Who said that epic and expansive fantasy RPGs had to have subpar gameplay? For as much as I absolutely adore games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and Skyrim, gameplay in those titles simply didn't live up to the amazing standards set by their superb settings, narratives and quest structures. In Fallout 3, VATS was simply an excuse for its inherently clumsy combat, and for as much awe as Skyrim instilled in me, in-game fighting is sloppy. Good news, then, that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has come along.
Reckoning proves once and for all that great role-playing experiences don't have to sacrifice what matters most in any game -- gameplay -- while still remaining true to all of the minutiae that makes the best RPGs great. And while Reckoning certainly has its own flaws, I still found myself utterly satisfied with my experience and anxious to parlay the good news to fellow fans of the western RPG. Reckoning certainly isn't a game you should sleep on. Quite the contrary: Amalur demands your attention.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's story, crafted by prolific New York Times bestselling author R.A. Salvatore, rests at the heart of the experience. At the beginning of the game, your character -- who you fully craft and customize throughout your adventure -- finds himself (or herself) revived from the grips of death via an arcane contraption known as the Well of Souls. This Lazarus-like event has messed with the threads of fate weaving in and out of Amalur's events and inhabitants, leaving you, the player, without a predestined course. Naturally, this lack of an almost Calvinist-like spiritual course gives you incredible power and potential, something that those around you seek to take advantage of and, at times, exploit for their own gain.
Such a plot has incredible depth, and while all of the fictional names, locations and dense lore can be a bit daunting to keep up with, fantasy fans will find plenty to love. Better yet, exploring the story leads you in turn to exploring the expansive world of Amalur. Split into continents and territories, Amalur's world doesn't present itself quite as non-linearly as the likes of Fallout 3 or Skyrim, but you won't be tethered to isolated locations a la Mass Effect, either. Amalur is very much non-linear in its own right, and you can explore as much as you'd like (so long as you can survive). But everything is presented in a much more contained, coherent and orderly manner.
Lending to the feeling of exploration, Reckoning's high quality (yet inconsistent) art style will give you a true feeling of discovering the unique and unknown. Environments are beautiful, and locations feel truly different from one another. You'll work your way from ancient forests to wide open plains, from sandy deserts to murky swamps. Amalur exudes topographical and geological diversity. Unfortunately, characters and monsters alike don't quite live up to the lofty heights set by your surroundings, though everything still mixes together nicely.
Reckoning's sparse musical accompaniment gets the job done, but the game's real sonic feat is the high quality of the voice acting. Characters, from major NPCs to people who give you miscellaneous side quests, portray their parts with a consistent level of polish. Unlike some other titles in the genre, I didn't constantly find myself noting "Wow, that guy sounds a whole lot like the guy I talked to in that other town 10 minutes ago." Dialogue is lengthy, detailed and fleshed-out. It delivers a whole lot of punch on behalf of the story.
One fear many gamers have about lengthy, non-linear RPGs like Reckoning is how the game will run. Many times, developers use the excuse of a game's size and scope to forgive technical shortcomings, which I actually find acceptable because QA testing an open-world sandbox is no easy feat. And while Kingdoms of Amalur has its own technical shortcomings -- occasional pop-in, framerate dips during heated action and a somewhat unimpressive draw distance -- the game never once froze on me the entire time I played it. Whether on my test system or retail PS3s, after nearly 50 hours with the game, Amalur never locked-up on me a single time. I never got stuck in the environment, I never got sealed into or out of an area, and I never had to save my game over and over again out of fear of those kinds of things happening.
(In testing the game on Xbox 360, I played with the game installed on the hard drive. This is the recommended way to play if you're going to play on Xbox 360, as it cuts down load times in particular. Texture pop-in seems slightly worse on 360 in comparison to the PS3 version, even with the game installed, though it wasn't at all disruptive in terms of my enjoyment of the game.)
But enough about all of that. Reckoning's strongest point is its gameplay, but what does that mean, exactly? It means, quite simply, that I've never played an action-oriented RPG that plays better. Amalur's arcade-like, action-heavy slant to combat made me feel like I wasn't playing a rigid RPG at all, a refreshing and most unexpected experience for me. With a plethora of weapons and armor at your disposal, you can create any number of amalgams to best suit your play style. Battles happen in realtime, and with a combination of attacking with primary and secondary weapons, parrying and rolling out of the way, raising your shield to protect yourself and flinging spells at your foes, the utterly satisfying combat of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning simply can't be understated.
The heart and soul of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's combat persists throughout the entire game, and since you're able to fully customize your character's strengths and loadout on the fly (due to your fate, or lack thereof), you're never tied down to decisions you make. Amalur's emphasis on fate and destiny meant that while my character throughout my adventure was a sword-wielding warrior with a roguish slant, I could pay characters known as Fateweavers to wipe my slate clean and try again. Awarded points earned after leveling-up can be put into three categories -- Might, Finesse and Sorcery -- giving you perks, added abilities and pimped-out stats associated with the skills of a warrior, thief or mage, respectively.
Mix it all up, and you can be a mage who loves wielding a hammer or a pick-pocketing thief inclined to the dark arts of magic. And it all translates beautifully in battle. Combine this combat with Amalur's incredibly thorough questing system -- which involves a main story you could wrap up in 25 hours or so -- and you'll find one meaty adventure. And don't let that 25 hour number fool you. There are five guild arcs that could take five or 10 hours each, and side quests and ancillary exploration that could easily eat up at least another 100 hours of your time.
In other words, if you're looking for bang for your buck, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has it in droves. Then again, if you're looking for an immersive adventure backed by combat that doesn't only put other RPGs to shame, but in fact many action games, too, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has that as well.