Love It And Hate It
I loved Arx Fatalis. It's a broken piece of shit that can go to hell and stay there.
Its setting is cool. The environments are really atmospheric and it all feels like a coherent place. For some reason I would constantly get stuck on the geometry. I had to noclip cheat out of some situations, but I'd get jammed up in simple hallways. Sometimes I'd come to areas-- hallways that you are specifically meant to be traverse-- that I couldn't walk through unless I was going backwards. It's the worst when using the levitate spell or trying to go up ladders.
The magic system is really cool. I love how the spells tend to have indirect or environmental effects that lead to interesting solutions to situations. The magic system is a huge pain in the ass. Drawing the runes out takes too long in the middle of combat. About 10% of the time the game won't recognize what rune you're trying to draw and you'll have to start over. Most of the spells are useless, so most of the time you'll just be spamming fireballs which aren't particularly indirect, environmental, or interesting.
There's a mixture of RPG dungeoneering and puzzle solving that makes you really take notice of the finer details that most games gloss over, even with more advanced tech and bigger budgets. It's amazing the way you can naturally combine, use, and interact with items and the environment. Furthermore, it's great how it's not just a gimmick-- the game is built around that kind of interactivity and takes full advantage of it. The puzzles exemplify the worst adventure gaming has to offer, with the added disability of having RPG-style mechanics creating uncertainty. You never know if the puzzle you're trying to solve is impossible without backtracking to buy a Scroll of Revealing or whatever. I had to alt+tab out of the game over and over again for hints to some of the dumbest, pixel-huntingest guess-what-the-designer-was-thinking BS I've ever seen.
Arx Fatalis is an unheralded gem in the immersive sim RPG genre. Or, it would be if half of the character stats and skills weren't completely useless. If you want to play anything besides a half-wizard-half-melee guy, you're going to have a terrible time. Archery? Don't even think about it. There's one type of bow in the entire game and arrows are scarce. Stealth? Sure, if you're a masochist. The stealth is underdeveloped and more or less a crapshoot. Pure mage? You're going to get your ass kicked as you slowly draw shapes in the air. Pure fighter? Good luck with all those puzzles that require you to levitate, enchant things, and see invisible objects.
There are multiple solutions to every problem. Unfortunately, in Arx Fatalis this comes down to, "do it the right way or kill everyone." A goblin guard won't let you through a checkpoint. You can go on a little quest to forge some paperwork. Or you can kill everyone. The ghost of a dead queen has asked you to solve her murder, but the suspect refuses to talk. You can ply him with beer so he drops the key to his apartment, which has incriminating evidence.... or you can kill everyone and take the key off of his corpse. You need a magical ring to save the day, but the woman who has it will only give it to you if you go into the spooky crypt and find an ancient relic. Or you can kill everyone and take the ring. While it is admirable that, yes, you can kill everyone in the game and still complete it, these aren't alternate solutions. There is only one respective way to get those forged goblin documents, or that key, or the ancient relic. You're not choosing how to solve a problem, you're just choosing whether or not you want to engage with it at all. Arx Fatalis came out two years after Deus Ex, and its quest design is greatly lacking in comparison.
I put a lot more words into what's wrong with Arx Fatalis than I did into what's right about it. I wasn't being sarcastic when I said I loved playing it. In spite of the flaws, there's a rawness to it that I found very pleasing. You couldn't possibly accuse Arx of being commercialized or dumbed-down, that's for sure. It's almost flaunting that fact with how weird, idiosyncratic, and even how slightly broken it is.
I also wasn't being sarcastic when I said it's a broken piece of shit that can go to hell and stay there.
Arx Fatalis is at once great and frustratingly bad, but fans of weird stuff with a vision should doubtlessly play it.