The sheer depth of modern RPGs never ceases to amaze me. The worlds that become our fantastical playgrounds are rich not only in the visual flair that modern technology provides, but also in the imagined history, philosophy, and theology created by talented authors. One such author, R. A. Salvatore (famous for The DemonWare Saga and the Forgotten Realms series, among many other works), has probably had a larger influence on modern fantasy story-telling than any other author. With Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Salvatore brings his expansive, incredibly detailed universe into interactive reality with the help of acclaimed artist Todd MacFarlane (best known as the creator of Spawn), designer Ken Rolston (of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion fame), and 38 Studios (owned by former baseball player and avid gamer Curt Schilling). The result of such a consummate collaboration is an impressively deep third-person action/RPG that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The tale follows your created character who overcomes the notable handicap of being dead. After choosing your sex, appearance, and race (one of four with differing initial stat bonuses), you are unceremoniously dumped into a pit known as the Well of Souls. Of course, with a moniker like that the fact that you climb out of a pile of corpses shouldn't come as much of a surprise. But here's the rub: seeing as how you were dead and all, you no longer have a fate. With no memory of your previous life, you start with a blank slate. In the world of Amalur, this is a big deal. In the game Reckoning, it means you get to do pretty much whatever you want!
How this miracle plays into the events of the world of Amalur at large is the crux of the narrative. A terrible war has ravaged the land for over a decade. As with many fantasy games, there is plenty of content here that you have to take for granted. Without going into the confusing details (a passing familiarity with Salvatore's works goes a long way, but rest assured it's all basic fantasy fare with a lot of made-up words, locales, and cliche laden dialogue), there is an evil fae King who has corrupted the spirits of nature, tricking them into waging war against the mortal races (humans, elves, and gnomes) in the name of a new god. But where did you fit into the conflict before your untimely demise? And now that you've returned from beyond the veil, how can you change the fate of the world?
Because you have no destiny, your silent protagonist can effectively change the course of events around him. Naturally, this means everyone expects you to solve their problems. Usually this "errand boy" syndrome annoys me, but in Reckoning I found there was enough variety in both main missions and side quests that motivation wasn't too much of an issue. The world of Amalur is a massive one, but it's not truly open in the sense that other games in the genre are. Instead, areas are connected by pathways that remind me more of World of Warcraft. Moving from one area to the next brings forth new missions and new enemies. You can tackle the game in any order you see fit, but what I found impressive is how following the story missions (and, to a lesser extent, the side quests) progressed you organically eastward through the map. The size of the job in front of you is evident from reviewing said map... it just goes on and on.
Your lack of a proper fate also factors into gameplay. Whenever you engage in combat you gain "fate" points, filling up a meter. Once full, you can enter "Reckoning Mode:" a slow motion realm in which you deal massive damage. Knock down as many enemies as possible before time runs out, then focus on one and enter a brutally satisfying quick-time event called a fate shift. This finishes off all the enemies at once by removing their strings from the tapestry of fate all together... and giving you a healthy XP boost as well. It's important to keep an eye on your fate gauge; entering Reckoning mode can turn the tide of a battle quickly!
Speaking of combat, this is where Reckoning really shines. The whole idea that you have a blank slate naturally figures into how you configure your character. There are a host of abilities you can upgrade every time you level up (blacksmithing, alchemy, stealth, etc.), as well as three points per level to put into skill trees for might, sorcery, and finesse (melee, mage, and rogue classes respectively). You can distribute these points however you see fit. You'll need to have enough in certain areas to unlock the next tier in the skill tree, or be able to wield certain weapons or don specific armors. But there is another wrinkle: as you progressively get stronger you unlock new "destinies." These tarot-style fate cards give you stat bonuses based on how you have chosen to level up thus far. What is nice is they can be spread out across multiple disciplines, so if you want to play a hybrid style you can. These can also be changed at any time. If you decide half way through that you don't like how you developed your character, you can visit a Fateweaver (a sort of mystic who can read the tapestry of fate) who will reset all your stats so you can reallocate them however you wish mid-game... albeit for a hefty fee. I love the flexibility and freedom this provides: if you feel like trying something new, you don't have to start from scratch!
