Still an insider tip after 18 years?

2002 was an exciting time for fans of computer and video games: While the console market from Playstation 2 to Xbox could keep up with modern PC computers, the first person perspective continued to expand their supremacy. Slowly, many developers broke away from the rather stupid shooter concepts of Doom (1993) or Quake (1996). Instead, they enlivened the genre of action adventures with sneak mechanics à la Thief: The Dark Project (1998) or granted us more and more playful freedom as in Deus Ex (2000).

The young French Arkane Studios wallowed in memory and melancholy at the same time. Why? The members of the team were big fans of the classic 3D role-playing game Ultima Underworld (1992) and its successor from 1993. Incidentally, I recently got Ultima Underworld for this series of articles played for the first time – and was surprised how fascinating the game is still today.

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My first time Ultima Underworld: This is how the role-playing classic plays

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But back to the topic. After controversial Ultima 9 (1999), it seemed more than unlikely that Publisher Origin would ever be drawn to a third part of the revolutionary dungeon saga. So the Arkane Studios spontaneously lent a hand – and programmed their own Ultima Underworld 3, ideally also to sell it as such. They failed to acquire the necessary license, but did not drop the project and simply gave it its own pithy name: Arx Fatalis (buy now for € 39.99).

The final work, published for PC and Xbox, received benevolent reviews at the time (especially for the PC version) and quickly became an insider tip. In fact, many recognized the parallels to Ultima Underworld and the designers' passion for the classic Looking Glass Studios. Nevertheless, Arx Fatalis went under in the shadow of major Triple A titles like The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and flopped at the till. It is therefore more thanks to the subsequent productions such as Dark Messiah of Might & Magic (2006) and in particular Dishonored (2012) that Arkane Studios have built up a long-term reputation in the gaming industry.

Arx Fatalis also passed me at that time. I had bought it like so many other hits as part of my passion for 3D games, but I never found the right entry after installation. The game landed on my personal "Pile of Shame" well before my exorbitant Steam collection started to accumulate. But thanks to this wonderful series of articles, it's finally time to catch up on the 3D role-playing game!





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_01-pc-games.jpg" alt = "Even back then it was more ugly than appropriate: when it comes to character creation by Arx Fatalis, you are only available Few character models to choose from The game-determining attribute values ​​are strung together under cryptic symbols.
& nbsp;”/>



Even then, it was more ugly than appropriate: you only have a few figure models to choose from when creating Arx Fatalis characters. The game-determining attribute values ​​are strung together under cryptic symbols.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma





The pitfalls of old Windows games

Now this is not the first retro game that I give a new chance years later and install it on my current PC hardware. However, Arx Fatalis was developed for Windows XP, which is why the DOSBox emulator does not help me here. Even worse: some games from the same period as No One Lives Forever (2000) only run with reservations or require special patches that have been programmed by fans. And even if you get such a bitchy early work from the 2000s to run, you will usually be confronted with long-forgotten loss of comfort.

The good news: mine on GOG.com The new version of Arx Fatalis can be installed and started straight away. The bad news: there is no window mode; I can only play the game at full screen size. This is problematic because the graphic is not intended for such dimensions and individual elements such as the menu look ugly.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_02-pc-games.jpg" alt = "Arx Fatalis is a typical role-playing child of the turn of the millennium: We wake up painfully in one Dungeon open and thanks to amnesia we cannot remember how we got here.
& nbsp;”/>



Arx Fatalis is a typical role-playing child of the turn of the millennium: we wake up painfully in a dungeon and, thanks to amnesia, we cannot remember how we got here.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




Now, in this case, too, there is an alternative knitted by fans called Arx Libertatis . This OpenSource implementation specifically makes the role-playing game suitable for Windows 7/8/10 and cleans up a few bugs. Modders also have Arx neuralis released a 4.5 gigabyte HD texture package that visually revamped the game.

But I don't want to use both mods at first, because my agenda for this series of articles is clear: No matter how old a game is, I want to experience it as "true to the original" as possible. After all, I don't watch post-colored film classics until I first saw the original version in black and white.

