Arx Fatalis (PC) Review

By Athanasios 12.07.2022

Review for Arx Fatalis on PC

Younger gamers probably know Arkane Studios as the developer behind classics such as the Dishonored series, Prey, and most recently, Deathloop. Old far… err, lovers of old-school PC games, however, remember Arkane's first foray into the industry; the first-person, cult classic RPG named Arx Fatalis. The fact that this started its life as an Ultima Underworld project is reflected on its basic premise, with the whole thing taking place under the surface, as an apocalyptic event forced humans, as well as other creatures, to take refuge in the crust of the world. Everyone loved its deeply engrossing atmosphere, but not everyone liked the rest. Is there a point in going back to 2002 to experience such an old, and relatively forgotten title? Yes… and no. For a better answer read on, as Cubed3 goes underground.

This begins in a very original way for an early '00s medieval fantasy RPG: inside a cage, with the protagonist having no recollection of who he is, and what he is doing there. Low effort sarcasm put aside, though, the world this takes place into is refreshingly… err, fresh, as it's all underground. It seems that the Sun has gone out, leading to everyone, from humans to goblins, and everything in between, to dig deep and try to survive in this new environment, forging new, although uneasy alliances. This setting isn't great in concept only. The atmosphere and visuals are top notch too. It really manages to drive home that this takes place underneath the surface of the earth, with everything, from small dungeons, to large castles, essentially being built within large caves. Simply seeing the ceiling disappear in the darkness above creates quite the feeling of claustrophobia.

Screenshot for Arx Fatalis on PC

Sadly, while it does have its moments, the story isn't something that interesting. It's the standard tale of the dark evil god that threatens to get summoned, with the main hero being the only one who can stop him. Of course, as shown in many RPGs, it's not the story that matters, but the presentation… and unfortunately this fails there as well, with the writing being barely decent, and with the various NPCs being some of the most boring ones ever conceived, rivalled only by the protagonist, who speaks in a monotone, uninterested manner, as if he is doing tedious office work. Finally, this doesn't take full advantage of its very promising setting, as there's little tension between the various factions and races that live in this vast microcosm, unlike, say, in franchises like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, or Pillars of Eternity, to name a few.

In the end, if you are looking for a good story, you won't find it here. This is all about finding a bunch of key items, and then killing the Big Bad Cheese. On the other hand, if you are looking for a fantasy world that will wholly immerse you into it despite the lack of decent lore, look no further. As mentioned before, you'll really feel like an adventurer that goes deeper and deeper inside the bowels of the planet, with the light from the few torches that are scattered around being your main ally. The developer has made the right choice to put music as further away from the spotlight, with silence and very good ambient sounds being the only things players will hear most of the time. There are even a couple of spots that have a weird, horror, or liminal space kind of vibe, if that makes any sense.

Screenshot for Arx Fatalis on PC

In conclusion, the story is… there, but the atmosphere is a perfect 10. The gameplay portion of Arx Fatalis, though, is less of a clean-cut deal. If you want to be polite, it's a mixed bag. If you want to be frank, it's actually a bit of a mess. Starting with the missions, these fall into the fetch quest category. That on its own isn't a bad thing. Arx Fatalis, however, is one of the kings of zero handholding. You are told, for example, that you need to get an item from the goblins. What does this mean exactly? Do you go into their main city? To their dungeons? Their mines? Where?!? Ok, so you've got a clue from somebody, usually out of sheer luck, so you now know the general direction you must follow. That, however, doesn't mean that your troubles are over, as you are left on your own to figure out how to proceed.

Now, it's important to note that a lack of handholding isn't really a bad thing. This critic remains an old-school aficionado exactly because of that - but there's a right way to offer complete freedom, and a wrong one, and Arx Fatalis constantly leans towards the less fun side of the scale in that regard, although this complete an utter freedom is till much preferable than following a white cursor or having NPCs "push" you towards your next objective… but this isn't Deus Ex. The game fools you into thinking there are many ways to approach a situation, but more often than not you have at best two, slightly different ways to solve a problem. In any case, be prepared for plenty of slow walking between locations, trying to figure out where to go next.

Screenshot for Arx Fatalis on PC

A thing that separates this from most action RPGs of its kind, is that there's not really much action. You do get to kill stuff, but this mostly happens while going from A to B, with small amount of foes guarding the underworld's many corridors and caverns. The beginning of the journey is especially underwhelming, with small rats, spiders, and the occasional goblin. This mostly plays like an adventure game, with puzzles to solve, key items that you need to search for, and so on - again, with little to no handholding. Oh, and it's all surprisingly linear. Yes, the world is large, but the hero is almost forced to follow a specific series of steps to reach the end, unlike other RPGs of its generation, which had a far more open-ended mindset.

After, say, five hours, things do get a bit more action-friendly, with foes no longer being simple critters, but undead lich kings, snake ladies, and battle-ready, magic-enhanced humans - but is combat fun? The answer is yes… but. Ok, melee attacks are fairly straightforward. Press the attack button, swing a sword. Hold the button for a few seconds, and the attack will be stronger. There's no real tactics involved, aside from moonwalking while the enemy gets closer and closer. The troubles begin when going for a stealth, archery, or magic build. Stealth and archery are almost useless, here, with the "barbarian" route actually being one of the better choices, as long as you invest a couple of points in some supplementary skills, although even them are divided between useless (like 'Intuition' which highlights hidden hotspots), and fairly useful.

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Magic is on a league of its own. Rather than simply pressing a button, runes must be drawn into the screen with the cursor. To light up a campfire or torch, for instance, one needs to draw a line, and then a something like half a square, with more advanced spells requiring more complex shapes. Innovative, huh? Yeah. In practice, though, it's terrible. Half the time (at best) you won't be able to cast your spell, which is especially irritating during an intense battle. It's possible to pre-cast three spells, but how can you now which spells to have ready? Truth be told, magic is basically a small taste of the game's biggest problems.

Arx Fatalis reeks of rushed production, and it's a shame really, because with a little more work in order to polish some of its rough edges, it could be something more than a flawed cult classic. It could be a solid one; the Deus Ex of dungeon crawlers. Instead, this is something that, definitely has its charm, but is very hard to recommend to just anyone, even amongst those who have a knack for old-school RPGs. Apart from the constant backtracking and almost "blind" exploration, and the lack of balancing almost everywhere you look, one also has to be ready for disappearing textures, quest bugs, glitches, and even crashes to the desktop that happen… well, for no real apparent reason, really. If in the mood to try it out, do so, because there's plenty of fun next to the many issues it has. Just make sure to use the unofficial community patch known as 'Arx Libertatis.'

Screenshot for Arx Fatalis on PC

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 6 out of 10


There's plenty of deeply flawed RPGs from the late '90s/early '00s that actually people love despite their problems, to the point that it's almost a tradition of sorts. Arx Fatalis is one of those flawed pieces of software, which, like Morrowind, Gothic, and Fallout, has plenty of issues, but manages to be entertaining in its own special way. Having said that, it's probably one of the most problematic of the bunch. Try it out if a fan of the genre, if only to get a taste of its sweet, sweet atmosphere and strong immersion. Just be prepared to get a bit of bitter disappointment as well.






Real Time RPG



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   


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