Release Date: Out now!
Developer: Big Huge Games and 38 Studios
Thanks to EA for providing a copy of this game for review.
When I wrote my preview for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning a short while back I used an analogy that compared it to Darksiders. After having now sunk many happy hours of fighting, pillaging and general mayhem into the game, I feel that analogy summed up Reckoning perfectly. It is to RPGs what Darksiders was to action-adventure games, which is to say it has cherry picked the best bits from other RPGs and stitched them back together to form one cohesive game. Except for the combat. After looking at the combat in other RPGs the developers rightfully came to the conclusion that it generally sucked, so they ripped it from God of War instead. So, Reckoning isn’t a particularly fresh or original game, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s fun.
At the start of Amalur, you are, in fact, dead. Clearly this is an inconvenience when creating a game as you’re supposed to be going up against an evil lord whose waging war on the land, which is why it’s not long before you’re resurrected by a mysterious device known as the Well of Souls. And in truly stereotypical fashion, this leaves you with no memory of who you once were. But it also has one other major side-effect; you see, everyone in the land of Amalur has their destiny already written, their fates pre-determined. They live their lives knowing this and can even go to a Fateweaver to have that destiny read, informing them of what is to come. But your resurrection has stripped you of your destiny: you have no pre-determined fate, your path is your own and you can choose to walk it how you will. I could actually get a bit metaphorical here and argue that this is a commentary on RPGs as a whole: the NPCs live out their lives, their fates written by the developers, while you the player are not held by the same constraints. But let’s not get into that and instead accept it for what it is: a damn good plot device. Clearly, though, this means you’re dangerous. Your actions can rip apart the fates of others, and that causes problems. So it’s not long before you’re caught up on a war with a bunch called the Tuatha, and their leader Gadflow, who wears some seriously evil-looking gear and therefore must be stopped by way of pummeling him in the face. It’s amazing just how many of lives problems can be stopped by violence.
Your fateless nature does indeed crate some memorable moments in Reckoning, but ultimately the storyline feels a little flat, primarily thanks to a lack of any real urgency to the tale and no memorable or interesting characters to encounter along the way. Perhaps my biggest complaint, though, is how the war which acts as a central part of the storyline almost feels non-existent. NPCs across the land will gladly tell you about how terrible and vast it is, but you never see any actual evidence of this. The country, aside from the standard wildlife that wants to kick your ass, is a peaceful place to inhabit and the villages and people who live in them don’t really seem to be effected by this evil war. In fact, most of the time it only ever feels like you, a few allies, and a handful of enemies are actually fighting this damned war, although there is a single point in the storyline where you do finally get to see a true battle. Sadly you’re on the sidelines for all of it. Again, this takes much of the urgency out of the storyline. Key characters will tell you about battles and events, and that you must hurry to the next mission, but ultimately you get the feeling that the war can wait whilst you loot a few caves and level up a bit. There’s no sense that people are dying or anything is actually at stake. This and a lack of characters with any real personality plagued Skyrims story as well, and just like Skyrim it leaves Reckoning’s plot feeling a little bland and dry at points, but overall it’s still an enjoyable enough story that leads to a pretty epic, if easy, conclusion.
But where the games main storyline falters the lore does not. A certain mister R.A. Salvatore, whom fantasy lovers every should recognise, penned 10,000 years worth of history for Amalur, creating a richly detailed tapestry which comprises of many different Peoples and beasts. Where ever you go there are NPCs that are more than willing to speak of Amalurs history, or their village and customs. Sadly, though, talking to most of these characters is a dull experience as the dialogue is bland. Still, if you are willing to put up with that then there’s a lot to be discovered from Amalur’s inhabitants. Scattered around the land are Lorestones, which when activated grant some tasty XP before proceeding to tell you a story or piece of history. It’s a nice touch as they can be found everywhere and once activated the voice simply plays like a recording, allowing you to keep wandering around as you listen.
