Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

The game wants you to play around with different combos; in fact, it allows you to use a shield, a primary weapon, and a secondary weapon, even though you’ve only got two hands.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

If not for the game’s battle system, one could be forgiven for thinking that they’d played the open-world RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning before. Especially given some of the main story’s set pieces (larger-than-life boss battles atop a scaffolding system, within a Lord of the Rings-like siege, and against a colossal dragon), the system makes one feel as if they were playing a watered-down version of God of War. Either way, where there should be a feeling of wonder as one roams the Faelands—from the deserts of Alserund to the grey and ravaged Tywili Coast, from the verdant, living city of Ysa to the stony fortresses of Rithen—there is instead a dreaded sense of déjà vu. It’s not a matter of what one will discover next, but rather a question of how many fetch quests and repetitious battles one will have to grind through along the way. Simply put, Reckoning should be a captivating game; it’s underlying history, after all, is scripted by bestselling fantasy author R. A. Salvatore and its RPG framework built by Ken Rolston (the lead designer for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion). Instead, it makes its players feel like captives, trapped as they are on the cusp between playable mediocrity and what could have been engrossing excellence.

The game opens with one of the hoariest of RPG clichés: Your corpse, the latest victim of a 10-year-long war, is being carted by two gnomish morticians to the furnaces. Their attempts to first identify your body for their records brings up the familiar—and extremely limited—character-design screen, where you’ll choose your physical appearance, gender, patron god, and race (the human Almain and Varani or the elven Ljosalfar and Dokkalfar; no options exist to play as a gnome, and dwarves don’t exist in this world). Notably absent from your selections are base stats like Intelligence and Charisma; instead, you’ll divide points into Sorcery, Finesse, or Strength, choosing either to focus on building the ultimate mage or becoming a literal jack-of-all-trades. Reckoning’s big concept here is the Destiny system, which allows the player to liberally respec throughout the game, but it’s brought down, like so many other would-be “innovations” for the genre, by poor execution.

For instance: As long as your level is high enough, you can use any weapon, regardless of the Fate (i.e. role) you’ve chosen for your character. In fact, the initial tutorial dungeon is eager to show them off; you’ll use bows to snipe out-of-reach enemies, daggers and Stealth mode (in which you crouch and walk up behind enemies) to perform one-hit kills, and switch between lightning magic to stun enemies and melee weaponry to then take them out. Unlike armor (helmets, plates, leggings, boots, gloves), which is restricted based on your progression within the three main trees (a powerful sorcerer will likely be wearing robes as opposed to chainmail), any character can use a sceptre to perform magic, or to use a mid-ranged chakram to juggle enemies and a sluggish hammer to finish them off.

The game wants you to play around with different combos, like using the speedy staves and Fae blades; in fact, it allows you to use a shield, a primary weapon, and a secondary weapon, even though you’ve only got two hands. Don’t be fooled, however, by the illusion of choice: While Reckoning allows you to use any weapon and to specialize in all three roles, the actual quests don’t offer alternate paths to completion (as in, say, the Deus Ex series). By the frustrating final third of the game, essentially one long gauntlet of melee battles and rehashed quests in the crystalline valleys of Klurikon, your character will be mashing the same buttons over and over again, looking to simply end the game. Instead of experimenting, you’ll be using the weapons with the strongest attacks—loot is randomized, so often your weapon load-out will be, too—and you’ll find that stealth and ranged combat are utterly useless upon facing trios of mages or hordes of soldiers.

What little plot has been driving the game (there’s a bad guy looking to resurrect a dark god and your amnesiac hero, unbound by fate, must stop him) dries up, and with it much of the player’s interest, sustained to this point by the political machinations between the Summer and Winter Fae. Like Todd McFarlane’s striking art, from his Spawn-like Bog Threshes and demonic snake Crudoks to his medieval-like Bolgan brutes and crystalline lizard Niskaru, Reckoning offers some original thoughts—at least for the first 20 hours, by which point you’ll have unfortunately heard and seen just about everything. What’s left after you’ve completed the story-bound main and faction quests are all the grinding side (read: fetch) missions, sluggish even with rapid loading and fast traveling.

These flaws all boil down to Reckoning’s insistence on both having and eating its cake. Not only are classes gone, so is the morality system. Although the game offers you familiar dialogue trees, there doesn’t ever seem to be a consequence to your actions. Nothing is ever closed off to you; the only difference appears to be which “Twist of Fate” (a permanent stat boost) will be awarded to you for your more major decisions. Likewise, the skill points you assign upon leveling up (different from the ability points that determine your role) are equally unimportant; you’ll never need to use the Persuade skill, just as you’ll never need to use Stealth. Of the eight skills, three are devoted toward a laborious crafting system (for armor, gems to place in the armor, and for gathering reagents and turning them into potions), but because the game doesn’t want to exclude players, you’ll never need to use these skills; the game drops more than enough loot, especially if you’ve developed the three skills that give you access to more items (Detect Hidden, Lockpicking, and Dispelling).

Reckoning is perhaps too eager to satisfy every gamer at once: If you enjoy battle, but hate feeling underpowered, wait until you fill and activate your cheesy Reckoning meter, which slows down all the enemies, massively increases the damage you deal, and provides up to 100% boost in experience—which only makes you even stronger, faster. If you like making choices but hate dealing with consequences, you’ll enjoy the way in which you can slaughter an entire town, pay a light monetary fine, and return the next day without any hard feelings. If you like exploring, but need boundaries, the segmented “levels” of Reckoning will make sure you don’t hit any game-ending glitches or get too far ahead of yourself. And if you enjoy games like Devil May Cry, but find the combo system to be overcomplicated, you’ll be thrilled to find that in Reckoning you can’t jump or differentiate between light and heavy attacks; you can only use one weapon or the other, over and over again. Ultimately, if you want to do everything, but be good at nothing, Reckoning is your game.

 Developer: Big Huge Games  Publisher: Electronic Arts  Platform: PlayStation 3  Release Date: February 7, 2012  ESRB: M  ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Suggestive Themes  Buy: Game

Aaron Riccio

Aaron has been playing games since the late ’80s and writing about them since the early ’00s. He also obsessively writes about crossword clues at The Crossword Scholar.

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