Itís been a great year for Xbox RPG fans. The systemís huge hard drive has allowed developers to bring deeper PC-style gaming experiences to a wider audience, and with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind- Game of the Year Edition, Deus Ex: Invisible War, and now DreamCatcherís great Arx Fatalis, itís been tough to drag myself away from my television other than for food and the occasional bathroom break (who needs sleep?). The land of Arx is special for me, and itíll make you all warm and fuzzy too especially if you remember older PC classics like Ultima Underworld and Anvil of Dawn, as well as From Softwareís great Kingís Field series. Arkane Studios originally developed Arx for the PC (it was released in late 2001), and it scored high marks with real-time gameplay, near complete object interactivity, and a rune-based spell system that added some strategic depth to the open-ended exploration. The Xbox version arrives with some visual enhancements and the option to use a more arcade-like spell system for those that donít want to draw out spells with the D-pad.
What makes the game so much fun (and youíll want to run out and buy it as soon as you finish this review if youíre into this sort of thing) is that you go at your own pace as the plot unfolds in the confines of the underground world. Itís not as massive a world as the lands in Morrowind, but thereís definitely more than enough to keep you busy as you attempt to regain your identity and complete the tasks assigned you. The game begins as your character appears in a dungeon in a flash of blue light. Falling to the stone floor unconscious, youíre dragged off to a cell by a goblin, and as soon as you awaken, the gameplay begins. Once you escape from your cell and free a fellow prisoner, he gives you a name (Am Shegar), and youíre off to make your way out of the prison proper. The first area of the game is fairly simple and if you turn the tutorial on, youíre led through the control scheme as each new task comes up. Soon, you get to use your first magic spell, and you learn to light torches and cook food, two important gameplay elements (amusingly enough, in Morrowind you rest but donít eat, but in Arx you eat and donít rest). You can search dead rats or kill pigs or chickens for meat, go vegetarian if you desire, or even fish and have a little cookout (sorry, no sushi here). Combining ingredients is a key skill, as an apple pie is a better health boost than a mushroom (what Atkins diet?), and add wine to that pie and you get an even bigger boost.
Combat is fast and deadly, and there are no hidden modifiers or dice rolls to fret about. Youíre going to hit, be hit, miss and have near misses, and multiple enemies will attack if youíre careless (or unlucky). The AI features a nice mix of enemies that will run off screaming for help (and bring back plenty) or try to charge you into a blind spot while they rain death upon you. Youíll often have to think fast to survive in Arx, and if the rats and spiders give you grief, youíll never make it through the bulk of the game. As for spell making, youíll find (or purchase) and memorize runes, and you have the choice to either draw out spells manually or switch to a simpler choose and cast sequence. There are at least 50 spells to learn, and while you probably donít need them all, itís sure fun to try as many as possible out as you play. Either way, youíll have to use a bit of planning, as youíll have to be quicker than that Lich or Troll coming at you with mad in their eye. The great thing is if you run into another spell caster, he or she also has to draw out their spells, so you can negate a fireball or dispel whatís about to be blasted your way. But Iím getting ahead of myself. Careful exploration leads to more story points and optional quests. By optional, I mean that itís entirely possible to make it through the game killing every goblin and troll you come across, but if you do, youíll miss out on a good amount of side-questing and a bit of humor as you try to solve a number of problems between the two races. Youíll also be able to avoid Troll attacks entirely if you complete a certain request early on. The upside to being a wanton killing machine is that youíll level up a bit quicker, making the later crypt areas a bit easier to survive. Itís your choice, and if youíre more used to the connect-the-dots gameplay found in more linear Japanese console RPGs, you may be a bit thrown off. Your loss if you pass this one up, though.
For the most part, the gameís plot and dialogue is well written, although Am Shegar is a pretty lousy notekeeper- must be the memory loss, I guess. The game keeps track of Quest information when you get it, but the notes are somewhat generic. Youíll have to pay close attention to whatís said in the cinemas, and maybe take some notes of your own, if you have trouble remembering people and places. Sometimes youíll be given a location and item to get, but youíll get no directions to the area or description of the item until you stumble upon it in a chest or lift it from a slain enemy. The occasional puzzle clue can be quite, well, puzzling, but thatís where the careful exploration I mentioned earlier comes in. Backtracking will be your best friend if youíre not thorough enough, but once you get the portal spell, things really get a bit easier, as you can teleport to anywhere you find one of those interesting-looking sculptures.
Arx Fatalisí graphics are a nice mix of highly stylized 3D character art, some nice line art for certain cinemas, and some really massive, detailed environments. The game uses some great lighting and texture effects, runs at a decent frame rate, and the assorted races have their own areas that youíll get to explore. Most of the monsters actually look and move a bit better than the humans though, who tend to be a bit angular with almost expressionless faces. I think the lack of realistic shadowing on the charactersí faces hurts a bit, but itís forgivable. Besides, when you come across your first Undead, Vampire, or Lich, youíll be running for your life and playing the game with a blanket over your head and sweaty palms gripping that Xbox controller. As far as the levels go, the game looks quite realistic and sometimes amazing with rubble-strewn rooms, twisty caves and uneven corridors all over the place. The water effects didnít fare so well in the translation from PC to Xbox, though. The original game had little ripples that definitely needed work, while the Xbox gets pixel-shaded water with no ripples at all when itís walked in. It does look mighty nice when you first see it, though.
The game uses positional sound (and Dolby Digital, if youíve a home theater setup) and the Xbox controllerís vibration feature quite well, and youíll hear some overall solid voice acting throughout, as well as feel earthquakes and enemy hits. As the game takes place entirely underground, thereís an echo to everything and an overall air of claustrophobia at times. Even though thereís only a few stock voices for the beast races, if you hang about the various goblin camps, youíll crack up from all the little comments and complaints they have, while the trolls simply grunt and toil away in the mines (donít get them mad, though). Itís pretty creepy to enter a new area and hear the sound of some unknown creature off in the distance, or the sound of those annoying rats that nip at your feet if you donít kill them quickly enough. Some characters repeat stuff over and over (the few folks in the bar must hit the sauce pretty hard), but youíll keep playing just to hear more of the plot. Unlike Morrowind or the last Kingís Field game, all the dialogue is spoken, and major cinemas have text as well as voice, which is a major plus in delivering a more realistic gaming experience. Thereís no musical score in the game, but each area is filled with ambient noises and brief thematic snippets that set a tone for each area.
As the game demands your complete attention, I can see some folks being thrown off by some of the backtracking, the rather loose note taking and occasionally vague clues that come up as you play. Arx Fatalis definitely isnít for the gamer looking for a twitch heavy gameplay fix. Also, itís entirely possible to accidentally kill off or hit an important character, causing him or her to attack you, so itís advisable to save as often as possible. The latter isnít a knock against the game, but a reminder to those who forget to sheathe a weapon while in a safe spot or forget to save after completing an important task. As youíre playing through the game, you can see the developers have created a unique virtual world where you can spend many hours exploring each and every crevice while becoming completely immersed in the gameís story. Despite its minor flaws, Arx Fatalis is a more than welcome surprise, and a great game to end a spectacular 2003 for Xbox owners everywhere.
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