To make a good RPG is to walk a tightrope. Make it too complicated, too fiddly, and only the hardcore will appreciate your work, but pander to the public too much and your game looses its credibility, and its soul. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning walks this line better than any RPG title we’ve ever seen and its secret is all in the blend.
As you might have guessed by the name - some land you’ve never heard of with kings and biblical sounding word - this game is firmly rooted in classic fantasy, and we mean classic. There are swords, potions, magic, the looting of chests, inns, blacksmiths, busty maidens, hidden treasure, giant spiders, elves, super elves, secondary skills, enchanted weaponry, power attacks, a force of good, an evil in the land, a world in chaos and the burden of being the chosen one who’s job it is to sort it all out.
Taking a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B of pretty much every RPG of the last decade or so, it’s familiar fare, with a hey-nonny-nonny and flagon of mead. It does have a mildly original beginning however and, without dropping any serious spoilers...
Amalur used to be a peaceful place, of course, with two houses of your more Lord of the Rings-style immortal super elves (only bluer and called the Fae) living quite happily in harmony with each other and the five mortal races of, essentially, men, nomadic men, normal elves, dark elves and gnomes. Then it all went a bit wrong when a particular nutter got himself in charge, as often happens, and decided to tool up an army of zealots with prismatic weapons and wage war with everyone else while waiting for their very evil god to turn up.
By the time you’re picking your face, tattoos and body type, this war has been raging for over a decade. While the goodies began the thing with high hopes, they did make the mistake of forgetting that their enemy is, in fact, immortal which has made defeating them in battle a bit tricky. Fortunately, the gnomes have come up with an idea of their own and you begin the game as their first, apparently, entirely successful shot at resurrection. So, fresh off a pile of rotting corpses - seriously - your adventure of seeking out people with punctuation marks over their heads and questing for whatever object they want brought back to them begins.
The first dungeon is your training and, with a series of NPC gnomes to guide you, it’s a really good and highly playable way of getting used to all of the three main classes - or destinies as they are in KoA - of fighter, mage, thief and all three are top notch. In fact, it’s rather hard to pick which route you’d like to go down but the good news is that it’s a talent tree type approach of adding ability points to one section or another, so you can mix and match to quite a high degree.
Once the game proper begins, in the short term at least, your fate is to wander around some primitive villages, have slightly overlong conversation with the locals, and embark on a series of chores for them, from the mundane to the esoteric. Of course, while you’re on your way to do one quest, you’ll bump into some gnome who wants you to pick up some pixie dust, and before you know it you have a to-do list as long as your beard.
As is the norm, killing and questing brings experience, experience allows you to level up and levelling up grants you more ability points. Eventually, you’ll have enough points in certain sections to choose a more advanced destiny - a simple Brawler can aspire to become a Warrior, a Rogue can advance to Assassin, an Acolyte to a Sorcerer and so forth, and with each passing tier of destiny you get more bonuses to your character. Just to make it really difficult to choose, there are even some interesting blends of the disciplines such as Spellcloak, Battlemage, Avenger, Polymath and many more. The good news, though, is that there are characters called Fateweavers in Amalur who will reset your abilities and allow you to pick again - at a very hefty price, of course.
On top of all of this, you also get secondary skills, much as you’ll find in the likes of the Elder Scrolls series and MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. Fortunately, they’re a lot easier and more enjoyable to invest in than either of those two examples and probably any secondary skill scheme we’ve ever seen. You’re rather forced to take up a few of these hobbies because there’s a bit of a ceiling while you wait to advance to higher levels but, best of all, you can try them all out anyway. For example, you don’t have to have invested any points in Blacksmithing to be able to make some kit or in Alchemy in order to harvest reagents from the land and even mix together a basic minor healing potion.
Where this really comes into play is with the Lockingpicking skill. Frankly, we’d rather have fun and worry about opening tricky chests when we get to them and the KoA skill system helps out here. You can still have a go at picking locks without any skill points in the category. It’s not that hard either, it’s just that you have a far larger margin of error than someone who’s invested in it. Just carry around a lot of picks and you’ll be fine. In fact, the whole lock picking sub game, which it just about is in this instance, is rather fun. You select an orientation where you think the pick ought to be and then slide across the bolt. If it begins to judder, then you’ve got it wrong and you pick is about to break. It’s up to you how careful or reckless you feel like being. Either way, the bottom line is that you’ll get the loot and that you can have a crack at any of the skills any of the time.
The fun of the fight
As for the main action itself, one of the real joys of KoA is the combat system. Whether Finesse, Might or Sorcery is your path, you’re going to have a lot of fun. It’s not a turn-based choose-your-moves-and-let-the-action-unfold kind of experience but very much a thumbs-on hack and slash experience. Think Fable but much more advanced and Oblivion but not half as fiddly.
Each time you level-up you can “Forge Your Destiny” depending on whether you prefer to hit someone in the head with a large hammer, put a spell on them from afar, or sneak up and stab them in the back.
Hand-to-hand weapons come in various sizes and at various swish speeds from colossal swords and hammers down to a flurry of daggers. As you invest in the abilities talent tree, you open up combos and special moves for each type - which take degree of practice to master but not so much that you never remember to use them. So, as you character grows, so does your repertoire of attack to the point where you really are tailoring your choices to enemy types, numbers and even your environment too. It’s just about possible to ignore all this and go for random button pressing instead, but you’ll need a big old stack of health potions if that’s going to be the way you do it. You’ll also be missing out on half the fun.
