If, in some strange fever dream after too many Red Bulls and too much Skyrim, you were presented with a choice of creative professionals from which to hand-pick a dream to be tasked with forging a world-beating Action RPG, chances are you’d select the team leaders behind 38 Studios and Big Huge Games’ Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Designed by Ken Rolston (lead designer on The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Oblivion), written by R.A. Salvatore (New York Times bestselling fantasy author), imagined by Todd McFarlane (legendary comic book artist and creator of Spawn) and scored by Grant Kirkhope (ex-Rare composer and Elfman-esque musical genius), Reckoning’s credits read like a who’s-who of fantasy videogame talent. As such, one would be forgiven for expecting something close to perfect, a record-breaking RPG that leaves all others struggling to lift their +3 Longswords, let alone swing them – but, although Reckoning is undoubtedly enjoyable and well-crafted, it is not that game. Not quite.
R.A. Salvatore has managed quite a feat in creating a vast, intricate tapestry of lore and legend and weaving through it what is, in all fairness, a very generic fantasy plot. The central conceit is that in the world of Reckoning, everyone’s fate is written – when they’ll be born, how they’ll live, how they’ll die – to the point that the Fae, a race of fairy-like immortals, are able to faultlessly relive their legends time and time again. The mortal races, however, are bound to Fate’s weave, and unable to alter their own path from birth to death in any way – until a gnome named Fomorous Hughes builds a magical machine called the Well of Souls and succeeds in bringing a corpse back to life. The corpse is your character – a unique individual able to continue living outside of the weave and, as a result, change the pre-written future of the entire world.
As luck would have it, the resurrection of the Fateless One comes during a time of war when Gadflow, King of the Winter Court of the Fae, is laying waste to the world in service of his new god, Tirnoch. The motivations behind Gadflow’s evil, your character’s death and subsequent resurrection and Tirnoch’s arrival are made clear throughout the campaign and I won’t spoil any of them here, but suffice to say the story is never really thrilling enough to cause much concern for either the world or its peoples, no matter how many (admittedly well-written) lines of lore I listened to or how many dusty tomes I uncovered.
The problem is that the races of the world (two human in the Almain and Varani, and two elven in the Dokkalfar and Ljosalfar) are so vanilla, their cultures so textbook, their plight so familiar, that it’s genuinely hard to care about the outcome of the story. Which is why it’s rather lucky that the gameplay is so well-designed and compelling that it manages to carry you past the turgid plot, and surprisingly close to entirely new territory – something that very few Action RPGs can boast.
A Touch of Class
One of several things that Reckoning does better than most RPGs is its class system – in that it doesn’t really impose one at all. Ever. Not even a bit. You begin the game by customising your very own dead body, from race and genre to tattoos, hair colour and facial structure. While it’s not as in-depth a character creator as we’re used to these days, it’s more than serviceable and a nicely-freeform beginning: only your choice of race has an effect on starting stats and, as Reckoning keeps beardy number-crunching to a behind-the-scenes minimum, these differences are largely irrelevant by the time you’re a few levels in.
Once resurrected, you’re tasked with escaping the Well of Souls – no mean feat as it’s currently under attack from the Tuatha Deohn, the Fae army of King Gadflow. As fast as you can say “unobtrusive tutorial section”, you’re launched into an unobtrusive tutorial section that will be instantly familiar to anyone who played the downloadable demo. It’s not until after you’ve fought your way through the Well of Souls and out into the bright countryside that you gain your first level and are taken to the abilities screen.
Reckoning spreads its skills across three distinct trees representing the holy triumvirate of RPGing: Might (strength and melee), Finesse (stealth and ranged combat) and Sorcery (magical attacks and buffs). Each contains around 20 unique skills, some active and some passive, all of which are upgraded by spending points earned by levelling up. Alongside the abilities are your character’s skills such as blacksmithing and alchemy, lockpicking and stealth, and points invested in these will increase your effectiveness with the corresponding activity.
Lastly, there are Destinies, 36 over-arching buffs that are unlocked and made selectable by spending points in the three attributes. For example, you may invest all your ability points in the Might tree and open up the Brawler or Soldier Destiny, or maybe you’ll go for a straight mage and unlock Seer or Sage. Alternatively – and this is really the icing on the cake – you might opt for an even split between any of the two abilities (or, later in the game, all three), opening up hybrid Destinies like Shadowcaster (Sorcery/Finesse) or Warden (Finesse/Might). At any point in the game you can visit a Fateweaver and spend some gold to reset everything, enabling you to try everything until you find something that perfectly suits your play-style – though be warned, the price almost doubles each time you Unbind your Destiny.
