As RPG loving gamers, we live in a post-Skyrim world. Its a world where new titles can’t compete, but they may attempt to single out one aspect and try and implement it better than Bethesda’s opus. They can try to craft more intuitive combat or a more focused story. What no one is capable of doing any time soon though is competing with the sheer breadth and depth of gameplay, the volume of content or the sheer size and quality of the game world. With Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the developers (38 Studios and Big Huge Games) have been very vocal about why their game is unique and how it differs from other similar titles like Skyrim or even Fable. They are wise to do so because in direct competition with any of these games Amalur pales in comparison.
While many seemed to greatly enjoy it, I found the demo of Amalur to be genuinely awful. Once you play the game proper you realise quickly that although it starts slowly it certainly isn’t as uninspired or ugly as it initially seems. Despite the fact that it improves as it progresses, this is not a game full of great new ideas or innovative gameplay systems though. Every single aspect of the game feels familiar, safe and somewhat pedestrian.
The story behind the development of the game is an interesting one. Originally intended to be an MMORPG developed as a pro baseball players hobby project, it changed form several times. With the recruitment of RPG veteran Ken Rolston it found some direction and gained the “Reckoning” suffix. With many of the key members of the team that made Oblivion in place, hopes were high that Amalur would both be a success in its own right and also be the foundation of a new franchise that would spawn sequels and even an MMORPG further down the line.
And had Amalur appeared a few years ago response would probably have been more positive. In the competitive RPG scene of 2012 though it looks dated, tired and very ordinary. Skyrim, Witcher 2 and even the games in the Fable series all look better and offer up richer worlds to explore with more interesting gameplay systems to experiment with.
The game looks most similar to Fable, albeit with a much rougher, plainer visual style. In fact, in this hardware generation where big releases seldom disappoint in their visuals, Amalur is genuinely ugly in places. I struggled immensely to get my avatar to look like anything but a cartoonish pirate. Enemy design is even worse with hackneyed genre stereotypes rarely raising much interest. Environments can look pretty good when they are of the bright forest or quaint village types, but swamps and dungeon’s look as dull as they sound. The game seems to be going for a stylised, cartoonish visual look similar to Warcraft, but this isn’t applied consistently. Worst of all, the game has some spurting blood effects during combat and cut scenes which stand out a mile and look like they were retrofitted into the game late in the development cycle to make it more “adult”. The overall result is a game that can look passable one minute and painfully amateurish the next.
The immersion breaking visuals aren’t helped by your mute character and the stilted dialogue. While there are some clever ruminations on the nature of fate in the surprisingly interesting story, its hard to care when its delivered by a character standing completely still and talking to you in often poorly voiced dialogue and directed at your impassive, mute avatar who looks faintly bored during every dramatic twist and turn of the plot. Character interaction is done via the standard radial menu, with a good option, a bad one and a request for more information being the depressingly predictable options during every scene.
From moment to moment you will be doing all the things you would expect to do in a game from the people that made Oblivion. Picking locks, collecting loot, persuading people and upgrading items takes up most of your time when you’re not fighting enemies in caves or dungeons or sewers. Most of these operate like cut-price versions of their Oblivion equivalents, with the lock picking being the most pointless of the lot. Why they took away the vibration when operating the lock pick is a mystery, and even when the lock pick breaks it simply disappears rather visually snap in two.
Thats not to say every aspect of the game is terrible. While the accents of the different races include bad Irish and Scottish voice actors, its nice to see that they are based on ancient myths rather than lifted wholesale from Tolkein. As I said earlier, the central concept of the story is that you are the only person in the world without a fate, and this actually feeds into the gameplay mechanics in a meaningful way as well as being an inherently cool concept.
The combat has been lauded by the developers as the one big advance, and in truth they have managed to make it fun and immediate. Its fast paced and a little button mash-y, but there are real differences between the weapon configurations you can choose. In much the same way as Fable, it encourages you to create a multi-skilled character who can fight in melee, at range and with magic. Its also possible to re-spec your character almost at will and as such experimentation is encouraged. Its not as deep as something like Bayonetta or the Arkham Games (or even God of War), but its still better than what you would expect in most RPG games of its type.
There’s also a lot of clever design throughout the game. The menus are ugly but very responsive and the interface is easy to navigate and quick to tab through. Skyrim developers take note. Neat little touches abound. For example, you can mark items you don’t want as “junk”, then sell all your junk with one button press when you meet a vendor. When you save your game it doesn’t pause the action; you can back out of the menu and the little “saving” icon will still be displayed, but you can keep playing with no pause to the action. Finally, your loot is colour coded like in an MMORPG and this makes it easier to pick out the powerful items.
The loot is actually the main driving force as the game progresses. At its best it’s most reminiscent of Torchlight as you collect ridiculous amounts of “stuff” which you can then quickly sell or wear. There are times when you are acquiring powerful weapons and exploring the nicer areas of the world it can have the same compulsive, mindless but soothing appeal.
So in the end Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a strange game. Its exactly the sort of title that industry pundits say don’t exist any more: a mid range title of middling quality that’s neither a AAA release or an indie darling. Its a Fisher Price Oblivion, a “My First RPG” experience that gets many of the fundamentals right but fails to add anything truly new or exciting. Its hard to see who you could recommend it to because you could spend sixty hours with it and you wouldn’t hate it, but you wouldn’t remember it either. If you love RPG’s, there’s simply too many better options out there.
The suffix shouldn’t have been “Reckoning”, it should have been “irrelevant”.
5 Epic swords of boredom out of 10