Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning by newcomer 38 Studios doesn’t feel like a debut game. The pure confidence with which it presents itself is refreshing because it knows what kind of game it wants to be. While some might be tempted to write Amalur off as just another Western RPG like Skyrim with some World of Warcraft thrown in for color, they’d be wrong.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning might be built upon the backs of familiar fantasy and RPG tropes, but it gets them right more often than it gets them wrong.
Bold and brash. Those two adjectives sum up what Amalur is about perfectly. It’s an action RPG that is all about making your character the biggest badass with the coolest gear around. It’s an escapist power fantasy, but it never pretends to be anything else.
You start Amalur as a recently resurrected corpse, the first person ever properly brought back to life by the Well of Souls. A streamlined menu lets you customize your appearance and then you’re thrust into the world of Amalur–a world penned by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore and illustrated by Todd MacFarlane.
Within minutes you’ve already had a taste of the combat and what your character can do. Already from the beginning you’re able to utilize swords, bows, stealthy daggers, or even hurl bolts of lightning at your enemies.
There are three schools of combat in Amalur: Might, Finesse, and Sorcery. They function exactly how they sound. The Might tree gives you access to warrior abilities including extra damage protection, a harpoon-like attack similar to Scorpion’s from Mortal Kombat, and others. Finesse is your stealthy rogue/archer skill tree where you can unlock skills like extra bow damage, stealth attacks, and traps. And finally Sorcery is your magic skill tree, full of elemental damage spells, self-healing spells, and even summoning spells.
Because your character is “Fateless”, you’re given the freedom to allocate your skill points however you see fit, and unlike most other RPGs you can’t make a mistake. By paying a Fateweaver a paltry sum of gold, you’re able to respect your character anytime you’d like. Amalur’s main narrative thrust is about your character being free from Fate, and the leveling system mirrors this. You’re free to build your character into the type of killing machine you want. Personally, my favorite was a hybrid class built from the Might and Finesse trees. I might have lacked some crowd control, but I made up for it with tons of critical hits during one on one fights.
As you sink points into your skill trees of choice, you unlock Destinies (basically just classes) that grant extra bonuses like increased spell damage or extra physical resistance. Again, the theme of picking and choosing how you want to play is built right into the Destinies system. They’re easily swappable depending on your style of play.
So that’s how you kill things in the world of Amalur, but what about the world itself? 38 Studios did a really fine job crafting Amalur, but I did have a minor complaint. While huge, the world isn’t wide open like Skyrim, but rather a series of large environments connected by what’re essentially corridors. Again, a minor complaint, but it did call attention to the fact that I was in a videogame world.
Players familiar with fantasy tropes will recognize a lot of the inhabitants in Amalur, but that’s not a bad thing. Amalur is a game that knows what it wants to be, and that’s a game with elves, gnomes, humans, fae, and a whole host of recognizable creatures but with a few twists. The lore surrounding Amalur is huge, and if you’re inclined, you can read books, question NPCs, or seek out Lorestones to find out more about it. However all these things, including the hundreds of sidequests, are purely optional. Play your way.
Most of the sidequests are just filler to gain EXP and better loot, but there are several faction quests you can undertake if you like. Players hopping over from Skyrim will feel right at home here. You can help out the Warsworn mercenaries, the Travlers–a group of thieves, or the two Houses of the Fae. There aren’t as many factions available as Skyrim, but they offer quests with a little more impact than some of the other smaller ones that tend to stray towards MMO-style “go here and kill X amount of some monster.”
But even some of the duller quests are improved by Amalur’s excellent combat. Rather than a slow, clunky system like in Skyrim or Fallout 3, combat in Amalur is fast-paced and brutal, like something closer to God of War or Darksiders. You’ll find yourself dodging enemy attacks, slashing them with daggers, to then quickly firing a few arrows, to finishing everything off with an AOE attack that summons flaming spires of rock from the ground. Landing a perfectly timed block always brought a little smile to my face, even after thirty hours of playing.
Despite that, there are a few issues with the combat. You know that AOE attack I just mentioned? By the end of the game, my main attack was doing more damage than it or my other abilities. For being a game built on flashy abilities, some of them feel surprisingly weak. They can be hard to aim, and if you miss just slightly, you leave yourself wide open for enemy attacks that always seem to hit you. Even projectile attacks are able to bend their courses midflight and hit you even if you thought you dodged out of the way. (An enemy called a Thresh is particularly guilty of this sin). It’s a minor annoyance but never one that threatened to stop me from playing.
Plus you’re only able to have four abilities mapped at one time, so investing skill points in more than four active abilities is a little pointless. At least with the sustained abilities you can map them, turn them on, then put something else in their slot. Not the most streamlined system, but nothing game-breaking either.
For as big as the world of Amalur is, there are surprisingly few enemy types. Sure they get stronger as you along, but I would’ve liked to see something other than wolves, generic humans, and boggarts. The end areas of the game are nothing more than glorified linear corridors with the same enemies (Tuatha soldiers and Prismere Trolls) over and over and over. These sections imply that 38 Studios started running out of either time or budget by the time they got there.
All of these issues are minor, but there is one left that is holding Amalur back from being truly great. I don’t know how much I want to replay it. Because the game doesn’t lock you into a specific class, you don’t have to play a different character if you want to be a mage instead of a warrior. It’s a double-edged sword; you have the freedom to play how you want, but would you really want to do it all again? You’re never locked out of any of the faction quests due to choices you’ve made. So if you finish the game and do all the faction quests, what incentive is there to keep going? Maybe more endgame content will be released as DLC, but that’s not guaranteed. (Edit: The Legend of Dead Kel DLC was just announced yesterday)
If you’d feel satisfied by playing through the game once for thirty or forty hours, then I highly recommend Amalur. The same if you’re a fan of fast-paced action RPGs in huge, colorful worlds. But if you’re the kind of person who feels cheated when a game doesn’t require multiple playthroughs to experience everything, then maybe this isn’t for you.
Amalur is a game that makes no pretenses about what it is. Every town has people in need, every monster needs killing, and every cave and dungeon needs exploring. You’ll want to keep taking on quests because maybe you’ll get a new sword that does more damage and looks cooler. Its dedication to enhancing player-power makes it a joy to play, even if a few minor issues keep it from true excellence.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning