Over the past several years, the role-playing genre has been evolving at an increasingly rapid rate. In an industry where JRPGs are beginning to feel more and more antiquated due to the surge of Western developed action-heavy experiences, the genre we’ve all come to know and love has grown into an entirely different beast. I’m happy to report that 38 Studios and Big Huge Games have only served to continue that trend with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, by crafting an innovative fantasy RPG that successfully blends fun and rewarding combat with a massive open world and robust character customization system.
What immediately struck me when I first booted up Reckoning was the art style. Beloved graphic designer Todd McFarlane was brought on to serve as the Executive Art Director on and boy does it show. The character and enemy designs are diverse and unique but pale in comparison to the game’s gorgeous environments. The bright and vibrant color palate smattered atop the game’s lavish and fleshed out vistas makes for a much more identifiable and endearing foray into whimsical fantasy than Peter Molyneux’s Fable.
The world of Amalur (i.e. The Faelands) is massive, with an over-world map so gargantuan, it’d give an Elder Scrolls title a run for its money. But what really strikes me about the game’s world is the development team’s attention to detail. Nothing ever feels recycled or reused, as every inch of the map looks and feels different. From lush wooded areas that burst with bright greens, to the expansive deserts littered with cacti and fossilized beasts, I found myself eager to discover each and every inch of the world. Unfortunately, I did experience a noteworthy amount texture pop-in, which is practically unavoidable when dealing with a game of this size, but a bit annoying nonetheless.
One area in which I found Amalur slightly lacking was in its sound design. The soundtrack is hardly memorable and offers little to enhance the experience. Fortunately, the voice acting more than makes up for it, as every NPC you come across sounds and feels completely different than the last. Much like the game’s diverse environment, the authentic cast of characters aids in the believability of the game world.
A major selling point that 38 Studios has been pushing is the fact that R.A. Salvatore, the famed New York Times bestselling author was responsible for crafting not only the game’s story, but the entire fictional universe that the Amalur lore was built upon. After having completed the entire main quest (which alone will take you a good 20 hours or so) and a hefty number of side quests, I must say that overall, I was impressed, but not blown away. While the game’s plot is actually quite entertaining, Amalur’s overly fanciful backstory and lore is a lot to chew on and will undoubtedly be a bit overwhelming for newcomers who may be new to this type of genre. I personally was having a bit of trouble remembering the names of several of the characters and locations.
The story centers around themes of fate and destiny. In an effort to spare you from an onslaught of spoilers, I’ll provide you with the basic premise. At the start of the game you find your character, who you get to customize to your liking, pronounced dead and dumped atop a pile of rotting corpses. Naturally, you come back to life, serving as the first successful test subject to prove that the gnome-crafted Well of Souls actually works. Since your character has defied the natural laws of mortality, he/she is no longer bound by fate and is now capable of carving out a new future that can’t be pre-determined. As such, you are the only one capable of saving Amalur from its ever approaching doom. In the end, while the plot is entertaining, it’s definitely not going to be the game’s main selling point, as that commendation is reserved for Reckoning’s stellar gameplay.
Some of this generation’s best role-playing games have combat mechanics that leave much to be desired. The clunky systems seen in Bethesda RPGs like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are often frustrating and unsatisfying, yielding an experience that offers unparalleled exploration at the cost of quality combat. Conversely, an RPG like Lionhead’s Fable attempts to be a jack of all trades, but in the ends offers little more than a shallow combat system with an overly-linear story structure bearing a false sense of discovery and exploration. Fortunately, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning manages to triumph where other RPGs fail, offering not only a compelling world, story and characters, but also an addictive combat system that truly rewards the player who takes the time to master the game’s controls.
The gameplay is as smooth as butter. Combat is fluid and intuitive, yielding an experience that on many levels goes toe-to-toe with games like God of War. I honestly haven’t had this much fun with an RPG in years. Every action is expertly mapped to the controller for quick and easy access, and with so many ways to approach any given battle, that is really saying something. You could be sneaking in on an unsuspecting foe and gutting him one second, while pouring waves of unrelenting electricity through another the next.
Ask any hardcore gamer and they’ll tell you that one of the fundamental pillars in any RPG is character growth and customization, something Reckoning has in spades. There are three different play-styles: might, finesse and sorcery. The game boasts a fully-featured talent tree system that allows you to pour points into each of the three classes as you see fit. Right off the bat, I was drawn to the game’s massive broadswords, so initially I spent the majority of my points filling out the might tree. As I did so, it was incredibly rewarding to see my character evolve into this unbeatable warrior. Then I started dabbling in sorcery, improving the virulence of my flaming chalkarams. Just talking about it makes me eager to jump back into the game and tear into a few more enemies. Speaking of which, it is important to note that after completing the main quest, the game continues on, allowing you to go back, tie up unfinished side quests and continue to level up your character.
There is just so much to love about Kingdoms of Amalur. Its genre-elevating combat and gorgeous visual design are unparalleled and will undoubtedly be emulated in years to come. If you consider yourself a fan of RPGs – or even pure action games for that matter – you owe it to yourself to give this game a look. With Mass Effect 3 on the horizon and another eleven months of games, I really hope that this game doesn’t get overlooked and garners the recognition it deserves when it comes time for Game of the Year Awards. It really is that good.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+ The beautiful art design and engaging story will have you lost in the world of Amalur.
– Occasional texture pop-in and frame-rate slowdown mars an otherwise super-polished experience.