Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a game reviewers nightmare. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, in fact bad games are usually the easiest to review, however it is an extremely LARGE game and that’s where the problem arises. Larger open world RPGs such as Amalur and our 2011 GOTY Skyrim force reviewers to make a choice, and no I’m not talking about a shoehorned in morality system: Rush through the main content to complete the game in time for review, possibly missing a multitude of side content and burning yourself out on the game, or review the game based on a select portion of played content. In a perfect world we would be able to write these reviews after pouring 200+ hours into the game and experiencing everything it has to offer, but lets face it, after next week the majority of people won’t even care about a review. With that in mind I have decided to take the latter route and review the game without having fully finished the title. In the interest of full transparency I will divulge the extent of my time in Amalur. Over 30 hours of playtime I was able to complete the entirety of the first of five zones, Dalentarth, completing every main quest, side quest, faction quest, finding every lorestone and progressing through every dungeon. I have made my way halfway through the offerings of the second zone Plains of Erathell.
The Chains of Fate
Kingdoms of Amalur is the long-awaited fantasy role-playing game from Big Huge Games and 38 Studios. Backed by the star power of Curt Schilling, RA Salvatore, Todd Macfarlane, and Ken Rolston the game certainly had a pedigree, but it could have easily fallen over itself. The story that Amalur has presented isn’t just good it’s downright intriguing. It all revolves around the Fae, fairy folk whose main conceit is that they cannot die. Much like those frakkin toasters the Cylons in BSG, when a Fae dies it’s consciousness is sent back to another body where they are born again. The courts of Summer and Winter lived in balance until Winters new leader Gadflow grows sick of the unending cycle of life and death and has found a powerful magic that allows him to alter the fate of his Fae brethren. This leads to a war between the Winter Fae and the people of Amalur and is where you enter the story. You play a warrior who is killed by the Winter legions, but is brought back to life in an experiment making you the first mortal to ever come back from the dead. This seems to be problematic for the world of Amalur as everything is ruled by fate, and once you die in battle your fate ends, thus leaving you fateless. You have the power to affect those around you, killing those who weren’t destined to die yet and saving those who were meant to die. Your ability to alter the fate of the world around you makes you very dangerous to the Winter court who cannot predict your actions, and makes you the strongest ally and warrior of the Summer court who are so chained to fate they cannot do anything to save themselves. You are thus set on a quest to save yourself from the Winter forces, and save the fate of Amalur itself.
What Can Change The Nature Of A Man?
While you start as a blank slate you are welcome to craft your adventurer in any way you see fit, this becomes the games greatest strength. While character creation is somewhat limited, there are only 4 playable races and 2 are humans and 2 are elves… so 2 playable races, the character creator at least gives some flexibility to make a character aesthetically pleasing it isn’t as involved as a creator in Mass Effect. I would have liked more accessory and tattoo options as the ones available aren’t very good. The class trees are where you can really differentiate your character. There are three trees (might/sorcery/finesse) and you are given 3 points per level to add to the number of skills much like most MMO games talent trees. If you choose to specialize in a singular tree you will quickly climb up to the high level overpowered skills, but your moveset will be limited. You could however choose to diversify into multiple trees swinging a hammer with ease as well as you toss lightning bolts from your fingers. It is this freedom to mix and match that really sets Amalur apart, no longer must you shoehorn yourself into a singular role and play that one way for 200+ hours.
The thing that makes this whole thing work is the act of Fateweaving, or as it’s more commonly known, respeccing. For simple a handful of gold, you can completely relearn every skill and talent you’ve earned to that point in the game. Not happy with your high level finesse character you’ve built? Pay a fateweaver and become the warlock supreme in an instant. Played the main game all the way through as a warrior and grown bored with the grind? Respec into a ranged character and have some fun mopping up side quests as a completely new character. What would require forsaking hours of progress and rolling a completely new character from level 1 in other games like Skyrim and Fable is completed in a matter of seconds with not an ounce of lost progress in Amalur. It is refreshing and inspired the amount of freedom this gives the player. The only misstep this system makes glaringly obvious is the games implementation of skill trainers. Throughout the world of Amalur you will meet characters who can train your various skills for a price giving you a permanent +1 to the specific skill. The problem here is the trainer can only raise your skill once, you cannot buy multiple skill points from trainers, ok not a problem. What IS a problem is the trainers are limited to teaching you at certain skill levels, so the low-level trainer can only train you if have less than 3 points the select skill, if you’ve already got 3 points in it from leveling up the trainer cannot help you, but you COULD simply fateweave your points away, buy the training point, and then fateweave back because you don’t lose trained skills during fateweaving. While it can be expensive to do this in the long run, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it and it makes me wonder since the trainers are limited to one skill up and there are only 4 of them per skill in the entire game why they can’t just freely train you regardless of skill level.
