Who turned out the lights?
Have you ever known anyone with amnesia? I'm not talking about Alzheimer's - I mean classic, blow-to-the-head amnesia. No? Not one? Neither have I, and yet it shows up in TV, books and movies as if it was as common as the flu. It's an absolute staple of daytime soap opera plots.
But I forgive the overuse of this ridiculous plot device in games. It allows you to drop the main character into a situation, fully grown and fully formed, but without the inconvenience of a back story. It leaves the player free to make up their own past, devoid of encumbrances.
And this, of course, is how Arx Fatalis begins. You are... anyone you want to be. You wake up in a prison cell, wearing a loincloth, with no memories and only the bones of the previous inhabitant to keep you company. At least you know where you are - the city of Arx.
Once upon a time, the world of Exosta was a beautiful place. Goblins, Orcs, Trolls, Dwarves, Humans and others roamed the planet, built cities, and lived and died in relative peace. Then one day the sun went out. The land became black and cold and survivors had to move underground. The city of Arx was built deep in the earth in old Dwarven mines, but the different races of Exosta didn't get along as well in such close confines. Soon enough. ancient hatreds flared up.
Before you can do anything, you must first design your character. You allocate points into about a dozen different stats and skills, the first part of what is a fairly complex RPG system. You will have the chance to modify your abilities as you progress, but how you spend your points initially will determine largely how you play the game. Perhaps you wish to focus on magic, and learn the many spells Arx Fatalis has to offer. Or maybe stealth is more your style, preferring to pass obstacles without confronting them. Or, if you like, you can simply hit everything with a big axe.
However, the game really favors a balanced character, which is a bit of a shame. No matter how powerful your spells get, you'll still have to run things through with a sword sometimes.
Fortunately, swinging your sword is good fun. You can just swing away or you can hold your mouse button to prepare for a more serious attack. Powerful killing blows can lop an arm or a head off your opponent which makes for an impressive, if messy, show.
When you can manage to stay at a distance, the spells are pretty impressive, too. Aside from there being lots and lots of them, they use a casting system similar to that of Black and White. Throughout the game you will finds "runes" that have a simple pattern on them. Once you have that rune, you can draw that pattern in the air with your mouse. Drawing different combinations of different runes will produce different spells. It's a neat system, but is difficult to pull off in the heat of combat.
The graphics themselves are good, generally on par with that 'other' first-person RPG, Morrowind. There are a lot more gritty details in Arx Fatalis and you can interact with many more objects, but it's also less varied than Morrowind. Every place is dark and gloomy and inside. There just aren't any bright, open areas in an underground city on a world with no sun. This makes all the environments a bit repetitive, despite the attention to detail.
Sound, on the other hand, is about as good as it gets. The bangs and clanks and groans and creaks and splatters are all just fine, but the voices are where the game really shines. Nearly all the characters you'll run into are fully voiced and will surprise you with some impressive performances. You don't even necessarily have to be talking to them. Sneak up behind a pair of guards and you might hear them comparing complaints about their wives as they wait for their watch to end. Its great stuff and it really brings the game alive.
Unfortunately, not everything is as well done as the voices. The controls and the interface are both very awkward. To play Arx, you have to constantly switch back and forth between 2 different movement modes, one which allows you greater freedom of movement and one which allows you to interact with more items. You definitely need to use both modes and the controls are different for each, leading to a long learning curve, especially when suddenly confronted by an enemy.
But it gets worse. The inventory system is hard to use and too small. The map, on the other hand, is hard to use and too big. Plus, it's not transparent, so you cannot move while looking at the map. This pretty much guarantees that you will get frequently lost in the many mazes that make up Arx.
Aside from a few flaws, Arx Fatalis is a solid game and a good Adventure/RPG in the style of Deus Ex or System Shock 2. Like those games, its real strengths lie in allowing multiple styles of play and multiple solutions to problems. It doesn't have quite the reach or the heavyweight punch of Morrowind or Neverwinter Nights, but it is still a valid contender, worthy of being in the same ring.