Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning is a pretty direct response of Skyrim, from the way that it tells its story, way the world is laid out, and—most importantly—the way the visceral, third-person combat works. Set in a brightly-colored high fantasy world in contrast to Skyrim’s more realistically-minded environment, as an answer, it’s not nearly perfect and presents its own host of issues to the open world RPG formula.
Note: this review is based on 15 hours with Kingdoms of Amalur, but in the interest of timeliness, I wanted to provide an assessment of the game that I’ve played up until this point, which includes a healthy amount of the main quest line as well as a couple dozen side missions. However, I reserve the right to revisit it down the line when I’ve had more time with the game.
Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning might be the first RPG that I’m aware of where you play as a zombie. Okay, maybe not a zombie in the technical sense—you’re a slain soldier resurrected by some industrious gnomes—but you are technically the living dead! Anyway, that innovation aside, there plot of the game and the actual mechanics deal with fate and how your character is somehow outside of it thanks to your “resurrection.” The cohesiveness of these elements are maybe the strongest bits of KoA, showing a real sense of interplay between what the game is about, what it is, and what it does.
It’s an open-world RPG, so it more or less does what you expect it to do on that front: you’ll wander the varied landscapes, encountering characters and engaging in fetch and/or kill quests for XP and loot, while occasionally (depending on the kind of gamer you are) digging into the game’s main quest line.
I’m going to go into why the combat and the systems surrounding it are so terrific in the WHAT’S GOOD section below, but yeah, it does feel like the third-person, combo-heavy, almost DMC-style combat is a direct response to the more methodical, first-person action of a game like Skyrim or even a good, old-fashioned JRPG. Some quirks in its implementation aside, KoA combat is the counterpoint to the effectively transparent dice rolls you see going on with other modern RPGs and it feels like a proper action game wrapped in RPG elements.
Here’s how the combat and character creation of the game is layered: after creating your character (the usual race, face, body, etc.), you’ll dump points into your basic Skills (Mercantile, Persuasion, etc.) in order to receive bonuses along with them. Then you’ll drop some points in your abilities, which are divided across three classes: Finesse (fleet footed, low-to-medium damage weapons like bows), Strength (swords, hammers, and shields), and Sorcery (staves and additional magic spells). The Ability pages have progressive trees with upgradeable abilities, and when they relate to a weapon type, unlock additional moves for your character. Finally, you’ll select a Destiny for your character, which is effectively like a class, without locking you into anything: Destinies are like catch-all buffs for your existing Abilities, providing bonuses tuned to your style of play. As the game progresses and you level up, you can unlock additional tiers in the list of Destiny cards.
Oh, and this is the most important and compelling reason to dig into the game for a few hours, at least: if you don’t like the way your character plays, you can pay a Fateweaver a fee to undo all of your points across all three screens and reset them to your liking.
In terms of weapons and gear, KoA takes its inspiration from dungeon crawlers and you’ll constantly be picking up new arms and armor as you kill the many brightly-colored enemies in the world. You have limited slots for the many items you pick up in the world, but instead of upping your carrying capacity as you level up, you’ll have to buy backpacks from sellers scattered throughout the world (usually for a hefty fee). You can also craft your own weapons, armor, and potions based on loot that you pick up and equipment that you break down if that’s your sort of thing.
As for the story, well, I’m only 15 hours in, but I’d actually have to rely on the game’s press to tell you what it is about, and I blame this in part on a mostly boilerplate tale of of fate and destiny (or lack thereof) with lots of very difficult-to-contain-in my-head names and factions, and in part on my own inclinations when it comes to fantasy fiction, which is to say, I’m very much into it when the fantasy is kind of pushed the the background a little bit. Basically, an evil fae is making a power play for the entire kingdom, and his may or may not have a powerful god on his side and you, with your completely blank fate are the only one who can stop him.
This is one of the those tricky points where I have to split the difference when it comes to my reaction to the overall material: is the narrative not good because I’m not into its kind of story? Or is how much of it comes down to a complicated story that strains instead at a more desirable complexity instead?
