Him: "It's like Doom but like dragons and wizards and stuff, and you can go anywhere in the world."
Me: "That sounds like a pretty big arena."
Him: "There's actually no arena."
Even though the game lies to your face, what can I say? It was like in those movies where the worker tells his rich fat cat boss what's up and the boss goes, "YOU SURE GOT BALLS TO SAY THAT TO ME" and all the suckups and yesmen fall silent but then the boss goes, "GIVE THIS MAN A RAISE" and then looks at that one slimy yesman and fires him, then they all dance to some Rolling Stones song or something—fade to credits.
I eventually tracked down a copy at a retail store, brought it home and installed it, played it for a few minutes and got killed over and over in the surprisingly long and winding intro dungeon, and lost all patience with the game.
FAST FORWARD many years and I decided to revisit this one since I have played (but not finished) every other game in the series. You could download the game for free for a while, but my copy came from GOG.com as a free gift when I bought some other games.
Initial impressions: this game is amazing and I was a fool for giving up in frustration back then.
The game opens with some frankly amazing music (if played through a Roland Sound Canvas or CM-500 in mode C). Like all great video game soundtracks, the music in Arena is both atmospheric and catchy. Many of the tracks are minor or major variations on the same theme; for example, all the town themes are generally the same, but with different instrumentation depending on the location or time (one nice touch is the sleigh-bells added when it snows in the game).
You get a short summary of the story in text on some scrolls (the elder scrolls?!?!!??!) and then are given a choice on how to create your character. I'm lazy and just decided to choose my race and class and be done with it. There are a lot of options here, and you get to tweak your attributes before setting out on your quest. Ah, the sweet sound of clicking buttons when tweaking your stats—just one of the many little pleasures when playing RPGs.
The entire game is played from a first-person perspective in real-time. Although combat is all based on stats, it plays like an action game (just because your sword looks like it hit something, doesn't mean that you actually hit).
The first dungeon is actually a lot of fun. Imagine your first day on the job you walk in wearing underwear and tripping over every bump in the rug. You spill the coffee all over yourself and pass out. Someone from HR brings you back with smelling salts. Fast forward 8 hours later and you are wearing a magical Armani suit that protects you from skeletons, kicking down office doors and giving stirring business speeches. Instead of driving home you just charge your power up, leap into the air, and fly home. That is what it feels like when you get through this dungeon.
WHY IS ALL THIS AWESOME STUFF JUST THERE IN THE DUNGEON?
After using the manual to answer a question to prove you legitimately own the game, you are in some town. The game gives you a lead on what to do next but otherwise you are on your own. The world is MASSIVE. Unfortunately it's also BORING AND MOSTLY EMPTY. Other than the towns and main dungeons, the entire game is basically randomly constructed. What this means is, while you may be tempted to walk around and explore the world, this is not that type of game. Instead, you are supposed to talk to people, gather information, and then use your map to select locations to instantly travel to. Although it sounds dull, I actually really enjoyed gathering information in this game. When you talk to a person in a town you can ask them for directions to various places. If you are too far away they will usually give you a direction to head in, and then you basically just keep doing this as you get closer and closer to your destination; at some point, a person will just write down the location on your map and you are good to go.
In this photo our hero asks a friendly bikini babe for directions to the nearest wizard.
All in all, a very enjoyable game so far, as long as you are in the right mindset.