A decade before Arkane Studios would create the silky-smooth stealth sandbox Dishonored, it released its debut – an altogether dirtier breed of first person action-RPG called Arx Fatalis. Unfortunately, the developer released it just a few months after something called Morrowind. Both games are stuffed with the sorts of things a particular breed of computer anorak gets sweaty over: pantheons of bickering deities, weapon durability, fiddly controls, obtuse levelling systems conceived by an absolute lunatic, mushrooms. Where the games differ is in just how little Arx Fatalis is interested in making the player feel powerful.
The Elder Scrolls are absolute power fantasies, built entirely around freedom and letting the player act out their LARP-ing dreams without going outside. Sure, the player usually starts in chains, but within 10 minutes they’re roaming the fantastical countryside and pissing fireballs out of every orifice. In Arx Fatalis, the chains never really come off. There’s no post-tutorial catharsis, no sense of wonder as you exit the starting area and gaze at the possibilities stretching out to the horizon. That Big Moment – that thrill of your eyes adjusting to the light as you leave Vault 101 or as Link wakes up from his 100-year nap? In Arx Fatalis, it never comes. Because Arx Fatalis is set in a cave.
All of Arx Fatalis is set in a cave. You never leave the cave. When you escape from one cave, you simply arrive in a different cave. The world of Arx has lost its sun, and every archetypal fantasy race has been forced to share the dank deep underground. You spend the opening hours desperately flailing at rats with a bone you’ve scavenged from a pile. You rip the meat from the rats, warm it by the fire and feast on it while you’re hunched over in your pants. When you finally manage to drag yourself to the human city, you’ll be shocked to discover that it’s just another cave. It’s caves all the way down. But what caves they are.