Review by sixgears2
"Reckoning may nt be able to stand with genre's best quite yet, but it's an excellent RPG all the same."
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is not Skyrim. There, I said it. There have been innumerable comparisons drawn between the two games since several months before Reckoning's release, but now that I have the title in hand I can safely say that those comparisons are mostly unwarranted. The same is true of the game's comparisons to Fable, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect. Reckoning is a combat-focused, deeper-than-average, single-player action RPG, and anyone heading into the world of Amalur should do so with that in mind. If you are expecting a sprawling, complex world full of brilliant narrative and complex relationships, you are probably going to come away disappointed. If, however, you are looking for a fun, accessible, and meaty action RPG experience that also happens to include some pretty interesting lore, look no further.
On a graphical level, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is something of a mixed bag. Its graphics are passable for this stage of the generation and feature some occasionally impressive lighting effects, but you are unlikely to be blown away by the game's beauty in a purely graphical sense. You may find yourself impressed with Reckoning's eclectic art direction, however. The world of Amalur forgoes the standard emphasis on realistic visuals; instead, everything you run across-characters, objects, monsters, and even buildings-have a charmingly stylized look to them. This may turn some players off, but I think the style fits well with the tone of the game and serves to really highlight Reckoning's scenes of intense violence. The contrast between a bright, happy looking forest full of chirping birds and the sounds of gurgling and showers of blood as you force a spear through a troll's neck emphasizes Reckoning's brutal combat more than just about anything else could. The game's visual department is also helped along by one of the richest color palettes I've seen in years, and it's refreshing to play a game that happily buries itself in blues, oranges, and greens instead of the typical greys and browns that we've all become so used to.
It's not all good news on the visual front, however. Reckoning does suffer from some shockingly bad lip synch animations and the developers appear to have decided not to include any facial expressions beyond apathetic disinterest. Every character in the world (including yours), has a completely expressionless demeanor that can be quite jarring depending on the situation. It really breaks immersion when you inform woman that her husband is dead only to be greeted by a face not entirely dissimilar to the one you probably put on while grocery shopping. The game is also tormented by some too-frequent low-res textures, occasionally shaky character models (especially during the game's many conversation cutscenes), and a few jarring frame drops here and there. None of these issues is particularly damaging to the experience as a whole, but they pop up frequently enough to bear mention.
Reckoning's sound design fares a little better. Combat sounds appropriately weighty and is even accompanied by small touches like hissing arterial spray or satisfying bone crunching that really help sell the fights to the player. The game's music is also quite good even if it's not mind-blowing and it manages to enhance the game's environments in just the right ways to be useful. Reckoning's voice acting, however, simply isn't up to snuff a lot of the time. It's certainly not the worst you'll ever hear-some actors and actresses actually border on talented-but many NPCs sound as if they are reading their lines instead of actually acting them out. Normally this wouldn't be much of an issue in an action RPG, but Reckoning is absolutely stuffed to bursting with dialogue. Nearly every Joe you meet has two to three minutes worth of dialogue to spout (if you choose to listen to them, of course), and you'll meet an awful lot of Joes. I often found myself simply reading the subtitles and skipping to the next bit of conversation since the writing is generally far more enjoyable than the acting.
Truthfully, Reckoning's writing and story are pretty damn good. Created by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, the world of Amalur is a unique fantasy setting in which an immortal race of creatures known as Fae continuously die and are reborn to continue living out a set of predetermined fates. Mortals are subject to these fates as well, although they obviously do not get the same chance at a do-over. Tensions between mortal men and the Fae run high, but things start getting out of hand when a renegade group of Fae known as the Tuatha decide to embark on a campaign of aggression against mortal lands. In the game's opening, the war with the Tuatha rages on as your lifeless body is carted to the Well of Souls for what amounts to a fantasy science experiment aimed at resurrecting the dead. It works, and you awake in a rotting pile of corpses deep inside a cave. As usual, your character's memory is gone and you can't remember where you're from or who you are. A relatively lengthy tutorial sequence finishes off the opening. It's about as fun as any mandatory tutorial out there, which is to say it isn't fun at all. In fact, the whole introduction is a little lackluster. Sadly, Reckoning gets off to an extremely slow and generally unimpressive start even by RPG standards and you may be tempted to write the game off as a boring knockoff for the first few hours. Stick with it; Reckoning really starts to come into its own once the story (and your character) has a chance to develop a little.