Now let's go! As soon as I pressed "New quest" and created my character with a few clicks, the game starts. At the beginning of the story, I see my own character standing in a prison cell, shining and screaming. Without any memories of my past, I have no choice but to free myself from my dungeon. That should be a piece of cake: my keeper is an uninspired, stupid goblin that I can surely outsmart somehow. On top of that, another person limps in the next cell who motivates me in my search for a way out.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_03-pc-games.jpg" alt = "We made a fire! The magic system from Arx Fatalis requires a very skilful hand at Draw the required runes.
& nbsp;”/>



We made a fire! The Arx Fatalis magic system requires a very skilful hand when drawing the required runes.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




According to the trial – & – error principle, it doesn't take long for me to find a loose stone and squeeze through two bars. Then I grab a skeleton bone and use it as a weapon against the goblin. A few headnuts later I just have to pull a lever to free the fellow prisoner and … the game freezes. Specifically, a cutscene starts, in which my alter ego motionlessly stares at the wall next to the open, empty cell door. In the background I hear repeated running noises, but without any further effect.

So no whining and no complaining help: I ​​have to quit and restart the game. After all, I saved after the fight so that I can boot straight to the lever after the restart. However, I hesitate because I notice the repetitive step noise again. So I briefly return to my cell and find with horror that my cellmate is already stuck. This does not change even after the game is loaded again. So I have to start all over again. Argh!

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That started well …
After all, everything works fine on the second try: I can free the other prisoner and also learn that I live in a rather bleak world. It is completely covered with an ice sheet due to the lack of sunlight, and most of the survivors live inside the protective mountains.

After opening a trap door, I jump into the deep and land in a damp, dark cave. This is reminiscent of the surroundings of the first Ultima Underworld, but turns out to be significantly less winding. The enemies, all rats or spiders, are also rather tame. The crawling animals can poison me, but the effect ends automatically after a few seconds. And all other wounds also regenerate slowly but surely. Honestly? I would not have expected such comfort in an action role-playing game from 2002.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_04-pc-games.jpg" alt = "The few people you meet in the game world are visibly finished and open our help.
& nbsp;”/>



The few people you meet in the game world are visibly finished and rely on our help.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




The magic that takes a lot of getting used to is at first glance, thanks to the rune system, the most obvious way of looking at Ultima. With the first two runes I receive, according to the tutorial, I can conjure fire – at least in theory. For the execution, Arkane Studios copied a controversial feature from Peter Molyneux's strategy game Black & White from 2001: I have to trace all the runes required for the magic with the mouse button pressed.

The first rune is still simple: a straight line from left to right. The second rune doesn't look difficult either: a square U. However, I just can't get it to draw the thing correctly – no matter how many times I try it. Is this a bug again? A short research shows: Unfortunately no! Several players report similar problems online – and all get the same advice from experienced Arx Fatalis professionals: Practice, practice, practice! Above all, the lines of the rune must be straight and the proportions must be consistent. And indeed: it works … after dozens (!) Of failed attempts!





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_05-pc-games.jpg" alt = "Warning, this spider has it all: it is significantly more aggressive than its eight-legged one Fellow species and can kill inexperienced adventures with two well placed hits.
& nbsp;”/>



Warning, this spider has it all: it is significantly more aggressive than its eight-legged friends and can kill inexperienced adventures with two well-placed hits.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma





Ultima Underworld light
In the following hours there was a certain routine for me: Although the design of the eight-story dungeon was nicely branched and made up of many forks, I felt like walking along a predetermined path after another. "Wrong ways" quickly turn out to be dead ends in which there is hardly anything to discover apart from a few herbs or skeletons with the same loot objects.

When it comes to the "puzzles", Arx Fatalis also feels like a beginner's version of Ultima Underworld. If I can use an object anywhere, the solution is extremely obvious. For example, I have to use a previously found rope to repair the mechanics of an elevator. And even if I come across friendly goblins and trolls that I can talk to, there is no optional dialogue.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_06-pc-games.jpg" alt = "The poor cook of the goblins is busy all the time making cake for his regent to bake.
& nbsp;”/>



The poor goblin cook is busy baking cakes for his regent all the time.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




On one point, however, Arx Fatalis remembers very well the great role model: when fighting. I can hit from top to bottom, swing my weapon sideways, or stab from the front. Every confrontation takes place in real time and feels a bit stiff due to the lack of hit feedback. Nevertheless, the system is functional enough and fits well into the overall concept – just like in Ultima Underworld.

