Developer: Big Huge Games
"But is it as good as Skyrim?"
Bethesda's monstrous RPG has a lot to answer for. It irrevocably raised our expectations for what RPGs can achieve, and Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning has suffered under the weight of countless comparisons over the last few weeks and months. Luckily for Big Huge Games, though, these comparisons are reductive and irrelevant. Reckoning is a product of the old school; a more compartmentalised take on the genre that shares many similarities with Fable and KOTOR... yet offers a truly epic amount of content.
Speaking of old-school, Ken Rolston doesn't mess about when it comes to creating epic RPGs. The grizzled architect of Morrowind and Oblivion is no stranger to scale and scope, and his influence is felt throughout every square mile of terrain. Excitingly, though, Reckoning aims to bridge the gap between expansive and impenetrable; to make the action as accessible as possible and providing thrilling moment to moment gameplay through dynamic, responsive combat. It's an ambitious mission. And Rolston has delivered where it counts.
First things first: Reckoning is huge. I can't stress this enough. Each and every expansive area teems with chests to unlock, towns to visit, dungeons to delve through and countless sidequests to embark on despite being expertly hemmed in by plenty of impassable valley walls. The thrill of discovering that Reckoning's staggeringly vast first zone is just a tiny district of an unbelievably capacious continent is enough to make your head spin and leave RPG fans convulsing, frothing at the mouth, in front of their televisions.
Unlike the Elder Scrolls series, however, this content is ladled out in manageable chunks that gradually add up to an open world; with the ability to roam countered with a finely-honed level curve that punishes those who stray too far. This is a considerate move rather than a restriction; allowing players to explore without becoming paralysed by indecision. It's rare to see focus and freedom balanced so brilliantly.
Be in no doubt: there is easily between 50-100 hours of gameplay to be found here. Potentially double that if you're diligent.
On to the specifics. Players assume the role of a amnesiac hero brought back to life by an unnatural arcane device. Every man, woman, child and monstrous dungeon denizen is governed by a fixed destiny from the moment they're born, but by breaking the cycle, you alone have the ability to determine your own fate as well as that of others. The Fateless One is soon thrown into a war between the mortal races and a faction of depraved immortal Fae, a perfect premise for adventure.
The questing is overtly reminiscent of Fable and other RPGs of its type. Amalur is peppered with towns and homesteads that offer a number of major subquests - each of which has its own entertaining story arc - as well as a plethora of smaller fetch/kill/kill and fetch objectives to accomplish in your own time. Exploring the wilderness reveals hundreds of loot drops, bandit camps, dungeons and lore stones ripe for the pillage. Pockets full, you'll high-tail back to civilisation, sell the chaff and plan your next move. Limited NPC interactions, plenty of unlootable foes, a brusquely streamlined take on property development and the lack of romance options etc offer less micromanagement and narrative freedom than we're used to from the genre, but keeps us focused on the fact that The Fateless One is a true hero who's destined for more than the ordinary. Though repetition is unavoidable and randomly-abandoned chests break the immersion (who leaves these chests scattered around the wilderness? Who?!), there's still an inordinate amount of addictive content to see and accomplish.
Much has been made of Reckoning's much-vaunted combat, and Big Huge Games' swagger is absolutely deserved. Reckoning allows you to simultaneously wield two weapons and a small selection of combat skills in fast-paced, responsive and engaging action gameplay that stacks up with the best the third person action genre has to offer. Want to wield a greatsword and mage staff? A bow and daggers? Two bows? Insane orbiting Chakram and a ruinous warhammer? Simple two-button controls and intuitive time-sensitive combos make it happen. An block and dodge roll are on hand to provide evasive options, or allow you relocate behind foes for devastating counter-attacks. Regardless of which weapons you favour, which spells you sling and how you choose to specialise, you're guaranteed an exciting and satisfying experience.
As a fateless hero, you automatically absorb potential destiny from enemies into your charging Fate bar. Once full, you can unleash a short-lived Fateshift mode that slows down time and allows you to unleash some horrifyingly brutal instant-kill QTE attacks. It doesn't charge often enough to fall back on, but saving it for when you need it will pay dividends.
The combat lacks the responsiveness as Bayonetta and the satisfying technicality of Devil May Cry. But the fact that I'm comparing it to these games in the first place ought to stand testament to just how excellent Reckoning's battling is.
Reckoning takes a pared-back approach to character development. Levelling up through quest completion and combat grants you points to invest in three distinct skill trees - Might, Finesse and Magic - which act as character defining traits as well as offering a handful of active and passive abilities. Might, as you'd expect, allows you to specialise in martial weapons, physical damage buffs and soldierly skills. Finesse deals with sneaky chicanery like stealthy backstabs, bow mastery and poisons. And magic is, erm, magic. Fire, lightning, ice. Instead of bombarding the player with an obscene number of secondary abilities, Reckoning prefers to offer a small number of upgradeable options that remain relevant throughout the campaign, mapped to the right trigger and face buttons for easy reach. It's another accessible touch that makes Reckoning much less daunting for new players.
