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SummaryArx brevis, vita longa
The GoodLong time ago, Ultima Underworld games revolutionized the RPG industry by showing how well meticulous character management and exploration can be combined with atmospheric immersion into a true 3D world. Strangely, very few games followed their brilliant design philosophy. Confining ourselves to first-person 3D games, we find that King's Field had simplified interaction and focused mostly on the actual challenges of survival; Arena opted for a gigantic expansion of the game world at the expense of detail; System Shock and its followers reduced the RPG elements.
It is therefore surprising that a game like Arx Fatalis was actually released. Made by a little-known (at the time) French developer, the game was conceived as a tribute to Ultima Underworld, a deeply respectful homage to the genius classic. However, thanks to the passion and the talent of its designers, it ended up being more than just a fan remake. Notwithstanding its flaws, the biggest of which is its modesty, it is a worthy follower of the great legacy.
What catches the eye immediately in Arx Fatalis is something I treasure so much in games: attention to detail. On the most plain level, there is stuff everywhere, and much of it can be interacted with. The seemingly innocent, harmless features such as the ability to grill fish or put a chair on a dead goblin's body actually betray a much more lofty purpose and harbor a much deeper meaning: they serve to immerse us into the game's world. The world of Arx Fatalis feels alive. It feels like something we, the players, accidentally discovered - something that has existed before we were allowed to enter it. If you have ever experienced such a sensation with a video game you'll understand what I'm talking about. It may be a curiously misplaced pillow concealing a mysterious unidentified ring or stunning art decorating a church you casually pass by - the point is that everything that constitutes the world here was created with love and dedication. So many games pay little attention to details, and their worlds end up being bleak, hollow, devoid of true colors no matter the amount of polygons and fancy special effects. Arx Fatalis is different - it's one of those games with a soul.
Fooling around with household items and re-arranging furniture is intricately woven into the fabric of the gameplay. Arx Fatalis masterfully captures the spirit of exploration in confined areas. Yes, it is not as generously open as Underworld games - but for what is essentially a dungeon crawler, the game offers plenty to explore, often within something that may not look like much much at the first sight. Balancing linearity and exploration is very tricky business, but Arx Fatalis almost succeeds in making it perfect. Note I said almost - for my taste, the game could have been larger and do away with artificial obstacles altogether. But even so, each area, in itself, is exquisitely designed. There is always something to look for, optional locations to discover, items to collect, unknown paths to explore. Every dungeon is interesting, and none feels hastily designed or too straightforward.
Arx Fatalis has intense atmosphere. That is perhaps its most valuable asset. Underworld games, with all their greatness, could mostly create immersion only through their impeccably executed gameplay systems. The actual early 3D graphics could do little to convey the dark mood penetrating those games. In Arx Fatalis, technology has caught up with gameplay vision. The game is beautiful in that melancholic, cozy way that I particularly like in games. The environments are not only rich in detail - they are pleasant and soothing without detracting from the romantic appeal of darkness.
I could list more features, such as the original magic system that allows players to draw runes on the screen to cast spells; the variety of weapons, armor, and all sorts of items to experiment with; the interesting quasi-post-apocalyptic setting with different races hiding in a vast underground world; the occasional clever puzzles reminding of adventure games. Most important, though, is the quality rarely found in games of that time period: the desire to experiment. Arx Fatalis is not afraid to let players think outside of the box, adapt to different gameplay styles, display flexibility when it is needed most. Granted, the game could have been braver in following its venerable teachers; but it still does a lot, and for that it should be commended.
The BadNow comes this inevitable comparison with Ultima Underworld. It is easy to admit that Arx Fatalis often feels like a diminished, simplified version of the old classic. However, we need to put things into perspective. Ultima Underworld games were and always will be unsurpassed as astonishing pioneers and founders of an entire sub-genre. That doesn't mean that imitating them while making a few concessions to contemporary demands is a bad thing. That said, these concessions are, of course, bound to irritate the unsatiated Underworld fan. Arx Fatalis is indeed smaller and more linear. There are less things to do, less people to talk to, and less exploration possibilities. Disappointment sinks in particularly strong when you feel the developers' talent flowing into fragments, being spent on minor features instead of embracing the whole game and imbuing it with a bolder vision.
That is, ultimately (no pun intended), the game's biggest problem: it is too insecure. It resembles an enthusiastic, but exceedingly modest youth bowing in awe to a statue of a hero he reveres, too shy to try and become hero himself. Humility is not a virtue when applied to video game design. Arx Fatalis is too meek to go all the way, dare and eclipse the master. That's why there is too much caution everywhere. Dialogue feels underdeveloped, areas that could have been explored are conveniently blocked off by contrived plot devices, and lack of balance becomes more and more evident in character-building when you realize that the developers were afraid to be generous enough to let the player experiment more without being punished by all sorts of confinements.