But the best way of experiencing games depth of lore is by joining various sub-factions such as the Scholia Arcania (mages guild), Warsworn and House of Ballads during your adventures. These, like Skyrims factions, have their own unique storylines which are actually more enjoyable than the main quests, as well as having a rich history of their own to be discovered. Again, bland dialogue somewhat hampers the delivery of it all, but it’s worth it. The best example is the House of Ballads, whose members are the mysterious and immortal Fae. These beings, not unlike elves, play a pivotal role in the story and believe in the Great Cycle of life. Should they die they’ll simply be reborn at the start of the next cycle. The House of Ballads is a place where the Fae live out their ancient Ballads, or stories, over and over again, never deviating from the telling due to fate, which of course keeps their destinies, and therefore the ballads, on rigid course. This faction is such a fantastically thought-out idea filled with fascinating details that it’s a pleasure to play through, with their story perhaps being the single best of the entire game.
In stark contrast the lore is the physical world of Amalur. Whilst the depth and detail of the various factions, Peoples and history of Amalur seek to create wholly believable feeling land, the physical representation does almost the opposite. It might like rather striking thanks to an art-style by Todd McFarlane, but Amalur just doesn’t feel real, and that’s a major flaw in any open-worlded RPG that asks you to spend around 50-hours within its borders. There’s no one thing that causes this, but rather several things that come together: the world itself is actually just a series of small, open zones connected by linear paths, almost like a large-scale Fable, while villages and cities don’t ever feel truly alive with the hustle and bustle of people. NPC’s just stand around unconvincingly and don’t seem to lead any sort of life, again detracting from the illusion of this being a real place. Wandering off the beaten track doesn’t feel like a grand adventure like it does in Skyrim because everything feels so tightly scripted. There’s no random events or strange moments to stumble upon because everything you encounter has been written that way. There’s nothing wrong with that as most games do this, but for some odd reason in Amalur you just really notice it. It simply fails to sell itself as a physical place, and for some reason that fact is more noticeable in Reckoning than it is in most games.
But while it may not be a particularly real feeling place to inhabit, Amalur does at least contain a hell of a lot of side-quests to complete. No matter where you may venture on your travels there’s always people with that tell-tale exclamation point above their heads willing to trust you, a complete stranger, with tasks of great importance which will see you rewarded with loot and riches. Like many RPGs, though Reckoning’s side-quests are a bunch of generic tasks that require you to simply go somewhere and kill/collect something, all initiated by NPCs with all the personality of a brick. There’s very few quests to be found that actually have any real story to enjoy or that provide unique and intriguing moments, which is a real shame because it’s in the side-quests that the developers usually have the most opportunity to play around with cool ideas and concepts, but Amalur’s developers seem content with quantity versus quality. And that’s a shame, because there are those few quests that I mentioned which do show a bit of creativity, such as helping out a wolf cursed to wander around as a human or helping to reenact an ancient legend. These moments show that the developers were more than capable of creating more unique quests, so where are they all? More often than not you’ll just be wandering into a cave to kill some spiders and collect an object. Again, though, the amount of lore in Amalur’s world does help combat this a little: you might be just be going into yet another cave, but you can be sure that the local villagers have something to say about that cave, the spiders, the object that you’re collecting, the guy who used to own the object, the sister of the guy and the history of the spiders. Still, generic or no, the quests are all bite-sized, usually requiring no more than ten or fifteen minutes to complete, so they do have a rather addictive quality that comes from their simple nature, and it’s not until much later into the game where they begin to grind, unless you’re daft enough to just to side-quests non-stop for ten-hours straight. Note to self, don’t do side-quests for ten-hours straight. Hurts the brain.