It’s All Kicking Off
Despite a great class system, the combat is the feather in Reckoning’s troll-skin cap. Doing away with invisible dice-rolling and farty calculations, Reckoning’s combat is almost a straight cross between Fable and Dragon Age 2. Able to equip any of the 9 available weapon types in a primary or secondary slot (mapped to X and Y, respectively), you’ll find yourself switching between melee, mid-range and long-range attacks with ease, all the time using B to evade attacks (with either a nifty combat roll or, as a magic-user, an uber-cool teleport move), the left trigger to bring out your shield and the right trigger to activate your four mappable special attacks. Early in the game, a Fateweaver named Agarth teaches you to harness the threads of Fate shed by your slain enemies in order to activate Reckoning Mode, wherein time slows down and your attacks do tremendous damage. Once every baddie in the immediate vicinity is on its knees, a press of the A button will despatch the nearest foe in spectacular style, instantly killing everything else and reaping a huge experience bonus at the same time.
The special attacks and spells come in a range of flavours from Ice Blast or Sphere of Protection for the mages, to poisoned blades for rogues and a brutal Harpoon move for the fighters. Only being able to equip two weapons and four abilities at a time means that the combat takes on a more tactical bent, and the more heated encounters can be genuinely taxing. It’s decidedly more “God of War” than “Dark Souls”, paying far more lip service to the former’s irreverent bombast than the latter’s considered balancing, but the freeform approach to character development and fighting style is incredibly appealing.
Aiding you in combat (of which there is a hell of a lot) are several of your abilities. Alchemy allows you to harvest ingredients for the brewing of potions and salves capable of all sorts of feats from healing your wounds to boosting resistances or the experience gained from kills; blacksmithing will allow you to create better weapons and armour (though it’s not entirely decent until the end game, when it simultaneously becomes redundant); sagecrafting lets you create stat-boosting gems to insert into your gear; and stealth increases your ability to remain unseen – crucial for sneaky types who want to get in and dole out some brutal but silent stealth kills.
Other skills like lockpicking and dispelling are less essential, as the lockpicking mini-game is identical to Skyrim’s in anything but aesthetics and ridiculously easy, and the dispelling mechanic is all about timing your button presses as the reticule passes over a series of runic symbols – which isn’t particularly taxing either. It’s a shame that the skills aren’t more necessary, but it’s simply so easy to make money in Reckoning and buy everything you need, or even respec your skills if only to brew up a batch of potions or craft a bag of gems, that the majority of skills – especially those related to crafting – become little more than asides, albeit charming ones.
A Brave Old World
As a complete package, Reckoning’s world is largely beautiful. Aesthetically it shares a great deal with Fable and World of Warcraft, but if you dig deeper there are elements of other games like Divinity II in the mix as well. The pallet is mostly pastel colours, the forested area that opens the game painted in autumnal shades of gold and green, with dashes of bright colour here and there wherever herbs are sprouting against the gnarled, rust-coloured trunks of colossal trees. Bridges are formed from the hollowed husks of fallen oaks, crystalline waterfalls glitter in the high sun, and everything is delicately softened by a gentle fairytale glow. In company with Grant Kirkhope’s inspired musical direction, the art style is genuinely beautiful; soft, subtle notes and ambient sounds coming together with the whimsical srtwork to create an atmosphere of real majesty, bringing the world to life in a way that many games can only dream of. While a smattering of wildlife here and there wouldn’t have gone amiss, you can’t really fault the richness of the world around you.
In fact, it’s not unfair to say that the biggest problem with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is that it doesn’t really do anything new. The combat and class systems are fun and manage to feel fresh but they break no new ground, and despite an interesting central premise the plot is nothing we haven’t seen before from a score of different angles. While the voice acting is mostly very good, the script is occasionally tepid and rarely rises above the not-quite-Tolkien vocal posturing that seems to be pre-eminent in fantasy games – and at times it’s so derivative of so many other titles that it almost, almost, goes beyond homage and into me-too territory.
But that’s largely irrelevant, because what Reckoning has that so many games these days don’t is sheer likeability. It looks gorgeous (even if the character animation isn’t ever up to par with the artwork), it sounds incredible, and it plays like the best elements of pretty much every Action RPG around all rolled into one. The open-ended campaign and huge amount of sidequests will keep you going for anything up to 60-odd hours in one playthrough, and you may well jump into it again straight away to explore some of the too-few moral decisions that Reckoning presents.
Buying a house, crafting your own armour, mixing up potions, looting, levelling, picking locks, killing from the shadows, fast-travelling and hammering X and Y in sequence to execute a ballet of beautiful, brutal murder have all been done before elsewhere – but they’ve rarely been done with such a consistent degree of charm and beauty. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t the RPG to end all RPGs, the characterisations might be a little dour and the plot a little to straight-laced for its own good, but its still an excellent example of a hybrid genre – and a triumph for 38 Studios and Big Huge Games in every sense that counts.