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Demo Impressions: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

January 19, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

What do you get when you bring three legendary men of the arts together in the pursuit of one goal? Well in this case you get Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the new action RPG from EA being developed by 38 Studios and Big Huge Games.

The aforementioned men of legend are none other than Ken Rolston, lead designer on Morrowind and Oblivion who is heading the game; popular fantasy, Baldurs Gate and D+D author, R.A. Salvatore, tasked with writing the lore and crafting the world; and undisputed King of the Fucked Up, Todd McFarlane, churning out his own special breed of concept art. With pedigree like that involved KOA: Reckoning has more that a good chance of making a splash when it hits the shelves on February 10th.

Does good stock make a good soup? Like any new IP with something to prove, raising awareness and getting people excited is paramount to boost pre-orders and corral sales when D-day arrives. The KOA: Reckoning demo is currently nestled on PSN and XBLA and can also be downloaded for PC, so I thought I’d grab the 360 version and give it a go.

Now before I start, it seems Reckoning is one of those big, juicy RPGs that gives you lots of stats, skills, items, weapons, moves, spells and quests as well as smithing, alchemy and a kind of spell-crafting. In light of that I won’t be digging too deep into the details (I’ll leave all that for the review), rather I aim to give you guys an idea of what to expect from the demo.

The demo starts me right at the beginning of the game with a pretty cut-scene covering the backstory to Reckoning. Immediately visually beautiful, if not a little traditional, Reckoning grabs me with a tantalising story without laying on too much exposition early on. The Tuatha Deohn, evil extremist Fae (basically Elves) are cutting a bloody swathe across the Kingdoms of Amalur (hence the name) and there’s a fight back going on to stop them from destroying the Western kingdoms.

Where my character fits in is not specified and the reason why is the thread that makes this game unique. Anyway, more on that later. Next I see two gnomes pushing a body on a cart, cheerily discussing the situation before one asks the other to see the body. This is the games version of a character creation system and is a nice original touch.

There are four races to choose from (two Human and two Fae) and each has its own racial bonuses. I elect to be a female Dokkalfar and get to pick a deity to be born under, bestowing more bonuses. So far, so Elder Scrolls. After tweaking my Elven lass with the simple but thorough creation system the cut-scene carries on with my character on the funeral wagon and the gnomes tip me down a chute.

The combat is visceral and exciting right from the outset

Waking up in a pile of rancid corpses probably wasn’t what young Niah expected when she took that arrow/blade/tumble off a cliff. Finally I’m in control and can appreciate the quality on offer in Reckoning. The art style combines Dragon Age’s realism with Fable’s cartoon-style to great effect, immediately having a distinct look of its own. Character movement is smooth and fluid, as are the simple controls. Snatching a Rusty Sword from a nearby skeleton and moving through the underground burial chambers I catch sight of some Tuatha causing shit across a chasm. I’ll deal with them later.

Coming across some massive rats I give the mêlée combat system a go. A simple, X button-based system reminiscent of Fable 3, it manages to feel like Dragon Age too, with blood splattering everywhere and my sword cutting sweetly through rat-flesh. It’s satisfying but incredibly easy to pick up, relying on timing and deft reactions rather than button combos. A little further in I bump into a gnome called Encel. Apparently I’m dead, or at least I was. Confused, he says we need to find another gnome scientist called Hughes and so we set off in the direction of his lab.

This entire area functions like a grand tutorial for all aspects of the combat system. I learn how to use daggers and stealth to execute devastating sneak attacks and how to equip a secondary weapon to the Y button and use both attacks in conjunction. There doesn’t seem to be any way to combine both weapons in one fluid combo but that may come later on in the full game. Magic is also introduced as well as the staves and robes to go with it.

It’s clear from this first section that Reckoning is trying to cater for all preferences; headstrong warriors, sneaky assassins and arcane mages. With the dual equipping system its more than possible to combine these archetypes and weave your own combat style. I settle on a twin dagger/magic fire staff combo and as the area moves on the conversation system shows its merits.

The basic system is very Bioware with the trademark radial to choose my responses, but then switches to a standard list when I want to ask questions. As I move about Encel describes things in the room and gives me instruction reminiscent of action games, keeping the flow of exploration while giving me a solid idea of what to do. It’s a shame my character seems to be mute but that’s a common choice in modern RPGs, especially the ones where you get to make your own hero and doesn’t sour the game experience.

I come across the Praetorians; Scotch-accented gnomes in faux-Roman armour, who protect Encel from the Tuatha and I head of to find Hughes’ lab. When I get there he explains that I’m the result of a series of experiments involving something called the Well of Souls. The Well captures the souls of the dead and these gnome boffins have been trying to get it to reconstruct the physical form of a soul with negligible results.

