The first thing that you should ask about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is, ‘what is the name of this game?’ Personally I think the game is “Reckoning” and the Kingdoms of Amalur title identifies the universe that the game takes place within, much like “Warhammer 4000: Space Marine,” is really just “Space Marine” taking place within the confines of the Warhammer 4000-verse.
The second thing that you should know about Reckoning is that the pedigree behind this game is staggering. Ken Rolston, who was the lead designer on Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion acts as the executive producer, R.A. Salvatore (DemonWars Saga) created the universe of Amalur and the narrative lore, Todd MacFarlane (Spawn) did the artwork, Grant Kirkhope (most Rare games) did the music, and 38 Studios headed by Curt Schilling provided the money. That my friends is an all-star team for creating a video game, and while playing Reckoning you will immediately recognize that the people who crafted this game, and this game world knew what they were doing.
Amalur starts with what are becoming the traditional “Western RPG” opening – you awake/are born/come to/transport into a cave/dungeon/vault/cell/unknown space and you can’t remember/never knew who you are. The initial phase of the game leads you through a bit of story introduction and game play mechanics, where you pick your name, your character traits and appearance. The first thing you’ll notice upon entering the world of Amalur, in the Faelands is the art style of this game is unlike any recent RPG that you’ve experienced. The style is much more of a water color, vibrant, almost cartoony style that battles with some frame rate issues at parts and actually feels a bit drab after too long but is a departure from the environments that you may expect after playing Skyrim or Final Fantasy X-III 2.
The game begins with your corpse being wheeled through what is essentially a morgue before you’re dropped onto a pile of corpses (corpsi?). The entire world takes an unexpected detour though when you awake from your death, essentially changing the inescapable hands of fate and altering the way the entire world operates. If the prospect of an action based role playing game dealing with the idea of individuals being stuck in the hamster wheel of fate sounds like your cup of tea then strap yourself in because you’re in for a wild ride.
At this point you should know that KoA was initially started as an MMO and didn’t transform into an Action/Western RPG until the development process had already begun. This is a fact that doesn’t take much to recognize when you realize that there are an insane amount of side quests involving almost indistinguishable characters for some awkward and seemingly meaningless pay off. If there is one criticism of KoA (there are more than one) it would have to be that almost none of the supporting characters are fleshed out or defined enough to make anything involving those characters stay relevant to you thirty minutes after you’ve experienced it. This is especially disappointing when you’re character runs into decisions that you know the designers wanted to be emotionally charged decisions but none of the characters have enough personality to make the decision mean much of anything. At one point you will be asked by the leader of a bandit group whether you want to fight the bandit leader, or make a lot of money by killing the individual/holy man who sent you to deliver a message to the bandit leader. Unfortunately neither of the characters (Bandit leader or holy man) was memorable enough for this decision to have any weight so I just killed the bandit leader to prevent myself from having to double back one extra time to collect my reward.
This lack of personality is really the biggest drawback facing KoA. It’s obvious that this game is meant to launch an entire world, and you really are only exposed to a tiny corner of it in Reckoning (the Faelands). Unfortunately because everything seems so under-developed it’s difficult to be too excited about taking a second trip to the location. Whereas the first Mass Effect made each portion of the galaxy feel relevant and different, made characters vibrant and unique and made the overall story feel compelling and interesting – and thus launched a number of sequels and tie-in novels (see also: Gears of War, Halo, etc.), this game and this particular universe feels very ambitious but not very inviting. If my present self could make a recommendation to the designers in the past it would be to maybe pull everything in a few degrees, focus more on developing the key characters/factions in this world and build from a strong foundation out. What happened instead is that a ton of good work was put into the game world without any type of anchor to really keep you coming back.
With all of that being said – I absolutely do not want to stop playing KoA, and the lack of an engrossing story or compelling characters doesn’t even bother me, because KoA has done something that lesser RPG’s with equally ridiculous or uninspired writing fail to do – and that is, they’ve made combat fun. I remember playing Lost Odyssey and being thrilled with the changes made to the combat system, and I love V.A.T.S in Fallout because it was different. But KoA essentially takes what I love about action games and incorporates it into an RPG format, but even if you’re not a fan of button mashing (for lack of a better term) combat, be a fan of this – the targeting system in KoA makes it possible to succeed and even excel as using magic or stealth attacks because you can actually do those things without every enemy in the vicinity crashing down on you and immediately killing you because you lack the HP and/or armor of a sword wielding tank/warrior. When I fired up Skyrim I wanted to be a bow wielding, stealth assassin but one pack of wolves devouring me after getting off one arrow quickly changed my mind. I had no such experience in KoA and nothing is more fun than sneaking up on an enemy, slitting its throat, and then blowing away its friends with a barrage of lightning bolts. The combat experience is further expanded with fate-shifting, essentially it’s a way to slow the game down and do a huge volume of damage to your enemies, ending with a QTE attack that more or less “shifts fate” and lets you kill an enemy that (I guess) would have killed you, thus again, shifting fate. One note on fate shifting, it’s such a poorly expanded upon gimmick that you don’t really understanding or appreciate why it’s relevant, you just wind up using in it situations where your health regen potion has run out and you’re facing a gang of angry Sprite’s who have been boasted by some associate.
I appreciate that this review is a bit all over the place but that’s fitting for a game like KoA because it’s a game that’s all over the place. I love the combat, it’s good enough to keep me playing solely for that aspect and it solved a lot of the criticism that I have towards Skyrim. As for the story and the in-game writing, it’s a mixed bag. The main storyline is interesting and keeps you going, but the side quests and faction quests are a bit underdeveloped, and lack any type of emotional investment.