Review - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

A few years ago, Big Huge Games was on the verge of being shut down. THQ had just bought them in a buying spree, but quickly realized that the bread and butter of BHG didn’t really align with what THQ wanted to do. This led to a bit of uncertainty at the developer, until Curt Schilling and 38 Studios snapped them up.

The first fruit of their partnership is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game that supposedly combines the MMO 38 Studios was working on in Copernicus (and is still supposedly working on to follow KoA: Reckoning) with the RPG (Crucible) BHG was working on. It’s a game that’s sprawling in size and customization, but sadly is lacking in two things that often count most in RPGs: story and emotion.

The concept behind KoA: Reckoning is fairly solid. You’re a hero—raised from the dead nonetheless—in a world where everything is predetermined by fate. Since you've died and came back, your fate is still uncertain, and it’s up to you, the gamer, to write it. The game blends elements of action and RPGs, providing you ample opportunity to prove your chops through a variety of gameplay styles.

Please note that Omnicomic's review is for the Xbox 360 version of the game.

38 Studios/BHG brought on some industry heavyweights for the game, which is no surprise because Schilling is always rife with confidence. R.A. Salvatore provided the story, Todd McFarlane oversaw art design and Bethesda guru Ken Rolston oversaw the entire game’s development. The contributions by these three are readily prevalent throughout.

There are multiple calls of “inspiration” from the Elder Scrolls games. The Sneak Eye for one comes straight from the series. The difference in this Sneak Eye is that it’s over all the other characters (instead of you), which means you have to pay attention to more than one person if you want to be nefarious. There are also similarities to both World of Warcraft and Fable, all of which combine to make KoA: Recknoning a healthy mix of all three.

Fans of McFarlane will see his style all over. The venerable artist oversaw all the art direction for the entire game, from backgrounds to character models. While McFarlane himself didn't illustrate everything, you can subtly see his style in certain aspects of the games. For instance, the trolls look very much like McFarlane. Those that know McFarlane though know that he's not really one to stray too far from his comfort zone. As such, there's something of a finite number of enemy variations to be encountered.

And the graphics in general are lush and gorgeous. The most striking features are the sweeping landscapes, rife with rivers, mountains and the occasional tree. Towns appear well designed and the varying architectures capture their essence very well. The graphics make the game feel a little too fantasy though, making it difficult for you as a gamer to really embrace the notion that you're determining your fate. There's sort of a disconnect via the graphics that reminds you every now and then that you're playing a game.
The story by Salvatore might be the biggest problem though. Full disclosure, I haven’t completed the entire main questline, so the story may get better. Aside from the actual story though, what I’ve encountered so far is a world full of characters completely devoid of feeling. Every character you talk to just seems to be going through the motions. In a large game like this you’d expect the depth of an ocean. Unfortunately, it feels like all you get is a really big puddle. It’ll take a few steps to get across it, but there’s nothing really encouraging you to dive deeper and explore.

This could be part of the overarching theme of the fates being determined, but it really leads to characters that aren’t memorable. Playing as the main character I don't really feel a connection to the world of Amalur that I should in a game such as this. You have the same blank expression in all conversations, regardless of whether you’re doing a sidequest where you find out someone lost a ring or someone needs to be killed. Your emotional range is an aloof frown. The emotional range of NPCs is a hand movement.

It is nice to have the ability to completely shape your character exactly how you want. It gives you the sense that you are choosing your fate. If you don’t like your fate, you can visit a Fateweaver and change it, which resets all of your skills and let’s you start from scratch. Often, games like this will give you that option with really no explanation as to how you're actually able to do it. It's nice that 38 Studios/BHG made it part of the fabric of the story.

KoA: Reckoning tries to be a lot of things and has been hyped as such. It brands itself as an RPG because of the leveling and multitude of quests. The game is certainly not lacking for content and fans of RPGs will be very happy playing it. There are tons of dungeons, castles and towns to explore. Even just meandering through the wide open expanses between all of the above is satisfying.

This is a game where you could easily spend 100 hours or more just doing sidequests. There's nothing really impelling me to want to do all the sidequests though; rather, I'm compelled to do them for the sake of doing them.

The map is part of the reason it's slightly painful to actually do sidequests. First, you can only have one sidequest open at a time. Second, all the markers don’t show on the world map. It’s a big world map, and in order to find out specifically where you have to go for character X, you have to go into the local map for each area. For a world this big, a map better integrated with the sidequests would have been extremely welcome.

The game prides itself on the availability of loot and it's right to. The variety of weapons, armor and items in KoA: Reckoning is staggering, with many comparing it to the loot system in Diablo. The ability to create, salvage and repair equipment and gems (for imbuing said equipment with better abilities) is phenomenal. This is a very good thing and means that there are different ways you can approach combat.

