Few games boast quite the all-star development line-up that Alamur does. In all honesty if I had been personally asked to hand-pick a crew of people to work on the next big RPG I’m almost certain I would have picked these exact people, with the minor exception that I would have added Terry Pratchett to the mix, for obvious reasons. Ken Rolston, lead designer on both the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, is acting as Amalur’s executive designer, ensuring that Amalur is as epic as possible, and you can certainly feel his influence on the game. The universe and lore have been written by the legendary fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, who even went to the trouble of crafting 10,000 years of history for Amalur, and is then brought to life through the wild imaginings of Todd McFarlane, resulting in a game world that is clearly a labor of love. But of course with an all-star cast such as this, expectations for Amalur are high, and so the recently released demo has a hell of a lot to live up to. But does it?
I’ve been keeping an eye on Amalur since it was first announced, patiently awaiting each bit of news, yet it’s really only within the last few months that Amalur has come to the average gamers attention, possibly because of Skyrims release and therefore the resurgence of RPGs into mainstream gaming. And now there’s suddenly this hype growing around the game, and that’s a bit of a problem because coupled with the development dream-team people are expecting something truly astounding, and truthfully Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t astounding because it plays it safe. This isn’t a mold-breaking, ground-breaking RPG that revolutionizes the genre. In fact it’s much like Darksiders: it has cherry-picked things from other games and combined them to craft something new, and do you know what? I’m glad it did, because while Amalur doesn’t feel new, it feels good.
But enough rambling, let’s get into the details and that means starting with the story, which for obvious reasons is kept to a bare minimum for the demo, but gave just enough to get me intrigued. From the start the game aims to make you feel like your special, unlike many other games which prefer to make you out as just some normal person that gets caught up in everything. Why are you special? Because you’re dead. Well, you’re dead now, but you won’t be in a minute. You see it’s not long before you’re resurrected by a mysterious device known as the Well of Souls, which as a byproduct leaves you with absolutely no memory of who you are or how you died. As you stagger through the underground chambers, which act as the games tutorial, you’ll discover a strange person who has been experimenting with the Well of Souls, and that you are his first and only true success with it. Interesting stuff, right? But then in true RPG fashion the whole bloody place comes under attack, the strange person responsible for your new-found life is killed and you’re forced to run for it. Once outside you meet up with what’s know as a Fateweaver, and it’s here that you learn the most intriguing aspect of Amalur’s story: unlike every other living thing within the world you are not bound by the laws of fate, and are therefore you’re an unknown force in the world that can shape your own destiny, and alter the threads of fate itself. Despite the fact that I barely glimpsed the surface of the game’s story in the demo, there was enough to grab my attention and get me interested in the world, and I’m confident that Salvatore won’t disappoint.
During the intro I of course got the opportunity to create the character that I’d be spending my time as for the remainder of the demo. There’s four different races to choose from, each of which provide boosts to specific stats as well as the ability to choose a patron God which grants you even more stat boosts. It’s a small thing, but I quite like getting to choose a God, though it is a shame that you’re not allowed to call upon them to smite your enemies and generally make life a bit easier. After that it’s on to the character creation suite where you can tweak many opt….oh, errr, that’s it? I’ve always been one of the people who will spend hours tweaking my character and so a deep customisation suite is a big deal, but Alamur just hits the target titled “adequate” in this department. There’s a few options to tweak, but it’s really pretty simple stuff.
Once I staggered forth from the collapsing ruins of the underground complex that had been the site of my rebirth I got the chance to finally see the world of Amalur in all of its glory and finally put an end to a something that had been nagging me in the tunnels: whether by accident or by design, Mr. McFarlane has created a graphical style that bears a striking resemblance to the original Fable, with just a touch of World of Warcraft thrown in for good measure. The world of Alamur is a vibrant place, awash with color and beauty, which is a refreshing change from most of the grey garbage we have to put up with these days. McFarlanes art style for the game is also rather strange in that sense that it’s a bit of a mixed bag, at times feeling generic and at others feeling different and unique. Still, whether it looks oddly like Fable or not I’m still very much enjoying the art-style of the game, and so it’s a shame that the technical side of the graphics don’t do the visual style justice, simply sitting the realms of, “okay” and refusing to budge from there. While trudging around the world it’s easy to notice that the level of detail and the quality of the texture work isn’t that high. It’s most noticeable during a conversation with an NPC where you zoom in on their face and begin to note that their armour doesn’t look as sharp as it should or has some rough edges, not to mention that facial animations are pretty stiff. There was also a few times during the demo when I encountered graphical glitches and screen tearing that put a dent in my immersion in the world.
