When former pro athlete Curt Schilling announced that he was getting into the video game industry, I had no idea he had the clout to score such amazing talent for his studio’s debut. 38 Studios acquired Big Huge Games to help build it, hired renowned fantasy author R. A. Salvatore to write the story, tapped Todd McFarlane to design the visuals and brought Ken Rolston from The Elder Scrolls on board as the game’s executive designer. With such talent on board, how could his game not be awesome? I will say that, in the end, The Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a great first time effort for Schilling’s studio and the coordination among the design team is excellent resulting in a well polished and solidly built adventure. It is unfortunate that it was released closely after The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, making it feel less original than it should be.
Your adventure begins…with your death, killed at the hands of the Tuathan led by the Winter Fae who has become corrupt and waged an all out war against the races of Amalur. Due to the inventiveness of the Gnomes, you have been brought back thanks to the life-giving powers of the Well of Souls. However, the effects of revival had two significant consequences: all memories prior to your death have been erased and your place within the woven tapestry of Fate has been cut, allowing you to exist outside of the predetermined paths that guide all creatures in Amalur. This extraordinary gift imbues you with a unique power that just might be enough to confront the Winter Fae and end his bloody war for good.
Disclosure: Although I’m played the game on PC, I used an Xbox 360 PC controller.
Kingdoms of Amalur is a third person RPG that shares many trappings of games you’ve played before. After going through the character creation process – choosing from one of four races, each with their own abilities and traits – the game sets you on a path to complete story-based quests as well as smaller missions designed to flesh out the world, its people and powerful factions. As there is so much to see and do, the game follows a non-linear structure that allows you to break off from the main quest and complete other tasks at any time. Quests are tossed about like candy from a pinata and range from collecting library books, re-enacting ancient stories and taking down monstrous beasts. In return, your efforts will be rewarded with coin, armor and weapon upgrades and – more importantly – experience points.
Levelling up is a fairly deep and methodical experience. Instead of simply throwing points into various abilities, you’ll interact with several different screens that cover passive and active abilities. In a way, levelling up is very much like the system used in BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic: first, you’ll place a point in one of several passive skills, such as Stealth, Mercantile and Blacksmithing. Advancing your skills in this section will earn you perks, such as better prices with merchants, the ability to craft special armor and reveal enemy locations within the mini map. Second, you’re given points to assign in one (or two or all, actually) of three skill trees, Sorcery, Might and Finesse. Points spent here will yield advanced combat moves, weapon skills and magic-based attacks. The freedom to place points in any or all of these skill trees is very similar to Skyrim, as you are given complete freedom to mold your character in any way you see fit. Finally, you can choose a Destiny. These cards are unlocked depending on where you spend your Sorcery, Might and Finesse points and grant additional stat bonuses to your weapons, defense and magic.
There’s a strong emphasis on combat here, a good thing considering that you’ll be doing a lot of it. With the exception of world bosses, you’ll dish out death to a group of enemies that usually hang around in packs of three to four. Group combat can be bothersome at first, but as you build your character’s skill set things get easier and more manageable over time. You’ll have primary and secondary weapons at your disposal, both mapped to a specific button, making fighting a rather simplistic affair. In order to prevent combat from getting too dull, there is a timing-based mechanic in play where combos are achieved by performing variations of HIT BUTTON – PAUSE – HIT BUTTON commands. Abilities unlocked through skill points can be assigned to one of the face buttons and activated at any time during battle.
The obligatory rage meter makes an appearance in the form of a Fate meter. Killing enemies fills it up and when activated, time slows down significantly allowing you to rush your foes and strike until their health is completely depleted after which you’ll enter into a short quick time event. Wait! Don’t run away! The quick time events are mostly for boosting the amount of experience points you earn during the final attack. Doing this against one enemy is easy enough, using this technique with multiple enemies will yield more experience points.
What is a third person RPG without loot? Killing enemies is the best way to get better weapons, armor and accessories as the items sold in shops pale in comparison with what you’ll find in the field. There are only a handful of stores in the game including general stores (where you can get consumables) and weapon repair shops. Loot handles the same way as other games of the genre with color-based, white to purple tiers to reflect value. Loot can be equipped on the fly and you’ll never go too long before the game gives you something better. If you recall, I complained about loot in Lord of the Rings: War in the North because it seemed like you would never hang onto anything for a significant amount of time before it got replaced by something else. Here, it feels just right and more often than not, the gear you find may end up being vendor trash. You’ll come across several crafting stations that allow you to make your own armor, weapons, potions and stat boosting crystals. Crafting is a simple affair that involves collecting the right ingredients for the job. There were very few instances in which crafting yielded anything better than what I collected from drops, so Alchemy and Crystals end up being the most useful crafting activities in the game.
