Reviews

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

March 6, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro, 2 Comments

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that when I hear the words ‘New’ and ‘RPG’ in the same sentence my cynicism kicks into overdrive. So many times have we RPG fans been promised the next step in role-playing only to be given another failed attempt. We’re faced with either playing it safe and defaulting to the reliable classics, like Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, anything by Bioware, or risking our hard-earned moolah on another probable turkey.

So when I read about a little-known new game called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, my hopes were not exactly in the clouds. Developed by 38 Studios and Big Huge Games, it promised slick combat, a vibrant world and epic quests, but so do they all. It also boasted direction by Elder Scrolls alumni Ken Rolston, story by novelist R.A. Salvatore and art by legend Todd McFarlane. Still my cynicisms were not banished. Imagine my surprise, then, when the demo blew me away to the point where I pre-ordered the game.

Picture the scene as my heart melted and I uttered the words ‘This is my dream game’ closely followed by ‘I hope the full game doesn’t get boring’. Well now it’s out and about, I can tell you I was right. Here’s why…

War in the East
As with all epic, epic RPGs, Reckoning concerns itself with an insidious evil rising from somewhere; in this case, the east. The Kingdoms of Amalur referenced in the title are a bunch of small countries grouped together, united in fighting the Tuatha Deohn, a fanatical branch of Winter Fae…

Okay, let me start at the beginning. Reckoning has as much history and lore as any of its peers and to explain it all would take an article in itself and ruin the fun of discovering it, so I’ll just knock out a quick summary.

The numerous races of humans and elves live in relative peace and harmony with the immortal Fae; beings of endless life that recount tales of their heroes in Ballads and worship the seasons. They also separate themselves into two factions, the Winter and Summer Courts. The main quest-line involves a psychotic member of the Winter Court killing the King and taking over, declaring himself a new ‘god’ of the Fae. This faux deity, called Tirnoch, raises an army known as the Tuatha Deohn and marches west to conquer the lands of Amalur and beyond. Cue the Crystal Wars and the scene is set for the game.

You start your journey as a corpse on a gurney, and you make your character as the gnomes wheeling you about pull off the sheet covering your chilly cadaver. While not as deep as others I’ve seen, the creation system is complex enough to allow you to create your own, unique hero; choosing from four races and a myriad of hairstyles, jewellery and facial tattoos.

Once you’re done, you get dumped down a hole onto a pile if dead bodies. Waking up and confused as to why, you set out into the murky underground and meet a gnome scientist who tells you that you’re the result of a successful experiment involving something called the Well of Souls. Heading outside, you meet a Fateweaver called Agarth who tells you, to his surprise, that you have no fate. Everyone in Amalur has a set fate and Fateweavers can see them all as an intricate tapestry, but you, now dubbed The Fateless One, have no set fate and also have the power to change the fate of others!

The main story forks, twists and never gets boring, rivalling its peers more than somewhat in many areas. It really makes you feel like the only one who can truly stop the Tuatha and save Amalur. There is, of course, a massive amount of side-quests and faction tasks to keep you busy and I can guarantee you’ll get constantly sidetracked. To give you an idea of the scale I spent around twenty hours in the first area of the game, polishing up side-quests until they all pointed to the next region. The main quest was left to wait for me as I did odd jobs, helped locals and got my foot in the door with the Warsworn, one of six factions in Amalur.

Reckoning offers as much story, questing and discovery as any action RPG before it and due to its author being renowned fantasy scribe R. A. Salvatore, it is quality too. The main characters are rounded and well-built, dialogue is snappy and sometimes funny and the story and lore are all penned to a very high standard. You’ll shed that new IP cynicism as soon as you start talking to people and drinking in the world.

That said, no game can rely on story alone and thankfully Reckoning has some of the best combat I’ve ever seen in an RPG.

If Fable and Dragon Age had a baby…
Reckoning absolutely radiates in the gameplay department. Basic movement and exploration is faultlessly smooth and simple, with fluid transitions between locations and an easy-to-grasp inventory system. While it doesn’t match the unique simplicity of Skryim’s ‘iPod’ style, it makes it a cinch to keep all your kit in order. Unwanted items can be sent to a Junk section and sold in bulk with the push of a button, making item farming a breeze. The usual stats and values are all present and correct, allowing RPG vets to balance attack with elemental damage or weigh up the importance of damage over speed. Most weapons and unique armours are infused with some kind of element and matching them to enemy weaknesses results in satisfying victories in battle.

My God will you battle. Reckoning trades the usually shoddy and overcomplicated combat system of an unknown RPG for beautiful, fluid, brutal action combat. Battles happen in real-time and you control every swing, lunge and dodge yourself. The control response is excellent, recalling more action-focused titles like Darksiders and Dynasty Warriors with its precision and accuracy. Weapons land with satisfying crunches and slices and it feels effortlessly powerful no matter which of the myriad arms you choose to wield.

