Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an action/RPG from developers Big Huge Games/38 Studios.  As the box art, ads, and official website will tell you, this game is birthed from the minds of Ken Rolston (pen and paper RPG demigod/Morrowind and Oblivion development lead), R. A. Salvatore (best-selling fantasy writer), and Todd MacFarlane (don’t worry, his involvement seems to go as far as merely being an art consultant).  KoA: Reckoning is the first salvo in a strategic effort by 38 Studios to unleash a new intellectual property into the RPG wild.  For a first effort, Big Huge and 38 Studios rolled a natural 20…sorry.

I find it quite difficult to talk about Reckoning without talking about Skyrim.  Reckoning is, at the same time, both heavily influenced by Skyrim AND the anti-Skyrim.  I think that Skyrim is a good gauge for how much one will like Reckoning.  Bethesda’s latest RPG was an amazing game, but it did have its flaws. I think Reckoning is an RPG that addresses some of the flaws of Skyrim and trims some of the fat, so to speak.

Let’s get all the “RPG review” staples out of the way.  The main storyline will take you 20ish hours to complete.  There are faction quests, side quests, and other errands that will take you many, many more hours; essentially putting you in the 50+ hours of gameplay.  The game covers a huge landscape that is ripe for exploration.  However, the environments fall somewhere in between the miles of unending sprawl of of Skyrim and the “zones” of Fable or Dragon Age: Origins.  In my opinion, Reckoning has hit the sweet spot with their world.  Let’s be honest, Skyrim has a TON of boring in it.  Sure, it’s very pretty, but finding a deer or a spider every few hundred yards is a lot of dead space.  The world of Reckoning is very fun to explore with enemies, collectibles, and treasure chests littered everywhere.  It feels as if every inch was planned out and that every location serves some purpose.

30% off all Egyptian cotton bed sheets?! Zounds!

The things that stand out about Reckoning are the combat and the progression trees.  I believe that the combination of these two aspects will be the biggest selling point for this game.  The combat plays more like a God of War game than a traditional RPG.  That is to say, the combat in the game is continuously engaging and fun.  Whether you’re fighter, mage, or rogue, you will be doling out damage in combos and power moves and feeling like a badass the entire time.  The leveling/skill tree system of the game serves to act as a counterpoint to the arcade-y combat.  The game chooses to keep the traditional “get experience for everything you do/kill/complete in the game and that experience fills up a bar.” There is no “do things in the world to level up those specific things” like in Skyrim or a “you gain a level between each completed mission” like the super-streamlined Mass Effect 2.  On top of the leveling system, the skill trees that you allot points to per level looks like it would be right at home in a game like Diablo or World of Warcraft.  If 38 Studios’ plan stays on course, there is supposed to be a Kingdoms of Amalur MMO eventually, so I’m not surprised to see that character progression is handled very similarly, if not identical, to an MMO.

Where Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning innovates is in their Fate system.  Basically, where you spend points in the skill trees will unlock “Fate Cards” that give your character powers in the class you are leaning towards.  What makes this even cooler is that Reckoning is one of the few games in recent memory that not only encourages hybrid classes, but rewards it.  There are three categories on the skill tree: might (fighter), finesse (rogue), and sorcery (mage).  You assign points to each of these three trees however you want.  As more and more points go in, the Fate Cards start to unlock.  The cool thing is that if you dump points into two of the categories (or even all three), you start to open Fate Cards for hybrid classes.  For example,  for my first playthrough, I chose to be a sneaky wizard.  As I leveled, I put points into the finesse and sorcery trees and that, in turn, unlocked Fate Cards that increased the damage dealt with edged weapons like daggers and the totally awesome faeblades, along with increasing the elemental damage done from your magical attacks.  If you’re the type of person who likes to play one straight class, have no fear.  You can dump all of your skill points into one tree and your character will be just as much of a god in the higher levels.  The super quick, engaging combat and the balanced and rewarding Fate Card system make Reckoning one of the most entertaining and fresh RPGs of recent memory.

