Counterpoint: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

2012-03-04 by . 1 comments

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Before playing the demo, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning wasn’t really even a blip on my radar. It’s a weird post-holiday-season RPG from EA that is dropping two months after the most anticipated RPG game of last year – Skyrim. I really enjoyed Skyrim, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a new fantasy RPG series that dared to emerge so close in the wake of Skyrim. I wasn’t really expecting something totally new and fresh, so I was pleasantly surprised with what I ended up getting.

Kingdoms of Amalur is, in my eyes, an RPG-lite. It’s the well-rounded love child of Skyrim and Darksiders. It’s Exactly-What-It-Says-On-The-Tin, no more, and no less. Amalur, is an RPG targeted for consoles. That means less exploration, and more combat than Skyrim, and beyond that, a faster pace and more loot than the traditional RPG.

Initial Impressions

When I was first exposed to the Kingdoms of Amalur demo, the first thing that struck me was the setting. Tolkien-esque fantasy seems to be the norm, but Amalur dares to divert from this, discarding the notions of Orcs, Elves, and Dwarfs, for the European folklore of fey and faeries.

The main plot of the game casts the player character not as some destined hero of legend, but instead an unpredictable destroyer and instrument of change. The world was perfectly fine — until you came along.

Amalur does not aim to appear realistic, and the world is vibrant and full of color. Coming from Skyrim’s world of grays and whites, it was a welcome change.

Gameplay

The gameplay will seem pretty standard to anyone familiar with the genre – go to an area, get quests in area, complete quests in area, move on. Most locations on the map have an associated quest, and if you’re compelled to complete the majority of the quests you encounter (like me) be prepared for some backtracking (though there is a wonderful quick-travel option).

Amalur does an okay job at avoiding the “10 Bear Asses” trope, and often your quest will be to retrieve an item (or rescue someone), or defeat a boss, rather than simply kill until you’re satiated. Most of the kill quests I’ve encountered are for specific creatures, or groups of creatures, not some arbitrary number, which gives the games quest a feeling very much like that of Skyrim’s radiant quests (though Amalur doesn’t generate them on the fly or re-use past dungeons).

But the game has its fair share of interesting quests, too – there was a logic puzzle quest where I had to find the proper order for a group of stuffy nobles to enter the King’s court, and there was another where I was tasked with finding the parts for, and assembling, “souvenir” weapons to sell to tourists at exorbitant prices. There was even a quest (which fittingly offered no reward) to find the remains of dead silk farmers, and inter them in a local cemetery.

The issue with this, if it can be considered an issue at all, is that there are perhaps more quests than there should be – if you stick around to complete all the quests, you’ll quickly outlevel the area the quests are in, and while most of the dungeons will scale to your level to give you an appropriate challenge, monsters in the overworld will quickly be demoted to “gray” status, where they give little experience, poor loot, and hardly any fate (more on this last bit on a minute).

Combat

Combat in this game feels quite similar to the Witcher 2; it’s usually one against many, and getting hit will interrupt your attacks. While you can block attacks (and even launch a riposte if you time it just right), I found that the block mechanic just a tad too slow for my tastes, and found it much easier to simply dodge away. Combat is one area this game simply blows Skyrim out of the water. Combat in the Elder Scrolls games sucks – it’s the elephant in the room, but it’s true. Combat in Amalur is not. It’s sufficiently challenging, and what’s more, it feels fluid, responsive, and downright cinematic.

Tristan shows off his chakrams against a Jotun Runelord!

This is overshadowed a bit by the titular “Reckoning” mode. Call it what you like — limit break, super meter, going Super Saiyan — it’s borderline overpowered. Even in the leveled dungeon encounters, entering reckoning mode is an “I win” button. Deal more damage, take less damage, slow time and earn bonus experience? The only reason not to use it more often is because it takes quite some time (perhaps 10 minutes of standard play) to refill the meter between uses. It is filled with “Fate”, something usually earned by killing enemies. But as an overleveled melee character who killed enemies in 2 hits, this meant it took forever to fill up, since grey enemies don’t reward fate, and you don’t get any for simply fighting things unless you manage to complete the three-hit combo.

The biggest flaw in the combat system (other than the blocking) stems from Amalur being aimed at a console audience – PC users (like myself) have no way to adjust the field of view. It’d be a lot easier if I could zoom out a little, but as it is, I spent most of my time in Webwood getting interrupted by spider venom flying in from off screen.

Skills and Abilities

And yet, by all reports, the PC is one of the better platforms for the game. The PC version has a hotbar for spells and abilities, and while it’s a little awkward to have the hotbar change the active ability (instead of using the active ability), it supports twice the number of options console players get.

Abilities in Amalur come in three flavors, the holy trinity of Roguelikes the world over — Warrior, Mage, and Thief.

The three trees are pretty disparate, but there’s simply not much choice – there’s one path if you want to be an archer, one path if you want to be an assassin – type, and there exists only a single primary spell for each of the elemental schools. (But it still holds up favorably to Skyrim) You might want to play your character as a pyromancer, or a summoner, but there’s very little the game allows you to do beyond that.

The flip side of this is the Skill System, which is strictly inferior to Skyrim. Skills are on a separate progression path than Abilities, and are, for the most part, largely non-combat. Skills are where you get your lock-picking, your alchemy, and your persuasion.

The skill tree, in all its glory!

The issues here are that, aside from the crafting skills and detect hidden, the skills feel largely useless. If you’re good at the lockpicking and trap dispelling minigames, there’s no need to invest in improvements to those skills, and other options, like Mercantile, only serve to increase the amount of gold you gain (Amalur already gives more gold than things to spend it on even after only a few hours of play), stealth (which is largely marginalized and less-than-useful in the first place), or persuasion (which lets you extort people for more reward or get out of fights — because clearly we want more useless money and less opportunities to kick ass).

The crafting skills are on the other end of the spectrum, as the items it creates flatly knock the pants off most non-crafted equipment in the game, especially once you invest a few levels into it. The disparity between these two classes of skills is immense, and generally comes off as a weird (and not very interesting) system. Of course, there’s no reason to not simply get both. It’s ridiculously easy to max every skill, so you don’t even have to choose what to focus on.

Conclusions

Amalur occupies the unique niche between brawler and RPG, and while it doesn’t blast either genre out of the park on its own, the two come together to create a satisfying game. It’s got vibrant visuals (a blessing for all gray/brown former Skyrim players), an uncommon setting (more Norse than High Fantasy), and a visceral combat system that lets your character feel powerful no matter how you choose to build them.

Amalur’s not for everyone, but if you enjoy action-heavy RPGs, or are looking for a less intimidating way to introduce yourself to the genre, Amalur’s everything you could ask for, and more.

One Comment

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  • Sterno says:

    I had a lot of fun playing Amalur in the beginning. The sheer number of quests started to overwhelm me and I eventually switched to just the main quest line and faction quests. By the end, I was very ready to be done, and have no interest in going back and exploring the rest of the world of side quests.

    Amalur’s fun at what it does, but it all starts to feel the same after a while, which severely hurts its replayability. I in no way regret having played it, but unlike something like Skyrim, I think it fits better as the sort of game you might pick up on a $10 or $20 Steam sale, play for a weekend or two, and then forget about.

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