Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

In August, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, originally released in 2012, is being remastered. I thought now would be a great time to share my thoughts on the title. I found this game in my husbands old PS3 collections, and it caught my attention enough for me to purchase my own copy to play on PC.

The original game was developed by 38 Studios, and their sister company Big Huge Games. Sadly after a turbulent and complicated 4-year court case (plus some hefty financial mismanagement) 38 Studios is no more, declaring bankruptcy just a few months after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning – the remaster is being developed by Kaiko instead.

The critical reception to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was good going on great, however reviews overall were very polarising: some found it bland and unimaginative, and others found it solid edition to the fantasy RPG genre. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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The Combat

For all that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning can admittedly feel a little generic at times, it’s engaging combat system is what helps this game stand out from the crowd. It feels fluid and rewarding – each hit feels like it makes an impact. There’s a lot of variety in the weapons you can choose to use, from chakrams, staves and sceptres to great swords, hammers and dual-wielding daggers. The developers clearly put a lot of effort into making each weapon type feel unique. Most importantly, each weapon type feels viable and well balanced, which encourages you to experiment with them all instead of sticking to the first one you get.

Something I also like is that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning wasn’t afraid to kick the trend of masking boring or un-engaging early-game combat with the classic “it’s about progression” excuse. Players shouldn’t have to play 20 hours of your game before the combat starts to feel engaging. It’s not that your character feels overpowered from the start in Kingdoms of Amalur, but rather, to quote one of my favourite reviewers, “You can do cool s*%t right away.” Physical and magical attack animations are dramatic and impressive, which makes the combat exciting from the very first encounter.

Finally, I have to mention Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s namesake mechanic – Reckoning mode. Defeating enemies awards “fate”, and if you save up enough “fate” you can trigger the Reckoning mode, which massively increases your attack power and speed for a limited time, and allows you to finish one particular enemy with a magnificent coup de grace. These finishing moves are really fun to watch, especially if you use them on a boss… or a particularly annoying NPC.

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The Lore

It’s really, really hard to be original in a world post-Tolkien. What would the fantasy genre be without the foolhardy but dependable humans, stoic tree-hugging elves and funny little halfling people? That’s not to say that every piece of media that has elves, dwarves and hunans in it is ripping off Lord of the Rings – most games manage to put their own flair on classic fantasy tropes. Not Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning though. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer un-originality of the game’s lore is one of the major pitfalls of this game. Every place name, every area, even the names of the game’s core races, they all seem to be ripped straight from a “Fantasy Name Generator” or something.

Maybe players who are new or inexperienced in the fantasy genre might not notice, but for players like myself who are keenly interested in pop-culture “lore,” to see a game try very hard to be as nuanced and deep in lore, culture and history as the Elder Scrolls games or the Lord of the Rings franchise, but ultimately fail, is a constant thorn in the side when you’re trying to appreciate the aesthetic of the game.

Some might say I’m being unfair – don’t get me wrong, there is original lore in the game. The quest-lines pertaining to the Fae are really unique and some of the most enjoyable quest arcs in the game. I just think it’s a shame that the number of tropes and cliches the game’s lore is built open make it ultimately forgettable – I wish the game developers had the confidence to stamp their own identity onto the game rather than relying on the tried and tested.

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The Quests

For all that I have criticised Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for it’s un-original lore, the quests themselves were really enjoyable. The game opts for a multi-narrative style where there are usually multiple ways to complete a quest based on your playstyle and the way you choose to play your characters roll. The game also incorporates a lot of decision-based design, which is really popular in newer RPGs. By combining the multi-narrative and decision-based gameplay, you end up with a game where you are largely able to approach quests, and finish them, in a way that feels true to your character.

The decisions your are asked to make throughout the game are frequent and sometimes very long reaching. Game-altering decisions aren’t just saved for the main story, but they are sprung upon you in side-quests and faction-quests too.