Might, Finesse and Magic also act as a measure of your character's class. They determine what armour and weapons (of which are are an obscene number) you can equip as well as unlocking Destinies. These tarot cards act as optional specialist classes that grant you powerful stat increases as well as unlocking new abilities such as a combat teleport. You're free to mix and match between any combination of the three archetypes - mastering them all or specialising in one or two... safe in the knowledge that you can respec at any time by visiting a fortune-telling Fateweaver. Experimentation is key, and working out which play styles suit you best is as addictive and exciting as the questing itself.
You'll end up visiting a Fateweaver sooner rather than later if you plan on using stealth, mind. The system is functional enough (press the right bumper to activate a painfully slow sneak mode, simple), but Reckoning delights in spawning mobs directly in front of you. Since awareness is based solely on line of sight, they'll tend to notice you immediately. On top of this, pulling off a backstab instantly disables stealth mode and leaves you at the mercy of the rest of the horde. My first build concentrated solely on stealth skills and maxed out the ability, but in practical terms, it just isn't particularly useful for anything but a handful of faction quests. I quickly found myself trading in the points for something more useful.
Your character will be infinitely more than just a one-dimensional slaughter machine, though. Pleasingly, Reckoning's non-essential abilities enjoy their own separate skill points and progression, allowing you to dabble in the more esoteric aspects of the experience without sacrificing combat prowess. You can become a master blacksmith capable of assembling mighty masterworks out of odds and ends. An erudite orator whose honeyed words are deadly weapons. A locksmith, bane to anyone stupid enough to try and keep vast riches out of your greedy grasp. An sagecrafter who can craft powerful socketed gems, or a dispeller focusing on breaking magical wards. An alchemist. An explorer. Or any combination of the above, and more besides. Specialising in these abilities provides new gameplay opportunities, entertaining minigames and even addictive metagames, further bulking out the hefty package.
Sadly the GUI and menu system creaks and groans under the weight of this level of depth. You'll have to trawl through unending lists of items, weapons and armour to equip and compare your gear, assisted only slightly by the ability to assign items as junk when you pick them up. Combat may be dynamic and slick, but the real battle will be constantly waged in the inventory menu. There's also no option to snap to a quest's location on the world map, rather, you'll have to assign a quest, open the map, search for it, go back to the quest page and repeat the process when deciding which one to take first. This is a real bugbear, and though it comes with the territory, I can't help wonder whether Rolston's dream team should have found a different solution to the age-old problem.
From a visual standpoint, Reckoning is artisitically rich and graphically solid. Todd McFarlane (him of Spawn fame) has excelled himself here, creating a vibrant and colourful world that's a delight to behold. Lush environments and nifty features like magical foliage that unfolds in your presence go a long way towards fleshing out the varied lands of Amalur. In contrast, however, the caricatured and cartoony character design forces us to suspend disbelief far more often than necessary in the game's darker moments - and is jarringly reminiscent of World Of Warcraft.
I wish that I could finish the review here. I really do. But Reckoning has an Achilles Heel a mile wide, and I'm duty-bound to target it with the full force of my critical powers.
Creating a brand new IP lets developers design a universe from scratch. Big Huge Games and veteran writer R.A. Salvatore had the opportunity to create something new and exciting, to stamp their own authority on the tired old fantasy setting. But they bottled it. Amalur is the same rehashed Tolkien-inspired clone we've explored countless times over the last twenty years, functionally identical to everything that's come before save that the elves now have silly names. It's Albion, Abeir-Toril, Azeroth and Middle Earth in all but name; pretty but so derivative that each and every enemy, locale or character might as well have a label proudly displaying which franchise they've been lifted from. The contrived setting hangs like a millstone around the sweet combat and masterful exploration, failing to provide the excitement and compulsive drive we've come to expect from RPGs since the Infinity Engine days. For every great idea like the play-acting House Of Ballads faction, there's a troupe of giant spiders, a pack of wolves, Kobolds or player character amnesia waiting to mire us in what came before.
Competent and varied voice talent abounds, but no-one has anything interesting to say. NPCs dole out dull globs of cliched exposition when quizzed; and telling players that they're inhabiting an exciting and dynamic world is very different from actually immersing us in one. Limp scripting and insipid dialogue stops any of the supporting characters from threatening to become even slightly memorable, to the extent where I'm hard-pressed to remember any of their names despite putting down the controller less than an hour ago. There's an ornery old solder and a sexy scantily-clad rogue, but these tropes stopped being interesting when the Dreamcast was the latest gaming innovation.
Bethesda stamped their authority on fantasy RPGs with Tamriel: a land of unpredictable wonder and infinite potential. BioWare birthed the Mass Effect universe and populated it with original races and unforgettable characters. None of that conviction or creative courage is on show here. In striving to create the biggest and hugest game possible, Big Huge Games lost sight of the fact that they also have the duty to build an exciting world first and foremost.
It's a bitter shame, because these flaws are so sharply defined by the rest of the game being so effortlessly excellent.
- Compelling and versatile character creation
- Phenomenal combat
- Big. Huge. Game!
- Gutless, insipid fantasy setting, weak scripting, forgettable support characters
- Useless stealth mechanics
- Awkward menus/GUI
The Short Version: Big Huge Games have made a big huge game, and one that's good for hundreds of hours of addictive questing. The brilliant combat and compelling skill system absolutely deserved stronger characters and a more imaginative, less insipid setting, but Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning absolutely nails the 'Playing Game' aspect of RPGs. With gameplay this good, we're willing to forgive the compromise in the 'Role' department.