The game's story hinges around the idea that your character is not tied to the fates like other creatures. As such, you are able to choose your own destiny and even affect the destinies of those you come into contact with. After the afore mentioned opening sequence, you are set loose upon the world with the task of discovering exactly who you are and what significance your "fatelessness" has. It's an interesting take on the standard fantasy set-up, and I frequently found myself impressed by the creativity of the world that Salvatore has created here. Sure, all the standard fantasy tropes are here (albeit with different names), but there are enough unique aspects that I'd be lying if I didn't say that Mr. Salvatore did a pretty good job of creating a standout backdrop for Reckoning's story. The concept of the Fae endlessly repeating their own histories is particularly interesting, and its implications sometimes border on profound if you are willing to read between the lines a little.
Reckoning isn't a short experience. Amalur is completely jam packed with things to do, quests to take, loot to find, and monsters to kill. While not a "true" open world in the traditional sense, Amalur does offer a good deal of freedom to move about and explore as you like. The world is divided into multiple regions that encompass all of the traditional climes-desert, forest, plains, swamps, etc.-and each region is then divided into smaller provinces. Nearly all of these areas feature unique enemies and varied visual styles as well as boatloads of loot and items (you can always craft your own through the game's well-implemented crafting system, as well), so the repetition fatigue found in games that make frequent use of recycled environments (cough, Dragon Age 2, cough) is nowhere to be found. There are villages to save, cities to visit, and dungeons to crawl around just about every corner in Amalur, and I found myself moving forward just to see what lay ahead in the next region. It's a good thing that Reckoning is able to create that drive, too; with potentially hundreds of hours of playtime, lacking an interesting world or varied areas would be a death sentence.
All that content isn't without context, either. The world is stuffed with lore and back history, most of which is pretty interesting provided you are willing to take the time to speak at length with the world's hundreds (thousands?) of NPCs or read one of the game's many well-written books. Be warned, though, that conversations can occasionally be irritatingly long. I eventually found myself skipping certain topics in order to speed up the process. Still, I'd rather have too much information and backstory than not enough, and Reckoning certainly has no shortages in those departments.
Reckoning's massive heap of content is also backed by one of the best RPG combat systems ever created. Combat in Reckoning feels more in line with titles like God of War than with Skyrim or Fable. Your character will spend more time bouncing around from enemy to enemy performing various special moves and racking up combos than he will repeating the endless block, swing, block combat of other fantasy RPGs. All the standard action game staples are here-parries, dodges, counters, finishing moves, etc.-and each weapon type features unique versions of these actions. All of this is animated superbly and accompanied by some fantastically meaty sound effects, resulting in a complex, beautiful dance of death every time you encounter an enemy. I would be lying if I said that Reckoning's combat is on par with God of War or Devil May Cry, but it certainly isn't too far off and it is a vast improvement over the stale combat found in most RPGs these days. I think we've all just come to expect that a big RPG will necessarily have mundane combat, but Reckoning shows that that doesn't have to be the case. 38 Studios and Big Huge Games have proven that an RPG can and should have exciting, varied combat, and to be honest I think it will be difficult for me to ever go back to the old hack, block, hack, block formula after spending a substantial chunk of time in Amalur.
