It was just last month that I was expressing intense excitement over Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning because of the wealth of talent behind the wheel of the project; composer Grant Kirkhope (Banjo Kazooie, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark), Ken Rolston (Morrowind and Oblivion), author R.A. Salvatore (Forgotten Realms series), and Todd McFarlane (Spawn), among others. The game has finally released, but has it lived up to lofty expectations?

Developer: 38 Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: M
Released: February 7th, 2012 [NA], February 9th [EU]
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

From the opening of the game, the character creation, red flags were raised. Your first decision is between two varieties of humans, the Almain and Varani, along with two varieties of elves, the Ljosalfar and Dokkalfar. It might seem nitpicky to call out the jargon of a Tolkienesque world, but none of the races are unique enough to warrant that jargon so early on. It is a move that is more likely to lose the attention of the audience than it is to draw the audience in. If this was an isolated case, or if the player were eased into the vernacular of the world than it would be understandable. That is not the case here. The game continues to throw pieces of arcane speech at the player incessantly before any chance is given to acclimate to the world.

The problem is one of exposition. The developers crafted a world dense with history, but this works against the player because so little of the backstory is ever clearly outlined which makes the nomenclature seem like gibberish. It’s as if the player is simply dropped into the second game in an on-going series with the expectation of having played the first game. Luckily the primary conflict is simple enough that even if you drown in the sea of jargon you can still follow the basic plot.

Not that there is a whole lot to follow there. There is an unexplained conflict entering its second decade, and you are dropped into the middle of it. The main character is an experiment of sorts in cheating death – an immortal with the power to change his or her fate and the fates of those he or she comes in contact with. And of course there is a mysterious malevolent force commanding an army of pure evil trying to summon an even more ancient and terrible creature which only you, the player, can stop; the usual clichés. Had this story been told flawlessly it might be understandable, but a character early in the game faces an insurmountable situation and is presumed dead by a character capable of ‘seeing the destiny of others,’ and this character later reappears with the thinnest of explanations given. This is not a matter of suspension of disbelief. When presented with moments like this the game is asking the player to take a logical leap of faith.

This all builds to an emotionless ending. Sure, evil is banished and the world is saved and everyone can live happily ever after, but why do I care? It’s obvious that you will succeed from the start and that nothing bad will happen because you have the deus ex machina power of changing the fate of those around you. Any character interaction is mainly to setup another leg of the journey or some sort of fetch quest. The reason this type of ending works for Tolkien and the many authors that inspired him and were inspired by him is because you invest in his characters emotionally and feel the impact of their sacrifices. None of that exists in Amalur.

Even the more absorbing side quests overstay their welcome by contriving twists for no other reason than to pad out the length of the quest. I was also often given strange and illogical choices at the end of lengthy side quest chains. For instance, the ‘Warsworn’ quest chain had me working tirelessly to prevent some ancient evil from manifesting in the world, and yet at the end I could simply choose to become this evil being’s champion with no logical setup for why I might have such a drastic change of heart. So I chose that option and promptly slaughtered my comrades and then went about my business of being the hero of the story with nobody making a single remark about said slaughter as though they were all just ignoring the burning, red, devil-horned elephant in the room.

It’s not as though there are deeper morals or messages to take away in spite of the simplistic story either. This gives me the impression that too much focus was spent inventing the overwrought background lore and not enough time was spent nurturing the more immediate narrative threads – the main story and side quests. This underlines a failure to prioritize.

Crawling out of the sprawling bog that is the story side of the game, we have the art style. The game is visually appealing, full of vibrant colors, and features a vast landscape that follows a unified internal logic. Terrain shifts naturally from one area to the next and the world is detailed enough to be worth exploring. To draw parallels, the art style is similar to World of Warcraft with more detailed character and object models. It lacks any type of distinguishable Todd McFarlane signature, but that’s more of a personal nitpick than a criticism that I can actually level against the game. My only other unfulfilled wish here was that not much information is conveyed through the art. Very little meaningful information about the world or story can be discerned exclusively from the visuals.

