Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Reckoning

Once upon a time, before the legendary alliance between Curt Schilling, R. A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, Ken Rolston and Electronic Arts had been forged, Kingdoms of Amalur was going to be a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (and the universe may yet branch out into that space moving forward). Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios had already recruited best-selling fantasy author R. A. Salvatore and comic/toy guru Todd McFarlane to create Amalur’s detailed narrative and artistic history from scratch, then Big Huge Games, a studio which already had the framework in place for a single player RPG helmed by Ken Rolston (former lead designer on Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion), was acquired from THQ. The rest is now history.

A seemingly fateful series of events made the world of Amalur a reality, which is fitting since the universe’s debut chapter, Reckoning, centralizes on themes of fate and destiny. Go figure.

Brought back from the dead, you are a hero unbound by the weave of destiny that has already preordained the fates of every living creature in Amalur. As this fate-less champion, you are free to create your own destiny and alter the destinies of those around you, ultimately deciding the outcome of the Crystal War currently ravaging Amalur’s Faelands.

Reckoning takes place during the Age of Arcana, a period in Amalurian (is that right?) history encompassing one small chunk of the 10,000 years of fiction R. A. Salvatore wrote in conceiving this original fantasy universe. Sadly, I’m not so sure that this game shows off Salvatore’s fantasy writing chops in the best light. The main quest line runs a good 20-30 hours, which is great, but the story it has to tell in that time is fairly bland and largely forgettable, offering brave quest-goers scant opportunity to engage with interesting characters or make decisions that truly leave an impact on the tale’s outcome.

The voice acting is surprisingly strong across the board, particularly when you factor in the enormous volume of NPCs who all have many lines of dialogue to spout your way; however the dialogue selection system, similar to that of games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, is streamlined to a fault. You generally get two main choices to drive a conversation forward and occasionally you may get the chance to woo the subject one way or the other with the persuasion ability–optional dialogues are also available if you want to extract every last detail about a character and quest. But the text is often so vague and poorly written that it can be hard to gauge how the selection will be received by the NPC being spoken to at the time. This complaint is actually moot, I guess you could say, as none of the dialogue choices seem to make a difference anyway. In fact, the game as a whole has very little in the way of choice and consequence.

The real narrative strength of the Amalur universe, as presented in this introductory chapter, is not the actual plotline you must follow to complete the game but rather the lore of the world itself. Salvatore and the rest of the writing team clearly poured years of blood, sweat and tears into conceptualizing Amalur’s historical back story, as if Amalur, like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, were a real place and the portrayed events actually happened in some alternate realm. Discovering that fiction, either by reading books and scrolls on your own time, completing optional faction quests, or discovering Lorestones (the Reckoning equivalent to BioShock audio diaries) scattered across the map, brings Amalur to life in a subtly compelling way that keeps you motivated to continue exploring every nook and cranny of the sprawling open-world terrain.

Todd McFarlane’s influence can also be felt throughout every inch of Amalur’s virtual fantasy sandbox. His distinct artistic approach brings a refreshing pseudo-comic book flair to Reckoning, eschewing all attempts at photorealism for graphics that value color, artistry and personality over realistic detail. Up close and personal, the character models do appear to have a noticeably low poly count and wooden facial animations, and the indoor dungeon environments all seem to be cut-and-paste maps from a single template of cavernous tunnels lined with neon-colored plant life. However, the game world surrounding your hero will never cease to take your breath away. Amalur is one massive video game environment, its diverse range of locales–from mystical forests and dry, open deserts to spider web-covered canyons and dank, murky swamps–unfolding before your very eyes without a bunch of loading screens breaking the immersion. (The game only loads when you enter an instanced dungeon, house or town separate from the main world map.)

For OCD completionist gamers, Reckoning is both a blessing and a curse. Everywhere you look, there’s something to collect or kill, a dungeon or town to explore, or a troubled NPC waiting to have you run an errand of utmost importance. Even if you don’t bother much with brewing potions, you won’t be able to fight the urge to harvest every plant reagent that sparkles as you pass by, as if yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” You’ll have to stop at each new location marker that pops up on the map, if only to receive the discovery experience bonus and to add the marker to the map for quick travel usage later on. Every chest will need to be dispelled/unlocked and looted; every crate or vase will need to be cracked open; every Lorestone will need to be heard; and every quest giver, indicated on the map by a yellow exclamation mark, will need to be spoken to.

Quests in the game couldn’t be any more formulaic but are strangely addictive nonetheless, running the usual gamut of hunt “X” number of creatures, gather “Y” number of items, deliver “Z” number of letters to citizens around town, and rescue captured NPC whatshername from that cave of kobolds over there. Faction quests stand out as the highlights of the entire game. These optional quest series feature deeper storylines than even the main quest path has to offer, each one (so far at least) chewing up a few hours of exploration, dungeon diving and light puzzle solving. Upon completion, you become a member of the faction in question, earning a Twist of Fate card which augments your character with bonus stat boosters. (They’re good for Trophies/Achievements, too.)

Hundreds of hours of compulsive RPG fetching, questing, looting and slaying can be found within Amalur’s borders. As I mentioned earlier, the campaign quest line should take you no longer than 30 hours to see through to conclusion. After that, the map is full of places to see and your quest journal is still likely to be overflowing with unfinished tasks. When I finished the main storyline, I had completed over 80 quests, and now as I approach 40 hours of game time over 50 incomplete quests still remain in my log book, with many more that I have yet to even accept. That’s a lot of game, folks.