Speaking of the main story, I think that the main-game story arc is one of the highlights of my play-through. It focuses on the mystery surrounding the death and eventual resurrection of the player, and guides the player through each of the five zones before plopping them neatly before the final boss. It felt very straight forward and gratifying to play through. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning doesn’t make the mistake that the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim did, which was cobbling together a relatively lacklustre mainline story arc that has fans rushing through it only to unlock Shouts and the Civil War quest arc. Having a compelling story arc encourages you to finish the game to completion instead of wandering around picking up side-quests for eternity.

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The Role Playing Element

It seems to me that these days, anything with a skill tree and multiple dialogue options is considered an RPG. As a “proper” RPG with unmistakably RPG mechanics, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has lots to recommend it. It’s not just the multi-narrative, multi-choice gameplay I’ve mentioned previously, or the variety of dialogue options – one of the best and most effective RPG mechanics in the game is the “Fate” system.

There are three main skill trees in the game – might, sorcery and finesse – in which you can invest your skill points. Amass enough skill points into a tree, and you’ll be able to activate a “Destiny” which gives you certain buffs, abilities and bonuses, such as Assassin or Sorcerer or Knight. If you choose to put all your skill points into one skill tree, then you will end up with the classic (and very effective) warrior, mage and thief builds. But if you’re not satisfied with that and prefer to go your own way, you can mix and match your skill points into multiple trees to make hybrid classes like Spell-blade (a mixture of sorcery and might), Blademaster (a mixture of finesse and might) or even Universalist (a mixture of all three). I really liked this mechanic. I especially loved how, by visiting a Fateweaver in-game, you can choose to reassign all your skill-points and abilities for a small fee. As with the weaponry, each class has it’s own very distinct identity – using the Fateweaver I was able to try out each one individually to see which Destiny I liked best.

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The Difficulty

Unfortunately, in playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I found out just how far fun quests and great combat can get you, and the answer is not quite far enough. A problem I found that persisted throughout the entire game was that it was relentlessly, unforgivably easy. In the 30 hours I spent playing the game to completion, I didn’t die a single time – nor did I get close. I’m no more skilled in using a mouse and keyboard than the next person. I feel that anyone who is even moderately competent with PC games would be unsatisfied with the game’s difficulty.

In order to provide a more adequate challenge, I was forced to handicap myself by putting all my points into the sorcery skill tree, where I would be forced to wear light armour and rely heavily on my mana to fuel my attacks. Only then did I feel the game was acceptably challenging, but with a bit of practise, I mastered that too.

Eventually, you get sick of succeeding. Remember the old saying? “If something is easy, it’s not worth doing.”

It doesn’t matter how quirky your dialogue is, how engaging your quests are or how action-packed your combat is – an appropriate difficulty is absolutely essential to a rewarding gameplay loop and that is sorely missing in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I found myself really labouring through the latter half of the game, not because I was bored of the content per se (in fact, wanting to see the conclusion to the main story was the thing that kept me going through the next 15 hours of drudgery), but because, without a sense of challenge, without the risk of dying, it’s a fruitless endeavour. There’s little reward and little sense of achievement. And what sense of achievement you do get comes from getting through the game without quitting, instead of in completing a challenge, solving a puzzle or defeating a boss.

This is a major downfall of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and I think this is what ultimately prevents me from recommending it highly to anyone but inexperienced gamers.

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Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…

Overall, I don’t think it’s surprising that, 8 years on, nobody really talks about this game. It has it’s cult following, and history certainly doesn’t remember it unfavourably – the problem is that history doesn’t really remember it at all. And that’s OK. Does that mean that I regret the 30 plus hours I invested in it? Not at all. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but not one I wish to have more than once. Perhaps, when the game is remastered, the videogaming world will be reintroduced to it, and reignite a drive in the market for more Kingdoms of Amalur games – a demand that the original developers had anticipated from the original game but which never materialised. Allegedly, there is over 10,000 years of unreleased lore history to work through in canon, should the need for it ever arise.

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