The bigger they are...

The controls are based around a two-weapon system, allowing you to equip a primary and secondary weapon. Both are used with face buttons, which makes seamless use of both an absolute breeze and a pleasure. I went for the Greatsword and Chakram combo, but any two weapons can be combined and all work very well together. It allows you to totally adapt your loadout based on your play style and even discover new favourite ways of fighting through experimentation. Enemies are ruthless and relentless even on the easiest setting and with responsive block and dodge abilities, staying alive is a game of timing and skill. Varied races and creatures keep you on your toes constantly but allow you to develop strategies for defeating them. You’re always learning and adapting your style to the situation and it’s fantastic.

Levelling up gives you more health and mana but also gives you points to spend in three skill trees; Might, Finesse and Sorcery. These allow you to unlock abilities based on your play style and build your own unique mixture of straightforward combat, rogue-like speed and epic magic. I went for a Might/Sorcery combination, unlocking a few spells and building my capability with the Chakrams.

Weapons fall into one of the categories and you’ll spend points unlocking new special moves for your chosen arms. Spells are mostly of the direct damage variety, but the further you move up the Sorcery tree, the more powerful they become and AOE types are soon unlocked, allowing you to wreck magical havoc upon your enemies. Spells and skills can be mapped and accessed with a simple face-button menu brought up with RT allowing you to combine them fluidly with regular combat. Basically any way you want to fight, Reckoning gives you the tools and the capability. It delivers it all with faultless grace and the kind of thrill that’s usually reserved for action titles.

With each level-up you also get to put a point on one of the many Skills. These range from the usual Speechcraft, Alchemy and Smithing skills, to more unique offerings such as Dispelling and Sagecraft. Each skill governs a common action in the game and every few upgrades gives you a ‘Milestone’ bonus, as well as gradually increasing the skill’s general effectiveness. While it’s not as deep or as complex as other skill systems, it does its job fine, and I never found myself wishing I had more choice or more points.

Valiantly succeeding to satisfy RPG-heads are the usual range of crafting options. At various tables throughout Amalur, you can craft weapons and armour, distill potions and poisons, and combine shards found in the world into useful gems. You can also break down most weapons and pieces of armour into useable components, in a system only rivalled by Two Worlds II’s extensive offering.

Crafting your own arms and armour I found to be essential for keeping up with new, more powerful enemies. While the visual types are set, they are varied and all look brilliant. The smithing system also allows you to implant elemental bonuses as well as stat increases and special abilities, such as life steal. It’s a deep and effective system that’ll have you building your own loadout in no time. You can even name your creations to complete your unique kit! Adding points to your Smithing skill allows you to use more components and socket gems (more on that later) to further enhance your custom stuff.

Alchemy is equally deep, requiring experimentation and the collection of a massive range of natural ‘Reagents’ for successful potion making. Harvesting ingredients is tricky, requiring a boosted Alchemy skill as well as experience in using each one. There’s more than enough to satisfy any alchemists needs and recipes can be bought from traders for those who don’t want to spend ages cooking up useless brews.

Sagecraft is unique to Amalur and allows you to build your own gems by combining different shards. Each combination has a different outcome and points in the Sagecrafting skill will allow you to use better shards and craft more powerful gems. These gems come in three types and can be socketed into weapons and armour to add elemental and other bonuses. While the system isn’t quite as deep as the others, it serves its purpose and shows that Reckoning has more to offer than just RPG staples.

I’d love to stop there but I cannot deny that Reckoning has its flaws. While the quest system is extensive, the side-quests on offer can occasionally fall into basic categories. One had me spidering out from a central location, killing named versions of common enemies which got tedious pretty quickly. Quest markers sit on your mini-map whether you have their associated quests selected or not and it can become very crowded; especially if you pick up every quest going for fear of forgetting where the quest-giver is.

It has its fair share of technical hiccups too, but nowhere near as many as some reviews have stated. Quest markers sometimes get confused and occasionally A.I. followers can get stuck or lost, but in my experience it never negatively affects the game too much. Every game has flaws and bugs, and it’s fortunate that Reckoning manages to keep its cracks mostly under check.

In a nutshell, Reckoning combines the micro-managing, crafting and exploration of a traditional RPG with the visceral and exciting combat of an action title. The plethora of weapons and weapon combinations make it easy to find your feet and the constantly changing range of enemies, humanoid and creature alike, means you’re rarely fighting the same battles for long.