At this point I would love nothing more than to say that the game’s many story deficiencies were made up for by the gameplay, but that simply is not true. The combat is simple and repetitious, but then again, so was Batman’s. You are also given four hotkeyable abilities along with the standard block, dodge, and attack inputs, and multiple ways to use that singular attack button to perform combos. The abilities themselves don’t deviate from standard RPG abilities; enhanced melee attacks and buffs for the warrior class, traps for the rogues, and elemental spells for the mages. In spite of this I did actually find the skills and the talents that modified them to be fun, but I would have preferred a radial menu as opposed to the very limited four ability buttons you get on the console version.

The inclusion of stealth spices things up, but otherwise the combat won’t change much from the beginning of the game up to the end. The enemy design doesn’t do much to foster variety either. Every mage enemy uses the same three spells, none of the melee attackers require different tactics to tackle, and there are a handful of other less frequently regurgitated enemies whose only unique facet is the requirement of some well-timed dodges.

If that was all that was wrong with the combat than I could call it lukewarm, but there are more severe issues hamstringing it. The game suffers from one of the same problem that Dragon Age II suffered from – an oversaturation of enemies which causes the repetition to enter mind numbing territory. To add to that the camera, while in combat, is awful. The camera zooms and pulls back far into the distance at will, and controlling the camera while mashing attacks out is a headache. If you try to kite enemies it’s entirely possible to lose your view of the action entirely. The targeting is sticky and I found myself frequently casting on targets outside my field of view despite pointing the stick towards a separate group of enemies. In order to convey a sense of weight to the strikes the developers use the animation trick of slowing down everything on-screen during an impact, but even this isn’t executed quite right. The screen freezes for approximately 3-4 frames when an attack lands which makes it seem as though the game is stuttering. Finally, the game uses a mechanic similar to God of War’s ‘rage of the…’ known as fateshifting which allows you to use a finite power meter to gain a temporary attack boost while also slowing down the action. During fateshift you can execute an enemy with a QTE sequence to gain an experience bonus. While deciding when the best time to use it to maximize the EXP bonus was rewarding, I experienced a bug with the button prompts on several occasions in which the corresponding button press failed to register.

The menus are also cluttered and hideous. Putting aside the fact that it clashes with the rest of the game’s visual style, it creates more work for the player than it saves. For instance, I don’t understand why I have to go into the inventory menu from the main menu, go to the weapons, armor, or accessories sub-menu, hit Y to add an item to my junk list, exit out of these three sub-menus, and then go into another sub-menu to destroy items and free up inventory space.

The biggest jewel in the game’s tarnished crown is the ability to respecialize easily. Respeccing isn’t limited to your combat abilities either. You can reset your blacksmithing, persuasion, alchemy, and other skills to easily max out or craft max level items and then go back to your normal specialties once you’re done. The convenience fostered by this feature is nothing short of groundbreaking. By allowing you to change your play style completely from mage to rogue to warrior at will it got me to try abilities and roles out, and it got me to max out professions I wouldn’t have bothered grinding otherwise, and it even alleviated some of the mind numbing repetition I remarked on earlier. It is marked success by any measure.

While I’m still riding on the high of reflecting on the game’s marvelous respec feature, I would also like to point out that the music of Amalur is sublime. Evocative and thrilling when necessary, ambient otherwise, and yet the music is always reminding me of the fantasy setting I’m in and the adventurous role I’ve been thrust into. Expressiveness and distinctness are hallmarks of good game soundtracks, and by those criteria this game’s soundtrack is superb.

So what are we left with? A game which buckles under the weight of critical design missteps, poor writing with a poorly presented convoluted history, and repetitious mediocre combat. And yet this same game also boasts a stunning soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, a stand-out respec system, and for all my gripes with the combat it could have also been a whole lot worse. Amalur teeters on the precipice of failure, but tenaciously clings to mediocrity by virtue of its few saving graces.

5.0 / 10

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