Movies and games that feature amnesiac protagonists have gotten so overdone that I find myself trying to avoid them. Once in a while there is some decent entertainment to be had, but I find the amnesia plot formula to be terribly tired. When I loaded up Arx Fatalis I found out that, lo and behold, the game stars an amnesiac hero! Oh no! Nowhere on the box was there any evidence of this fellow with memory loss. For some reason I kept on playing Arx Fatalis, and I am definitely glad I gave it a chance. This is one unexpectedly decent game.
The world of Arx was once rife with conflict between the goblins, humans, ogres and the other races that inhabited the land. Then one day the sun burned out, so all the races banded together to survive as they migrated to an ancient dwarven mine to survive the harsh cold and successfully live in the mines together. All was going well, but tension between the races started to flare up and peace was becoming a very fragile thing. Fanning the flames of hatred and war was the possible coming of a Dark God who seeks to bring back the sun, but destroy countless lives in the process.
Your character wakes up in a goblin prison and is unable to remember anything. A kindly cellmate dubs him Am Shaggar- he who has no name. Obviously, Am Shaggar breaks out of the prison and inevitably becomes involved in events that will decide the fate of Arx. The plot isnít the most original, but the rich fantasy setting is intriguing and there are a few excellent twists. Thereís practically never a boring moment when it comes to the story because the pacing is handled so well.
Thereís also hardly a dull moment when it comes to the gameplay. Arx Fatalis is a first-person RPG very much in the vein of Ultima Underworld, or to a lesser extent, Morrowind. You explore the eight large levels of the mine while fighting enemies, interacting with dozens of NPCs and solving puzzles. All the while you are customizing your characterís skills and shaping him into whatever you want him to be. Want Am Shaggar to be a spellcaster, a thief, or a warrior? You can mix elements of all these classes, or even come up with your own. The amount of possibilities is not nearly as plentiful as they are in some other PC RPGs, but there is more than a satisfactory amount of options.
No matter what kind of character you set out to create, youíre going to end up getting in some fights. The longer you hold the attack button the more powerful your melee attack becomes, so combat isnít the most fast-paced. That isnít a bad thing because the combat is still exciting. Some of the tougher battles require lots of moving and weaving to survive. When you become powerful enough you can lob off limbs and heads in an eruption of blood with one mighty swing. There are only a couple dozen weapons, including axes, swords and even a bow. This may seem like a small amount, but you can enchant, or even poison your weapons to diversify their properties.
If you want to take out an enemy without getting your hands dirty, you can always use magic. The magic system is certainly one of the most unique aspects of Arx Fatalis. Scattered around the mines are various runes. Two or more runes may end up creating a new spell that you can cast. You canít simply click a button to cast the spell; you have to draw out the symbol on each of the runes to cast it. It takes at least a few seconds to cast it, so unleashing a fireball in the midst of being pummeled may not be the wisest decision. Fortunately, you can pre-cast up to three spells for later usage. It may sound like a tedious process, but many of the spells are so powerful that this proves to be a genius handicap.
The second largest portion of the gameplay, right behind combat, is solving puzzles. Almost all of them are challenging, and I found myself checking a walkthrough more than a few times. A few of the puzzles were delightfully entertaining and thought out, but many of the puzzles seemed a bit unfair. Sometimes you have to find someone in order to make progress, but no one tells you where this person is! You just have to wander around and hope for the best. Maybe Iím a little slow, but when I eventually solved some of the puzzles I felt sucker-punched in the stomach. Some were that tough.
One of the most satisfying elements of Arx Fatalis is the interaction you have with items. If youíre in a Martha Stewart mood, you can make some delicious apple pie. First, you combine water and flour to make the dough. Then you roll the dough, add an apple, and finally bake over a fire. Are you in the mood for some hearty ribs? Kill a pig, and then cook the ribs until theyíre well done. There are numerous other recipes and item combinations, and I couldnít help but experiment to find them all.
One of the things that Arx Fatalis undoubtedly gets right is its creepy, claustrophobic mood. In the goblin prison, bodies are hanging from ropes, food is scattered around, and the whole place reeks of decay. The human town also looks like people were trying to make the most out of a world without sunlight, with churches and other buildings temporarily hiding the eeriness of being trapped underground. The crypt had me scared out of mind. The creepy ambient sounds when I first entered the crypt were already unsettling enough, but then a foreboding fog filled the hallways as zombies lumbered towards me. This was scarier than most survival horror games, and the main purpose of this game isnít even to scare.
However, there are a few things that diminish the mood. First of all, the human character models looked woefully outdated. While Arx Fatalis in general wonít push your PC to the limit, every other race looked far better than the humans. Also, a good portion of the voice acting falls flat. The guy who did Am Shaggar sounds like he hasnít had any sleep and heís phoning in from a cell phone. This put a hamper one some of the important cutscenes.
When all the sidequests are completed (there are quite a few) and youíve finished the game, youíll have around 25 hours clocked into Arx Fatalis. Though not as long as other games, Arx Fatalis never outwears its welcome. If youíre hankering for some great, yet slightly flawed, RPG action then do yourself a favor and check out this underrated gem. Donít let the idea of another amnesiac hero scare you off because this one is worth the time.
Nine out of ten