Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way right now–at first glance, it is hard not to dismiss Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as a clone of Skyrim. That isn’t fair, but it is inevitable, and there are unmistakable similarities between the games. Actually, a better comparison would be the Fable games, which approach combat in a somewhat similar fashion. You could even toss in the Mass Effect series as an obvious inspiration. All of that is true, and all of it misses the point.
There are plenty of nits to pick in Amalur, but there is one fact that is hard to ignore: the game is just fun. The story of Amalur is immersive, the world looks dynamic, and most importantly, the combat is smooth and ever-changing. It does borrow bits and pieces from other games, but it uses them well and knows exactly what it wants to do. The result is a game that feels familiar, but also entertaining.
Old school storytelling
It helps to understand where this game came from to understand what it is trying to do. The story comes from New York Times best-selling fantasy/sci-fi author, R.A. Salvatore. Those that have read fantasy novels over the years should feel right at home here. The plot of Amalur plays out like an old-school fantasy novel, with a unique hero that carries a singular backstory and a power that goes with it, and a world steeped in magic that is in need of a hero to save it. There will be adventures, battles, and scantily-clad elf women that you may or may not be able to trust.
You begin somewhat inauspiciously as a corpse. After you choose your race and customize your character, you begin to feel much better, and return to life with very little understanding of what happened to you.
As with most games of this ilk, you can choose to stick to the primary story line or you can go ‘splorin to see what is what, take on the odd quest, join a faction or three, and possibly slaughter a few trolls along the way. Fantasy pro tip: trolls are always bad.
If you have played the Elder scrolls games, then you know the basic way Amalur is laid out. That shouldn’t come as much surprise though, since the game’s executive designer, Ken Rolston, was the lead designer for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
But regardless of what path you take, or how long it takes you to jump back on the main plot threads, the game has a linear direction. Where a game like Skyrim is all about exploration and rewards you for looking around, Amalur is more focused on leading you in a specific direction. Sure, you can go off and do side quests for hours and hours, but eventually you will need to follow the main plot, which is essentially straightforward.
The length of time you spend in Amalur is entirely up to you. You could rip through the main plot in 20 hours or so, but spending over a 100 hours in the game wouldn’t be a stretch.
As you explore and open up the five various regions, you discover that your character is free of fate, which is a dangerous thing. The fate of all mortals has been written, but you have the ability to unwittingly change all of it. As a war brews in the East, word of what you are begins to spread, and soon you will find yourself in the center of the conflict.
This really is classic fantasy storytelling, and I mean that in a good way. It doesn’t allow you nearly as much freedom as you will find in many Western-style RPGs, but it does give you more of a narrative driven experience, and an immersive one at that.
An Unexpected Journey
In Amalur, there is a certain amount of “you get out of it what you put in,” which is true of most open world games with a huge amount of history, most of which comes from conversations. There are some issues with the dialog though, which can be stiff and dull to the point of distraction.
The good news is that you can skip over the majority of these, and if you want the background info they spew, you can skip through and get the gist easily enough. It helps to hear some of it too, as there is a huge amount of backstory. Most—or at least enough–of it unfolds through missions. If you want to learn the full history of the world, it is there for you, but you need to go out of your way for it. You don’t need it to enjoy the game, but it’s there if you want it.
It is difficult to escape the shadow of The Lord of the Rings in the fantasy world, and most modern fantasy has at least a trace of Tolkien’s work. Amalur has more than a few passing similarities to both the books, and Peter Jackson’s movies. There is an evil growing in the East that is separated by a river instead of a wall and mountains (one of the cities in the East even looks a bit like Minas Morgul), the elves are immortal, there is a city that isn’t quite Gondor (but it kind of is Gondor), and many of the locations in the world of Amalur are comparable to locations in Middle Earth (Mirkwood, Lothlorien, The Lonely Mountain, etc., etc.). In the case of this game, it works. The locations in Amalur use the key elements that worked so well in the books, then expands on them and adds some creative flair and design.
The art work has a bit of a cartoonish element, which works for and against the game. The characters seem a bit dated graphically speaking, and lack the definition that we have come to expect. But the benefit of that style is that the world has a deep and colorful look to it that never bothers to try and look natural. Amalur is a magical world, and the designs of the surroundings emphasize that. Even bleak deserts are flush with color and certain types of vegetation that is distinctive. An occasional low point, however is the dungeons/caves. There are a few exceptions, but they blur together after a while. There is enough variety to keep it from being painful though.
The lack of consequences
One notable issue in the game is with the ability to choose your own path—or the lack thereof. When you are in conversation, you have what basically amounts to a “good” and “bad” answer. You’ve seen it before. But unlike most games with a morality system, the consequences are slight. In Skyrim, shooting a chicken will unleash hell on you, as every nearby citizen will want your blood as if the chicken were actually a deeply loved and respected family member. In Amalur, the townspeople’s people barely muster a passing “meh.”