Many games have tried this melding of action and RPG and most have fallen short of the mark. Reckoning succeeds brilliantly in providing both with aplomb and making them work together like never before.

McFarlane’s world
Graphically, Reckoning stuns and amazes. Every texture looks hand-drawn and beautiful, every vista a feast for the eyes. Big Huge Games have gone for a cross between Fable’s cartoon-style and Dragon Ages shiny realism that works not only for the world, but for the eyes as well. Locations vary greatly and each has a personality and a culture that is immediately unique.

The world of Amalur recalls fantasy worlds before it but also exudes its own style, combining Tolkein-esque traditional fantasy with Medieval and Renaissance-era Europe. While each area has its own repeated style, the regions of Amalur differ greatly and it’s easy to see the borders and cultures that populate the land.

The stunning Court of Summer

The real stars here, though, are the creatures. Designed by monster master Todd McFarlane, each one is immediately familiar and original. While there are the usual elves, bandits and trolls, McFarlane has created an entire zoo of new creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in one of his figure collections. You’ll battle Boggarts, Ettin and so many other fresh creatures you’ll be lost trying to remember them all. Rather than just redraw old favourites McFarlane has put the work into creating a new range of enemies and bringing even more originality to the world of Amalur.

The people, however, are not so appealing. While they all fit the bill well enough, most of them have about as much character as a tree stump. Facial animation is of basic quality, especially on the unimportant citizens and probably the only time the game feels cheap is during conversations. That’s not to discount the voice acting though…

A rare talent
Reckoning is more than capable of blowing your ears away and impresses in the audio department. Voice acting is of the high standard expected from a triple-A title and give the world depth and texture. The main characters are acted to movie standard, and the range of different voices and actors present is mind-boggling. Rarely do you hear the same voice twice, an issue which plagues even the most prestigious of offerings. I’m used to hearing the same guard a million times in Skyrim and recall most of the elves sounding the same in Dragon Age, which in both cases can break the suspension of disbelief instantly.

The score is equally impressive and more than stands up to its peers. It’s composed by Grant Kirkhope, who scored many of the Rare classics like Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie, as well as the more recent Viva Pinata games; another beefy name to add to the roster of talent involved with Reckoning.

Each region has a theme reflecting its design, further reinforcing the feeling of really travelling through Amalur as the adventure progresses. Battles are permeated with crashing orchestral grandeur, completing the epic feeling of combat with effortless ease. I believe the US-only Collectors Editions come with a soundtrack CD and I can clearly see why.

An adventure like no other
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning succeeds in doing two things that very rarely happen in gaming. It manages to cross fluid action combat with deep and engaging RPG elements to make a stunning and original gaming experience. It also manages to be a fantastic debut game from a team with little-to-no history in making RPGs; only Ken Rolston really had any experience in the genre.

Stepping into the console RPG pool these days is a daunting task, with competition coming from legendary behemoths like Bioware and Bethesda, not to mention the fact that almost every game has some RPG elements these days. Reckoning could have been an RPG with satisfactory combat, or an action game with some light RPG mechanics, instead it bravely and confidently straddles both styles of game with aplomb and a swagger all of its own.

I know it’s a big ask, considering the looming giant that is Mass Effect 3 is merely a week away at the time of writing, and many other great games are already topping the 2012 charts, but I implore you all to give the world of Amalur a try. Download the demo and see if it’s your cup of tea and unlock some neat gear for the main game in the process.

It seems the whole gaming world is talking about Amalur now and it’s not hard to see why. Do yourself a favour and find out for yourselves.

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  1. Paddy said:

    Fantastic review Trent, kudos.

    I have to say that I approached the demo with pretty much the same jaded outlook as yourself, and was pleasantly surprised to find it engaging, immersive and above all...FUN.

    I am so glad you took great notice of the audio production, score and voice-acting, all are incredible and really sell the world as a viable, living and breathing place. For me, this is one of the most important facets of a game, sadly often overlooked - if only Bethesda had placed as much emphasis on their audio, I find their voice acting often flat (surprising given some of the big names involved) and it removes me from "being in the game". I find it very distracting. Grant Kirkhope's score is incredible, and I have to say, I think it is on a par with Skyrim's soundtrack. Yes, it really is that good.

    A definite must buy for me.

    Posted on: March 06 6:54 PM || Report || Reply

  2. Ray said:

    Thanks for handling this. You definitely did a much better job than I would have.

    It's a great game, there's a lot to love about Amalur, and I'm happy to see that it got to sit at the top of the UK Charts (even if it was for one week)

    I truly hope EA commission a sequel down the line. For me, this surpasses Fable, and does stand on par with some of the best RPGs this gen.

    Great review, dude. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Posted on: March 07 12:58 AM || Report || Reply

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