Breaking into the tightly competitive role-playing game market is tough business. With franchises like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls offering western RPG fans a new offering every couple of years, a new IP has a lot to prove to attract attention. It’s even harder when battling against the likes of Mass Effect and the numerous online-RPGs, but spend some time with 38 Studios’ wildly expansive Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and you may have a new world to explore for hundreds of hours. That’s because the team that developed Reckoning, which includes some notable figures in gaming and fantasy fiction, paid equal attention to both gameplay and capturing players in the magnificent world of Amalur. But is there enough here to keep you playing through the 30+ hour main quest and 100+ hour overall package?
While other games have done a good job of blending action, storytelling, and role-playing, none in recent memory have done a great job dealing with combat. At times you’ll feel like Kratos, ripping apart enemies with brutal combos, and another moment you’ll feel like Gandalf, blazing a path for your partners to run into the battle with swords at the ready. This is a game that puts the action back into the action-RPG genre with incredible force. While other games focus more on numbers, Reckoning puts the real equation of success at the player’s fingertips. That’s not to say the RPG elements are lacking, it’s just the combat, especially developed later in the game, is right up there with some of the best recent straight action games.
This is very much an RPG that lets players build their character to their play style. Given the breadth of the combat system, building a character beyond a straight warrior, thief, or mage really opens the door to how you play games. Do you like to keep your distance and cast spells? Do you also like to have daggers at your side in case you can catch some baddies off guard? How do you feel about hammers, swords, bows, and an assortment of wild magical weapons? You’ll be hard pressed to come up with a play style that can’t be created in Reckoning. This stems from a simplistic, yet effective leveling system. You are given points every time you level, and these points can be spent to increase your abilities in might, finesse and magic. These trees are extremely similar to online-RPGs, especially World of Warcraft, albeit in a smaller fashion.
But fun combat and the ability to build a character to your liking isn’t enough to make a game great. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning manages to maintain an interesting story and a truly vibrant world to explore, without taking itself too serious. This is not a light story, but at no point will the story overwhelm you, or force you to think all that much. That is both good and bad, largely depending on how much you like to get invested in your characters.
Author R.A. Salvatore, who is extremely familiar with the fantasy world thanks to more than 20 bestselling novels, penned a compelling narrative that, to a bit of a fault, is overly familiar to gamers. The story revolves around a warrior (that’s you) who is resurrected by the Well of Souls only to awaken with no memory and no fate. The residents in the realm of Amalur are all about their fate and destiny, and given your clean slate, you are given Keanu Reeves-inspired importance. Without spoiling the story, the main mission sends you across the land to learn about your fate, and ultimately to the doorstep of the big bad ruler. The story is good; it’s interesting. However, it starts off on rather cliché footing.
Even if the narrative is hard to follow or simply not to your liking, the open world, created by Ken Rolston of The Elder Scrolls fame and Ian Frazier of Titan Quest, is quite an interesting place to explore. It’s a land full of diverse monsters to fight, towns and cities to discover, and quirky characters to meet and befriend. While you may not feel at home in Amalur as you did in Skyrim, it’s still a worthy playground. The landscape has striking similarities to a certain MMORPG that millions have played, and many have left. Yes, Reckoning looks an awful lot like WoW. The forests and deserts and well designed and each area of the large map gives you a new flavor, a new color scheme, new enemies, and new allies. This is a vast open world to explore, and while you can technically starve off the main quest by doing side quests and simply stumbling from town to town, Reckoning likes to keep you on track and away from less forgiving enemies.
All of these elements blend together for an almost arcade-like experience. At times you may feel compelled to put a couple quarters next to your TV to secure your next game. In fact, Reckoning is one of the few RPGs (action or otherwise) that can give the player plenty of satisfaction in a 20 minute session. There is absolutely a ton to do, but it’s extremely fun to wander around and fight, or run a quick side quest for some extra coins.
When you have more time to invest into the game, you’ll find a quirky cast of characters fully voiced and animated. While the voice acting is generally impressive—and characters rarely go off on longwinded tangents—there are definitely issues with the character models and lip synching. The characters frequently look almost plastic in appearance, and facial expressions are fair at best. In addition, the dialogue wheel tends to flake-out, and sometimes you’ll have to select just what you want your silent protagonist to say—this could be a glitch, or it could just be something you’ll have to accept. While the dialogue wheel is very reminiscent of Mass Effect, it’s hard to tell if what you pick to say has any impact on the story. This could simply require another play through, but the level of decision making isn’t as strong as other titles—yes, it’s there, just not as deep.
Despite some minor technical issues—including a single system crash, pop-ins, and low draw distance—the game runs extremely well. That’s saying a lot for a game with such a lengthy story and large map to explore. The team certainly deserves congratulations for ironing out any major glitches, but rest assure there are some minor issues here and there.
If you like the idea of all this action, but still want your RPG fix, know that Reckoning has full crafting features, tons of side quests (including those that require an online pass), colorful NPCs, plenty of gear to upgrade with gems, and deep dungeons to explore. If you like the genre but were put off by Skyrim for either technical issues or gameplay, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning deserves a shot.
Your destiny is central to the story and gameplay in Reckoning. While characters may try to use that to their advantage, others will join forces with you and aid you in your quest. Much of the game is played alongside companions. The good news is that the A.I. is actually pretty good, especially for an RPG. Your allies will take care of themselves, they aren’t scared to attack enemies you haven’t engaged, and they aren’t pushovers. But at the same time, you’ll probably wish that the other character was a real-life friend, and not just the computer. That’s not a fault of the game—and we are still expecting an MMO in the Kingdoms of Amalur space—but the game just begs for a couch companion. Perhaps the sequel will have some co-op.
The enemies are generally tough, especially the boss battles, but they are also a bit too familiar. You tend to fight the same types of enemies throughout the game, and there is definitely an MMO feel to your encounters through a dungeon. Combat is real time, you swing your weapon with the square button, magic and blocking is tied to your triggers, and you roll with the circle button. Beyond that the game gets a bit repetitive in terms of battles. Sure, it’s a blast to have an RPG with such in-your-face combat, but it would have been nice to get a bit more variety in the encounters. Of course, you can always re-spec (at a cost) and change from a rogue-like warrior to a sword-wielding mage. But the loot system provides meager upgrades towards the second half of the game, and even early upgrades feel lackluster. For an RPG, we could have done with a more comprehensive and stylized loot/upgrade system to balance the intense combat.
With any luck 38 Studios will capture the attention of action and RPG fans so the team can make more games like this. It’s always hard to break out with a new IP, but Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is worth your attention, but you better have a big attention span as there is so much to do and see, you may run around for hours like a chicken with its head cut off. For those looking for a new world to obsess over for the next several months, look no further than the Amalur. It’s not quite as addicting as other recent RPGs, but it’s a refreshing break from familiar games. RPG fans need to give this a try.
A retail PS3 copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was provided for the purpose of this review. If you want to know why the review received this score, learn more here.