Deep underground, a man is taken prisoner by goblins. Unaware of who he is, or where he is, he befriends another captive and works to escape the dungeon and explore the vast labyrinth that houses friends and horrific foes alike. This is the start of Arx Fatalis, a wonderfully fresh dungeon crawler that never seemed to get the recognition it deserved.
Developed by Arkane Studios, probably best known now for Dishonored, Arx Fatalis immediately draws you in with its strange world. The planet’s sun has died, forcing the denizens of the world underground in a number of sprawling, yet claustrophobic labyrinths. The setting of the game is one such complex, an 8 floor maze housing humans, goblins, trolls, and all manner of other races. Forced to either work together for the survival of their races or (barring that) set hard limits on territory, this creates an interesting sort of tension when exploring the mostly cramped corridors.
As an example of how these territories actually work in a gameplay capacity, let’s backtrack to the very beginning in the goblin prison. Breaking out, as you can imagine, requires either trying to stealthily avoid the goblin patrols or taking a more hands on approach and fighting through the guards. Goblins aren’t exactly friendly to humans, but later on you’re granted a gem dealer’s license and papers. Giving these to the right goblin lord grants you safe passage as a merchant, negating the need to constantly be on guard in that particular section of the world. Conversely, when you are granted access to the troll king’s domain, you are never attacked by the trolls in the kingdom proper because they’re already on friendly terms with humans. Meanwhile, they’re hugely distrusting of goblins. This creates a fairly intricate network of politics that you as a player uncover rather organicly just by playing and delving into the world. These politics also have an effect in game when you help the various factions.
Now, onto the actual gameplay mechanics. Arx Fatalis, for all intents and purposes, is a spiritual successor to the Ultima Underworld series. What this really means, for those unfamiliar with that series, is it’s a blend of first person dungeon crawling and adventuring. Gameplay consists of fighting to stay alive while you puzzle your way through the various locales, uncovering mysteries and treasure while helping out the friendlier denizens below the ground. You have two main ways of interacting with the world. In normal mode, you can sheathe and unsheathe your weapon in preparation of combat, sneak around and crouch to stealth, and generally interact with the world in a manner similar to other first person games. Your other mode is basically an inspection mode. In inspection mode, the general interface more or less resembles a point and click adventure. Your inventory comes up and you have a cursor that you use to examine things with a little bit more depth, including being able to use items in puzzles, or giving items to NPCs. All in all, the blending of styles is very interesting and adds a bit of depth to how players can interact with the world.
Another thing that’s very much worth mentioning is Arx Fatalis’ magic system. Once again drawing inspiration from Ultima Underworld, you must discover various runes in the world to add to your spell book. The more you find, the more spells you learn and unlock. However, the real innovation in the system is actually casting the spells. This is accomplished by actually using the mouse to draw the shape of the runes in the right order. This encourages you to actually remember the various runes, so you aren’t constantly opening up your spellbook over and over again. The system also rounds itself out by letting you precast up to three spells to use in a pinch, so you have something to fall back on in frantic fights or flights.
Calling something a ‘hidden gem’ is a bit of a joke in this day and age. The term is incorrectly applied to things that have received wide mainstream acclaim and high sales, completely diminishing the wonderful things that actually tend to become cult classics, or worse, fall into complete obscurity. Arx Fatalis is an actual hidden gem. A product not of its time, but actually before its time, wonderfully paying homage to a subgenre that almost completely fell into obscurity. While some aspects of the game can be a bit jarring for the modern gamer (such as a strange physics engine with an unwieldy jump, or the voice acting which sounds fairly unprofessional at times), it all comes to together to create a package that is a one of a kind experience.
If you like western RPGs, and especially like the idea of exploring a fascinating world and learning more about it, do yourself a favor and pick this up (available digitally on Steam or GOG). Just do yourself a favor and also use Arx Libertatis with it, an open source port to make it play nice with modern machines and operating systems.
— Brandon (Taso)