Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Hit and myth
Review Like a mage's potion, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is based on a tried and tested formula: the essence of Fable II, a dash of Oblivion, the gizzards of God of War. And let's not forget the vital binding agent, of course: a liberal dose of Tolkien's legendarium.
Circle of strife
That's not to say Big Huge Games' debut title is without merit – quite the opposite, in fact. Or that there's anything inherently wrong with formulaic game design. But whether Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a worthwhile concoction will ultimately depend on your willingness to overlook its obvious indebtedness to those constituent parts.
For those jaded adventurers staggering back from Skyrim's impossibly large world, or limping bloodied and battered from Dark Souls' impossibly challenging one, KoAR's attraction will also depend on how much you buy into its fantasy.
An orc walks into a library...
Thanks to the talents of Todd McFarlane, R.A. Salvatore and Ken Rolston, Amular itself is as deep and rich a world as you could imagine. The aesthetics and narrative weave its disparate lands and creatures into a distinctive, wondrous whole, bringing Amalur to life with a verisimilitude as convincing as it is beautiful.
It's a world steeped in lore and brimming with encyclopaedic detail, evinced at every turn through hundreds of hours of NPC dialogue and a seemingly endless stream of collectible books and notes.
The world might be complex, but gameplay is defined by simplicity and accessibility. At its core it's an unapologetic action-RPG, where single-button attack types, blocks, parries and combo chains are more important than invisible rule sheets of stat trees and skill points.
Despite the accessibility, combat is not shallow. Primary and secondary weapon slots allow you to instantaneously switch between weapons drawn from a multitude of classes, so you can mix and match range, power and speed types to suit your preferred style.
Twinkle in the eye
It's a satisfying system which complements the game's other, more traditional, RPG abilities – think elemental Mage spells, AoE Warrior power smashes and stealthy Rogue back-stabs – rewarding players with constant pyrotechnical and visceral delights. But it's not without flaws.
Combat simplicity can, at times, be the game's downfall. With combos easily mastered, enemy defences are often breached too readily. They may be immune – and indeed invulnerable – to certain attacks, but strike them with the correct attack and their resistance is temporarily broken, providing a window in which any subsequent assaults cause damage.
Burning desire to kill
So it's all too easy to settle into the same routine – irrespective of enemy type – assured that if you don't crack their defences first time around, you will with your next flurry.
Tougher enemies and larger groups help mask the problem somewhat. As do encounters where you need single out and deal with particular enemies first, such as minion-spawning shamans and mages which bombard you with projectile magic.
Swamp thing, I think I'll thump you
These aren't the game's most exasperating opponents, however. In fact, they're not even enemies at all. Occasional camera problems and a poor targeting system conspire to make some fights more difficult than they naturally would be. And the game's inventory is so poorly constructed, with long lists, sub menus and arbitrary ordering of items and consumables, that navigating it feels like a side-quest in itself.
Carry on adventure
Worse still, in striving for simplicity the inventory system ironically introduces some baffling complexity. Individual item weight isn't displayed anywhere, which makes managing overall weight limits difficult, to say the least. And when mapping consumables to the radial quick-select menu, the names of presently held items aren't listed.
Proper bow, I tell thee
With many consumables indistinguishable, it's impossible to know what you're swapping out until you've actually done it. Minor quibbles, you might say. And you'd be half right. Although they don't grate in isolation, the irritation accumulates across 50-hours of adventuring.
All of which is a shame, because elsewhere there's much to admire and enjoy. Thanks to Amular's rich diversity of lands and enemies, the kill-fetch questing feels varied throughout. Random JRPG-style encounters enliven lengthy explorations, and the occasional boss battles and set pieces of the main quest bring welcome changes of pace.
Red eyes of an all night clubber
There's an enjoyable, albeit simple, crafting system for concocting potions or constructing powerful items and modifiers; neat minigames for lock picking and dispelling magic wands; and a decent system of economy and commerce throughout. But it's the game's levelling philosophy that deserves particular praise.
There's nothing unique about the system itself, allowing you to specialise as a Mage, Rogue or Warrior, combine two disciplines, or even become a Jack of all Trades. Where, Kingdoms of Amular really excels is in its liberal attitude to levelling. Unbinding skills and attributes is a simple and relatively inexpensive task, which can be carried out as many times as you wish without penalty. A near-sacrilegious act in so many other RPGs, here it's an essential element that prevents the mainstay of combat from becoming too repetitive.
Cut it out
For all its high fantasy, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning feels as much a product of market research and the boardroom, as it does anyone's imagination. You can't blame Big Hat Studios for sticking within a rigid formula for its first game, of course, especially when it nets you the world's biggest publisher. While there's perhaps not enough to heartily recommend the game this time around, there's still plenty of promise to suggest we'll be seeing more of Amular soon. ®
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