STAFF REVIEW of Arx Fatalis (Xbox)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004.
by Scapegoats

Arx Fatalis Box art I went into this game not really knowing what to expect. The cover art isn't anything special, and the name isn't very memorable. I had heard people try and compare it to other games like Morrowind. Well, let me tell you what I found...

Unlike Morrowind, I had an easy time getting into this game. It has a coherent story line, very little reading to do, and a little something more that is very hard to explain... Perhaps the best way to do this is to ask: do you remember the old Interplay game for DOS called Stonekeep? Did you like it? If so, then Arx Fatalis is right up your alley... I can't place my finger on what it is; perhaps the fact that the entire game takes place underground, or the usage of darker colors and many shades of brown, I'm not entirely sure. But whatever it is, I made the connection, and so have other people I have talked to. If you didn't play Stonekeep, you'll have no idea what I'm talking about, but that's okay - Arx Fatalis is a great game, even without that nostalgic feeling.

So you awaken with no memory of who you are or how you got there. You're imprisoned, and you need to escape. As you progress through the game, you learn about yourself and what you were sent to do. Sound familiar? Well sure, it may be a common plot, but Arx Fatalis has some cool things that separate it from the rest.

Arx Fatalis isn't just another hack and slash; there is a story, things to do, goals, and an ultimate resolution. I love that I can walk through troll caves and not worry about being decimated by them. They only get angry if you give them reason to. You can sneak up on enemies, lure one away from a group and take care of it, rinse and repeat. You can pick up different strategies of your own to get through the game, and it just works.

The controls for this game are quite similar to Morrowind, so if you've played it, you'll slip right into this one easily. However, there are some differences, particularly in regards to the user interface.

Magic usage has two modes: combo-based mode where you need to use the directional pad to trace runes to complete spells, and arcade mode, where you simply choose the spell to cast. I prefer the arcade mode myself, but you can take your pick. You can store a few spells in memory that you can have access to with the pre-cast button, which is useful in combat. I'm not sure how this could have been made better, but it can sometimes get in the way and cause you some pain and frustration.

I found jumping to be abnormally far and fast. I don't know any humans that can jump around places faster than they can walk... Also, trying to jump up on ledges is annoyingly hard - if you find yourself falling down to the ground, don't be surprised.

Pressing the directional pad to have quick access to your inventory is sorta cool, but it can also prove to be quite cumbersome. Because of the inventory system, which goes by space instead of by weight, you can have tons and tons of things to scroll through before you find the one thing you were looking for. The items aren't sorted either; and in fact, you can randomize the list while in the full inventory screen. Pushing up to drop items is agitating, as I found myself dropping things by accident all the time. However, you get used to these things and you end up not dropping your sword in the middle of a battle any longer.

Another thing that might be sort of annoying is that while you are looking at your maps, your stats, or your inventory, the game doesn't pause - and if you're near enemies, this means death or damage. This is more realistic, but if you're not expecting it, it might be sorta aggravating at first.

The good news is that your health and mana can be replenished naturally, albeit slowly. This means that after a hard-fought battle, you can always sit back and take a breather while you recover. Other options are potions, which you can find, buy, or even distill yourself. You can eat food that you purchase, steal, or find. You can also pick up food from animals that you have attacked, and if you have a fishing pole, you can go catch some out of the nearest body of water. But if your food is not cooked first, your character will refuse to eat it (I don't like sushi either). Walk over to the nearest flammage, drop your food onto it, wait for it to cook, then pick it back up. Mmm, fresh ribs! You can even bake your own bread, if you happen to find some flour and have a bottle of water handy. You'll know when your character is hungry too, for you'll be walking through a cave, and all of a sudden, he just says "I'm hungry" out of nowhere. These little elements are the ones that make a game realistic without overdoing it, and add that extra enjoyment to it.

At first, the visual presentation of Arx Fatalis seems dated, something that may have been great a few years back, but by today's standards isn't anything special. However, the more you play the game, the more that you see that there is some great detail and effort put into it. For instance, frogs sit around water pools and jump in when you get close to them. Cave walls are blackened where torches have been burning. Goblins sitting around a campfire with rats on spits, eating food, and so forth. Movements are often quite good, although occasionally there are some clipping issues.

Characters don't seem overly blocky to me, and the game is easy to immerse yourself in once you look past the initial impression of the first level. Sure, some things could have been improved, such as water rippling and splashing, better shadows and such. But, no game is perfect.

Even if a game is perfect visually, the sound needs to be there to back it up. This is Arx Fatalis' main weak point. On one hand, the music that is there is great, it fits the scene, and it isn't annoying. The neatest music I have found so far is in the castle on the human level, where there is a minstrel playing some nice music. If you're far away from him, the music is quieter. This is a nice touch. I wish all games had Dolby Digital 5.1 support, such as this. It greatly enhances the experience.

Of course, just because a game has positional audio doesn't mean it doesn't have flaws. In Arx Fatalis, there is way too much echo on every single sound that you hear in the game - voices, objects dropping, water splashing, and so forth. The volumes aren't balanced either. I would find myself talking to someone important in a tavern, and I couldn't hear what they were saying because someone is blaringly loud, going on about playing a gambling game. Good thing there are subtitles as well, else I may have missed something important!

Overall, the game is quite good, the sound isn't horrible and you get used to it after a while, but had it been less reverbed, it would have received a much better score.

Less reverb and echo! Sure the game is underground and all, but lay off a bit! I do wish that saving games was a lot faster (look at Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for a good example). A bit of work on the interface, and that's about it. Very cool game otherwise.

Overall: 7.8 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.2 / 10
Sound: 6.2 / 10



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