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Dishonored’s Mom has got it going on: Arx Fatalis

Before Dishonored and before Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Arkane studios produced the amazing Arx Fatalis. An extensive fan-made mod is available which makes the game run beautifully on modern systems. As a result, any fan of immersive sims should give this one a look.

Arx is set on a world where the sun has died. The survivors live underground in modified Dwarf mines. While initially cooperative, old enmities have resurfaced and Arx is divided along species lines. The sense of history, of Arx as a lived-in place, is stunning. It’s in the architecture, in the flues and chutes that channel air through the cities, and in the lore which is evidenced in heraldry, frieze, and manuscripts. Despite being set entirely underground, the game holds constant surprises. Each place has a distinct character and ambience and the scenery rarely feels repetitive or derivative.

That sense of a living world is in the plot, too. There are loads of subplots and side-quests, though the player largely has to figure them out (there are no quest markers, few formal quest-givers, and the journal is vague). Unless the player sits with a guide, it’s extremely unlikely that they would complete everything (or even most things) organically. As a result, leaving the game does not feel like a checklist completed or a meal consumed, but rather the end of a mission. The world is not left changed or fundamentally altered by the player. Instead, it just carries on.

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Gameplay is firmly in sim territory. Players earn experience to boost stats. The game includes stealth (which I didn’t use much, I was all about swords and magic), melee and ranged combat, crafting, trading, fishing, mining, cooking, and probably some stuff I’m forgetting, though the player can engage with it is much or as little as they choose. For anyone venturing into the game, reading the manual is a huge help before investing points in your character.

The magic system is notable: you draw sigils with your mouse, combinations of which form spells. It reminds me of the way that Roger Zelazny described magic in the Amber series of books in that casting spells in the moment is unwieldy, so the player has to think about which spells might be needed and then preload them into 3 pre-cast spell slots (each representing a single use). This means that magic, though sometimes incredibly powerful, is limited by the need to plan encounters and the limited pre-saved spells. While this chafes at the desire to be all-powerful, it keeps the game balanced and combat compelling.

The plot is simultaneously the usual fantasy fare but also novel in the way that the player character is handled. Ultimately you are more Gordon Freeman than Dragonborn, and the game is all the better for it.

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This leads to a final point: there is something comforting in a game which, while it gives the player massive amounts of freedom, also offers a contained narrative with a clear arc and a definite finish point. In Arx, finding something feels important because you know that it was placed there by someone, rather than a random loot-generating algorithm. It felt good to be in a curated, planned space while still getting to play with all the tools and tricks I’d normally associate with some sprawling open world.

Arx Fatalis, then. It’s brilliant and you should play it.

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