I realised within about two and a half minutes of starting up Arx Fatalis that it is a UWAW game. Unplayable Without A Walkthrough. I find that’s the case with most games that came out before about 2004, and Arx Fatalis was released back in 2002. Newer games often just come with a two-page insert with a diagram reminding you where the controls are: the rest of the game is instinctive. You just pop the disc in and go.
Arx Fatalis does have a tutorial, but it’s tricky to get used to. For a start, you can toggle between mouse-look and directional arrows, but in order to interact with anything you have to flip back to the directional mode (and this isn’t actually explained). Beyond that, it falls somewhere in the middle between being entirely intuitive and outright fiddly. About half of what it does works the way you expect it to, which isn’t too surprising given its age.
It looks like Thief, though it’s a first-person RPG released the same year as Morrowind. The Looking Glass connection is explained in Arkane’s assertion that they intended Arx Fatalis to be Ultima Underworld III, but couldn’t get the licence.
Like many older games, it’s extremely bloody difficult, and I didn’t notice a difficulty slider. You start off, as in most of these games, in a prison cell. The tutorial shows you how to break out (pick up the brick and use it to wedge the bars open) and then emerge into a kitchen. There’s a bone on the floor, which you can use as a weapon.
You are brandishing a bone as a makeshift club.
This is where I die.
Because I’m not very good at wielding a bone.
Hell, I’m not even good at throwing them for dogs.
I looked it up in the end – I’m supposed to be practicing my stealth, only the bugger always sees me before I can properly hide. It doesn’t really matter what sort of approach I make, I just end up dead again.
I don’t think I’ve even got as far as learning how to paint runes in the air with my mouse. (“The effect is stunning,” says GameZone.)
Still, even as it’s frustrating, there’s something rather magical and charming that sucks you into its atmosphere the minute the game starts. It sort of squeaks “I am special” in its own creaky way. I’m pretty sure I’m going to persevere with it. It’s not even that I’m remotely worried about defeating the evil Akbaa, saving the world or earning fame for my block-headed character. It’s just that I noticed from the moment I looked around my most insecure of cells that I was going to agree with G4TV: “One thing that is nailed down tight is the visual style. Every area in Arx Fatalis is extremely atmospheric, and in a nod to the backstory, just feels right.”