Before playing the demo, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning wasn’t really even a blip on my radar. It’s a weird post-holiday-season release from EA that is dropping a month before the real anticipated EA release of the first half of the year – Mass Effect 3. I’m really looking forward to ME3, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a new fantasy RPG series from a major publisher. I was really looking forward to something new and fresh, but I wasn’t really expecting what I ended up getting.
Have you ever bitten into a raw potato? If you ever have, perhaps you can understand what I mean when I say this game is dense, and at the same time painfully bland.
The opening of the game really does very little to draw you in. There’s a war on, and things are going poorly for our side. Shortly thereafter, our hero is brought back from death by an experimental magical device that has left him or her with no memories. After a short character creation and tutorial sequence, our hero is told that they are a special hero who might finally end the war from the intro movie. These are well-worn tropes, and I’ve been here, done that 100 times before in the fantasy RPG setting. Immediately I thought of the introduction to Planescape: Torment, which is a classic of the RPG genre, and a tall order to live up to.
The game then lets you loose on a large world map, and gives you a general direction to set out in. The setting is pretty generic fantasy, with art direction and character design heavily reminiscent of World of Warcraft. Quickly you come to the first town, a generic fantasy hamlet wherein a half dozen people want your assistance. Here the game proper begins.
You could pretty much describe the whole game experience with this cycle:
- Enter new, roughly square, area of fantasy geography (Plains/Forest/Mountains/Desert/etc.)
- Arrive at a new settlement
- Find a half dozen quests
- Go forth and kill quantity X monsters, loot Y bear pelts, locate missing artifact
- Return to town and collect reward (probably insignificant compared to the loot you recovered)
- Head East or South, as the case may be to find the next area
As you may have noticed, quests are the backbone of this game, and boy, are there a ton of them. The problem is that they are terribly generic and don’t tend to vary much from place to place. There’s always 5 of something to collect, some dungeon to explore (occasionally with a useless but unkillable NPC companion), or some artifact to recover. While at first this process is fun, after a while, the repetition starts to grate.
Integral to the questing is the combat system. It’s been lauded elsewhere, but I found it to be a little lacking, especially coming off of Batman’s sublime acrobatics. The base mechanics are relatively interesting, and there’s a wide variety of weaponry. I find myself heavily favoring the Chakrams, which are a magical throwing weapon that resembles a pair of flaming frisbees. They do heavy damage, at very long range, rarely miss, and can hit multiple enemies at once. I almost never find situations where they aren’t appropriate.
In addition to my weaponry, I’ve got a bunch of secondary abilities that consume Mana, and these are quite powerful. However, on my Xbox 360, I have control issues. To switch from weapon attacks to abilities/magic, you hold the right trigger. The face buttons then switch to their alternate functions. However, most of the time, the first time I press the button after holding the trigger, I do my primary attack instead of using my ability. This isn’t so bad when I end up throwing my Chakrams instead of doing a knockback attack, but it can become problematic when I roll out of position instead of firing a carefully timed lightning ball. This sucks a lot of the strategy out of the combat, and basically just boils it down to mashing the buttons and hoping that the right attack fires.
The dodge move and blocking are also problematic. The dodge move is quite short range and has a second or so cooldown, which means if an enemy is doing an area of effect attack, and my dodge doesn’t take me out of range, I’m likely to get hit by it anyhow. Some enemies also have homing attacks, which I’m supposed to block, but doing a dodge or an attack means I can’t block for a second or so, which results in me getting hit even though I tried to dodge and was holding block.
I’m not sure how this changes if you’re on a PC, but from what I’ve seen there’s a “hotbar” for skills that replaces this dual-mode button setup. I’m not sure if the blocking or dodging are any less responsive on that platform either.
Skills & Abilities
Character progression is controlled by two systems. The first is a set of “skills” which primarily control how difficult and/or rewarding the various crafting and looting minigames are, and the second is a set of “abilities” that give you special combat effects. The abilities are divided into Might, Sorcery, and Finesse, representing the standard RPG warrior, mage, and thief tropes respectively. How you divide your ability points up determines your Mana, Hit Points, and Destiny.
“Destiny” in this case is represented by a series of cards that you can choose from depending on how you’ve allocated your ability points. Each card gives you a bonus that should align with the play style you’ve chosen with your combination of skills and abilities.
The problem with these systems is that although there’s a good set of skills and abilities here, there are also some quite terrible ones. There are times when I level up when I just can’t decide what I should spend my ability points on, simply because all the choices available are pretty terrible. However, I know I have to spend the points to upgrade my chosen trees in order to get to the next tier of abilities. I realize not every level can bring a large increase in my overall power, but sometimes the difference between one and two points in an ability is a 3-5% damage increase, which really makes those ability points (and therefore my level up) feel like they’re worth very little.
Additionally, the skills you can get and the minigames they are related to are a bit lopsided. Dispelling is important for chests that are protected by magic, but the dispelling minigame is terribly difficult and not particularly rewarding. If you screw up, you often end up cursed. Being cursed can be debilitating, and requires that you exit the dungeon, fast travel to a city, and pay a healer to dispel it. On the other end of the difficulty curve is lockpicking, where I can pretty consistently pick “Very Hard” locks at level 1 with a minimum of broken picks.
On the other end of the skill spectrum, ranking up blacksmithing and sagecrafting skills is a total no-brainer. Sagecrafting turns shards, a common loot item, into gems, which are ridiculously valuable and able to confer unique bonuses to your equipment. With blacksmithing, you can disassemble items into their component parts, and reassemble them again. The only weird thing is that it’s possible to take a weapon apart and put the same parts back together and end up with more enchantments than before. Additionally, with even minimal skill in blacksmithing, you can cut a 17,000 gold repair bill into a 500 gold charge for a stack of repair kits. As they are somewhat lopsided compared to other skills, both of these are absolutely essential to any character.
One other major issue I have is the user interface. Tracking my quests on the map is a chore. I often find myself switching back and forth between the quest list and the map to determine what quest objective is closest to my current position. Given that there are crazy numbers of quests in this game, quest management is something I’d want to see more effort put into.
On the console, if you have more than four abilities, (and there are probably a couple of dozen in the ability tree) you’ll have to swap them out from the ability screen if you want to use them. This can get painful, especially when you’ve got a couple of core abilities (such as healing) that you always want on, but then need to swap in special abilities versus different enemies.
The Bottom Line
The end result is that this is a game with a few good core mechanics that suffers from too much time put into cookie cutter quests and environments, and not enough time put into polishing the game itself and fixing its issues. It’s got the kernel of something that could be epic, if they’d just taken the time to properly balance it rather than just shovel more content onto the disc.
If you’re in the mood for some generic fantasy action-RPG gaming, and can overlook a few flaws, you’ll get a lot of play time out of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. However, if you value quality over quantity, you’re better off finding something else to play.