My second favorite thing about Reckoning is the world itself.  I spoke earlier of the dead space of huge, open-world games like Skyrim and how Reckoning has very little wasted space.  I believe that Reckoning has the perfect balance of always giving you something new and beautiful to look at while not feeling like you’re always being pushed down a series of “outdoor hallways.”  You will always want to explore the varied environments to find all the nooks and crannies; that’s right, Reckoning is a delicious English muffin.

Vistas for days, son.

The world of Amalur is truly beautiful.  In recent years, I think that many RPGs have too much of a “George R. R. Martin-ish vibe” — you know, where you get a disease from a rat and then you’re slain by a bandit with a steel longsword who leaves your corpse to rot cold and alone in a cave somewhere?  The world of Reckoning has more of a fantastical vibe where magic is abound and there is, you know, color to the environment.  While the game is no graphical powerhouse, the art direction is superb.  From haunted woods to grand, organic fae palaces, the game is a fantasy nerd’s dream.  Epic, rare weapons look badass, big, hulking enemies look unique and imposing, and your character’s gear is as cool to look at as it is to equip.  Every enemy in the game looks like it could be turned into an action figure.  That speaks to how strong the art style is in the game.  I would totally buy all of them.

Reckoning sticks to recent RPG tradition of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at you. Wherever you travel in the world of Amalur, there will be dozens of exclamation points popping up on your minimap offering you new side mission.  Some of these missions are as simples as fetch quests, while others have a story of their own to tell. There is a fighter’s guild, a mage’s guild, and thieves guild; all with their own quests and storylines.  The game mixes up the standard and expected factions with the House of Ballads; a group of fae (elves) whose ballads, or adventures, are played out again and again throughout time.  When one of the members unexpectedly dies, you have the opportunity to take his place and defeat an evil fae queen. In each area of the map you explore, there is a main town or outpost or castle with it’s own “main sub-plot” for you to follow or ignore as you see fit.  For example, early in the game, I came across a town in an area called Webwood.  It was, unsurprisingly, plagued with giant spiders.  I then chose to help the townsfolk get to the bottom of why the spiders were attacking the town with a curious aggression.  Side stories like this are littered throughout the game; tempting you with further lore and sweet loot.

Speaking of loot, let’s talk about my handful of gripes I have with the game.  There is too much loot in the game.  Eventually, you’ll find yourself just passing stuff up — expensive stuff! — just so you can keep going and not have to pop into your menu, weigh the pros and cons of what piece of gear you’re going to send to your “junk” section, then permanently destroy it just so you can make room for this one more piece of loot. The abundance of loot also de-emphasizes the significance of the higher end drops.  While it’s true that you don’ HAVE to pick up everything you come across, if you show me an RPG player who isn’t a electronic hoarder, I’ll show you an executive at Activision who wants Call of Duty to take a year off next year.l

That’s some video game industry humor right there.  No charge.

Behold, the Stabbening

There are some presentation issues that mar an otherwise excellent experience.  The frame rate takes hits from time to time but not often enough to be a real problem.  Lip syncing isn’t the best but luckily the mostly excellent voice acting softens the blow.  The menu system isn’t the most intuitive; you’ll be giving your scrolling thumb a workout.  Spells are assigned to the face buttons and are cast by pulling RT (sorry, I only know the Xbox360 controls) and then hitting one of the four buttons.  This means that you can only have 4 spells ready to go at a time.  To swap them out, it is a clunky trip in and out of the menu system.  Many, if not all, of these gripes are issues that stem from a development company learning as they go with their first foray into a game of such epic scale.  As I said, none of these complaints ever really took away from my experience in any significant way.  I’m sure when(not if) the sequel comes out, these issues will be addressed.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a fantastic RPG that I would recommend to any fan of the genre.  A deep, traditional RPG with an intuitive and fun combat system await you.  The Fate Cards add a neat, refreshing spin on character leveling while increasing the replay value to try different classes.  At the time of this writing, Skyrim is still fresh in our minds (with an inevitable DLC expansion looming at some point in the future) and Mass Effect 3 is about a month away from release. I believe that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning stands on its own merits right along with these giants of the RPG world.  It is worthy of your time and attention.  Don’t pass this one up.

Overall Score: 9/10