Speaking of the world, the chunk you get to explore in the demo is surprisingly large, allowing you a total of 45 to explore at will, with certain areas being locked for obvious reasons. Doubtless the demo will likely fool many people into assuming that Alamur is like Skyrim in the sense that it’s one huge free-roaming world, when the truth is that the world is made up of smaller hub-worlds that all interconnect creating the illusion of one massive world. Of course it’s hardly a big deal, but worth noting anyway. The are presented for the demo isn’t jam-packed with things to do, but there’s enough to get a general idea of how the full game will feel, including a few dungeons to explore. Like any self-respecting RPG there’s quests to be picked up from the various NPCs that inhabit the world, who always seem perfectly happy to heap their entire life-story and troubles upon some random passer-by in the hopes that they’ll go do something bloody stupid for some money, or a shiny thing. Sadly we gamers aren’t much smarter as we generally agree to go and so said bloody stupid thing. Again, the quests you’re tasked with are your pretty standard RPG affair: go there and either collect something or kill something, or kill it then collect it. Of course the demo is from an early stage of the game, not to mention that most of the quests become locked off as they start to get interesting, so fingers crossed that there’s some more variety as the game goes on.
But one that the game world did have in plentiful supply was lovely, lovely chests containing loot, and if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for its loot! I’ll skip questioning why the hell people always seem to be leaving chests lying around in the weirdest places for any idiot to find (me!) and just go straight to the bit where I tell you how cool it all is. Some of the loot is of course specific, but the rest of it seems to be randomly selected by using the usual parameters. Again, what’s available in the demo is obviously not the high-spec gear, but there’s a nice selection of armor, weapons and other toys to find scattered around. Your inventory is, surprise, restricted to how much it can take but luckily there’s a way of getting rid of stuff you don’t want: blacksmithing. Assuming you’ve put points into the blacksmithing skill you can head to the nearest forge and start dismantling all your old weapons and armor and using the parts to craft new, better gear for yourself, like a bloody big flaming sword or a fetching new cloak which just so happens to bolster your magical powers so that you can happily electrocute people for hours on end. Score. It’s not just blacksmithing, either: you can also dabble in the ancient art of alchemy to create your own awesome potions, or, and this is pretty likely in my case, accidently create an explosive which results in you having to spend the next week without eyebrows, or any other facial hair for that matter.
Actually gaining access to all of this lovely loot can be a bit of a pain in the ass, though, thanks to some rather old-fashioned feeling menus. Compared to some of the more streamlined inventory and menu systems that RPGs have brought to the table over the years Amalur’s feels….clunky. But really that’s not a big problem as it’s just aesthetics, but one thing that did bug me was that the menus were sometimes unresponsive, which can be annoying when you’re just trying to deck out your character in the latest toys. Still, one point in its favour is that it’s easy to check item stats and compare them so you can quickly decide what you want to equip.
My biggest concern was that Amalur, having been billed as an action-RPG with heavy focus on the action part, wouldn’t deliver a compelling RPG experience, by which I mean giving me lots and lots of skills to play with and upgrade as well as lots of numbers to spend hours drooling over. Happily, my concern had no real foundation because Amalur seems like it’ll have more than enough to keep gamers happy.
When you level up your presented first with the skills screen, where you get one point to put into any skill you see fit, such as blacksmithing, stealth, or your bantering skills. By doing so you obviously get better at that skill with milestones along the way unlock new bonuses, such as being able to use extra items when forging items. After that it’s on to the abilities screen where you’re greeted with three different branches of skills: Might, Finesse and Sorcery, which is the typical RPG stereotypes of warrior, rogue and mage respectively. With twenty-two abilities per class, plus many of the abilities can have more than one point put into them, there’s certainly plenty of choice in how to craft your character, especially as Amalur has taken the same approach as Skyrim and doesn’t force you to pick one class, instead you’re free to distribute points as you choose, either creating a specialised character who unlocks the most powerful abilities or a more rounded character who has a wider choice of how to approach a situation. A quick browse through the three different trees revealed some rather tasty looking tricks to play with later in the game, such as mage style characters bringing down meteors, warriors going utterly nuts on the battlefield and the rogue type characters being able to dash through enemies before going bonkers with their knives. In short I was more than happy with the amount of options that were presented to me when levelling my character.
