Review

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review (PS3)

Let’s address this right now: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a great game, but has a terrible title that will lose it sales. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to about the game have dismissed it just because of that ruddy name. Never put a silly fantasy name in the title if you want it to be a success: see The Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age: Origins, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Game of Thrones, The Witcher, or The Guardians of Ga’Hoole. Furthermore, if you’re going to attempt an Elder Scrolls-style subtitle (one that people will use more) don’t use a boring one that’s been used dozens of times. It might as well have been “Origins”, “Revelations”, or “Revengeance”.

The silliness continues into the game itself, with place and people names that seem to have been created by chucking Scrabble tiles covered in shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Dokkalfar, Tywili, Haxhi, Nyralim… but then this is R.A. Salvatore writing of course, the creator of Jilseponie Ault, Ynis Aielle, the Demon Dactyl Bestesbulzibar and a series called The Legend of Drizzt. Thankfully people don’t read his books for the random collection of consonants he calls names, it’s for the careful and irresistible way he creates his worlds and characters, and 38 Studios have now called one of those worlds into being.

That’s me dancing around two-headed trolls causing lightning and earthquakes. Awesome

Make no mistake, there’s a lot of lore here. Despite the Kingdoms of Amalur title, which is clearly meant to cover a franchise, you’re confined to one particular Kingdom called the Faelands. It’s a kingdom at war, naturally. The immortal aloof Fae (Elves basically) are normally peaceful, but they have been split by a new faction called the (sigh) Tuatha Deohn and their leader Gadflow – winner of this year’s Most Clichéd Villain award. Red face, glowing eyes, pointy beard, sinister laugh, I’m surprised he’s not got hooves or being played by Tim Curry. Into this your own customised hero is thrown, brought back from the dead and being the one person in creation who can change fate, which normally no one can do.

It’s certainly a very interesting setup, and once you get over the stupid names the world of Amalur is quite intriguing – and absurdly packed with history. There’s a deep undercurrent of resentment in regular mortals (like humans, gnomes and half-elven Dokkalfar) towards the higher-class and immortal Fae. Tensions boil and the locals are pretty unkind towards other species. When my human started walking around the Fae’s House of Ballads looking to join their council I was met with scorn and mocking… until I jumped into all their hardest tests and won. I was genuinely involved in the world, even if it didn’t feel as real or epic as Skyrim. There aren’t any surprising dragon attacks and you never truly feel like the Faelands are at war, but still involved. And at least you’ll find monsters attacking each other.

To get analytical, Reckoning is made up of pieces from basically every RPG ever made. The colourful, artistic look of World of Warcraft and Fable. The combat of Dragon Age mixed with God of War and The Witcher 2. A general smattering of Oblivion over odd pieces, such as fast travelling and lockpicking. The dialogue system of Bioware’s recent titles. The creatures of Dungeons & Dragons (kobolds!). Hell, even the waking-up-dead-and-amnesiac beginning and the name ‘Fateless One’ harks back to the classic Planescape: Torment. Reckoning really takes influence from a lot of games. Some less kind reviewers might call it “a mixed bag of clichés” but I wouldn’t be that mean. Although I was beginning to worry that there wouldn’t be a near-naked elf woman with a confrontational attitude, but thankfully Reckoning delivered.

Truth be told though, Reckoning is much more individual than the sum of its parts, as I can’t think of a single game that’s quite like it. This primarily goes back to the combat, which is definitely the main focus of the game as everything else feels a little empty. Stealth consists of seeing whether you can sneak up and kill a single enemy before getting into proper fighting. Ranged combat consists of pressing the attack button and hoping your arrow hits, as there’s no skill or actual aiming behind it whatsoever. There’s item, weapon and armour crafting, and while not quite an afterthought I never ever made a weapon that was better than a sword I picked up from the carcass of a dead wolf ten hours ago.