It is a bit annoying, however, that despite the rather easy entry, the tame increasing difficulty curve and a clear, red story thread, I get lost unusually often. For example, in the first few hours of play, I walk back and forth between the same nodes until I have a signed pass and thus have access to the next central area. It is difficult for me to instinctively take the right path without looking at the overview map.

I immediately expose the outdated graphics as the reason for my orientation problems: The textures are pleasantly high-resolution for their age, even without a mod package, and some rooms seem surprisingly detailed. However, I have the same reddish brown tones in mind. And when I enter an area that shimmers more turquoise or greenish, it saves playing with eye-catching light sources.

Only when entering the large city of Arx, which is mainly inhabited by people, does something like a visual change come into play. Although I can count the number of residents on two hands, the city still looks stylish and a whole corner more complex than all other places explored so far.

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A visit to the arms and object dealer takes some getting used to. This is admittedly due to my impatience: Because I click away the dialogues too quickly during the first conversation, I don't quite understand the basic system of how I can buy anything. All I have to do is examine the boxes that are on the shelves around me. Then I need a few more hours of play and a bashful look at the net until I understand the mechanics of the sale: I just have to open one of the boxes and put in the desired object that I want to get rid of.

In general, the mouse / keyboard control from Arx Fatalis is very well thought out and is full of good ideas. However, it happens to me from time to time that I am not paying attention during a conversation and miss crucial information. And because dialogues cannot be repeated, I rely on my own recordings of my game history or on help from the Internet.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_07-pc-games.jpg" alt = "The arms dealer is turning his back on us, but we just have to go to one of them Look at chests to buy or sell something.
& nbsp;”/>



The arms dealer turns his back on us, but we just have to look into one of his chests to buy or sell something.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




Speaking of technical aids: when I enter the city of Arx I switch to the open source adaptation Arx Libertatis mentioned at the beginning. It annoys me incredibly that the graphics get mixed up with every restart and, for example, the inventory does not adapt to my preset screen resolution. Apart from that, the differences to the original are limited, whether playful or graphic. Only drawing the runes feels easier with the help of the mod – but it may also be that I have now got used to the system.

Everything is better with cake
After a while I am looking for an idol that was stolen from the trolls by Arx Fatalis. At the same time, the demand for puzzle design is slowly increasing, as the following example shows: I have to visit the city of goblins and chat with their king. But he entrenches himself in his throne room and does not let anyone in – with the exception of his cook, who bakes new cakes every minute.

In the king's private apartments, which, curiously enough, I can enter without resistance, I find an interesting piece of paper with a kind of warning. So the king can't take wine, so I follow the cook into the kitchen. There is a large, clearly visible pile of flour, over which I immediately empty a bottle of alcohol. In fact, I can now enjoy watching the cook trot to the king again, who storms out of the throne room after eating the "poisoned" cake and retreats into his rooms!





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_10-pc-games.jpg" alt = "If you don't put a stop to these murderous priests in time, the only girl will die a cruel death in the whole game world.
& nbsp;”/>



If you don't put an end to these murderous priests in time, then the only girl in the whole game world dies a cruel death.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




On the other hand, I'm often annoyed by the lack of helpful information about when and which areas are now accessible to me. Really stupid: There is a gem dealer in Arx who rejects me rudely. In any case, he claims that his shop is closed and that I should return at the beginning of the opening hours. This in turn suggests to me: there is a day / night rhythm in Arx Fatalis, of which I just don't notice anything – precisely because the entire game takes place inside a mountain. But the truth is, the retailer just opens the store as soon as I find the idol and hand it over to the trolls!

Constantly growing demands
Good news follows when you reach the fourth floor, because from this point on Arx Fatalis feels noticeably more branched. The story continues to run its course, but I have a lot more freedom. I also have to learn that one or the other accessible path is paved with far too strong opponents and I should therefore fight my way through another area beforehand.

