After the release of Morrowind GOTY Edition and Star Wars KOTOR, 2003 must have seemed like heaven for Xbox RPG addicts who’d so far been starved for RPG action on the big black and green console. Well now there’s another way to feed the addiction with Dreamcatcher’s release of Arx Fatalis. That’s not to say that Arx is better than either of the aforementioned RPGs, however, as it’s not, but it more than holds its own and will surely develop its own little fan club. Arx has, however, been ported over brilliantly from its prior PC version without losing any of its punch. In fact, I think it’s a better experience on the Xbox than it was on the PC.
Arx’s story is one of a world whose sun has disappeared, forcing the inhabitants to eke out a meager existence by becoming a subterranean society. This is where you come in with the old RPG standby of awakening in a prison cell with no recollection of who you are. Of course there’s a prisoner in the next cell who helps you to escape and even goes so far as to name you “Am Shaegar,” which interestingly enough means “the unnamed” in some foreign language. He also gives you a brief history lesson and some small clues as to who you might be.
The storyline for Arx is far more linear than that of Morrowind, which can be good or bad depending on the way you like your RPGs. In fact, I would liken Arx’s gameplay to that of a spiritual successor to the old Ultima Underworld series with its narrow focus on its story, rather than on the exploratory possibilities of Morrowind’s vast expanse. That’s not to say that Arx is a straight point A to point B affair, it actually has plenty of exploration available, along with side quests aplenty to keep intrepid adventurers busy for quite some time.
As with any other RPG, Arx starts out by having you build a character. The character generation system allows you to assign 15 points to strength, dexterity, constitution and mental attributes. Along with the attributes points, you’re given 18 points to spend on skills such as stealth and close combat (melee). Rather than defining a class per se such as a rogue or a fighter, you’re able to customize your character to your preferred play style. You can also change the physical appearance of your character, although there are only four faces from which to choose. This is really not much of a problem as the game is presented in the first person view at all times except for during cut scenes and inventory checks, so you’ll rarely see your face in the game anyhow.
Melee combat in Arx is reminiscent of most first-person RPGs. Basically, you place the crosshairs on the target and press attack. The power of the attack varies by how long you hold the attack button down before releasing it. You can also pull off different forms of attacks by moving the left directional stick, which can produce a slashing or straightforward attack. Although there are ranged weapons available in the game, most of the time I found myself using melee weapons for close combat and magic for ranged attacks.
What good is an RPG without magic? Not much, and thankfully Arx Fatalis’ developers understood that and made sure to put a rather effective magic system in place. The magic system in Arx is activated by the use of runes or scrolls. Once you discover a rune and place it in your spell book, it becomes available for use at any time. You activate each rune by using the directional pad in a sequence of movements that show up as hand movements on the screen. This is a nice touch as it adds to the feel that you’re actually performing the magic spell instead of just picking from a list. You are allowed to pre-cast up to five spells and store them for later use, which is really handy since trying to cast a fireball spell or magic missile while in combat could cause certain death as you scramble to remember the correct sequence. If, however, you want the ability to cast spells by just opening the book and picking out the spell, there is an option called “arcade magic” that allows you to do so. Its nice to see that the developer allowed players the choice of how to cast spells.
The graphics as a whole seem dated, but do convey the setting and atmosphere well enough. There’s blood splattered aplenty on the walls, skulls scattered everywhere and quite a few of the guard corpses look like pincushions with all the arrows sticking out of them. The different races are portrayed well, each seeming to have been drawn from your favorite fantasy novel. That being said, however, the character models could have used polishing up, as they seem blocky and unrefined. The lighting and fog effects are pretty flat and two-dimensional, certainly not up to current Xbox standards. A really annoying graphical glitch rears its head when you kill certain enemies and find their loot is lodged halfway up a wall and is then inaccessible. Lastly, I could forgive the generally “blah” graphics if the automap wasn’t so difficult to look at that it actually hinders gameplay.
In Arx, the audio is quiet good, especially when you hear the trolls and goblins completely butcher the English language. The ambient sound effects for the environment are polished to the point where you’ll often think you’re really walking around in a dungeon. Other environmental sounds such as water dripping and rocks falling help to increase the immersiveness of Arx Fatalis. Unfortunately, the musical score isn’t on par with the in-game sounds, so you’re stuck with some pretty repetitive tunes that you’ll sometimes want to turn off.
Arx Fatalis will not appeal to everyone, especially those looking for a more open RPG like Morrowind. That said, if you are a fan of the old Ultima Underworld series then you definitely will not want to miss out on Arx. Taken as a whole rather than the sum of its parts, it’s very easy for me to recommend Arx Fatalis as a purchase for any RPG fan.
- Gameplay: 8
- Graphics: 7
- Sound: 7.5
- Replay: 6
- Overall: 8
- An excellent dungeon romp and a worthy addition to any RPG gamer’s library.
— Al Wood