I have this really vivid memory of having an intense hankering for a decent western-style action RPG in the post-Skyrim haze I found myself in after spending far, far too many hours traipsing around the freezing wastes of the Nord homelands. Almost as if in answer to my prayers, there, sitting on my shelf, right in front of me, was Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, so felt like I had to give it a spin.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Feb 2012 | Developed: 38 Studios / Big Huge Games | Published: EA
Kingdoms of Amalur definitely seems pretty fondly remembered online, and I think I can see why. It came with a star-studded development team, like some sort of fantasy-themed Avengers; the executive designer was Ken Rolston, the lead on both Oblivion and its venerated predecessor Morrowind; Todd Macfarlane (Spawn) worked on the art, Grant Kirkhope (Banjo Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Goldeneye) lent his incredible composition chops to score the game, and even R.A. Salvatore, one of the best-known and loved fantasy authors was brought in to sculpt the game’s lore and world. With this kind of team behind it, how could Kingdoms of Amalur fail?
Well, in plenty of ways, if I’m being brutally honest. I’m not just talking about the game’s economic failure – it’s a shame it didn’t even come close to breaking even but that after all has no bearing on a game’s quality so let’s leave that by the side – but Kingdoms of Amalur, despite all the lovely things I’m going to say, also suffers from some serious flaws that really work to scupper the experience.
Kingdoms of Amalur is very, very proud of its plot and lore. You can tell this is the case by the way you are thoroughly bombarded with terms, people, places, and the minutiae of the lands of Amalur immediately after waking up on the giant pile of corpses your body gets dumped on. Oh right, you’re dead, you see. Not that that stops our hero, of course; we’re way too special to let something as piddly as death stop us from questing. Our hero is a Fateless One; because we’ve already been dead once before, now concepts like “fate” and “destiny” hold no sway over us and instead we are free to manipulate the fates of ourselves and everyone else.
A power like that though is naturally coveted and the land of Amalur is beset by an appropriately evil baddie in the form of Gadflow, the merciless leader of the Tuatha Deohn, whose immortal army has been waging bloody war across the world. I should say that around here is where Kingdoms of Amalur starts to completely lose me; the lore is guilty of something you do find in fantasy writing in that it splurges into an overabundance of weird names and throws out some many concepts and thoughts in an effort to try and make its world unique but it fails to acknowledge that it really is little more than a standard tropey fantasy story. Behind all the bluster and pomp of the wild names and grand storytelling lies an utterly pedestrian story in which a chosen hero beats up a bunch of dark elves and their evil emperor. There’s nothing wrong with being derivative, and Kingdoms of Amalur‘s story is perfectly finely told and built, but it tries so hard to obfuscate the fact that it hasn’t a single new or interesting idea.
The visuals are pleasingly chunky and brightly coloured; they remind me very strongly of World of Warcraft (a nod to Kingdoms of Amalur’s roots as an MMORPG, perhaps). As to be expected the world looks like your bog-standard fantasy medieval Europe, but bathed in a soft light that makes everything look a tiny bit fuzzy to me. Amalur is a pretty big world and you do get to see some variety in landscapes; a late-game city is probably the most impressive thing to me, mainly because it’s full of life, a far cry from the pretty but mostly kind of empty fields and forests of the overworld.
I say empty but perhaps that’s not entirely fair. There are plenty of things to do in Kingdoms of Amalur, much of which is your standard RPG fare. An array of factions all vie for your interest; the Warsworn, Scholia Arcana and Travelers are Amalur’s versions of genre staples Fighter, Mage and Thieves guilds respectively. The two interesting ones are the House of Sorrows and the House of Ballads. Both Houses are populated by Fae – I personally rather like the House of Ballads, who are based around the premise that Fae are fate-bound to re-enact various tales that recur throughout time, such as great knights rescuing a lover before dying while killing a massive monster, for example. They’re all strangely fatalistic as they compete for the honour of playing the roles of these great heroes, before you swan in and defy the stories due to being outside of the sway of fate.
Despite all that, the fact that the writing in Kingdoms of Amalur is lacklustre harms it all. Some factions and sidequests are simply boring to deal with; I can’t even count the amount of times I sat barely paying attention as some tedious NPC waffled on and on about whatever their problem was. It became far too easy to simply skip it all. It doesn’t even matter if you do either – the sidequests and tasks available in Kingdoms of Amalur speak volumes to its MMORPG roots, as they’re basically just variations on explore a dungeon or kill / find x things. It’s a real shame as well; Kingdoms of Amalur is a pretty big game, with plenty of these quests dotted about but without literally any interesting writing behind its quests its hard to care at all.
While you’re wandering about the world, you’re definitely going to be accosted by all manner of beasties, which means you’re going to need to defend yourself. Kingdoms of Amalur has a vast range of weapons, each with whole suite of animations and special moves to learn. Any of them can be equipped as primary or secondary, which affects which button you use to combo with them, though there’s a missed opportunity to have weapons gel together; ultimately you can’t really combo your primary and secondary weapons together in a satisfying way, which isn’t a deal breaker, but is a shame. I do like that alongside your standard stuff like swords, bows, and daggers, you also get more esoteric options like chakrams, and magical wards. You also get access to a suite of spells and abilities that can be mapped to the face buttons of a controller, while more sneaky characters can stealth it up.
Like any RPG worth its salt, you also get a whole raft of skills and perks to learn and equip. Kingdoms of Amalur features ability trees built around the 3 primary attributes of any RPG – finesse skills make your roguish types better, might boosts your warrior type builds, and sorcery grants more spells to mages. Leveling them up unlocks various Destinies, which are basically character classes that give you various passive bonuses. What is interesting is that in Kingdoms of Amalur you can change between any unlocked Destinies at will, and unlocking them is dependent on how many points have been put into the 3 trees. For example, investing solely in Might abilities and the associated Destinies gives buffs to melee damage and improves blocking; however, you can spread your ability points across all 3 and unlock new Destinies that give even wider bonuses, meaning there is no penalty for going wide.
I feel like Kingdoms of Amalur gets a far greater reputation than perhaps I think it earns. It filled a hole for me for certain – I absolutely wanted an RPG to fill in the void that Skyrim left and it’s hard to argue with the fact that I started playing Kingdoms of Amalur and when I stopped and looked at my save file I’d racked up a solid 60 hours of playtime, so it really can’t be all that bad. However, there’s no escaping that it was a largely empty time – I was playing but without any investment on any level, and that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Kingdoms of Amalur is absolutely fine to play and sure might keep you going for a while, but I can’t say it filled me with any sense of wonder, or joy, or interest. It’s worth a play if, like me, you want a safe RPG to fill in some time, but don’t expect anything more than a surface-level experience.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE. A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.