Lest you think that Reckoning's combat is all about combos and air juggles, I should mention that there are also special abilities, multiple weapon classes with their own strengths and weakness, and three archetype-based skill trees to climb. These trees are based around the standard three RPG foci of Might, Finesse, and Sorcery, and each offers progressively more advanced abilities as you invest points it. You'll also be investing points into base skills like Persuasion or Detect Hidden, but the meat of your leveling will take place in the abilities arena. Notably, you are not locked into only one of these trees at a time, so you are free to create a hybrid warrior/assassin or an archer/mage or any other combination you can think of. I wound up with a character that specializes equally in heavy greatswords and longbows, and the resulting options where damn near overwhelming. Thanks to a cheap and easily accessible option to respect at any time, I then turned my hero into a stealthy mage who could just as easily slit your throat from behind as drop a flaming meteor on your head. Players can also choose a "destiny" using Destiny Cards that they have collected. These cards confer various bonuses based on how you've distributed your skill points, further enhancing your options when it comes to character building. There's even a special finishing mode called Fate Shift that allows players to quickly dispatch all their enemies and then perform a brutal final kill that awards them with extra experience. Simply put, the level of customizability in Reckoning's combat is staggering. It is a breath of fresh air in a genre that too frequently stays mired in tradition instead of taking risks.
Sadly, Reckoning is not without its problems. The game's phenomenal combat system is frequently hindered by a schizophrenic camera that seems to lose its mind if you are engaging enemies standing more than five feet apart. You'll learn to live with it, but it can cause some significant frustration during complex fights. Of course, even getting to those fights can sometimes be a chore thanks to a frustratingly difficult to use on-screen mini-map. I strongly recommend that you turn the "Lock Mini-Map" option in the game's setting to off. It won't fix the problem entirely, but it does help. The inventory system is also downright clunky, a problem that takes a good amount of the shine off of Reckoning's varied weapon choices. You can only have two weapons equipped at any given time, so if you need to quickly pull out your daggers for a stealth kill or whip out a bow for a tough melee opponent, you'll have to dig through three layers of menu to get to them and then do the same thing again to equip your usual weapon when you're finished. A radial menu would have been extremely helpful here. Your inventory will begin to get a little out of control by the end of the game as well, and even though Reckoning includes a helpful junk category, scrolling through all of these things can be a hassle. It's also worth noting that the game suffers from one of the most generic lockpicking mini-games I've ever seen. That sucks, and especially so since you will most likely be picking quite a few locks during your time in Amalur.
There are also a few more fundamental design problems with Reckoning. Many dungeons include a Skyrim-esque loop design that allows players to quickly exit after clearing the area, but a good number do not. This means that you will often find yourself at the bottom of a deep dungeon with no option but to turn around and run all the way back out. This issue becomes even more annoying when the developers decide to spawn enemies in areas you just cleared, forcing you to fight your way through the dungeon all over again. There's really no excuse for that kind of lazy design choice in this age of more player-friendly RPGs. Beyond that, the game has a bad habit of burying important NPCs deep inside complexes so that simply getting to them requires passing through two or three full load screens-load screens that can be excruciatingly long if you don't have the game installed to your hard drive. This problem is exacerbated by the game's overuse of fetch-and-return quests that necessitate returning to the same NPC several times over the course of a quest line. None of this is game-breaking, but it does hold Reckoning back from being able to call itself a true triple-A title.
Overall, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a solid action RPG that manages to offer up just enough depth to satisfy long-time RPG gamers while also remaining accessible enough to be enjoyed by those new to the genre. If you head into Amalur with the expectation of a traditional RPG in the vein of Skyrim, you're bound to be disappointed. If, however, you are looking for an extremely enjoyable action RPG that manages to serve up some of the best combat this side of God of War, you're in for a real treat. Reckoning certainly has its problems and it can't stand among the titans of the genre just yet, but this is a solid first effort that belongs in most every RPG fan's library. I'm looking forward to seeing what the team does with this IP from here. Enjoy.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/16/12
Game Release: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (US, 02/07/12)
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