There are some consequences down the road, and alienating some people may close off a few optional plots. But for the most part, choosing not to help someone just means they will continue to wander around and moan for help. In fact, you might as well help them to earn experience—the only consequences of not helping are that you have less to do. There are some thievery jobs later on that could cost you an ally, but again, the consequence never feels significant. The same is true if you choose the virtuous path.
Even when faced with a direct decision that seems evil—something like kill the hero of a town or warn him that his rival is plotting against him—the only real difference is that the person you sided with will be in charge of that town. That does change the tone a bit, and people may not be as friendly if you choose to go negative, but it really doesn’t make much of a difference.
You can go on the odd killing spree if you like, which–if you survive–will eventually earn you a spot in jail for a brief stretch that hurts your XP. Afterward though, most won’t really seem to mind to much other than an odd comment or two.
Another downside to this type of no-consequence storytelling, without any backstory for your character, there isn’t much to keep you invested in your character. The consequences aren’t a major issue, so you are typically just going through the story rather than living it. There is a slight disconnect there, more so than in other games where you create your own character.
This is especially apparent in the early hours of the game. The main story eventually picks up enough around your character that the disconnect fades. Some of your choices do have an impact later, but not many, and that doesn’t help with the feeling that your character is too hollow.
This alone makes it feel like the game is less polished, but again, that is almost certainly going to be a result of the comparisons made between Amalur and Skyrim. When it comes to freedom in a game, it isn’t so much that Amalur is lacking, as Skyrim is ridiculously packed with choice. The game is built around it. Amalur is not, but that doesn’t make it worse. In fact, Amalur is better in a few key areas—most notably the combat.
Hack ‘n Slash ‘n Magic
The one area that Amalur really excels at is the combat, which begins like a hack ‘n slash game with one button doing all the damage, but it quickly progresses into a deep and engaging battle system. When you first begin, you can choose the type of character you want to be–brawler, mage, distance fighter, etc. Once you have your type of character dialed in, you then proceed to gain abilities.
The first thing you learn is a shield block, which can be used purely defensively, or with the proper timing (and an upgrade) can push enemies back. Next you earn a secondary ability, beginning with a bow that you can use during combat by hitting a button. After that you begin to unlock your magic options, and from there the combat is what you make of it.
The real strength of Amalur is the numerous weapons you receive, and the speed at which you receive them. As you level up, you have three categories you can focus on: Might, Finesse, and Sorcery. While each of these categories has upgrades you will want regardless of your primary focus, you choose the type of weapon you want to grow more proficient in through these categories. Might unlocks heavier weapons that deal big damage, Sorcery holds magical enhancing weapons, and Finesse holds faster weapons built around speed.
Each type of weapon feels totally different. Daggers are fast but do less damage, while the hammers are slow but powerful. Staffs increase your magic, while you can throw chakras, and so on. Each time you equip a new weapon, it is a new experience, so you don’t have to worry about growing bored by the combat anytime soon.
Once you begin to grow your character and have up to four magics that you can use during combat, you feel like you can dominate even the toughest enemies. A dodge button also helps with staying alive, and even when you are getting pounded, you at least have a chance of winning if you can fight perfectly.
Another interesting aspect of the game is that you can change the type of class you want to be at any time by talking to certain characters. It gives you the feeling that Amalur wants you to find the combination of play style that you are most comfortable with, without any limitations. It also means that in theory you will never be stuck, because you can tailor your approach to any new area.
Amalur’s controls are tight and responsive, and you can stack up attacks without worrying about breaking combos or getting caught in an animation. Mixing in charge attacks and finding a secondary weapon that compliments your primary means that there are hundreds of possible combinations that simply come down to your preference.
The variety is incredible, and the game does a great job of continually offering you new weapons to try out. Rather than finding one powerful weapon and keeping it, you will constantly find new and more powerful weapons and armor as you explore and fight. That has the added benefit of keeping you exploring long after you have more money and potions than you know what to do with.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning does not really create anything totally new, but it takes some of the best elements of multiple games, and uses them in a new and entertaining way.
Amalur lacks polish in a few areas, but it is a game created for fantasy fans. It is unapologetic in its approach to things like combat, and the game allows you to dominate enemies in dozens of ways. The story and world have more than a few familiar aspects, but they are aspects that work with fantasy fans, and they work well.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning probably isn’t a game that will redefine RPGs. There are issues that hold it back, and there are very few “wow” moments. The character development is also held back by a lack of consequences and the occasional poor dialog exchange. Thankfully though, the combat, the design, and the overall plot are more than enough to keep you coming back again, and again, and again to the world of Amalur.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)