more mysterious races build curious, threateningly alien structures. There are of course wilder areas, home to More Rats and Inevitable Spiders, dotted with crystals to mine and shallow pools sustaining plants you can pick.

The first person perspective and interface are a huge part of this feeling. A right click brings up an inventory without pausing, much like that of System Shock 2. It’s not a separate thing that stops the game, some bureaucratic abstraction in a genre often undermined by them; it’s more like poking around in a pocket for that tenner you swear you had while approaching a till with a bag full of shopping. It also affects how you play, rewarding you for preparation in advance, as the alternative is fumbling in a panic to poison your weapon or equip a scroll while someone’s swinging a sword in your face.

Preparation is even more important for magic users, as Arx has one of the most interesting magic systems I’ve ever seen. Magic consists of runes, and casting spells means drawing the proper runes in the air. Get the shapes and combinations right and your spell will work. It’s genuinely difficult, and frustrating at first, but then it should be, right? We’re talking about exploding people with a touch, conjuring fire from your hands. Casting spells demands the proper points on your character’s sheet, sure, but that just makes it possible. The act of performing is dependent on your skill as a player, just as your fighting character needs you to guide his swings, and a sneaky type will be hopeless if you don’t direct him through the proper paths.

As absurd as it is to describe magic as “authentic”, it feels more so than clicking to fire off spells like they’re glorified bullets, or swearing as random numbers decide that you’ve fizzled. It rewards forethought, as in a compromise between instant magic and the D&D approach of preparing spells overnight, you can spell and save three spells in advance, to be cast later without the pressure. Excellently, even NPC casters can be seen writing runes in the air.

Combat, too, feels lively and involving. It’s simple by modern standards, and mostly means charging up power strikes (holding the attack button) and trying to catch enemies with them while dodging their own swings. An embryonic form of the combat from Arkane’s later Dark Messiah, it feels more natural than the combat of its contemporaries because you have direct control in a way that’s frankly still too scarce. You swing an axe, and if you see your weapon hit them, your weapon has hit them. No dice, no tricks, no fault but your own. Hey, you could have run away, dead boy.

Roaming opportunities are restricted by geography, so the details of each area become important. Trivial scripted events give some illusion of life, like castle guards waking up and grumbling as they file out of the barracks, or the goblin fisherman who appears on a previously bare ledge. So it is too with the minor crafting elements, as you can make some basic tools, brew potions, catch and cook fish, or bake bread from scratch. The possibilities are limited, but serve to bring the world to life a little – watching food cook on a fire adds little of practical value after the opening hour, but removing that minor interaction from the environment would be like taking the pump action out of the shotgun in Doom.

The more overt work is done by the NPCs. How you feel about them will likely depend on your reaction to the trolls, and particularly the goblins, who feature prominently at the start. They speak a ridiculous pidgin English that you’ll either cringe at or adore (keep an eye out for my favourite NPC, the outrageously, inexplicably French goblin), raising them above their Generic Evil expectations. They’re a high point, however, as the voice work is uneven, even dull, and dialogue is merely serviceable.

There are no conversation options, only a few alternative ways to complete some quests, typically by butchering everyone. Here it treads the line between casting you adrift and leading you by the nose – you’ll need to pay attention here and there. While none of the quests are a Mensa puzzle, you’ll have to use some initiative to keep things moving. You can, for example, accidentally start a fight with and subsequently wipe out humanity’s closest allies rather than ask them for a plot trinket. Not that anyone I know would be that stupid, of course.

However much I analyse it, Arx Fatalis feels like a bridge between its older, detailed but abstruse inspiration, and more modern, action-oriented but patronising fare. The 2000s may have been the era of “RPG elements”, but first person fantasy romps are still thin on the ground, and that Arx stands alone is a great shame. It feels like the start of a series that never was, largely as it fought both Neverwinter Nights and Morrowind for our attention and money, and consequently never quite gained what it deserved.

The world could do with a focussed dungeon-crawling counterpart to the sprawling, systemic Excel With Dice of Morrowind. Yes, it’s another of those “they could have done so much with this setting in a sequel” games, but let’s not damn it with the “flawed” label that often implies; Arx Fatalis isn’t a Great Game, but it is a great game. Sometimes that’s enough.

