Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Feb 07, 2012

Reckoning is built on a great concept that highlights the dynamic nature of game narratives, but unfortunately, it is a victim of its own ambition and fails to capitalize on many of its own big ideas.

The Pros
  • Excellent combat design
  • Interesting world
  • Great story set-up
The Cons
  • Turgid storytelling
  • Little variety in combat scenarios
  • Distinct lack of polish

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review:

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is nothing if not ambitious.  The game is the initial point of entry into a new fantasy world that promises to span various media and game genres.  Made with the involvement of fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore, comic-book artist Todd McFarlane, and Elder Scrolls designer Ken Rolston, and overseen by Curt Schilling’s nascent, but well-funded, 38 Studios, it’s a game whose vast content and open-world design inevitably draws comparison to Skyrim and the Mass Effect series.  

My earlier looks and the pedigree of talents involved signaled something fresh, and I started the game excited and eager to delve into the world of Amalur.  Unfortunately, the game fails to live up to the promised greatness.  The sheer ambition and intent is on display but, outside of an ingenious combat system, the game is incapable of the delicate merging of narrative, gameplay and art direction that is the hallmark of contemporary Role Playing Games.  It is mired in design issues that place it more in a league of games from 2004 than as a real contender in this vibrant era of RPG’s.



My Kingdom For An Elf

Reckoning is built on a great concept that highlights the dynamic nature of game narratives.  Your character (human or the elf-like alfar) inhabits a world governed by the magical and eternal Fae who live their lives trapped in the mythic narrative that is destined to repeat itself continuously.  The status quo of such fatalistic existence is threatened when a Fae lord named Gadflow of the House of Winter – a counterweight to the hippie-like Summer Fae – goes renegade and begins to follow a new spirituality, which foments a great war between Gadflow’s followers and all the other inhabitants of Amalur.  

The arrival of your character, who defies the basic tenets of mortal existence by returning from the dead, further disintegrates the idea of inescapable fate. This sudden imbalance and instability in Amalur not only thrusts you into the conflict but positions you as the harbinger of change whose sheer will alone threatens the deterministic nature of this civilization. 

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Reckoning's Choice

Such a story brilliantly and cleverly cuts to the heart of the unstable narrative that defines RPG’s, where the player, through choices and personal character development, shapes the story as he plays the game. This concept of behavior affecting change – and the existential weight attached to it – is the allure many games, even though many invariably fail to exploit the device beyond a simple good-and-evil split.  

Reckoning declines to pursue even such simple binary moralism.  Despite the clever narrative set-up that begs the player to feel responsible for the new world that he is shaping, the handful of choices made throughout the game are of little consequence; for example, side with a witch and kill the townsfolk, and you’re left with an empty town.  Given the remarkable length of the game (70+ hours after completing every quest I could find), eschewing such player involvement in forming the world that the player is allegedly reshaping seems not only a lost opportunity but one of many elements of the game that keep the player at arm’s length, content to satisfy the experience with only the base mechanics of gameplay.


This is all too apparent in the actual storytelling on display. Interactions with other characters play out in turgid cutscenes that fill only one half of the screen where your character stands rigidly in front of your dialogue partner, enlivened only by arbitrary hand gestures.  With little exception, the narrative is advanced through these unendurable sequences that frequently can’t be viewed because the camera is lost behind some object in the environment. 

It is possible that the information conveyed is interesting but the plastic character models and wholesale lack of characterization in both the voice acting – which never syncs up with the jaw movement – and animations imbue the information with leaden appeal.  (The subpar quality of facial animations is made even more evident in those moments when the voice acting is good, by drawing attention to the dissonance between what you hear – say, nuanced delivery of the dialogue – and what you see – the robotic, emotionless quality of the speaker’s face.)  You are offered seemingly inconsequential dialogue options, but your character does not speak, which, lacking the charm of the similarly mute Zelda games, does nothing to assist in bringing a sense of essential vitality to help drive the action.


Quest Love

With the numerous (well over 100) quests available in Reckoning, not giving them a unique flavor through storytelling techniques lets them stand as mere ciphers for getting a player in a dungeon and leveling up through combat.  Repetitive behavior is at the core of any game, but with dexterous use of story and setting, a good game can offer the player a promise of something new and remarkable around the corner, the illusory sense of the unique that compels him to continue.  Developers such as Bioware, Bethesda and Lionhead have championed this art; it’s unfortunate that Reckoning only highlights their accomplishment.