Narrative (and some awkward presentation issues) aside, KoA is such an eclectic and interesting RPG, and it’s actually a (weirdly) welcome respite from the type of enjoyment I’ve been getting with Skyrim.
Oh, the combat is so good, you guys
I’ve gone on about how it works but execution is the thing, and with the exception of some… stickiness, I guess, I could say… with the way it handles, killing enemies is very satisfying in KoA mostly because at any given time you have all of the tools of monster and enemy-slaying available to you. Your dash, and primary and secondary weapons, are all mapped to the face buttons and by holding down the right trigger you can execute one of the game’s many visually interesting spells, the left trigger lets you block with your shield. Potions and consumable items are tied to the left bumper while the D-pad feels a little under-used with health and mana potions mapped to the left and right directional respectively.
There’s also a bullet-timey maneuver you can pull once you’ve collected enough energy from defeating enemies on the purple Fate meter that allows you to slow down time, provides a bonus to your attacks, and if you’re able to time it right, provide up to double your XP after completing a finishing move on the remaining enemy in the fight before the meter runs out. The story conceit is that you’re unraveling the fate of the enemies that you just killed, and one of the sort of games-within-the-game you’ll be playing is trying to decide the best time to deploy this ability for maximum effectiveness and XP.
It helps that the games’ systems are really very simple to pick up, and like any really worthwhile mechanics take some time to master.
Like an extra-pretty version of Fable
This will either be good or bad depending on the kind of gamer you are, but the style is very much exaggerated, colorful fantasy. My qualms with the story aside, I really was impressed with the level of detail and pretty unique art style that had no interest whatsoever with dwelling in modern fantasy visual tropes. It never goes as far as something like WoW, but Kingdoms takes advantage of the fact that it’s a game and it can visualize anything interesting or odd that comes into the artists’ minds. Whatever your feelings towards the actual look of the game, that has to be refreshing on some level.
Tricky, sticky combat
You can do a lot with the combat, but on occasion with the 360 version of the game I was playing, the responsiveness of the combat wasn’t always there. A few times, when chaining from an attack to a spell back to an attack, the game seemed to register that I was still attempting another spell. This wasn’t a persistent issue, but it happened often enough that I couldn’t simply wave it away as an issue with my own clumsy mitts.
There’s also a little bit of a learning curve with the game’s evade and block down to the timing of the many enemy types in KoA. Niggling issues with the camera and enemy attacks that might push you around into indefensible positions mar what’s otherwise some very, very strong combat.
I couldn’t be bothered with the story… and that’s not entirely the game’s fault
I went over this in the opening, but let me clarify a little here: nearly every conversation in KoA is a huge wall of exposition, even when dealing with side characters and it constantly feels like I’m simply catching up. Contrast this to Skyrim that has its own wealth of expository conversation and KoA still comes up lacking given that the roughly-told story is paired with some simply terrible voice acting (a lot of bad fake British and fake Scots accents in there) that take you out of the experience somewhat.
Menus and inventory management need some work
This is a “your mileage may vary” thing, but I often felt like I had trouble getting at my stuff when digging around in KoA’s menus. There are separate screens for Weapons (with sub menus for Primary and Secondary weapons, both of which come from the same list), Items, Consumables, and Armor—oh, and let’s not forget Junk where you store gear that you want to sell down the line. Also, anything you pick up is color-coded for rarity (I actually like this system), and it just feels like you have a lot laid out over too many screens.
And don’t get me started on the choice list dialog system which switches between raw lists and radials depending on how important the conversation is to the narrative, sometimes with way too many options spilling over into a new “page” (typically redundant, rudimentary information about the world and its story).
Story complaints aside, I feel like KoA is mechanically a title update away from excellence. At 15 hours in, I’m well past the point of commitment for the game, and obviously will be digging into it at least through the endgame. It’s a very strong showing for the team at 38 Studios, and I hope in the future they’re able to articulate on and flesh out the vision here.