You have to give it to EA – they are nothing if not brazen. Never happy at being outdone, EA have decided to go and pick a fight with current big kid on the block, Bethesda’s critical and commercial smash-hit, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
While that might seem like something of a foolhardy decision by EA on the surface, maybe even a little bit naive, a closer look at the experience offered by their epic fantasy RPG suggests that the release, and more specifically, the development of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a very careful, extremely calculated process.
Although home to an epic fantasy world, rich in enemies, NPCs, loot and a million and one activities to undertake, Kingdoms of Amalur isn’t in the same league as Skyrim when it comes to artistic direction, story or character. What is here is passable fantasy fare, but the fact of the matter is, the land of Amalur and its people won’t stick in the mind in the same way that Skyrim and its inhabitants do – EA know this. They know that in many respects, Kingdoms of Amalur can’t compete with Skyrim…..However, EA are also extremely aware of Skyrim’s Achilles heel – its rather underwhelming combat. Unsurprisingly, this is where EA’s behemoth shines.
With one of the most responsive, tight and flexible combat systems ever found in an RPG, many will forgive Amalur’s vague lack of personality and somewhat forgettable characters as they happily cut there way through an array of highly exciting battles against a collection of brilliantly unpleasant enemies in search of that next bit loot drop. As boring as some of the NPCs may be, the same cannot be said of the enemy design. Both interesting from an artistic standpoint and consistently fun to fight against, these beasts undoubtedly deliver Kingdoms of Amalur’s artistic high point.
Yes, it’s true that the remaining art design is a little on the ‘safe’ side, but even here, while it can’t compete with the genre heavyweights in terms of imagination, it is nonetheless a technically good looking game in its own right. As easy on the eyes as it might be though, I just wish that EA and Big Huge Games had committed to one side of the fence with a little more dedication.
As pretty as the world might be, it does struggle throughout to deliver a consistent tone. The story, following your self-named character after he is brought back from the dead by the magical Well of Souls is earnest, serious and consistently sober, whereas the visuals, falling somewhere between Fable and World of Warcraft, are all bright colours and fairy dust. It’s a strange mix, one that often begins to jar as you mercilessly drive your sword into an enemy’s stomach for the umpteenth time on, what at times, looks like the set of Labyrinth. Considering that Todd Mcfarlane was brought in to do the art work, the fact that the interconnecting kingdom’s of Amalur are all so unforgivably vanilla proves something of a persistent disappointment.
So, with it’s pretty, vast, but ultimately uninspired world, its forgettable story and largely bland NPCs and side quests (of which there are plenty) failing to live up to the standards set by genre king, Skyrim, it’s down to the truly excellent combat and outrageously addictive levelling model to make this a genuine alternative for those left unimpressed by Skyrim’s shaky combat credentials and rigid levelling structure.
There is no doubt that the chance to mix and match your powers across the three major skill sets, namely Warrior, Mage and Rogue, is extremely refreshing in a genre famed for keeping the reins on the player relatively tight. The capability to power up both your warrior and mage abilities simultaneous so that you can wield both a staff and a sword is unquestionably cool, while the ability to visit a Fateweaver to completely re-set your skill tree at anytime you see fit is simultaneously simple and utterly inspired.
Of course, this ability has the knock on effect of making loot collection that much more interesting. Knowing that just about anything you find can be potentially used in battle is a rarity in this genre and with an especially tasty weapon liable to make you reconsider your entire approach to both levelling and battle, it’s a system as flexible and deep as it is rewarding and downright fun.
Of course, this would all be for nowt if the basic mechanics surrounding these ideas weren’t solid as a rock, but in the case of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the battle system would arguably be strong enough to support an out and out hack ‘n’ slasher. It’s not quite in the same league as the Bayonetta’s and Devil May Cry’s of this world, but I would certainly say that it is closer to those in terms of quality and depth than it is to its genre brethren. The hits feel weighty, the ranged combat slick and responsive and the move list and weapon combinations relatively vast.
From the long swords and magical staffs to the bows and utterly fantastic chakhrams (imagine two razor sharp Frisbees if you will), the weapons and core combat alone would be enough to keep most gamers content for the majority of this game’s extremely long running time, but add to that elemental powers, a myriad of potential upgrades and a powered up Reckoning Mode that allows for additional damage and extra brutal finishing moves, and you’re left with a rather comprehensive collection of combat abilities, all brought together by fantastically tight core mechanics and a natural sense of skill progression.
If you’re looking for a brilliant story, a fantastic sense of place or a memorable cast of characters, there are certainly better RPGs out there (Skyrim chief amongst them), but, if you’re one of those gamers disillusioned by the traditionally so-so combat that the genre is famous for or are simply looking for your latest loot-based addiction, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning might well prove a surprisingly compelling experience. Viewed as a traditional RPG, it’s a solid, if underwhelming experience, but as a successful marriage of top quality combat and traditional RPG sensibilities, this is a game that shines brighter than most.
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