Unfortunately, there’s so much loot it becomes cumbersome. It's not until you've played the game a bit that you realize how inventory weight is calculated. You start to realize that everything is weighed equally, and everything takes up one inventory slot. Potions and such stack (up to ten I believe) and each stack takes up only one spot. If you happen to have nine Minor Healing Potions and you steal one more, that takes up another spot though, because it’s stolen.

After every quest you do, it’s safe to say you’ve picked up an additional ten items from the quest. With an initial starting inventory limit of 70, well, after seven quests you have to do an inventory clean-out. Granted, you don’t have to take everything you come across, but with so many sidequests it’s a good bet that most non-equipment items you come across will be needed for someone later on.

It more or less requires that you buy the Backpack upgrades whenever you come across them. Otherwise, you'll find yourself in the middle of a dungeon without the space to pick up anything else. Unless you want to evaluate every item in your inventory and decide what needs to go.
It brands itself as an action game and the combat is fun. You’re given close to ten different weapons, but you’ll quickly find favorites depending on your playstyle. Chakrams are the best at crowd control. A burning great sword can level enemies in giant swaths. The bow can be increased to ridiculous strength. Faeblades and daggers give you the assassin's edge, but also hold their own in more honorable, face-to-face combat.

What's more, you're given ample oppurtinity to couple magic and special attacks with your physical attacks, again based on your play style. The controls are nice too, allowing you to rather seamlessly transition from a few swings with a sword to shooting Emperor Palpatine lightning bolts to summoning a mighty earthquake to lacerate the enemies with rocks. It's quite entertaining and does make fighting even two brownies seem way more epic than it needs to be.

There's also the Reckoning mode, which is where you become more or less ustoppable. Killing enemies fills up your Fate meter and, once it's full, you can enter Reckoning mode at any point during combat. Once in said mode, your hits deal more damage while you take less damage as the meter drains. Any enemy you beat to within death gives you a Fateshift attack prompt, bringing a whole new world of pain on that enemy.

Reckoning mode works great and is even better because once you activate the Fateshift, any enemy you've drained to near death will also die as a result. Reckoning mode is a great way to manage crowds of enemies you may not be ready to fight just yet.

The animations are fairly limited though, which means you'll see the same few every time you go crazy on them. This isn’t a problem endemic only to KoA: Reckoning. Honestly, how many different ways can you think of killing a kobold with a spear?

A part of combat that is a little lacking though is dodging/blocking. On their own, they work perfectly fine. Integrating them into combat leads to problems. The biggest is that you can’t break a combat animation to block.

This means that once you swing the sword, you have to swing, connect and then pull back and can’t interrupt it with a block. This becomes frustrating when you’re fighting multiple enemies up close while sorcerers are wrecking you from afar with heat-seeking tornadoes and fireballs.

Also, for some reason, enemies give up chase once they hit a certain point. If you're fighting a menacing Rock Troll and are outmatched, just run back, take shots with the bow and then back up some more. Eventually, the troll will hit an invisible wall, decide you're not worth it and turn back. You can't just take potshots at the troll at this point, as all damage is mitigated automatically by the game. Once the troll hits his starting point he'll reset and start charging you again, allowing you to rinse and repeat the above.

The MMO is a genre that’s been around for quite a while now. While World of Warcraft is the undisputed king of MMOs, there have been many others that have come along trying to take the throne. KoA: Reckoning isn’t one of these games, but it’s easy to see how you could be confused.

It’s a game that feels like an MMO, despite being pitched as an action RPG. It's almost as if Schilling wanted this to be an MMO that was multiplayer and all the great things BHG might have done with their RPG were brushed aside for more MMO elements. If MMOs turn you off then this game might do the same.
KOA: Reckoning is a sprawling game, with tons of loot, intuitive combat and the capacity to suck away days (even months) of your life. It’s also a game with a thin framework of a story and sometimes non-intuitive user friendliness. A game this big shouldn't feel repetitive, yet at times the combat or quests do.

There will, inevitably, be comparisons to Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, rightfully or wrongfully so. Skyrim does just about everything better though, honestly, and it feels like KoA: Reckoning just never lives up to its full potential. This is a game that came with a lot of hype that it didn't quite live up to. That's not to say it's bad game by any stretch, but the bar was raised incredibly high.

It was also released smackdab in the middle of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 for whatever reason. I suppose EA was trying to capitalize on the general attention those two brought to the genre, but I can't help but wonder if maybe a May release would've been better for KoA: Reckoning.

The big debut from 38 Studios and Big Huge Games is indeed big, but it’s so big that it’s almost crushed under its own weight. Fans of the Elder Scrolls series, World of Warcraft (and MMOs in general) and Fable will definitely want to check out Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, available for Xbox 360, PS3 or PC. There's a lot to like in the game and it has the potential to keep you entertained for hours.

Kudos to Big Huge Games for a great first effort in what's sure to be an ongoing universe. It doesn't immerse the gamer like Mass Effect 3 will, nor does it engage the gamer like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim did, but what Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will do is give you solid combat, plenty of quests and a wide, open world to run around in.

In the end, that's all we really want anyway from a game like this. Right?