Each of the three combat trees are equally satisfying. The mage tree takes the Dragon Age 2 approach to when mages aren’t casting spells and gives them slick looking elemental damage infused staff attacks. They can also opt for the chakra weapon, elemental infused rings that they toss at range. Mages can use lightning to stun foes, ice to trap them, and call forth a meteor to rain ultimate destruction on their enemies. The warriors of Amalur can wield extremely large and powerful arms from the hammer to the greatsword dealing massive damage to swaths of foes easily. With their heavy armor and their damage diminishing abilities they become immortal tanks readily and handily wading into the midst of even the most ardent foe and coming out victorious. The finesse tree specializes in the swift and fatal attacks of daggers, using abilities to increase the frequency and power of critical hits. Sneak attacks are brutal and visceral usually killing enemies instantly. The real gem of the tree though is the archery tree, which starts slow but when you max it out and can fire 7 fully charged shots at once your bow becomes a massive shotgun of death when fired at close enough range.
Around The World
All these skills and abilities would be useless without an epic world to utilize them in and Amalur is certainly up to the task. As I mentioned in my opening, I’ve spent 30 hours already on the first zone alone. That alone is about 3 times more content than the majority of current gen games offer, even other so-called RPGs like Fable, and based the 5 zones in the game I can easily see getting 150 hours of adventuring, certainly plenty of bang for my gaming buck. Each of the major zones are broken into smaller sub-areas which can range wildly in design from stereotypical fantasy villages, haunted spider-infested woods, open rolling plains, to vast arid deserts. The different areas are all unique and visually interesting. It wouldn’t do to spend a hundred hours walking through the same traditional fantasy tropes and thankfully Amalur doesn’t make you do this. You’ll see vast underground cities, impressive Fae cities, and breathtaking vistas as well as some sinister encampments.
This isn’t a completely interactive world like we see in The Elder Scrolls, and it absolutely doesn’t need to be. You won’t be picking up every spoon, cheese wedge, and flowerpot that isn’t nailed down and thank god for that. For all the praise Skyrim gets for allowing the player to do whatever they want, the ability to manipulate any and everything doesn’t really add much. I would much rather have Amalurs ability to change character type at the drop of a hat. The world is also full of books and backstory items, which unlike Elder Scrolls, have the decency to only be one or two pages meaning you’ll actually read them as you open them rather than simply popping them all open hoping for random skill increases.
The enemies of the world are varied and plentiful. While early on the game relies on some rather lackluster designs such as your common wolves and bears to the unintimidating kobolds and boggarts. Once you get deeper into the game you’ll start to face off regularly with trolls, giant warriors, and even some demonic creatures (some of which look extremely interesting like the threshers and krudoks) while others like the Niskaru seem forced in to fill the Todd Macfarlane quota. These enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses, some are easier to fight at range while others require getting up close and personal. What they don’t offer is a real challenge, though this may be subjective, the game itself is relatively easy. I’ve been playing from the start on the hard difficulty and other than the final fight to the House of Ballads questline I haven’t really been faced with anything that seemed impossible to overcome.
