REVIEW: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning [PC]

With such a lengthy name, you’d expect Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to be a continuation of an already successful series, but the reverse is actually true. 38 Studios and Big Huge Games have developed and released Reckoning, an entirely singleplayer affair, with hopes of later expanding into the MMO sphere with a game set in the same world.

That seems a little ambitious, until you consider the people involved in Reckoning‘s development.

Leading the design team is Ken Rolston, previously a lead designer on Morrowind and Oblivion from the Elder Scrolls series. Creating the fictional world’s history and lore is R.A. Salvatore, best known for writing the Drizz’t Do’Urden novels. And they’ve got Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, working on the artwork.

The game’s pedigree is top notch, but with the similarly appealing Skyrim still dominating many RPG fans’ brains it’s going to take more than a few famous names for Reckoning to entice consumers.

The story starts out predictably enough. There’s an evil dude doing evil things on his way to taking over the world. Or on his way to murdering everyone in the world. Perhaps both.

His plan might not be apparent but from the first time you see him, you know he’s the bad guy (his eyes glow, always a sure sign). He also seems to have murdered a bunch of noble looking elf types (the Fae) in the opening cinematics. Also: His name is Gadflow. If my parents had named me that I’d probably grow up a bit cranky, too.

This is where you step into the world.

Actually, this is where you get wheeled in. You see as the game starts, your character is dead and being wheeled off in a cart by two gnomish looking fellows.
It’s not clear how you wound up dead, but you’re not destined to stay that way. A brilliant gnome has created what he calls the “Well of Souls” to capture the essence of the recently departed and reincarnate that spark of life in a new body.
As with other such ambitious projects, things haven’t gone exactly to plan and while you will turn out to be the first success of the project… this won’t be discovered until after your “corpse” has been dumped into a huge pile of festering failures of the past.

It’s not a cheery start, but it does set the tone for the game nicely. The world of Amalur has seen better days and the goodly inhabitants are hoping your unique origin is a sign the tide is turning back in their favour.

Part of the lore of the world dictates that everyone’s Fate is inevitable. Fateweavers can see the threads of Fate and divine the future to a limited extent, as it pertains to an individual. They can even see when someone is destined to die.

Except something in the Well of Souls resurrection process has broken your previous destiny and now you’re free to shape your own… or alter Fate’s plan for others, a power previously considered the domain of the gods. In terms of game mechanics the Fate system manifests itself in a couple of ways. The most spectacular being the game’s signature Fateshift attacks.

[img_big]center,52,2011-10-03/reckoning_-_4_bmp_jpgcopy.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

Combat in the game plays out much like many other action RPGs. Hit X to attack with your primary weapon, hit it multiple times to start a combination attack. Or hit Y to use your secondary weapon, B to dodge attacks, Left Trigger to block with an equipped shield and Right Trigger to cast spells. You can even create impromptu combinations, popping an enemy into the air with your primary weapon before unleashing arrows from a secondary bow weapon, or blocking an attack with a shield and retaliating with a spell

Using fancy combinations, special attacks and the like lets you build up Fate energy. Filling the power bar lets you trigger a Fateshift and enter Reckoning mode. Fate energy surges through your weapons, time around you slows to a crawl and you get a massive damage boost while you run around clobbering everything in sight. You only have a limited amount of time in Reckoning mode but enemies brought to the brink of death will remain staggered until you approach one and begin a spectacular finishing move. A huge weapon made of pure Fate energy appears in your hands and you stab, smash or mutilate your chosen target in a very over-the-top manner.

During the finishing move a button will appear on screen. Mash it madly and you earn an experience point bonus. Once the move is finished, you return to the normal world and any other enemies who were ready to be executed will also keel over dead.

It’s a great way to deal with large groups of enemies or particularly tough bosses, not to mention a real treat visually.

[img_big]center,52,2011-11-09/reckoning_creature2.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

Fate is also part of the character building process. Alongside the now traditional talent tree system, Reckoning offers you a series of Destiny cards to choose from.

Choose the Rogue card and you gain a bonus to your piercing and ranged weaponry damage. The Brawler card increases your melee damage and block rating while the Mage increases your elemental damage and rate of mana recovery. But that’s just the base level cards you can access when visiting the first Fateweaver in the game. As you advance in levels and invest more of your talent points in the Finesse, Might or Sorcery trees you gain access to more advanced cards with greater boosts to your abilities and boosts to other relevant skills.

You’re never restricted to just that one set of skills, however. You’re free to mix and match your talent selections as you please and there are even hybrid Destinies to accomodate those selections. If you want to be a heavily armed brawler with more than a passing familiarity with magic the game won’t stand in your way. There is even a set of Destiny cards especially for anyone crazy enough to try investing in all three sets of skills.