You are, however, definitely going to want to do all of those side-quests because Reckoning embraces an aspect of RPGs that I hold a deep love for: loot, and loads of it. Not only can dead enemies be searched for this most beautiful of things, but many quests will throw loot at you upon completion and the land itself has treasure chests and hidden caches absolutely everywhere. It’s like playing Torchlight at times. There’s masses of armour and weapons to be discovered and used, each with their own stats and extra abilities like flame damage or health stealing, and its all thanks to a random generation system, so you never really run out of stuff to grab. And of course there’s plenty of purple (the game uses that time-honored color-coded loot system) unique items to be found and hoarded. Hell, it almost throws loot at you, demanding that you hoard it all away and keep searching just one more dungeon for that next piece in a set of armour or a new pair of chakram (I’ll get to those babies later) to wield. It’s addictive: it keeps you playing through the side-quests and exploring the dungeons and eagerly fighting through the monsters, all in the hope of getting something better than you’ve already got, and then, before you know it, it’s 3am and you’re still hunting for more.
And if using pre-made gear isn’t your cup of tea then all of it can be broken down and salvaged using the blacksmithing skill, which is one of nine upgradeable skills in the game along with the likes of stealth and persuasion, and then used to craft your own custom weapons and armor, so that you can feel all nice and special. You can use up to five components, depending on the level of your skill, when creating a new item, each with their own special properties. For example you can create a new sword by choosing a blade fo varying quality, a hilt that does fire damage, rivets that augment your health and bindings that further improve the blades fire damage. The final component that can be used comes from the art of Sagecrafting, which is to create magical gems with powerful properties. Of course you can buy these gems to use, but learning the skill yourself is advisable if you want to creat truly powerful weapons and armor. It’s easy to get lose in the repetitive act of loot hunting, salvaging and crafting, always hunting for that new item in the hopes that, should you get lucky, it’ll yield some great new parts to utilise in your next project. The only real flaw in this otherwise great system is that there’s no way to improve or modify existing items, and so with the huge amounts of constantly improving loot that gets thrown at you, the epic sword you just created can quickly become redundant. Because of this a unique weapon you find early in the game can’t be used for the rest of your journey, which is a real shame as I had a damn fine cutlass that I wanted to keep using, but it just wasn’t a viable option as it wasn’t long before enemies weren’t even feeling it’s strikes. In the later stages of the game, though, once levelling slows down a little, this becomes less of a problem.
All this of forging weapons and armor also brings us to Reckoning’s singe greatest strength: its combat, arguably the most consistent weakness in most RPGs. Whilst the rest of Reckoningg has been carefully crafted using the best ideas of other RPG titles, the combat has not, instead the developers have sat down and designed a system that wouldn’t feel out of place in an action-adventure title, and by doing so have created a combat system which, when taken in an RPG context, is one of the best the genre has seen. It’s slick, brutal and immensely satisfying to fight the many enemies that inhabit the kingdom of Amalur. At its core is the ability to assign any two weapons you wish to X and Y, allowing you to swap between them at will. It’s not a completely smooth transition like Devil May Cry, but it does mean you can swap between a sword and a set of chakram in an instant, switching up your style as you go. Throw in the ability to dodge, block, parry and throw magic around, as well as responsive controls, and what you’ve got is simply great. The stat take a back seat here in favour of player-skill, precise time and good use of y unlockable moves for whatever weapons you’re using. There’s a simple beauty to the combat that makes it incredibly satisfying. Parrying a strike and then countering before rolling away and unleashing a brutal ranged attack followed up by a blast of magic just feels right. Truthfully it’s hard to put the pace of combat into words, so instead I’ll just say that Reckoning has delivered something which few RPGs have ever done before: great combat. It’s not without flaws through: despite giving a variety of options to play with the combat is more wide than deep with button mashing generally getting out of almost any situation. The second problem I have with it is that many moves leave you locked into an animation and unable to cancel out of it, which in a combat system this quick feels very out of place, especially when facing large amounts of opponents who will take advantage of your locked animation.