But what is really fun about this set up is that you are never really tied down to playing with one particular style, regardless of how you've allocated your points upon leveling up. Each class has differing weapon specialties, and you can equip a primary and secondary weapon to the face buttons (the other two being your sprint and dodge/roll abilities). Magic is accessed by holding down a trigger with different skills pre-mapped to the face buttons. At first, combat seems like an overly simple affair. Combos are essentially timed button presses and you can get by with button mashing. The trick is to mix up your attack between your two slotted weapons and magic at the same time. For example, I played as a mostly rogue style class, with daggers (or the awesome faeblades) as my primary weapon and a bow as the secondary. When I advanced on an enemy, I had a ranged weapon to snipe, magic for mid-range, and my fast daggers when they got too close... all without opening a menu or pausing the game. I felt invincible! Of course, you can augment or change your weapon load out at any time. Experimenting with different combinations has rarely been as fun, and because you can change your entire character make-up at any time, there is no buyer's remorse.
Reckoning also has a brilliant crafting system. Honestly, I haven't had this much fun making weapons and armor since Rogue Galaxy (those who played it are nodding their heads right now...). By breaking down weapons into their component parts at a forge, you can then reconstitute them in a different order to gain different bonuses. The higher your blacksmithing skill, the better components you'll get when you salvage gear and the more components you can use when creating new stuff. Your sagecraft skill (crafting gems) is also important because you can place gems into sockets on weapons and armor to give even more bonuses, or even use them in the creation of gear. I had endless fun tinkering with different variations. After some experimentation, I found myself purchasing weapons from vendors just to break them down; the stuff I made far exceeded anything I could buy or even find in the game! My only complaint is that you don't garner experience when you crafting either armaments or potions, which seems a little odd.
There is an interesting dichotomy with the graphics in Reckoning. On the one hand, the environments are vibrant and colorful, if slightly exaggerated. However, the character and creature design is more reminiscent of the stylized, almost cartoonish style of Fable or even World of Warcraft. This is not necessarily a negative, but comparatively it is a little jarring. But my largest gripe is that the lip-syncing is terrible... as in no effort was made at all. Considering the enormous amount of recorded dialogue for this game, it makes this all the more noticeable.
So where does Reckoning come up short? Well, it falls prey to the limitations of the genre. The biggest is the fact that there is almost too much to do. Seriously, they could have cut out a third of Reckoning and the game wouldn't have suffered for it. As with most third person action games, the camera can sometimes be a handicap. Getting hit by unseen enemies is never fun. Also, I don't feel like blocking worked nearly as well as it should. The timing has to be immaculate, but it sometimes felt like there was a bit of a delayed response.
The Diablo-esque loot system works well, but after you figure out how to craft the best weapons and armor, shops become a bit redundant. By the time I was half way through I had so much coin I could have just purchased pretty much everything without ever worrying about it. There are a few moments where the game hints at a moral choice system, but you never really get a sense of the repercussions, which begs the question of why it was included in the first place. There are plenty of tricks to exploit in combat, even against larger enemies or groups that remove most challenge from battle, rendering the game almost too easy.
There is also an issue with progression... there are plenty of forks in the road. Depending on the order you choose to complete the quests, you might find yourself overpowered in some areas and underpowered in others. Early on the difference is negligible, but the more powerful you become the more obvious it is when you reach a new area and breeze through it. I've rarely seen a more convincing argument for so-called "progressive leveling," where your enemies level with you.
With a game as expansive as this, technical issues are par for the course. I'm happy to report I only encountered a few texture pop-in issues, which seemed more prevalent during conversations depending on the angle the camera decided to take. If you have the ability to install the game to a hard drive, I'd recommend it as that will cut down on the annoyingly substantial (and frequent) load times. The game only actually froze up on me completely once. Thankfully you can save anywhere at any time, so frequently saving to multiple slots avoids any issues for the most part.
In the end, I was surprised by just how much fun I had with my time in Amalur... and the key word there is fun. Is Reckoning as good as the other big RPG it will inevitably be compared to: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? The short answer is no; it doesn't illicit the same sense of wonder and awe. But having said that, I had more fun playing Reckoning, and at the end of the day that's why I play games in the first place. Sure, the plot may have been a little convoluted, but I never tired of the combat system, and the amount of time I spent crafting is embarrassing. Reckoning certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but their unique take on the genre may just impact future games. Fans of RPGs should take note; if you want to try something a little different, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is definitely worth your time!
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Kingdoms of Amalur: Recknoning provided by Electronic Arts.