Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review
Developer: 38 Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
The mortal world is being overrun by corrupted, immortal creatures. Only a hero created from nearly nothing, cloned from the dead and resurrected at the Well of Souls, has a chance to unravel the weave of fate and change what seems to be certain doom for the mortal races of Amalur.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the game I desperately wish I'd been playing five or six years ago. If this had been a launch title for the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, I'd have been awestruck by the scope of the tale and the sheer volume of features, and it would have been far easier to overlook the tetchy bits of the interface or the minor graphical issues. While Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was an easy game in which to lose myself for dozens of hours, it did take me a moment to suspend my disbelief. Once I escaped, newly resurrected, from beneath a pile of corpses at the Well of Souls (not the one with the Ark, the one that explains the game's amnesiac and customizable hero), I needed to progress through the extensive tutorial and a bit more adventuring before I could get past the rough-around-the-edges feeling that was haunting me. But by the time I'd accepted a few quests in the first real town (Gorhart), I was into the swing of things and really enjoying Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's elegant combat system and starting to get into the story.
The absolute best part of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the combat. There are tons of skills (broadly falling under the rubrics of "Might," "Finesse" and "Sorcery") that can be mixed and matched to create a straightforward warrior, a stealthy rogue, a spellcaster, or any combination of the three, such as a magical assassin who can teleport short distances and instantly eliminate unwary opponents. Everything, from the blocks to the dodges to the myriad weapons, works intuitively, such that there is a character build for any playstyle. There is a weapon for every range and speed, making it simple to enjoy complex character builds. While the tremendous variety of magical enhancements often forced me to choose between the coolest item and the weapon that best fit my character's skill choices, these kinds of meaningful choices are what make this kind of role-playing game really fun. Besides, if you find an item you simply must have, you can always rebuild your character's skills by spending a token amount of gold.
The other great strength of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the potential for exploration. Once I got past the extremely linear opening moments, the world opened up and became a vast domain, filled with quests, winding pathways, and interesting encounters. Quests span the entire world, and the fast travel option means that you won't have to spend tiresome hours retreading previously-trodden ground. Aside from the grander quests, there are tons of hidden caches of items, clusters of creatures, and vistas to behold. While a multitude of plants and mineral outcrops that yield alchemical ingredients pepper the landscape, these can become a distraction if you let them, but it's hard to view even more opportunities for discovery as a negative. My only quarrel with exploration in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is that the game has trouble with elevation changes, so there are a fair share of invisible walls (that are particularly hard to forgive after experiencing other excellent open-world-style RPGs) and one can only jump off ledges at pre-determined "jump points."
If there's a cool idea, mini-game, or trick from another blockbuster franchise of the last several years, it's a sure thing you'll find it in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. That's both wonderful and disappointing. Nearly every one of these would have been terrific several years ago, but not all are as polished as the competition. While the mini-game for dispelling magical wards works well, the lockpicking interface is dismal in comparison to that seen in other recent games. Bubbles indicate hidden treasure in the water, and there are lots of chickens available to gratuitously slay. Potions can be mixed, armor and weapons forged, and gems created to slot into (and improve) other items. No gem, chicken, or herb is left unturned.
Disconcertingly, conversations have two separate interfaces. Most of the time, your dialogs involve selecting responses from a list, but occasionally the dialog features a wheel-style interface with upper responses being generally good and lower answers being fairly nasty or selfish. This latter principle clearly isn't integrated throughout the game play, as if incorporating moral choices were an afterthought. More irritating, the wheel responses have a steep learning curve; you don't point directly at the option, you point slightly above or below, often putting interface frustration ahead of an immersive conversation.
Graphically, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is pretty, but raw. Compared to this generation's launch titles, it looks great, but compared to more recent titles (that eke out considerably more performance half a decade later), it looks a bit clunky. Many of the levels have been designed to provide some splendid vistas, but while It's still pretty, the game on occasion looks a bit rough, particularly when it comes to the game's often-used glow effects. It's a kindness to the player that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning gets away from the overused browns and grays of so many recent "realistic" games, but it relies so heavily on glowy greens, blues, purples, and yellows that the world looks a bit like a glow-in-the-dark pop-up book. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has a lot more in common with the low-system-specification-friendly World of Warcraft than something like Skyrim. That would be fine, except when the textures pop in long after the scenery those textures inhabit.
With the likes of author R.A. Salvatore, designer Ken Rolston, and even a famous, major league baseball pitcher behind the game, it's not surprising there's a lot to unearth. The epic feel of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, comes as much from the storytelling as it does from the expansive world. In this particular case, that's both a boon and a curse. It's clear that the team has developed an extensive backstory; the balance (now war) between the Summer and Winter courts of the Fae, interfered with by the young and mortal races, lends a history and depth to Amalur that gives the usual fetch and kill quests a bit more meaning. At the same time, It feels like there's an effort in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to cram detailed story into even the most mundane mission. But sometimes an hour's work for FedEx is just that, and it doesn't really matter who sent or is receiving the package.
It's probably too easy to harp on the little things in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but that's because the game tries to do so much. At its core, the game features an incredible amount of combat and exploration, which is tremendous fun. That said, just a few more things... I found the vocal work in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning really distracting. Either hire voice actors who can do the accent, or let them speak in a normal voice. Really. Mediocre accents just make me think I'm dealing with some ancient race of Irish pub-dwelling trolls in Los Angeles. Finally, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a morally puzzling. There's little incentive to be good except my own moral code. It's easy to steal from everyone and anyone, and while there are penalties, they are easy to avoid. I want there to be some acknowledgement that I didn't pillage every villager's chest and bureau! And why is it stealing if I look at someone's bookcase, but there's no problem with smashing every vase and crate in the place for gold?
If I sound upset, it's only because I'm out of vases and crates to smash, and there's nothing left of Amalur to explore.