In the time I’ve spent playing, I never felt that item management was a chore. In fact, Amalur deserves considerable praise for introducing the “Send Item To Junk” option. If you find your inventory has become too cluttered with stuff you don’t want, pushing a button while highlighting the object will send it to a separate folder in the pause screen. The best part about this? You can go into a shop and sell all your junk items at once with a single press of a button. I cannot stress how useful and time saving this is and it is a wonder why I haven’t seen anything like this until now. This tiny little addition pays off big time because it makes the inventory much more comfortable and easier to maintain than any game before it.
Todd McFarlane was an interesting individual to put in charge of the game’s visual design, as he is recognized for creating some considerably dark stuff. That said, the world of Amalur is bright and beautiful and in some areas looks lifted from the cover of an R.A. Salvatore Legend of Drizzit novel. As lovely as the game looks, it is not hard to draw comparisons to other fantasy games like Torchlight and World of Warcraft, as all three games share the same level of cartoonish styling. The most glaring example of the similarity between Warcraft is during your visit to the Fae city which looks exactly like the Night Elves’ home of Darnassus. Still, it’s certainly a nice change of pace from what you’d expect McFarlane to do.
Amalur is a beauty on the PC. Textures are richly detailed and everything is just so vivid and colorful. Your character’s appearance changes as you equip armor and weapons and some of the armor sets are really well designed – I love it when the art team takes the time to build every little piece of armor and equipment. The nice thing about the equipment is that when helmets enter the picture, they’ll never obscure your character’s face in game. The only time you’ll see your character wearing a helmet is by going to the equipment screen in the pause menu. A great little feature that doesn’t muck up scenes of you talking to people. I’m looking at you, Mass Effect.
The only visual gripe I have comes from the glowing effects of certain powerful weapons. Those with elemental boosts will look as if they are surrounded by colorful wisps of smoke and bright auras. They aren’t subtle effects either and they really get in the way of the action in cutscenes, but it is also a pain during combat as it makes detecting an incoming attack difficult to spot. See, you can block enemy attacks most of the time, but to get the most out of the defensive maneuver you’ll want to bring up your shield at the last possible moment before their attack, which will not only negate damage, it will also stagger the opponent. There have been more than a few times where I missed my chance for a block because I couldn’t see over the glowing effect.
Kingdoms of Amalur is an entertaining game that will keep you busy for hours. With hundreds of side quests to complete, there comes a point in the game when you realize that although you’ve been at it for several hours, little to no progress has been made towards completing the main story. As was the case with Skyrim, the smaller, shorter narratives are much more interesting than the main game and I found myself pursuing side quests often. The game’s story simply isn’t anything to write home about. It has some neat ideas, but in the end I found myself – for the first time ever in a role playing game – skipping through all the dialog sequences. I never do that! R. A. Salvatore did a great job building the history of Amalur and those who dwell within it, but the story itself is boring.
Talking to people feels like an afterthought, as a simple Mass Effect-style dialog wheel will determine the flow of conversation. There are moments, however, that allow you to attempt to persuade the NPC to do something for your benefit, which is ultimately determined by a skill check. Disconcertingly, you’ll never hear your character speak and instead, he or she will just stare blankly at people. This has an amusing side effect because the blank, empty look on your character’s face during conversations makes them appear as if the quest giver is speaking a foreign language they can’t understand, but are too polite to say anything about it so they just nod and smile politely.
There was a moment when I realized that Amalur was originally designed to be an MMO before it was changed to a single player game. There are certain quests that force you to travel excruciatingly great distances in order to complete a task. One quest in particular had me wandering through an entire continent to find stones that would open a gate to a dungeon. Sprint wouldn’t move me around fast enough and it wasn’t long before I I found myself begging for a mount to make the journey go a lot faster. It’s a bummer that this quest is one you have to do in order to advance the game, as it slams the brakes on pacing – that is, of course, if you didn’t journey to cities or landmarks near these objectives. Fast travel would have been a great help, but that was unavailable to me at the time.
Kingdoms of Amalur would have been great if it didn’t come out so soon after Skyrim. While it can stand on its own quite well, the similarities are just too glaring to ignore thus making Amalur the game “that’s like Skyrim.” It is interesting that Ken Rolston chose to go with a design that mirrored the recent Elder Scrolls games, but there is no harm in doing what you know as long as you do it well, I suppose. Still, Amalur is a fun game that’s well built and does its own things very well. Personally, I don’t see it winning any awards at the end of the year, but if you like high fantasy and games that will keep you busy for hours with a great number of quests and activities, Amalur is certainly well worth your money. However, if you’re already entrenched in Skyrim, holding off on this one for awhile might be a good idea, lest you suffer from open world RPG burnout.