February 7, 2012
Reckoning throws players into the troubled world of Amalur, a land increasingly torn apart by a rouge faction of immortal Fae seeking to clear the way for the resurrection of their newly anointed God. These troublemakers from the Winter Court of the Faelands have ignited an extremely destructive war with their kin, as well as the various "young" mortal races. You're character cheats death thanks to an experiment aimed at turning the tide of the war. Beyond that, this process alters your character's predetermined fate, something which, until now, has strictly governed the lives of Amalur's inhabitants.
If Reckoning's premise sounds a little confusing, you're not alone in that thinking that way. Unfortunately, much of the game is characterized by a sense of information overload, largely thanks the tendency to lay Amalur's lore and jargon on thick. Character interactions often amount to little more than a glorified glossary of terms and questing milestones. This is a problem many fantasy-inspired titles fall into as they attempt to create a sense of place, and Reckoning is far from immune. That being said, Amalur's story and plot lines are by no means bad once you get past the initial grind. There's an interesting tale to be told here, one definitely worth seeing through to the end. It's just a shame the game embraces its genre's pitfalls so fully.
All of these character interactions fall within the massive world of Amalur. Make no mistake: this is an open-world, western RPG in every sense. Character creation, exploration, branching quests, allocating experience points and so on are all big parts of an experience that can be mentioned in the same conversation with Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series in terms of scope and breadth of content. That association alone is an accomplishment.
Beyond RPG fundamentals, comparisons to the Elder Scrolls are inevitable because of Skyrim's recent stranglehold on the audience's mind-share and the prominent use of Ken Rolston's credibility - a leading designer on Morrowind and Oblivion - to promote Reckoning. While the two games each have a unique personality, certain aspects of Reckoning's design leave much to be desired in a post-Skyrim world. Whether it's technical constraints breaking up Amalur behind a handful of loading screens, a series of generic corridors for dungeons or the traditional way experience points are granted, it's difficult to stand directly next to Skyrim's elegant design.
That being said, there are also numerous ways in which Reckoning makes clever use of its limitations, resulting in an improved experience. For example, restricting when players can jump has the benefit of eliminating the potential for getting stuck on the environment or encountering a game-breaking bug. In fact, I never experienced any show-stopping issue - whether it be a hard crash, freeze up or progression glitch - during my time with the game, an impressive achievement that's likely a direct result of these smart trade-offs made during development.
More importantly, Reckoning's action-oriented combat represents an area where the game truly outclasses its counterparts - in terms of versatility, complexity and general satisfaction. Nicely settled somewhere between the brutal feel, move variety and responsiveness of God of War, and the customization of Elder Scrolls, Amalur's combat consistently hits the right notes. Players can allocate experience points from levelling toward might, finesse and sorcery skill trees, which essentially translate to warrior, thief and mage classes, respectively. Depending on your playing style, various Fate Destinies are also unlocked to compliment each class. It's a system that strikes a good balance between tight control and situational variety.
Furthermore, Reckoning's combat rewards players for experimenting and provides an incentive to play as a mixed-class character - a true breath of fresh air in a genre that typically demands polarization and punishes deviation. This flexibility is a result of the aforementioned Destiny perks, the ability to use multiple skill types simultaneously, and the relatively easy path to retool experience points at will. In terms of using different combat styles, Reckoning's comprehensive loadout allows players to wield and seamlessly switch between any combination of two weapons - swords, staffs, longbows and so on - a shield, up to four magical spells, and an array of standby potions. Additionally, wearing heavy armor doesn't result in a loss of mobility. All of this comes together to create a free-flowing and versatile system of combat, one which stays fresh for a longer period of time than any RPG of this nature I can think of.
The lasting appeal of Reckoning's combat is also the result of a generally well-paced adventure. The world of Amalur is yours to explore from the outset, but the game does a good job of directing the experience through geography and difficulty to keep things from getting overwhelming. New areas gradually open up in the various quest lines and enemies are tuned in such a way to not-so-subtly suggest if you've wandered too far off course. Some may argue this approach limits exploration and player choice - which it does to an extent - but it has the advantage of creating a difficulty curve that prevents you from ever feeling invincible. In short: Reckoning is a well-designed experience that will keep your attention to the end.
All of these features are supported by Reckoning's workmanlike presentation. While it doesn't match the environmental detail or variety of a Skyrim, Amalur is nonetheless a rich world begging to be explored. From the lush temperate forests, barren deserts and vast plains, Reckoning presents a vibrant and whimsical aesthetic that's somewhat reminiscent of Lionhead's work with Fable. Character models and animations don't hold up nearly as well, especially when highlighted during conversational close-ups. In terms of sound design, voice-acting throughout is a godsend, although the delivery can be lacking. Finally, the game's score hits the usual beats expected from an epic fantasy adventure, but doesn't stand out in any particular way.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a well-paced and crafted western RPG, one complete with a satisfying and flexible system of combat that truly separates itself from the genre's staple franchises. Beyond that, Reckoning's world, quests, collectibles and so on all come together into a competently-executed package, but one that doesn't push any boundaries. While certain design elements feel a bit archaic when compared to the competition, Reckoning cleverly navigates and designs around its limitations, ultimately carving out a unique personality for itself. Hopefully, the world of Amalur continues to be explored in the future, because there's a lot of potential here.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.