Amalur also throws another concept into the mix, know as fate. You see, everyone in Amalur has already had their fate decided, but your recent death experience has left you as a blank slate, capable of deciding your own destiny and even altering the threads of fate itself, which is a concept I’m looking forward to seeing more of the finished product. At first these “fate cards” seem to be a method of simply locking a player into a specific class and that had me worried, but that really wasn’t the case as fate cards simply provide major bonuses to your stats, as well as even more kickass tricks. At first there’s just three to choose from, with one for each of the classes, but as you put points into your chosen ability trees you’ll unlock fate cards that match your chosen playstyle. So, for example, if you’ve built a rogue/magic hybrid you’ll unlock cards that provide bonuses to both of those skill sets. Combined with the levelling system I talked about it provides a pleasing amount of choice for creating a unique feeling character. The higher fate cards also provide a way for hybrid characters to unlock some powerful abilities to compensate for the fact that they’ll likely not see the higher abilities available in the ability trees.
And in case you’re wondering, for several of my playthroughs of the demo (yes, I played it numerous times for the purposes of this write-up) I went with a warrior/mage style build, favoring the mages staff above else, because in Amalur mages are seriously badass. They swing their staffs, which always contain some elemental power in great sweeping arcs, unleashing whatever element they’re imbued with several feet out from them, throwing the enemy around like ragdolls. Words just don’t do justice to how freaking cool it feels to wield a staff of ice, wreaking frosty death on all those around you. They also have some sweet weapons such as Chakrams which are circular discs they can throw and slice with, again delivering elemental damage. In fact, you feel powerful in Amalur almost all of the time. You feel awesome, and that’s something a lot of other RPGs don’t deliver on. In fact, one example is finding a sword that deals fire damage: in something like Skyrim that means it just glows slightly red, which is rather disappointing, but in Amalur the blade is wreathed in flame, and when using it in combat it can be used deliver massive backhanded blows that unleash concussive blasts of fire that send enemies flying. Likewise an electrically charged hammer is a devastating weapon, and not just because hammers are the size of sodding continents in Amalur!
Actually, that’s a good point, I should really talk about the combat as that’s arguably Amalur’s strongest feature, feeling more like it belongs in straight hack ‘n’ slasher than an RPG. The core of it is built around the fact that you can equip two weapons at anytime - one on the X button and the other on the Y – which allows you to seamlessly swap between them mid-combo. Thrown into the mix is the ability to unlock more moves for weapons when levelling, which when combined with the on-the-fly weapon switching and the ability to use magic allows you a decent bit of freedom to create your own playstyle and combos. Hell, you can even juggle enemies, which is something I thought I’d never see in an RPG. Of course you can also block and dodge enemy strikes. Combat is quick, very fun and feels pleasingly smooth, though I will stress that while it’s incredibly good for an RPG it’s still not going to be going toe-toe with Devil May Cry or Bayonetta anytime soon and expecting to is a rather daft idea. Again, much of my enjoyment comes from that sense of power I mentioned earlier: attack animations are slightly exaggerated to look more suitably heroic and blows are delivered with a real sense of weight and power, giving combat a chunky, meaty, solid feeling. In the demo button mashing pretty much won everything, but based on videos from later in the game, the skill tree and a few other things I’m confident that button mashing will only get you part of the way. A good example of this is a rather tricky fight that demands yo make bloody good use of the dodge button. The developers themselves have also promised that the combat changes throughout the game, moving from button mashing to a more tactical affair, and based off of the videos they’ve released it certainly looks promising.
I’m going to bring this preview to a close, despite the fact that I’ve not even touched upon the conversation system or the various NPCs you meet along the way. Hell, I didn’t even mention the ****** which is in the ******* and has to be ******* with a really big stick! But I’ve already gone on far too long (near 3,000 words) and the demo is patiently sitting on the marketplace waiting for you to download it and form your own opinion. So I’ll bring this to a close by saying that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is currently the game I’m looking forward to the most in February, and that I feel it will be a fantastic fantasy RPG. Sure, I have some complaints and reservations, but from what I’ve seen of later stages of the game and what from what I’ve played in the demo, Amalur should pretty damn good.