29 Comments

  1. Craxel says:

    Good game, rather atmospheric (and the More rats!). I’ve heard that with a DX9 patch it looks excellent in oculus rift.

    Hurray for poking-around-in-your-pocket-for-a-tenner-you-swear-you-had inventories! And More rats!

  2. shrieki says:

    many years ago i found a cd copy of arx fatalis in the garbage that the flea-market left behind… did not know what kind of game it was – i remember how awed i was by the atmosphere and all – i played it for some hours but my pc couldn’t really handle it and after that i never came back to it
    so my perception of how awesome it really was is probably kindof flawed and embellished by my memory only remembering the few good parts i saw. one of those games i wish to have finished back then… :P

  3. Emeraude says:

    Great one. Deserved better than it got upon release I feel.

    Oh, well, those interested in playing this on modern machines may want to give the Arx Libertatis mod a look:

  4. shrieki says:

    your article made me install it finally. takes only twenty minutes to download so why the hell not ! :D

  5. rexx.sabotage says:

    head over here if you prefer a copy that is guaranteed to run on your modern machine and DRM-free to boot!

    • Jason Moyer says:

      It really doesn’t matter where you get Arx from anymore; the only reason to install the GoG or Steam or even disc versions is to have the data files that Arx Libertatis uses.

  6. jonahcutter says:

    Also check out the Arx Libertatis mod, which does some modern improvements and bugfixing:

    link to moddb.com

  7. Mr_Blastman says:

    This game is one of the best RPGs ever made.

  8. Jason Moyer says:

    Arx Fatalis was the game that got me back into RPG’s after a 10 year hiatus. I had continued purchasing them through the mid to late 90’s and completely bouncing off of them. In retrospect, I adore Fallout 1/2 and Torment and the Icewind Dale games, but at the time I was a massive fan of Thief and System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, and non-3D-accelerated isometric games seemed archaic.

    Arx Fatalis came along and captured the same feeling as the old Looking Glass and Ion Storm stuff, and from there I ended up getting into Morrowind and then eventually giving the old Black Isle stuff another chance. My enthusiasm for the genre has again declined significantly (aside from TES or Shadowrun or Torchlight or whatever – basically everything is an RPG now anyway) but Arx will forever be the gateway drug that got me back into those sorts of games.

    • sinister agent says:

      This is particularly interesting to me, as I thought of Arx as a gateway drug (even used that exact phrase) to older RPGs. Didn’t really think of it happening the other way round, though it does of course make sense.

      You also hinted at something I left out in the end, that playing Arx reminds me of several other games at various points, including Thief and Morrowind. It’s not enough like either to make a big deal out of it, but the feeling is definitely there.

  9. Catweasel says:

    “I said “unique” earlier and that’s not really fair, as Arx is clearly a tribute to Ultima Underworld, powered by then-modern hardware and design standards.”

    Wasn’t Arx literally Ultima Underworld 3 at some point in development? More than just a tribute.

    • noom says:

      Yeah, I remember reading that it began development as an actual sequel but somehow the developers lost the license. Change of publisher maybe?

      • ansionnach says:

        Their plan was that if they showed EA what they had, they’d be let use the licence. Made sense, since EA was sitting on pretty much everything from Origin except Ultima Online, which they were running into the ground. Of course, EA was not interested, being quite happy with its “buy and destroy” policy. Not sure what the point of buying a studio is if you piss everyone off so they leave, especially if you then do nothing with the rights to the games you just bought. Maybe they just didn’t want to know after System Shock 2. I suppose Ultima Online must still be profitable to be still around but it’s hardly going to spring back into life and reclaim its crown any time ever.

  10. Drake Sigar says:

    Not all goblins are French, but all French are goblins.

    *Runs away*

  11. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    I’ve always liked it. Good stuff.

  12. cpt_freakout says:

    Great write-up! I never played this, but I got it on GOG on my dad’s recommendation. Another one for the endless to-play list…

  13. lordfrikk says:

    And they went on to create Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Dishonored. Talk about steep rise in quality. Can’t wait what they’ll come up with next (still waiting for that Dishonored sequel, Arkane!).