What really makes the combat stand out, though, is how much effort has gone into making the player feel like a real badass. Every blow, every strike and every magical attack is delivered with real weight and impact. A simple backhand with a sword doesn’t just cut an enemy, no, it sends them flying. A sweep with a mage’s staff doesn’t just spit a bit of fire, no, it sends forth a wave of fire (or whatever element it’s imbued with) that literally blasts multitudes of enemies off their feet, sending them hurtling backwards. Wielding one of the games huge hammers results in equally massive strikes that shake the earth. In Reckoning, you truly feel powerful, something which many other games struggle to do. Take mages, for example: games often fail to make them match-up to what I have in my imagination of a powerful being wielding the very elements and causing destruction. Instead they usually got a pitiful fireball and that’s it. But in Reckoning mages can wade into the thick of combat wielding staffs which they whirl overhead or, and this is where things get fun, they can wield the beautiful and deadly chakram – circular blades imbued with elemental fury that are thrown at enemies, always returning to the owners hand. There’s none of this weak-ass magic that so many other games give us, instead there’s just magical fucking carnage and I love it! Later unlockable abilities also give you masses of power to play with, like warriors getting a brutal attack that sees them leaping into the air before hitting the earth with furious force, or mages bringing down freaking meteors on enemies heads! Throw in some visceral QTE kills, activated by building up a special meter which then unleashes Reckoning mode, and you’re onto a winner!
Of course I can’t write about an RPG without going into the tasty details of levelling up and improving your character, and again Reckoning delivers the goods with a flexible system that’s allows you to create a mixed or specialised character and change him or her in an instant to something else. As mentioned before you’ve got nine primary skills such as stealth, persuasion, sagecrafting, lockpicking, detection and dispelling to play with, with each of them offering milestones at certain points which grant bonuses, such as cheaper bribes for guards in case you get caught stealing (yes, being a thief is an option). You’ve got complete freedom to level up which skills you want when you want, so that’s all fine and dandy. Next are the abilities and this is where things get interesting as, like I said, it’s here where you’re free to create your own class of character. The abilities in Reckoning are split into the three generic fantasy RPG branches: Might, Finesse and Sorcery, or Warrior, Rogue and Mage, if you will. You can distribute points in just one single branch, such as Might, and therefore unlock that branches most powerful abilities, or mix and match to create a hybrid class that has more options to choose from during combat or other situations but less specialised powerful abilities to utilise. Each branch also contains unlockable moves for that classes favored weapons, again opening up more options. It’s not an entirely free-form system like Skyrim, though. A certain limitation has been put in place using armor: to wear a warriors heavy armor, for example, you must have a certain amount of points in the Might branch, likewise a mages cloth armor requires points in the sorcery branch. It’s a little frustrating to have this limitation, yet it does make perfect sense to keep the game balanced. Finally there’s the concept of Fates, which are unlocked based on how many points you’ve spent on which branches of the ability tree. At any given time you can have one Fate active which grants you massive stat boosts, as well as some bonus abilities and powers later in the game. Again, should you have chosen to create a hybrid class you’ll unlock corresponding fates. For example, a mage/warrior hybrid, which is my own favored style, can unlock a fate which boosts elemental damage and grants a teleport ability which replaces dodging. And, in a smart move, you can also visit a Fateweaver at anytime to have all your points reset, allowing you to instantly change up your character build to try out something else. In case you hadn’t guessed already from the way I’ve been describing the levelling system, I was thoroughly impressed with it. It’s not quite as extensive as some other RPGs on the market, but is still more than deep enough to keep all but the most critical of RPG gamers happy, and the abilities on offer are all fantastic.
