Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Arx Fatalis

Deus Ex. System Shock 2. Arx Fatalis. Wait, what?

Within seconds of hearing that Arx Fatalis existed I’d read a review, noted the score, bought the game and downloaded it to my hard drive. Some superstitious part of me screams that this is witchcraft. Once upon a time there would have been no way to find out if a particular game was any good outside of magazine reviews and word of mouth - and even then, if I wanted to buy it and my local W.H. Smith didn’t have a copy, I’d have been shit out of luck.

And let’s face it, they wouldn’t have had a copy of Arx Fatalis. This is an old game that had a niche audience at best back at release, let alone today. Once upon a time there would have been no way for me to get hold of Arx Fatalis.

But this is 2011 and the Internet has changed everything.

Arx Fatalis is not a wonderful game. In no way does it hold up to its illustrious peers, which is a shame because next to the immersive cyberpunk sim and the immersive space horror sim there should be plenty of space for an immersive fantasy sim. There should be a game that fills the missing link between Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, and Arx Fatalis should be it.

Unfortunately for developers Arkane Software their game went up against The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind at release. Morrowind sneered at anything as conventional as a first person immersive fantasy sim, and turned the world of computer RPGs on its head. It perfectly captured that feeling of freedom and fantasy adventure; its open-ended nature allowed the player to go anywhere, to do anything, to be anything. And Arx Fatalis, which revels in its own claustrophobia and awkwardness, can’t hope to compete.

The world is changing, or so AF’s story goes. The years pass slowly, and as they do the sun disappears over the horizon, never to rise again. Under threat of extinction the human race departs the planet’s surface and burrows deep into the underworld, to build cities and forge fragile bonds with the goblins and orcs who live there. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully told, of a medieval society cowering in the twilight of their world, and it’s a disappointment when the in-engine introduction that follows it adds ridiculous Matrix-style action sequences and an amnesiac lead character into the mix. With all the avenues of fantasy storytelling open it’s a shame the game leads down a path so clichéd and derivative.

I awoke in a prison from which I had to escape. The prisoner in the next cell whispered instructions to me, and I felt like I’d been here before, doing the exact same thing. The feeling persisted throughout the jailbreak, into the goblin fortress, and out into the game world itself. That evocative opening was squandered on generic fantasy.

And, like so much generic fantasy, the game’s incredibly racist. Oh, there aren’t any heroic Klansman or jive-talking black folk with chocobos living in their afros, but any character who isn’t a human in this game is moronically stupid. If it wasn’t for their different 3D models the trolls and the goblins might as well be one amorphous, mentally retarded race. “Me hate you stinky human!” one goblin says as I pass him by, but it could have been any goblin, any troll, anyone character wasn’t a human. It’s horrible.

The game is unwieldy. It features the same sort of world interaction as Thief and System Shock 2 - you pick objects up, drag them about, and make them throw little fits when you try to push them through nearby walls or tables. You to hold down the shift key to pick them up, the ‘F’ key to equip weapons or eat food, and double-click to use items inside your inventory or in the world itself. There are no contextual menus, just a series of clumsy button presses, and the inventory doesn’t sort itself meaning that when grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle little heaps of medicinal powder are distributed randomly throughout it. Constantly tidying stack-able items into piles is practically a mini-game unto itself.

Having the map, spell book and character sheet accessible through the same tab at the side of the screen is just as unwieldy, but the game’s biggest UI crime by far is its magic system. It makes me feel bad to give Arx Fatalis’s magic a kicking because I can imagine what the producers were thinking and how they wanted to revolutionise spell-casting in RPGs.

But it’s based upon gesture recognition, and it’s a failure. So many years later and gamers still groan whenever gesture recognition crops up in Wii or Kinect games: It just doesn’t work. Games never recognise our sloppy loops as circles. They might as well yell “That’s never a 90 degree angle!” when we’re trying to construct squares.

And most of the time, when you’re mouse-drawing spell runes in Arx Fatalis, the game simply won’t know what you’re doing. This is illustrated perfectly in the game’s first spell, where it has no problem recognising a straight line as the first part of it but the second, a rune in the shape of a square wave, is rarely if ever recognised. It’s hair-tearingly frustrating to be bested by the first spell in the entire game - a spell that lights torches and sets fire to fireplaces and is, for all intents and purposes, the game’s equivalent of a light-switch.

The developers must have realised how poorly implemented the magic is, as they’ve included a system to pre-cast up to three spells at a time, for later use in tricky situations. It would have been much better if they’d simply assigned numeric keys to each of the spells. It would certainly have made the magic less frustrating.

So why didn’t they? I’m not entirely sure, but I have an idea. This is where the game’s saving grace - its atmosphere - comes in, because there are few games as atmospheric and immersive as Arx Fatalis.

I love the back story. You already know that. But living inside that world that story speaks of is another thing entirely. Looking up and knowing you’ll never see stars up there, nor sun, nor sky. Discovering squalid tunnels where nothing sentient dares to tread for fear of rats, spiders and demons. Finding a luminescent crystal pool glittering in the gloom, and setting up camp next to it. Lighting campfires and cooking racks of rat-ribs on them. Travelling so deep into troll cities you find labyrinths overrun with monsters and tip-toe through them, fearful of what will happen if they hear your footsteps or catch your scent.

The useless magic system plays a part in this. Magic spells aren’t weapons - they aren’t tools to be picked up and played with on a whim. You have to plan the spells you’ll need and it’s only in your direst of moments that you’ll risk waving hands and chanting runes in the hope that you might escape this battle with your life intact. As frustrating as it is when your gestures aren’t recognised, when they are you feel an immense sense of achievement. You’ve drawn the perfect circle or ninety degree angle and your hard work pays off with flaring torches and magic missiles. Getting spells right in Arx Fatalis makes you feel like a wizard.

I finished my first one hundred minutes facing the first true puzzle of the game. I have to meet with the goblin king, but he’s barricaded himself into his throne room and refuses to talk to anyone except the chef who cooks him cakes and slides them under his door. Meanwhile, I have access to the royal kitchen, and have met another goblin who claims the king stuffed the ballot box, and demands he be overthrown. I don’t have the first idea how I’m going to solve this puzzle, but isn’t that the point of immersive sims? Unlike all those first person games with red key/red door puzzles I have to rely on my own ingenuity to work out what to do next. Can I poison the king’s cakes? Can I kill the chef and take his position? Is there some hidden entrance to the throne room?

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s refreshing just to have that wealth of options available to me. And to make this choice deep inside a fantasy world where the sun will never shine, well, that’s why no amount of creative theft or poorly constructed interfaces can make me hate this game. Arx Fatalis might be a mess, but it’s a hauntingly evocative one, and I have to love it for that if for nothing else.

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