Guess who's a major character


But the fighting? Pure enjoyable gold, if gold could be enjoyed and didn’t just sit there being shiny and expensive. Swordplay flows beautifully, which you can mix up with magical attacks like Lightning and Earthquake and flip between two types of weapon easily. There are several types of swords, including greatswords, longswords, short swords, stabby swords, fairy swords, throwing circular magic swords, and the Ho Ho Ho merry swords (or not). Combat is brutal, smooth, and fun, and the controls (on all platforms) have been perfectly implemented. After building your Fate bar you can also unleash your special Reckoning mode on tougher enemies, where the world slows to a crawl, all hits do massive amounts of damage and any enemy can be dramatically finished off with an easy quicktime event.

At the start Reckoning seems like a basic hack-and-slasher, but give it a couple of hours and you’ll actually have to start thinking tactically. Dodge and block, optional at the start, are both required by the time you start meeting Tuatha Spellcasters, Trolls and Nishkaru (those bastards). As mentioned fighting feels like God of War mixed with The Witcher 2 and is most definitely at least as satisfying as both games. This is no small feat, especially after even Bethesda failed to improve Oblivion’s combat, and 38 Studios should really be commended for getting it so right first time. And levelling-up brings more devastating attacks, faster movement, more spells, and more fun.

As for the rest of Reckoning though, the biggest problem it has is that I could never shake the nagging feeling I was just playing an offline MMO. The large areas seem designed for lots of people to run around in rather than to create a full world. Packs of enemies roam the countryside randomly rather than for any particular reason. Quest-givers stand in one spot eternally with a big glowing exclamation point over their heads. Other adventurers are completely absent. You know how MMOs give you big areas, but are never completely open like Bethesda games and always have funnelling points between areas? That’s to cut down on lag and keep players further apart. The Faelands of Amalur are designed like this, and while it works it does feel really unnatural.

Consequently you never truly feel a part of the world, and despite there supposedly being hoards of Tuatha fighting huge bloody battles in the plains you only ever get them in groups of 4-5. Later battles such as the siege of Mel Shenshir are quite impressive, but they’re one-off missions than part of the main game. If you can’t deliver a war don’t say one’s going on, that never did Skyrim or the Legend of Zelda games any harm – unlike Dragon Age: Origins, which promised and delivered. Quests regularly devolve into the get-this, go-there, kill-that template, and while there are a few choices to be made none really have far (or even close) consequences. Choosing not to murder a town’s hero in favour of an ambitious coward didn’t even get a comment from the townspeople, and I never saw the man I betrayed again.

For a debut RPG going up against Bethesda (couple of months ago) and Bioware (next month), Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning had to be hugely impressive to get attention. 38 Studios, Big Huge Games and EA can therefore breathe a sigh of relief, because it is. The combat is some of the most fluid and fun I’ve seen in an RPG, the world has been created with loving care and has an astonishingly deep amount of history and lore to delve through, and in terms of value for money it’s on par with Skyrim.

30 hours later I've still got that cool Shepherd armour on

Frankly Skyrim started feeling samey for me after a while, but Reckoning offers more interesting battles and a lush stylish world. Nevertheless Amalur doesn’t quite stand up to Tamriel as you never truly feel like you’re in a living breathing world surrounded by people just trying to stay alive. The fact that every settlement seems to have three times as many occupants as it does places to live underlines that. Furthermore the fighting system is excellent but stealth, crafting, and ranged combat are all pretty superfluous.

Anyone who ventures in to the Kingdoms of Amalur will find a gigantic and compelling RPG experience. It’s not quite ready to topple the big guns of the genre, but despite feeling “inspired” by every RPG or fantasy ever made it manages to offer a unique and entertaining alternative. Even if it does add yet another surly scantily-clad elf girl to the genre.

Top Game Moment: Just when you’re about to face defeat you grab a health potion, activate Reckoning Mode and put some serious smackdown on the swines.

Platform Played: Xbox 360

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