Considering the scope of the game, Reckoning is a remarkably polished piece of software. I’ve encountered minor signs of glitchiness, such as occasional frame rate hiccups, creature corpses stuck floating in mid air, enemy AI deactivating and standing completely motionless in the middle of battle, and level geometry somehow getting stuck in front of the camera, blocking my view of characters during dialogue sequences. But I’ve only seen the latter three of those bugs one or maybe two times each in dozens of gameplay hours now. I’d say that’s pretty good in today’s age of “rush it out the door; patch it after release to finish the job,” especially stacked up against other RPGs of this magnitude.

So, I’ve talked at length about Reckoning’s blasé storyline and impressive world design, but I still need to fit two pieces of the Amalur puzzle into this discussion: the combat system and the character progression. As it turns out, these are the two things the game does best.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Western RPGs tend to have pretty weak combat systems. Skyrim, Fallout 3, Risen, Divinity II, etc. – these are excellent RPGs, but I wouldn’t pick combat as being a strength for any one of them, nor would I say that they are fun games to play in the traditional video game sense. Whoever devised this rule stating that traditional RPGs shall not have exciting combat certainly had no hand in the creation of Kingdoms of Amalur, that’s for damn sure.

Borrowing heavily from action games like Darksiders, Devil May Cry and God of War, Reckoning’s combat system is a fast, combo-oriented hack ‘n slash affair. As a melee-focused character, my hero is able to pull off some killer combos that would make Dante and Kratos very proud (major bosses even end in QTE kill sequences). How many other RPGs have you played that allow you to sword uppercut a foe into the air, juggle them for a few hits with additional sword slashes and bow and arrow shots, and then finish them off with a Harpoon skill that reels the still-airborne target in close for the killing blow (GET OVER HERE!)? I sure can’t think of any. When it comes to pure fun factor, Reckoning tops all RPG challengers.

I do have to say, though, that parts of the combat system are overpowered in relation to the game’s relatively lax level of difficulty, namely the Reckoning Mode ability which channels fate energy you’ve harvested from defeated enemies into a slow-motion killing spree that allows you to eliminate entire groups of enemies and even larger bosses without ever being touched. The game is far from a cakewalk, but on the easy and normal difficulties button mashing can get you through most encounters without need for block and dodge tactics or a large stockpile of health potions. Bumping the difficulty up to hard, which can be done from the options menu at any time, does make enemies more formidable. However, in general the game doesn’t put up as much resistance as I would’ve liked, nor do any of the quests or creatures scale to your level over time to balance things out. Because of this, the post-campaign side questing isn’t always as meaningful or rewarding as it could have been. I’ve heard talk that the developers are considering a rebalance of the difficulty level for a future update, but by then—whenever it happens, and if it happens—it may be too late.

Customizing your hero’s progress through the game, on the other hand, couldn’t be more rewarding. The creation process begins during the opening sequence, as your dead hero-to-be is being rolled in on a wagon to be dumped onto a pile of corpses, ready to be sculpted into the avatar that will defy fate and save Amalur from the brink of war. You are given a choice between four different races and a handful of Patron Gods to pledge your devotion to, each providing unique stat traits. Then you move on to customizing basic facial features and hairstyle.

From this starting point, it’s up to you to shape your character’s destiny. I mean that literally. Reckoning does not follow a traditional class structure. Instead, whenever a level is gained you are given one point to put into a skill, such as blacksmithing, alchemy, lockpicking, stealth or persuasion, and three points to pump anywhere into the three ability trees: Might, Finesse and Sorcery. The mixing and matching of ability points from any of these trees is encouraged, whether you want to focus solely on mastering one specific tree or form your own hybrid warrior by developing abilities along multiple trees.

As a certain number of points are put into an ability tree, a new Destiny becomes available. So, for example, should you start down the Finesse path, you’ll start as a rogue. Once 11 more ability points have been put towards the Finesse tree, you’ll have the option to upgrade to a scout, and then a ranger, and then an assassin, and so on from there, with each step up the destiny ladder imbuing your avatar with higher-end attribute bonuses, like boosts to attack damage or maybe an increase in mana regeneration. These Destinies, of which there are 40 in all, serve the same purpose as traditional character classes, but since your fate is not set in stone you are never locked into one Destiny. Destinies you’ve unlocked can be switched at any time, and with a little gold you can even respec your ability trees entirely by visiting a fateweaver. You have true freedom to build a character to your preferred play style. If you get bored playing one way, change your Destiny and try another path.

When you remove the ‘MMO’ from ‘MMORPG’, you’re left simply with RPG. More specifically, you’re left with a game like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a grand scale role-playing adventure that looks, plays and feels like it should be a massively multiplayer online game but is actually a vast open world designed for a single player to enjoy. Compared to many other RPGs in which the story comes first and gameplay second (or sometimes third or even fourth), Kingdoms of Amalur is a gameplay- and action-driven RPG that just so happens to be wrapped up in a beautifully realized fantasy universe steeped in lore that stretches far beyond this one moment in Amalur’s history. Narratively speaking, this history isn’t delivered to the player in a particularly fascinating fashion, but as a whole Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a compelling, soul-consuming fantasy epic that any RPG fan is sure to lose themselves in for many weeks and months to come.

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Pros:
+ Action-packed combat system is loads of fun
+ Destiny-based class system offers a lot of character development freedom
+ Sprawling fantasy world full of dozens, possibly hundreds of gameplay hours
+ Addictive MMORPG-style quest structure
+ Beautifully realized fantasy world in terms of art direction and historical background

Cons:
– Forgettable main storyline
– Even on Hard, the difficulty level is a bit too soft
– Formulaic fetch and hunt quests aren’t very imaginative
– Overly simplified dialogue system with few choices of lasting impact

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3; also available for PC and Xbox 360
Publisher: EA
Developer: 38 Studios / Big Huge Games
Release Date: 2/7/2012
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!