Thieves can get their hands just as dirty with the addition of spells and other abilities which you can access during the action with the trigger buttons. They draw upon your mana pool to work, so it’s good to see that that doesn’t go to waste altogether if you don’t go down the path of the magic user.
Your bow and arrow and other ranged weapons are as much of a treat and even they too come with special moves and abilities to unlock but, best of all, the stealth and backstabbing system actually works. It’s straight forward, effective and satisfyingly deadly when you pull it off.
The cherry on the icing on the cake of the whole combat system, however, is when your Fate bar fills up. The more kills you make, the bigger this thing gets and, when it’s finally brimming, you enter Reckoning Mode which is rather like the fantasy world’s answer to Bullet Time only, again, bluer and slightly less cinematic. Reckoning Mode allows you to run rings around your opponents, make them drop to their knees and then slay the lot in one big special move called Fateshifting that grants a big XP bonus that gets even bigger if you hammer the right button at the right time. Very, very enjoyable and entirely lethal.
Of course, all of the these items and abilities need to be managed somehow and, as ever, that’s the job of the character sheet which is handled nicely enough but without any particular imagination. It’s a fairly straight forward affair with the inventory the main part you’ll be bothering with. It’d be nice to be able to use the triggers to shift around the various sections of your backpack rather than have to go backwards and forwards from the menus. Something more exciting than a list view might have been nice too but there you go.
Your pockets are by no means infinite and you will find yourself filling them up with nonsense items very quickly. Much like the Elder Scrolls series, you’ll carry around a lot of junk to do with crafting and your various secondary skills and that’s a bit of a drag. Combine that with an assortment of magic potions, which are generally too short lived to bother with, and you’ll find that you only end up with a functioning 25-slot or so storage system when there’s technically room for 70.
Naturally, a degree of ruthlessness will get that number up a bit but the annoying thing is that it’s quite possible to destroy quest items by accident. Nothing is labelled as sacred which, okay, makes it more realistic but also a bit of a headache. Your one way out is that later in the game you start acquiring your own property - not in a money-making Fable way but more as a series of rest houses - and they come with storage chests in them which act like a fantasy version of Dropbox. It’s a nice touch but it’s still a bit of a stick in your soft bits when you realise that you don’t have that Ring of Ages on you when you actually need it.
Fortunately, the travel system in KoA is pretty good. Again, a leaf out of many an RPG from years gone by, you have to run about the map until you discover towns, dungeons and points of interest which you can then fast travel to when you wish to revisit. It works. It’s probably a touch too easy for the purist with a series of circular beacons to follow that make navigation a cinch. You never really get that satisfaction of a long journey well made but then take it too far the other way and you’ll lose your audience before they make it to their second town. It’s not as insulting as the infamous gold trail from the Fable games but it’s not a long way off.
All the same, the world is a pleasant place to see. Graphics aren’t astonishing but landscapes are pretty, if a little too similar to anything you’d find in Warcraft, or in fact just about any other fantasy RPG. One particular annoyance is that a lot of the NPCs are identical. There’s no big money voice actors, which isn’t a problem at all, but it does rather take the shine off when you realise that half the world are doppelagangers for another.
While we’re on the subject, one of the let-downs of the game is that questing can get a little tedious. Now, that’s going to be the curse of lots of these titles but you do have to fight a strong desire to just skip all the conversations, follow the beacons, kill without thinking, loot bodies and follow the beacons back again without ever taking notice of what you’ve actually been asked to do. Most of the stories behind the missions are not that compelling and they’re very rarely simple there-and-backs which seems like it’s somehow supposed to add depth to them but actually just makes them longer. There’s also a fair old number of side quests, which makes the game quite overwhelming for the completest, but at least promises value for money.
On the plus side, the monsters themselves are nicely done. Their AI is such that they won’t leave off just because you’re bashing in one of their mates and many are as happy to hit you from range as they are hand-to-hand, meaning that you can't just chop your way through every encounter. The magic and abilities that they possess are also well thought out and will make quite a difference to you when you get shot with poison, trapped in spider’s silk or when their mere presence means the enhanced power of their comrades. You’ll find both the usual bandits, boggarts, trolls and assortment of more vicious woodland creatures as well as a clutch of original creatures to appreciate, figure out and, ultimately, run through with your blades of woe.
It’s all very easy to control and enjoyable to play with nice touches like item sockets for enchanted gems, lorestones that sing tales to you as you wander the land and a nice theme of fate and destiny that runs all the way through. The only area it’s really lacking is in serious originality but perhaps it’s the combat system where you have to be satisfied with that.
If you like RPG fantasy adventure in the classic style then don’t waste your time reading any more about KoA. Go out and buy the thing. You won’t regret it. It’s a really nice blend of straight forward adventures like the Fable trilogy but with the crafting and skills depth that titles like the Elder Scrolls series and World of Warcraft bring, plus just a dash of good fighting game too.
Its only real downfall is that it’s such a good mixture that it really forgot to add that extra ingredient of its own to make Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning the true winner in its class that maybe it could have been. Not an easy thing to do though. As is the way with this type of game, the hours rapidly turn into days as you’re kept in a state of near-satisfaction, a one-step-forward-two-steps back form of paralysis that keeps you pushing on to the next inevitably inconsequential event
Amalur is a mainly pleasant place to be however, And while KoA doesn’t quite have Skyrim's epic scale, there’s enough to keep you busy for the foreseeable future.
Steve Hill contributed to this review.