Not many first person action Roleplaying games are well known, except the Ultima Underground series and of course the Elder Scrolls games. FP RPGs date back from Wizardry, Eye of the Beholder and Might & Magic (see Roleplaying Concepts), but none of those games actually enable you to swing with a sword in a real time fashion. The Gothic games utilize the third person camera angle, so the only games which might get remotely close to being Arx Fatalis are Daggerfall/Morrowind and Ultima Underworld.
What does Morrowind share with Arx Fatalis? Arx is a FP RPG, combat is basically hit- and run tactics, eurhm… I guess that’s it! Not quite a lot indeed. It is safe to assume Arx Fatalis was meant to be Ultima Underworld III. As Wikipedia states, Arkane Studios couldn’t get the proper license for the name, but in the end that doesn’t really matter. Arx is a pure dungeon crawler, you will never see big open (and mostly empty) spaces as seen in Morrowind. You will never see more than 5 cities with enourmous amounths of NPCs without any realistic conversations. And that’s good.
Arx is the biggest (and human) city in the game. The game is built using separate levels: there are eight in total. Think of it as a gigantic cave, each with separate layers where other races live, fight and die. Arx is level 1, but you actually start at level 2. The story isn’t super original: you are being helt captive in a goblin cell with no memory at all (hmm deja vu?) and end up helping the entire universe against mass destruction thanks to a obscure cult. (another deja vu? Ha!). Travelling between levels is a matter of descending stairs and staring at the loading screen. Each level is huge (really really huge) and you’ll have to backtrack more than often, running to the troll city, helping some dwarves, etc. The quests in the game are rather (no, very) liniar, but the game itself gives you plenty of freedom what to do next. Although you can’t access some area’s before getting your hands on documents or a quest item, for example.
NPC Interaction is at the very least, weird. There are no dialog options to choose from, you just do what you’re told to (and ask about yourself since you don’t even know your own name). There are no alternatives in any way. The text scrolls rather slow and less important persons don’t even have subtitles (since you don’t interact with them: they say I’m guarding or go to x, without the need of having to reply something). Lip synchronization does not exist, it’s rather a “mouth open, closed, open closed, open, …” mechanic. Okay, the game is from 2002, so that doesn’t bother me at all. The game engine is remarkably nicely done though. There are beautiful lightning effects and everything seems very streamlined. Except while killing enemies, the engine slows down for a second or two when a body falls to the ground. Very annoying if you’re facing multiple foes!
The best part about Arx Fatalis is easily the world interaction. Just like in Ultima Underworld, your character has to eat occasionally. Combine a rope with a stick and you’ve got yourself a fishing rod, nice! Catch some fish, cast the Ignite spell on a fireplace and throw your fish into the fire. After a while, they’ll be baked. You can also combine water with flour and put the dough in the fire which results into lumps of bread. Many more combinations are possible, from eating to repairing to brewing your own potions. The spell system is rune based: you collect different runes and at different spell levels, chain-casting runes form new spells. (Ha, a Vista rune!) Casting runes means drawing (2D) gestures on the screen. Be careful though, as the interpreter is very unforgiving and sometimes you’ll have to try three times in a row to get it right. Thankfully, pressing SHIFT sets the spell in “pre-cast” mode, accessible via three quickslot keys. Although melee combat is as clumsy as in all other first person RPGs ever made, ranged combat can be quite fun. You can vary your slashing with holding the direction keys but in the end it’s just hit, run, hit, run, repeat. Mostly run, in the beginning. A good thing the character development system allows fighters to cast spells as it’s skill based, not class based. You simply need to put enough points into mind, strength, or other key stats for your skills (casting, ranged, melee combat, sneaking, object knowledge, …) to raise.
Again, the best part about Arx Fatalis is exploring and the world itself. Sadly there is no auto map and the default map covers up the whole screen. There is a primitive journal present, but it’ll rarely help you on your quests since it’s not sorted or structured in any way! No option to add notes to quests or the map either… All in all, Arx Fatalis is a very solid attempt at dungeon crawling in first person style. But roleplaying die-hards will have a hard time ignoring the sub-par interactions and story line. Nontheless, exploring Arx is fun and various Underworld-inspired concepts fit very well. Review-Cat says: A welcome addition to dungeon crawling in real time. Better than Morrowind, even with it’s shortcomings. really!.
Addendum - The latest 1.17 Patch fixes many major engine faults and crashes, and includes nice little additions such as auto sorting in the inventory (really needed) and apparently an auto-map (press R). Most important locations in the map are now automatically marked (“smithy”, “throne room”, …). If they fixed the journal, kill engine slowdowns and the weird speech volume adjustments (maybe this is my PC? All envoirnment sounds overpower the speech - whichever option I try to finetune), the game would maybe be worth a 9. Of course the combat system and liniar story progressioin can’t be that easily patched. But no mather, if I wanted to play a dialoge heavy RPG, I’d pick Planescape Torment or Fallout.
This is some gameplay footage I recorded a long time ago. It might still entertain so here goes.
Gameplay part 1
Gameplay part 2