The best and worst thing about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is that it’s not Skyrim. I know it’s somewhat of a dick move to start a game review by referencing a different game altogether, but it would also be careless to critically consider any RPG in a post-Skyrim ecosystem without giving the Bethesda titan an obligatory “ten-hut”. It’s like waving to the car behind you that just allowed you into their lane in acknowledgement of the transaction that just took place. The creators of Reckoning were all too aware of this challenge, and were thus faced with the daunting task of recognizing Skyrim’s influence without aping its gameplay experience.
They succeeded in differentiating themselves from Skyrim, but in doing so, they might have veered off too far in the other direction. Reckoning is a lush, fast-paced action RPG, with emphasis on the action. The game’s main draw lies in its synthesis of features from the hack and slash genre with the storytelling elements of traditional RPGs, but it’s the combat that really stands out. It’s fluid, it’s dynamic, it’s seamless – and it’s just flat-out fun. It’s good to know that developers still remember that games should be fun to play, and no amount of beautiful graphics or quality voice-acting can salvage a non-engaging gameplay experience.
On the other hand, an emphasis on style over substance often leads to an impression of emptiness, of a feeling of an illusion that didn’t live up to its promise – and it is this fine line that Reckoning walks, with somewhat mixed results.
A joint creation of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games, Reckoning is the first installment set in the Amalur world, an IP with quite a few fantasy heavyweights behind it. The project is helmed by Morrowind and Oblivion lead designer Ken Rolston, and features R.A. Salvatore on lore and Todd MacFarlane on artwork. Initially, it appears firmly rooted in a fantasy RPG framework. A cut-scene informs you that there is a war of some sort going on, and that you’re dead. Well, it beats waking up in jail, I suppose. As two gnomish mortuary workers poke and peer callously at your corpse, you choose your name and visit the character creation menu before being dumped unceremoniously onto a pile of dead bodies — lost, confused, and devoid of memories.
Your miraculous rise from the dead (which technically makes you a lich, like the risen Christ) is an accident which renders you outside of the warp and weft of Fate. In this world where all creatures are bound by their destinies, you have none – and are thus uniquely poised to effect great changes. As you roam the world, you meet exotic mobs of ancient cultures (and kill them) while exploring the consequences of your rebirth in the context of the greater conflict.
Destiny and the storytelling element are integral to the world of Amalur, and are duly emphasized in the game in various, cunning ways. All heroes have their own epic ballads which recount their exploits, which never vary from what is Written (at least until you come along). Ballad-playing lorestones scattered throughout the world serve as a clever mechanism for recounting the lore behind the places you visit. Yet, despite the importance of your lack of a predestined path, you are very restricted in the amount of choice you have in your reactions and decisions. Perhaps this is an indication that you are actually part of a larger destiny not yet revealed? Nevertheless, the on-rails nature of the plot means you never really get a chance to develop or fully get to know your character, which is a bit of a disappointment.
The real freedom of choice is in the combat. There are three class trees (mage, fighter, and rogue), two sets of equipped weapons, and a variety of mapped spells and abilities – and you can combine their effects in any way you choose. I defaulted to my standard rogue build but quickly found that the combat system is flexible enough to allow any amount of improvisation. Normally, a failed sneak attack as an ambush-specced rogue is a cause for major concern. Not so in Reckoning. If I can’t get close enough to stab someone, I can still bombard them with spells, or weaken them with poisons, or stagger them with critical hit combos. I can forgo my daggers in favor of mid-range chakrams, which spin and whirl and dance in intricate and flashy figure-eights of death. I can dodge, I can kite, I can block, I can teleport.
The combat system revolves less around planning and execution and more in situational awareness, fast reflexes, and carefully timed button mashes interspersed with periodic God of War style finishing moves, which gives you added flexibility in dealing with particularly difficult boss situations. It feels far more organic than the action in most role-players, and the sheer fact of how gorgeous the combat is should not be underplayed. It’s quite an achievement.
However, bosses aside, the game contains a surprisingly small variety of enemy mobs to contend with, which is one of manifestations of the rawness of the Amalur IP or perhaps just an oversight in the game design itself. Another similar weakness is the shallowness of most of the settings and the one-dimensionality and wooden quality of the NPCs. At no point did I feel emotionally invested in the world, which could have been easily remedied by incorporating a few more characters with some depth or complexity. It’s a shame, because there is such an opportunity here to tell a great story – hell, all the framework for epic storytelling is already built into the plot. Instead I mostly find myself wanting to fast-forwarding through cut scenes, impatient to get on to the next battle.
At least it looks nice. The art design from the creator of the Spawn franchise eschews high realism in favor of a stylized, cartoon-influenced take on high fantasy, augmented by a vivid color palette. The various locales, which range from verdant woods and cute little villages to sweeping ruin-littered plains and bustling cities, are offset by a lush soundtrack composed of augmented fifths. Exploration isn’t quite at the level of a goal unto itself, but it is rewarding all the same. And it gives you another excuse to go around killing things, which is always a plus.
Various other aspects of the game deserve mention, from the oftentimes archaic looking inventory system (if anyone ever actually manages to design a inventory management menu that doesn’t require me to click through pages of text in a 1980s IBM fashion, they could get rich selling only this piece to game studios), or the surprisingly wide range of quest types that mostly steer clear of the “kill ten boars” variety, but in the long run, these things don’t matter.
What matters is that the game, at its heart, delivers on entertainment value but fails to meet the criteria for becoming the next big epic fantasy IP. It’s a strong fantasy action game with role-playing elements, but its dependence on its combat system in lieu of vital RPG elements such as character development and choice is what keeps it from being a great game as opposed to just a really good one. Still, Reckoning is not the last we’ll hear of the Amalur universe – with an MMO in the works, there are still opportunities for this series to grow. Reckoning delivered on the foam, we’ll just have to wait and see if future installments can provide the beer.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was released on February 7th, 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the PC version.