The world of Amalur fares somewhat better.  The vibrant color palette is a welcome respite from the browns and greys of many near-apocalyptic fantasy settings.  Beginning in a forest, the game traverses plains, mesas and swampland before succumbing to the bland desolation of its final hours.  The art direction is reminiscent of the high-fantasy, fairy-tale world of Fable, with its insistence on refusing right-angles, but it lacks any clear vision or coherence.  At times, the various environments feel as formalized as a desert or ice world in a platformer, feeling requisite rather than organically sprung from the logic that underpins the conception of Amalur.  It is fun to look at but lacks the awe and mystery that leads a player to check every odd corner or investigate a cave without direction from a quest.  The abundant use of the bloom effect provides an ethereal quality but ultimately prevents the player from integrating into the world, like the matte effect of 80’s action movies where the player is in front of the environment, not a part of it.


This Is Why We Fight

What does pull the player in is the combat.  Fast-paced and dynamic, fighting enemies has the visceral satisfaction of God or War or Bayonetta but is enhanced through a fluid leveling system that can be restructured at any time in the game (costing in-game money).  Allowing two weapons, one to a button and four magical powers at a time, creates a funhouse of opportunities to obliterate enemies.  The speed of the combat is essential in establishing the power fantasy that your character is unique and special in a world weighed down by acquiescence.  Mostly, it just plain feels good; here, the animations shine in their extreme presentation of physical prowess, coupled with deeply satisfying sound effects; exacting a critical hit can produce a crunch that just drips with success and fills the battles with the excitement that is so lacking in the rest of the game.  

Initially simple, the fighting does start to develop sophistication and depth as you grow your character, but gradually enough that those less exposed to the combo-heavy action games should acclimate comfortably.  The character skill tree is a mathematical wonder as, being without fate, you are never locked into one class at a time and can spread experience points across the three categories of Might, Finesse and Sorcery as one sees fit; and it works.  This is where the game finds its compulsive soul, leveling up and deciding what skill to advance or new skill to acquire creates the motivation for proceeding through the game, just to see how it manifests on the battlefield.  For some players, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction gained in the combat sequences may be enough to declare the game enjoyable.  And after investing so many hours, who could blame them for wanting, and finding, value in those isolated moments of pleasure?  


Even with such an elegant combat system, however, Reckoning does not know how to indulge it.  The actual combat scenarios themselves are painfully pedantic and lose any surprise after the first few hours of play.  Certain enemies will always group in certain fashions and the player is rarely challenged to investigate the nuances of the combat system.  The available enemies are fully introduced in the first fifteen hours, leaving little discovery for the extensive remainder of the game, and the player is left to experiment for experimentations sake instead of being invigorated to discover the game’s subtleties through challenge and surprise. The combat camera doesn’t help much, as it demonstrates why God of War and Bayonetta use a fixed angle; the action is too fast for the camera to keep up and it will frequently get lost behind objects or pull so far back that you’ll lose yourself amongst the enemies. 


We Finish Our Journey

Beyond the camera, a shocking lack of polish is prevalent throughout Reckoning.  Missing audio, framerate slowdown, a garish menu and incomprehensible maps are among the strange issues that plague the game and make it stand out from its triple-A contemporaries for all the wrong reasons.

Structurally, the game feels bloated as its middle section all but abandons the main quest and leaves the player trudging through formulaic settings and scenarios to little purpose.  There’s a sense of the game wanting to declare itself as epic, but only through the virtue of being large.  Ambitious as it may be, Reckoning throws in the kitchen sink but can’t find its structure, wildly borrowing from other games, only to fail in the invited comparison.

For the months leading up to its release, I looked forward to playing this game.  The early looks at the game and the people associated with it promised great things, and I still regard the world of Amalur as one filled with potential.  Reckoning, in trying to be so much at the same time, seems to have lost that essential identity necessary to drive this franchise.  I hope another game will be forthcoming; however, until then, Amalur is awaiting its actual reckoning.

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Editor's Note: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was reviewed primarily with an Xbox 360 copy of the game. If further investigation reveals any key differences in the PC and/or PS3 copy of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences. 

Adam offers expanded commentary on his review in this week's Sessler's Soapbox: