Previously From the Makers of “Dishonored”: Arx Fatalis

Hoping that Dishonored becomes 2012’s breakout hit, I’ve been investigating the developer’s two previous games. After the fantasy action of Dark Messiah: Might and Magic, I’m not sure if I should be surprised that Arkane’s first game, Arx Fatalis, is the more ambitious of the two.

In my previous post about Dark Messiah I talked about how the game by its cover and reputation looked like a smart, relatively open-ended RPG, but in reality turned out to be a first person shooter with swords and spells instead of guns. Still a good game showing off a clear understanding of stealth game design which I hope Arkane reproduces in Dishonored, but also quite modest. Arx, which came out in 2001 and 2002 for the PC and Xbox respectively but got overshadowed by Morrowind,is more what I was looking for – an overlooked dungeon crawling classic.

For anyone still planning to get their free copy of Arx with that Steam pre-purchase of Dishonored, it’s kind of a hard game to describe if you’ve only been experiencing western-style first person action RPGs on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Arkane wanted to make another installment of Ultima Underworld – the series that eventually led to System Shock which then lead to Bioshock, but EA wouldn’t give them the rights. So, Arx is what we got instead. GiantBomb has a family tree explaining the situation. I still haven’t played Underworld, but in relation to current gen fare, you might be able to get away with calling Arx BioShock in a subterranean fantasy kingdom with much heavier RPG elements… sort of.

Actually, to me Arx eventually felt very much like a Metroidvania, complete with discoverable warp points between areas. Anyway, at the very end of the main quest as of this writing, the game has turned out to be deep, intricate, and surprisingly open-ended.

While hunting for a magic shield in a crypt in order to bribe a group of rebels, I found myself knee deep in zombies who poisoned me to the touch, all while trying to work out the proper sequence of switches to unlock the main gate and avoid booby traps. Scrounging for wooden stakes to make sure the zombie stay dead, I stumbled upon a secret passage to a cave where I was horrified to hear the heavy footsteps of trolls. Further in I see a group of them fighting some goblins. As one troll stands victorious I decide to use some of my bottled water to put out nearby torches and wait at the end of a dark hallway, bow drawn, ready to make a distant stealth kill. Some 15-odd hours later, a side quest rewarded me with an amulet that would have made all those trolls non-hostile.

From the minute you start, breaking out of a goblin prison armed with little more than a bone and some rope, Arx presents itself as a game about using whatever resources are available to you. In the fashion that today’s action RPGs have carried on, Arx gives you several styles of play, but it’s not like picking the most entertaining ways to kill enemies. I’ve had to sit down and mull over enemies and obstacles for minutes at a time, trying to figure out an effective combination of spells and stealth arrow strikes.

Arx also urges you to explore it to the fullest extent, which is typically how most problems along the way are solved. What really caught me off-guard was how puzzle-heavy Arx is. There aren’t very many environmental or traditional puzzles to solve, but compared to modern games Arx doesn’t tell you exactly what you need to do to advance the plot. The protagonist has a journal, but the game trusts players to know the rules of its mechanics as well as the workings of the universe and what the characters in it might want.

There were several points in the game where I’d end up off exploring on my own for hours, eventually ending up in places way beyond where I was supposed to be, and getting rewarded for it. If I’m not mistaken, it’s actually possible to forge the game’s strongest sword very early on if you do a lot of extracurricular exploration. Although Arx doesn’t have a huge number of side quests, the world here does contain its share of fulfilling secrets, including more than one completely optional area.

If anything in Arx is outdated it’s obviously the early Xbox 1-era graphics. Even there though, I think they did a really good job of making the end product look like the original art direction. The cut scenes, many of which are told with still paintings, also look very nice. It all fits together visually, at the very least. The control interface is pretty oldschool too. The item management system take some getting used to and Arx uses its own brand of real time combat and spell casting.

I really was not prepared to find a game like Arx Fatalis tucked away in time like this. Other than Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls (as well as probably Legend of Grimrock) I think it’s the last “real” dungeon crawler, given how far removed Bioshock is from the common ancestor both games share. Arx isn’t just good for being the “last” either, as a product and experience it feels more complete than most modern RPGs do, and this is all for $5, or a Dishonored pre-order on Steam.

BULLETS:

  • Lightning Returns looks like an attempt at “Final Fantasy: Skyrim” to me. Even the logo and font are evocative of Bethesda and Skyrim.
  • In my opinion the star game of Steam Greenlight that you need to upvote is Routine: http://t.co/PDbpcbbv
  • Also, someone there’s trying to push a brand new space flight RPG with jazz music and a crime drama storyline: http://t.co/J2SjJiYQ
  • Looks like Black Ops II is leaving behind DX9, or at least Windows XP:http://kotaku.com/5940034/ 
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6 thoughts on “Previously From the Makers of “Dishonored”: Arx Fatalis

  1. Mick Grundy says:

    A great review of this game. It looks like a game well worth playing.
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  2. […] here I also tried to tell you about Arx Fatalis. It’s still $3 on the current Steam […]

  3. […] if you compare Underworld to BioShock for instance, but I’m not sure if this game is better than Arx Fatalis in a 1:1 […]

  4. Den24 says:

    Arx is a very *very* well made game, its unique as its not like many other games for the original Xbox.. it is like you said like ES games but sort-of ahead of its time.

    I enjoy playing the game still to this day (had it since it came out), I hoped the company behind it would go on to making another or a game similar to it.

    My favorite part of the game was the Baking as i enjoyed the idea that you needed different ingredients to make different stuff (it shows the developers actually spent some time thinking of game parts that may seem like side-quests), its a shame the game wasn’t bigger with more quests/Armour/weapons/etc but its got a nice story & game-play can be a challenge (unlike other games).

    the PC version was the same, however to cast a spell you had to use the mouse which was a nice touch.


    I have & have played Bio-shock but for me.. its just not as good, also i found the story not as well thought-out which is annoying.

    Dark Messiah wasn’t a bad game, not particularly hard.. the environment kills was a nice touch, the graphics & game-play where nice but the game was very repetitive & it felt like a small game with nothing other than killing to do really.

    sadly i get them mixed up with Bethesda as they created a tone of my old favorite games (like the E.S. games, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth & many others), iv always wondered if Call of Cthulhu is connected to the original?

    • RedSwirl says:

      Looking back on this post, Arx Fatalis is a very systemic game compared to today’s action RPGs, and it’s still hard to make a direct comparison to anything coming out today. Its level of scale is comparable to a “mid-sized” game like Bioshock or Dead Space although much less linear, but the game systems are more sandbox like Elder Scrolls or Fallout 3.

      Arx is an “immersive sim,” but the only two developers really making that kind of game in the big budget space today are Arkane — the developer of Arx and Dishonored, and Bethesda. All the other games are either action RPGs (Deus Ex Mankind Divided, Bioshock 1 & 2) or straight-up shooters (Dead Space) with superficial allusions to immersive sims.

      And none of those games has the interconnected world feel of games like Arx or System Shock. Bioshock has less to interact with and is generally more linear. Dead Space is way more linear, locking off previous decks as you proceed. Dishonored is actually formatted more like the original Deus Ex, sending you back and forth between a hub base and individual stages. Elder Scrolls is of course the other end of the scale — a broad but shallower open world. The closest thing to a world with the structure and scale of Arx or System Shock is… the first Dark Souls game. Though, I’m thinking Prey is going to be the next game like this. And of course Otherside is working on successors to both System Shock and Ultima Underworld.

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