And honestly? This creeping evolution in game design isn't even stupid! If you expect a real Ultima Underworld, you will feel a bit narrow at the beginning. But newcomers to the genre can cope. Only when you are really "in there" does Arx Fatalis let go of the reins and trust me – the player – that I independently choose the right path.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_11-pc-games.jpg" alt = "The design of the enemies is well done by the Arcane Studios. This creature is at least that way ugly as dangerous.
& nbsp;”/>



Arkane Studios did a good job designing the enemies. This creature is at least as ugly as it is dangerous.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




So I can now either solve a ritual murder or fight my way through the next floors of the dungeon. Unfortunately, my motivation is now missing the harshest damper so far: I am the victim of a bug that negates my progress of the last two hours. In the meantime, I am a little too hasty and prematurely enter the fifth floor, where a few trolls suddenly attack me. Fortunately, I can escape in time and dash back up the stairs to the fourth floor. So I devote myself to another area and only learn a little later that the guys can be made peaceful.

To do this, I have to solve a small side quest and give a gift to another troll, which I track down far from his peers. In return, he hands me an amulet, thanks to which the trolls on the fifth floor now leave me alone – in theory at least. However, because I have already frightened them out, they are still stinky. In addition, one of them stands directly on the stairs where I land when I enter the floor. The consequence: I get stuck and can no longer move. Sadly, I can only get out of trouble by loading an older game …





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_12-pc-games.jpg" alt = "Walking back and forth between the eight floors will be dramatically accelerated as soon as you hit the Received a spell to activate the teleporter.
& nbsp;”/>



Moving back and forth between the eight floors will accelerate dramatically as soon as you get the spell to activate the teleporters.

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma




At least the effort is worth it for me, because the game really turns up again afterwards. Among other things, I ambush priests who are connected with the ritual murder and have to defend themselves against their aggressive magic. Particularly cool: I can see how they always draw the right runes. I also come across the first really clever puzzles and can finally fight a hideous creature that really gets on my mind. Only after getting a bow from the arms dealer and preparing a few magic scrolls can I crack the beast.





<img src = "https://www.pcgames.de/screenshots/960x/2020/07/ArxFatalis_13-pc-games.jpg" alt = "One of the biggest advantages of the open source adaptation Arx Libertatis is the higher resolution and therefore more detailed overview map, which is shown in the upper right corner of the screen if required.
& nbsp; (1)”/>



One of the biggest advantages of the open source adaptation Arx Libertatis is the higher-resolution and therefore more detailed overview map, which is shown in the upper right corner of the screen if necessary.
(1)

Source: Arkane Studios / media agency plassma





My conclusion: A real insider tip today
All these examples and some of the following events show that Arx Fatalis does not run out of powder in the first few hours of play, but always offers something new and interesting. However, you also need a little patience and have to turn a blind eye, especially from today's perspective. Above all, my experience report shows that despite Arx Libertatis, not all serious bugs are far from the game.

Graphically, Arx Fatalis has aged fairly well, but the angular polygons lack the charm of a pixelated retro graphic, like the Ultima Underworld model. Regardless, the similarities are unmistakable without Arx Fatalis reaching the same class. There is too much idle for this and, incidentally, massive backtracking in the game design – even after I have activated the comfortable teleporter system. What disappointed me most was the soundscape, because it only consists of a handful of effects, amateur voice output and a few very short ambient music loops. These are included in the GOG version in all seriousness as a bonus soundtrack, which with a total runtime of less than two and a half minutes (!) Should be the shortest in game history.

Maybe it was just a little too "early" for me to enjoy Arx Fatalis from today's perspective. After all, classic games have to mature for a while before you want to dig them out for reasons of nostalgia or reliving the "good old days". A look at the indie scene shows that with DUSK or Iron Fury titles from 1994 to 1996 are more in demand. Accordingly, it should take a few more years for enthusiastic hobbyists to program their own Shock 2, Max Payne or Arx Fatalis system. And then surely the attraction to want to deal with the original from Arkane Studios grows. Either way, I had a lot of fun with Arx Fatalis for a few hours. I will probably not play it through to the end – at least for the time being.

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