I’m their one and only success and apparently that makes me immensely valuable, a natural magic user and a blank slate memory-wise. I love it when one plot point explains away all the video-game-based artistic license! Before Hughes can finish being amazed by me the Tuatha break in and he goes all Rambo to cover my escape, telling me to find Agarth in the town up on the surface.

Sprinting through the rest of the area as it comes down around me and battling a massive troll proves that Reckoning can do exciting set-pieces and solid boss battles more than capably. Felling the troll showcases the game’s neat finishing moves that remind me of God of War and net me a few extra XP. Leaving the area I emerge in a sunny glade complete with peaceful rivers and chirping birdies.

The difference in tone is excellent and shows that Reckoning can do happy just as well as it can do dangerous. Jogging down the path and taking in the scenery I’m stopped by an old guy with a massive sword. It’s Agarth, who tells me he’s a Fateweaver. Fateweavers can see fate as a great tapestry, each of our lives a single thread. They can see how it all fits together and use that ability for everything from cheap fortune-telling to advising Kings and Generals of the future.

Reckoning seems capable of stunning vistas like this one...

Before we can get chatting proper the Tuatha attack (interrupting bastards!) and I get introduced to the fate meter. Basically by killing things I absorb their threads of fate, building up my fate meter. When it’s full, pulling both triggers sets me into Reckoning mode which makes me faster and stronger.

Every enemy I kill remains in a sort of limbo until I pull a fateshift, a sort of finishing move, on one of them. A bit of QTE and a flashy animation and I finish them all at once, gaining extra XP and seemingly little else. I can see the mode being useful in a tough fight but at the moment it seems a little over-the-top for just that. We shall have to see how it develops in the full release.

Anyway, Agarth is flabbergasted, claiming I just changed the threads of fate which is impossible. He tries to read my fate but finds I don’t actually have one, which introduces the Destiny system.

Basically a form of class-choosing, I get to pick a card that gives me bonuses in one field; fighting, sneaking or magic. While the first three cards are basic, further down the list it looks like the system caters for all preferences and combinations of the three archetypes, even a mix of all of them. Each tier of each pathway has a name and an explanation and really gives the feeling that you’re setting out on a life-long path rather than just picking some perks.

It’s a system I can see becoming very interesting and working well in the long-term. I also get the impression that my fate-changing abilities will allow me to influence the course of history and change world events in the future which could make Reckoning the game where you can finally, properly change the world and remake it in your image. I bid farewell to Agarth and set out to find some bloke called Arden in the hope he can make sense of what’s going on.

Here I get 45 minutes to explore this chunk of the world, including caves, mines and other towns. It’s not long enough to do everything but enough time to let you decide whether you like Reckoning or not. The side quests are as meaty as you’d expect from a AAA RPG title and the locations you’re sent to are unique and interesting to explore. After three of these 45 minute sections, using a variety of different characters, I found nothing to suggest KOA: Reckoning will be anything but solid gold.

From my initial impressions right through to my third, more considered playthrough, KOA: Reckoning has constantly surprised me. When you think of great RPGs of today; Dragon Age, Fable and Elder Scrolls are the names that come to mind. At the other end there sits Risen, Two Worlds and Divinity 2, games full of ambition marred by sloppy execution. Being a new IP and having had little marketing I expected Reckoning to sit comfortably in the second camp; another failed experiment.

Instead, while it doesn’t reach the heights of Skyrim, the excitement of Dragon Age or the charm of Fable (so far), it seems to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with these series without breaking a sweat. Every time I think it’ll trip up, it shines. It’s an odd feeling to find a brand new game with a fresh world capturing me so much and it gives me confidence that the full game will be a winner. In fact, I’m tempted to pre-order it right now.

I’ve constantly referenced Dragon Age and Fable throughout this impression because that’s just what KOA: Reckoning feels like. The solid, serious plot and the bloody combat of Dragon Age crossed with the simplicity, interactivity and distinct visual style of Fable. It could be the perfect game for those who felt Dragon Age was too much about tactics and battle commands and who thought Fable was too childish and tame. The graphics, animation and audio are all very good and the game shows quality through every aspect of its construction.

Whether it will turn out to be an epic, triumphant tale or just a solid action RPG remains to be seen, but judging by this demo we’re in for a treat come February. Download it and try it for yourself; you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Just a quick note; by playing the demo through you’ll unlock some tasty exclusive content for the full game, as well as some exclusive crap for Mass Effect 3! So even if you’ve already got the game on your 2012 list or plan on buying Mass Effect 3 make sure you give the demo a go!