And if you’re not happy with your choices you can visit a Fateweaver and reset your points at any time, going from a sneaky rogue to a burly wizard just requires enough coin to pay for the change. For people who like to endlessly fiddle with their assigned skill points, this is welcome news.

But what if stabbing trolls in the face isn’t enough for you? What if you also want to be the one who made the weapon you’re using? Reckoning has you covered with a surprisingly well done crafting system.

If you wanted to craft a longsword in many other games you would open the crafting window and scroll down to your list of longsword recipes. You might have a plain steel longsword, one with bonus fire damage or one that’s just exceptionally sharp.

Reckoning does away with that. You want to make a sword? Open the crafting menu and pick Sword from the Weapons menu. Then select a hilt from among the ones you’ve looted and a blade of some kind. Combine the two and you get your sword.
The sword will then have damage ratings and special effects according to the quality and specifications of the hilt and blade. At higher levels of Blacksmithing you can also include various additional ingredients to improve your crafted gear even further. So if you want a sword with a flame effect you pick components that say they offer fire damage. Or if you want a chest plate that protects against lightning you make sure you add that gem you found with lightning resistance on it.

It’s marvelous in its simplicity, yet carries a lot of potential depth as you try to assemble the necessary components to put together your “perfect gear”.

[img_big]center,52,2011-07-15/sprite_03.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

Sadly the game is somewhat let down by its conversation system. With companies like Bioware showing how brilliant an engaging storyline and dialogue can be it’s inevitable that others would attempt to follow suit. And right from the first conversations it’s clear the Reckoning developers have taken their cue from Mass Effect‘s conversation wheel.

That’s not a bad thing, in itself. It’s a good way to easily present players with their options and quickly select them with a thumbstick. But your character has no voice of their own and the options presented are generally little more than prompts for more information from an NPC or an attempt to persuade or strongarm them. Without the presence of a character good/bad alignment system, conversations feel very much like going through the motions to pick up the next quest to go harvest giblets from the next unfortunate monsters.

If it just felt a little hollow, that would be disappointing but not insurmountable. However, occasionally an NPC will have so many possible lines to spit out that they wouldn’t fit around a wheel of options. So rather than nesting them intelligently, as Mass Effect often does with “Investigate”, Reckoning throws the conversation wheel out the window and presents a simple box with a list of options.

Even then, you could forgive them. It’s just shortsighted, not broken as such.

When first talking to an NPC you’re often given an option like asking them for assistance, telling them to give themselves up or other options that depend on your skills of persuasion. If you choose to talk to them about another topic first… you’re often borked out of that special option. It just disappears, either from the conversation wheel or doesn’t appear in the new box-o-options. If you want to roll the dice on a special option you’ve got to do it right away, which really detracts from what little illusion of choice is present. You can’t earn the trust of an NPC before hitting them up for some gold, nor can you pump them for information before selecting the “punch in throat” option.

[img_big]center,52,2011-11-09/reckoning_environment2.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

Graphically the game is nothing special, for the most part. It has all the modern particle effects and good quality textures and well detailed models you would expect but with the exception of the stunning Reckoning mode the game doesn’t really do anything to stand out from the pack in any way. However with the heavy emphasis on optimising the game for console hardware this is not particularly surprising. There’s only so much they can do with the resources available to them and the developers have apparently chosen a larger game world and depth in various game systems over pushing the envelope with eyecandy.

To their credit the developers have done an excellent job in tuning the game engine to run on the PC. I was easily able to run the game on the highest possible settings on a machine that wasn’t top of the line when assembled two years ago.

Where they have done well with the visual design is the various boss and unique enemies in the game. Many of the harder enemies will trigger a short cutscene when you approach (which annoyingly breaks your stealth, if in use) with the camera zooming in on what you’re about to face. This gives you a great chance to appreciate the finer details you will be too busy to notice during the fight. The two-headed Ettins are a particular favourite, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Tasmanians.

[img_big]center,52,2011-06-06/reckoning_-_niskaru_hunter.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

Whilst the quests you’re sent on rarely diverge from the standard fetch-this/kill-that the sheer expanse of the playable area means you could spend dozens of hours exploring and completing sidequests without making a lot of progress on the defeat-Gadflow/save-the-world main plot. And conversely you could complete the primary questline and barely see half the content that has been packed into the world. This is not a game for people looking to thrash through it in the course of a weekend.

If you played Skyrim and wished the combat was a bit more action-oriented and freeflowing, Reckoning‘s likely to be a good fit. If you played Fable and wished there was a lot more depth to the mechanics, Reckoning has that. If Dark Souls made you curl into a little ball and cry for hours at a time, Reckoning‘s a hell of a lot less brutal.

Just want to wander a fantasy world, collect loot, save fair maidens and stab anything that gets in your way? Reckoning is an excellent choice that will scratch that itch for a good long while.

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