All it takes to suck the creativity out of making video games is success.
Have one blockbuster hit and soon enough, everyone else is trying to do the same thing. We’ve seen it with Doom, GTA and Call of Duty. Before you know it, the market is filled with cookie cutter games, clones that have few buyers, followed by publishers and developers shutting shop and people moaning about how the industry is dying. At the first glance, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning appears to be one such game.
The art direction is a dead ringer for World of Warcraft; the combat is slovenly inspired by God of War III; and the character design (and voiceovers) is reminiscent of Fable. This would perhaps be the most apt description of the game if you just had one look at it. Spend a little time and you’d realise how foolish you were to judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a game from its presentation. Open the box and you’re greeted by a code that lets you download the House of Valors questline, also known as a slap in the face for someone buying an offline-only game to discover that a part of the content is gated behind EA’s online servers. In a word, uncool.
Nevertheless, what makes Reckoning unique is its lore. You’re in a world where everyone believes in their fate, that their lives follow a linear path where everything is predestined, and that there is no deviation from it. So much so that an entire side-quest is devoted to the House of Ballads, a sect of Fae— an immortal race of elf-like creatures and their need to reenact key moments in their history over and over.
Unlike everyone else, you’re an anomaly in the system. You are not bound by fate as you’ve been resurrected from the dead by a device known as the Well of Souls. With it comes great power, such as being able to change the destiny of others, namely the Tuatha, a radical clan of Fae hellbent on dominating all the other races in the name of their yet to be born god, Tirnoch. How do you go about achieving this noble cause, you ask? Simple; by beating the crap out of every assassin, soldier or troll (non-Internet variety, sadly) that stands in your way.
And beat you shall. The combat mechanics of Reckoning are easy to grasp. It’s all in real-time, with no rules, time gauge, VATS or party members to worry about. You block with the left trigger, dodge by pressing B, mash on X or Y to attack opponents with your primary or secondary weapon respectively, and hold down the right trigger and Y to unleash magic spells. You can seamlessly switch between spewing fireballs and pummeling foes quicker than you can say, “fus roh d’oh!”
Rain death on enough hostiles and you can enter Reckoning mode, which happens when a purple bar known as a fate meter becomes full. Hold down both trigger buttons and the screen is bathed in a violet-pinkish hue and enemies start taking a lot more damage than they usually would. Oh, and it’s all in slow-motion too. Stun an enemy in this mode and you can QTE your way to a very gory (and stylish) kill that’s a pleasure to watch.
As I mentioned earlier, it ends up being similar to God of War and that isn’t a bad thing. It is very visceral with no slowdown whatsoever even with an entire horde of enemies filling the screen. In a big fight, the camera is prone to losing direction every now and then, being a hindrance. Luckily, you can manually adjust it with a flick of an analog stick. This aside, combat is one of the game’s most enjoyable features.
Like most western RPGs, you choose your character class and skills. Unlike most western RPGs, you’re not stuck to one solitary class or set of abilities. Character stats and abilities are dependent on might, finesse and magic. You can very well have a balanced build that has a degree of proficiency in all three without any penalties in combat. For example, you can be a rogue, sporting lightweight mana regenerating armour that lets you pick up the pace in combat with a slew of spells where your heavy axe left off.
Such flexibility fits in well with the game’s mantra of letting you choose your own fate and is a welcome, if subtle, addition to the gameplay. On reaching a requisite number of points in might, finesse and magic, you can choose your fate card. This allows for additional perks such as bog standard ones like a lower cost of casting spells to more interesting choices such as replacing dodge with teleporting across the battlefield. If you’re not happy with your character progression, you can visit a fate weaver (the game’s version of a soothsayer) and reset your stats.
Also, there are skills such as lockpicking, persuasion and blacksmithing, and each time you level up, you get a point to spend on a skill, which has an impact on how you play. Investing in a skill like sagecrafting allows you to create gems that could be used to power your weapons or amour with additional bonuses such as fire damage or greater health; or you could max out your smithing skills, which allows you to create your own weapons. And on the topic of weapons, the game gives you access to a wealth of loot. From poison-tipped daggers or greatswords that deal elemental damage, there’s a generous amount to be picked from chests or the corpses of your enemies.
Along with this, there’s a rather large number of quests to undertake that should keep you playing this game long after the main quest ends, which in itself is around 18-20 hours. These range from the usual and mundane fetching of items, to some epic, memorable quest lines such as the aforementioned House of Ballads.
There’s a firm focus on freedom; so much so that you can accomplish these even when you’re done with the game’s core story and they’re available thick and fast. I had about 30-odd side-quests to keep me busy well after the main story did. It’s a meaty game with a lot to keep you interested. The story takes a while to pick up, but when it does, it becomes an involving tale with a cornucopia of characters to interact with and some nicely written dialogue to keep it going.
You’ll rendezvous with a hot dark elf who knows more about your past than she lets on, help a down and out fate weaver change his life around, and meet a Fae prince with a macabre sense of humour and a kingdom to reclaim. RPG veterans won’t find anything spanking new, but there’s more than enough to see you through the closing credits. It’s a pity that it ends on a slightly weak note, because for most of the part, it works.
Another thing that works is the welcome lack of bugs. My entire playthrough was a stable, crash-free affair. Given the number of issues people have had with other open-world RPGs such as Fallout and Skyrim, this was quite a pleasant experience. There’s a level of spit and polish that would put Bethesda to shame.
Reckoning isn’t the most creative of games, and it isn’t the most derivative either. It won’t change your life, nor is it a waste of time. 38 Studios’ debut effort manages to tightrope both extremes with aplomb and more importantly, does a great job of keeping you entertained. After all, that’s what gaming is about, isn’t it?