RPG juggernauts cast a gigantic shadow. Titles in the league of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dark Souls and even pseudo-RPGs like Mass Effect envelop the genre’s landscape, blotting out all in their wake and leaving an indelible mark on those that follow. It’s hard to go against the established conventions of any genre and cut your own path. Yet occasionally a small sapling can push through and, if carefully nurtured and attended to, grow into a mighty oak and cast a wide shadow of its own. What’s with all the hippy metaphors you ask? Just painting a picture of the little engine that could.
You see, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning thumbs its nose at convention. You say RPGs have weak combat and are more about expansive storylines and immersive worlds. Screw that. Why must they be mutually exclusive? Amalur’s developers raise a respectfully defiant middle finger to these set in stone notions and bring an action driven experience with a plethora of killifying options (it’s a word, look it up) that will force you to reassess your concrete ideas of what RPG combat should be.
Imagine a game that takes its cues from established action franchises like God of War. Then add a dash of artistic animation flair from comic book legend Todd McFarlane (the dude that done Spawn), a sprinkle of sultry sounds care of Grant Kirkhope (he made them tantalising tunes for GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64) and lavish lashings of lore by acclaimed fantasy scribe R.A. Salvatore (smashed out some Forgotten Realms novels for a dozen or so million fans). Carefully season and bake at 180 degrees under the watchful eye of Ken Rolsten of The Elder Scrolls III and IV fame and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning comes together like an all-you-can-eat RPG buffet where it’s all pretty much on the menu.
The story, in broad strokes, isn’t going to blow your mind. It’s still an RPG after all and the usual rules apply. A gigantic douche-nozzle called Gadflow with delusions of grandeur has been “chosen” by a god-like entity to cleanse the populace and convert them to his way of thinking. Before you can say “welcome to the crazy house sir, what size would you like your straight jacket in?” he starts messing up everyone’s gloriously chill-axed way of life.
An epic brouhaha kicks off with the good guys getting trounced by his evil band of miscreants known as the Tuatha. Usually this would be no big deal with humanoids and Fae (think Elves) banding together to spank this little upstart and his cronies and rip him a new one. However evil plans are afoot. After a prolonged and costly battle with heavy casualties on both sides Gadflow makes with ze dastardly resurrection spell and runs a train across the remaining forces, twirls his moustache, arches an eyebrow and laughs maniacally. The world needs a hero and that’s where you come in.
It appears that Gadflow ain’t the only one working his mojo against Mr. Death. A couple of industrious gnomes have been tinkering about the Well of Souls. Using their stupid-dope skills they bring you back from the dead (yep, you died. We sent a fruit basket to your family with our condolences) have a mini freak out, declare you saviour of the world because you are no longer bound by fate, toss you a bunch of weapons to play with, pat you on the bum and send you on your way.
This “no fate” clause is kind of a big deal. Every life form is bound by fate but you, the Fateless One, are not. You can rewrite predetermined destinies and cataclysmic events by lighting them up with your staff of Ra, stabbing them in the face with your daggers, shooting arrows in their eyeballs, bludgeoning them with a hammer or clefting them in twain with a broadsword… you get the idea. And now we get to the meat and potatoes of the piece. The combat.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is all about action and doesn’t want to constrain you to one style. You can play as your classic rogue using the longbow, daggers and faeblades (the coolest weapon around) and get all stabby-stabby quick-time stealthy assassin-ninja style. You can call down the thunder as a mage using staffs and other magically imbued items, or grab a hammer or any other monolithic sharp pointed-ended thing and simply beat the crap out of enemies as a warrior and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In no way are you limited to each class’ weapons. Mix and match to your heart’s content! You can stay true to a class, become a hybrid or use every bloody death-dealer in the game. As you level up you unlock new fate cards or “destinies” giving you bonuses dependant on your play style and Amalur doesn’t punish you for heading in the wrong direction. You can re-spec your character and completely re-outfit their skills and abilities AT ANY TIME. Just head on over to your friendly Fateweaver, cross his palm with silver and boom! You’re a clean slate ready to give something else a try. It’s all about freedom of choice, baby.
I favoured rogue bringing the pain with faeblades (like a double-bladed tonfun) using kickass daggers I crafted after maxing out Blacksmithing and Sagecraft to give it an elemental damage boost and backed them up with a horrendously overpowered longbow. I could easily dodge to avoid attacks and then hit unsuspecting fools with a slice ’n dice twirl, dive in headfirst with the faeblades and turn them into salsa, parry with my shield and become an avenging circular saw of doom to teach them the error of their ways. I was a whirling dervish of pain and that was only the beginning. I’d launch enemies skyward and pepper them with arrows as they fell, drop traps mid-battle, call down arrow storms, poison my blades for extra damage and even mini-teleport through groups carving a back-stab-tastic path through bone and sinew in the blink of an eye. The entire time I played the combat never got old and I’ve only touched on some of the moves at my disposal, and then there’s the whole fateshift thingy.
Mixing up your attack combinations earns you “fate”. Max out this bar and you can fateshift. In this mode you are pretty much unstoppable. Everything goes slow-mo and purplely, the colour of fate apparently. You dish out more and take less damage, you move faster while everything else seems like it’s wading through jelly. If you’ve quick enough you can chain together multiple kills before the meter runs out and trigger an epic finishing move. Doing so robs these enemies of their fate. You manifest a massive weapon be it sword, scythe, axe, arrows, whatever, and end their sorry existence with a satisfying coup-de-graces. Before the final blow you have a short QTE (quick time event) to maximise the extra XP you’ll gain afterwards. Stringing several deaths and a successful button mash can yield a massive XP bonus and is an unreal way to pacify pesky bosses.
On the subject of bosses, Amalur throws some pretty out there creatures your way with very few attacking exactly as you’d expect them to. Sure you’ve got the lumbering bruisers dealing heavy damage and sprightly… err… sprites taking flight, but you never can really tell. Some of the larger brutes lunge at you with surprising speed almost belly-flopping all over you. Smaller creatures attack in packs and try to surround you and some even slither about like snakes closing vast distances at breakneck speeds to turn you into a Happy Meal. The one I loved to hate the most was the Thresh.
Part tree, part mage, this beastie would send roots burrowing your way forcing you to dodge and before you had a sec to catch your breath he’d unleash a barrage of lightning bolts that would do Zeus and Thor proud and nothing made me happier than taking one down, with extreme prejudice. That’s the thing about Amalur. It’s constantly throwing harder and harder enemies at you so just when you’ve got a handle on it you need to rethink your strategies and evolve, and who doesn’t love that?
Now you might be getting to this point thinking what’s with the “8.7” down the bottom kozeeii old mate? Well it’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows. Amalur does have a few niggling issues. While load times are pretty damned fast, especially considering the length and breadth of what’s on offer, there were infrequent texture pop-ups as well as enemies that materialised out of thin air. I highly recommend installing to your hard-drive before you play to negate most of these, but even after I did, they did persist. The audio synching was also off (sometime hilariously so) feeling like a badly English dubbed Jackie Chan movie. Neither of these are deal breakers but they do need to be mentioned.
The only real negative was the sporadic bugginess of the combat camera. Usually, at the most inopportune moment mid super intense skirmish, the camera would wig out and obscure the battle or choose to focus on the grass under my character’s feet, or any number of other objects, angles or enemies, anywhere except where I wanted it to be. There seemed little rhyme or reason to it and while you can centre the camera behind you with a thumbstick click sometimes that momentary frustrating distraction is all it takes to get a one-way ticket to your last game save. Also not being about to jump anywhere except at predefined areas needs to go the way of the dodo bird. It’s kind of silly that the badass champion of the whole damn universe can be thwarted by a two centimeter high bump in the road. Just saying…
Still, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one hell of a game. It leads the way for action RPGs bringing with it a whole new level of awesomeness to combat without sacrificing expansive plotlines or an incredibly immersive world. I sprinted through the entire game (literally) without knocking out a single side quest, avoiding anything that wasn’t directly in my way and it still took me nearly 40 hours. Yep. I speed ran my way through this baby and I still haven’t had even close to enough. Now leave me alone. I hear I’ve got another 160 or so hours worth of stuff to knock out. I’ll see you next month.