Now that we’ve covered the gameplay, it’s onto the games visuals which have striked up a considerable amount of conversation amongst gamers because Todd McFarlane’s art-style has a striking resemblance to the Fable series. And indeed I do agree that Mr. McFarlane does seem to have taken some inspiration from Lionhead’s famous series, but anyone with an eye for this style of fantasy artwork will quickly realise that Reckoning has a visual flair all of its own. McFarlane has gone for a bright, vibrant fantasy style that favours beauty over gritty realism, and the result is pleasing to the eye, but sadly, like a lot of games with such a style, will likely put a lot of people off as they’ll immediate write it off as a kids game. Their loss, then. There are a few moments then Todd’s style borders on generic, but it feels more like a deliberate choice to blend a traditional high-fantasy style with some unique twists, and it pays off. However, I do also realise that many people are going to find it a little too generic and Fable-ish, which is understandable. There’s also a very noticeable lack of detail on characters and in the environment, along with quite a few problems and glitches such as bits of the environment, and sometimes enemies, popping into existence, NPCs sitting in mid-air and the camera occasionally dipping underneath the ground during combat. The final complaint that I’d level at the graphics is that there are very few epic vistas to behold in Reckoning thanks a slight fog that blurs much of the distance detail. It’s a real shame as Amalur should have been a land filled with magnificent views.
On the audio side of the presentation fence Reckoning is again mostly solid but with a few problems. The voice acting is a real mixed bag, offering some stellar performances but also quite a few truly terrible ones as well. But in general the actors do the best they can with the rather wooden lines given to them. Likewise the music has a few high points and does its job relatively well but never truly stood out and delivered anything spectacular with which to make itself stand apart from the crowd. Where the audio really suffers is in the technical side, where there is quite a few problems. There are times when the sound would lag or a characters voice would seem to be coming from a completely different place than they’re standing. At other times there’s balancing issues with some characters voices being drowned out by music or certain sound effects not coming through as loudly as they should. There were even a few moments when voices would overlap. And finally there was a lack of detail in the audio that could hardly be called a major flaw but still took away from the overall quality, such as the sounds of pots smashing being entirely unconvincing, or footsteps on stone sounding like dirt, despite wearing heavy armor. As I said, this is not a major problem, but it’s the little details that help to make a game.
And to polish up this review I’ll quickly touch upon the sort of playtime you can expect to get from Reckoning. For this purposes of this review I simply couldn’t do all the side-quests on offer, and so I can’t give you a complete time, but for my playthrough I went through the entire main-quest, polished off a considerable of side-quests and finished all of the sub-factions except for one, which has just a few missions left to complete. To do all of this took me 40-hours, but that was going through at a good pace, so given just how many side-quests were left sitting you could easily add another ten or twenty to that total. In short, then, it’s a hefty game that should last you a good while.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has taken the best parts of many RPGs and combined them to create something that isn’t groundbreaking but is pure fun. By using this method it has also gained some of the same faults that plague other RPGs, but also brings to the table some of the best combat in the genre, lots of loot, plenty to do and a deep lore to sink into. In other words I loved my time with Reckoning: I loved the combat, the loot, the lore and the amount of quests to complete, and so I’d happily recommend it to any RPG fan out there, especially as this is a brand new IP on a market usually dominated by sequels.
+ the combat.
+ The House of Ballads.
– The world just doesn’t sell itself as a physical place.
– Begins to grind.
– The story doesn’t quite deliver.
There’s a lack of detail and stiff facial animations, but the art-style is lovely to behold and there’s some fluid combat animations.
Solid music and generally decent voice acting, but there are some fairly obvious flaws that drag the overall quality down somewhat.
Enjoyable enough and will keep you playing, but never quite delivers on its initial concept and has a few other problems.
The quests are repetitive, but this is a fantastic RPG that offers some slick combat, a great levelling system and plenty of loot with few major flaws.
It’s not Skyrim huge, but this is still a pretty hefty game offering around 40-50 hours for an average playthrough
The Verdict: 8.5
Big Huge Games and 38 Studios have delivered a brand new RPG in a post Skyrim, which is a terrifying prospect for any RPG developer , that is entirely worthy of your time and your money. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is simply fun to play from start to finish.