Unfortunately all is not perfect in the Kingdom of Amalur. While the majority of the gaming systems in place work perfectly fine or at least adequately I was never able to get used to the lockpicking and dispelling systems. Lockpicking mimics other RPGs, but here it feels overly finicky and I could never quite get the feel for when my pick would break. As poor as the lockpicking system is, it’s at least somewhat competent, the same I cannot say for the dispelling system. In addition to locked chests you will encounter magically sealed ones that must be dispelled. This is done by a tapping a button along with a rotating dot along a ring with various runes upon it. Harder spells will have more runes, and some bad runes which will trip the spell cursing you instantly. You have a limited amount of time to complete these rhythm puzzles and the runes you do hit eventually reset themselves so if you aren’t quick enough you’ll lose your progress. It becomes a weird mix of rhythm and timing puzzles where the bad definitely outweighs the good. Getting cursed is a major pain as you either have to have a decurse potion or haul yourself to a healer and pay to get it removed, certainly not worth some vendor trash locked inside. As it was unless the spelled chest was marked Very Easy (which I could auto-open) or Easy I just ignored them as it wasn’t worth the hassle.
The inventory system in Amalur also suffers from being overly simplistic. This is a similar system to what we saw in Skyrim and it wasn’t much better there either. Unfortunately it is a foregone conclusion that you will wind up carrying around a king’s ransom in swords, sceptres, staves, and scimitars as well as a myriad of useless trinkets and baubles. While the game is decent about organizing these items into various categories (Weapons/Armor/Consumables/Books/etc) and letting you expand and collapse these categories it still is simply a listing of your endless bag of holding. At any time you can only really see the top 8 or so items in your inventory and will have to scroll through the rest. This is especially troublesome if you’re looking for a specific item which you accidentally forgot to send to the junk pile. Speaking of the junk pile, it’s definitely the one shining grace to this system. All the items you pick up in the world can be instantly marked as junk, basically any weapons or armor you won’t use, and any potions you aren’t going to drink should be insta-junked. When you go to a vendor to trade you can simple sell your entire junk pile with the push of a single button. This way you are only really dealing with important or necessary items in your limited inventory, so all is not lost.
Another major disappointment for me is the games faction quests. While there is nothing wrong with them really, in fact these side quests are quite good, you get your now standard warrior/mage/thief guild quests. That is really the heart of the problem though, they are completely standard and don’t actually require any competency in the guilds core values. For example, the Scholia Arcana is supposed to be a gathering of the worlds greatest and most powerful mages, however based on their initiation ceremony I’m surprised each and every one of them isn’t a lumbering meathead warrior as it is simply a giant combat arena. While most games, such as the Elder Scrolls games, don’t require you actually have the guilds necessary skills because they don’t want to lock you out of content Amalur had a real chance to do something different here. Because going from the worlds greatest wizard to the worlds mightiest warrior is only a handful of gold away they really wouldn’t have been barring content from anyone by asking that members of the mage guild actually have a set number of points in the mage tree and same with the rest. This could have allowed them to tailor build these guild quests around those abilities making them stand out from the cookie cutter guild quests of other open world RPGs.
Finally, and this is only a small issue for a select group of people, but the game is structured very much like an MMO. That being said if you want to complete EVERY side quest and see every dungeon you could face the dreaded MMO grind if you’re not used to these kinds of games. If you are simply playing at a leisurely pace through the main content you’ve still got a meaty adventure on your hands, so if the burn starts to get to be too much you can leave that stuff to the wayside and still get your moneys worth. For myself though I’m finding it almost impossible to ignore all this side content (much like I do in MMOs) so this issue can go both ways, it all depends on what kind of player you are.
Fate of the Fateless
All told Amalur follows competently in a tradition of open world RPGs. While it makes some missteps here and there every issue it has can be forgiven for everything it simply gets right. Players are fully free and encouraged to experiment and change how they interact with the world. The choices we make aren’t carved in stone and early leveling mistakes can easily be rectified. For a game that boasts well over 100 hours of content this is a godsend. As an action RPG this is everything Fable promised us all those years ago. The systems in place work competently, the story is immensely intriguing, and the combat is fresh and fun. Whether you’re stealth killing unaware foes, firing 7 scattershot arrows into an enemies face, or electrocuting them all while giggling with glee the game never takes your hand and tells you you’re doing it wrong. As the groundwork for 38 Studios forthcoming MMO it is clear to see they have done a fantastic job of creating an interesting world with a rich backstory. To release an MMO based on no established property would have been a major risk for a fledgling studio regardless of who is running it, but now we have a massive cache of nuanced lore and locations to look forward to adventuring in again. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is certainly worth every penny of it’s asking price which every self-respecting RPG fan shouldn’t miss.