Review: 'Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning' blazes its own magical trail

"Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning"
Developer: Big Huge Games/38 Studios
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3/PC
Score: 8/10

“Kingoms of Amalur: Reckoning” is not “Skyrim,” and that is completely OK. It seems unfair to review such an ambitious game solely through the lens of a title that came out three months earlier in the same genre. Even if said title was the best game released in 2011, if not ever. It would be too easy to line them up side-by-side and see how “Kingdoms” stacks up against a game it wasn't trying to directly challenge in the first place. 

“Kingdoms” is less about the “open world” and more about the “open experience.” Make no mistake, while the fictional realm of Amalur is vast and varied, there are invisible walls in in the world of “Kingdoms.” Whereas a very sandbox-heavy open world title might require the player to be a “self starter” to get the full experience, “Kingdoms” falls closer to the end of the gameplay spectrum that continualy nudges you to building your player's history even if it's not at all a linear path to a dramatic end.

To make one final comparison to “Skyrim” for those intent on equating the experience, “Skyrim” is a big ball of clay and “Kingdoms” is one of the biggest Lego sets money can buy. Some have also unfavorably compared it to a single player version of “World of Warcraft,” but for many, including this reviewer, that was the most pleasurable and addictive way to play “World of Warcraft.” If “Kingdoms” provides all the joy of solo questing in a large world without the trappings of also being a large-scale MMO, is that such a bad thing?

Existential dilemmas aside, if there's one gameplay element “Kingdoms” completely nails, it's combat. Once your enemies are near, the game almost seemelessly flips to a pure “Fable”-style fighting game experience, except you don't need to memorize any impossible combinations to rough up your foes. It's smooth, effective and, most importantly, fun. The controls are laid out so you can quickly access every ability and equipped weapon you have. One pitfall fighting and action/adventure RPGs seem to fall into is including a “dodge/block” function and then making it a complete waste of time to use. Howevern, there is a tremendous rush you get in “Kingdoms” when you first realize how lethal you can be using the “dodge” function and shoulder-rolling around a group of bad guys.

“Kingdoms” also does an excellent job of providing a deep character experience, from creation to inventory managament, which can kill a good RPG if not executed well. Everything about your character is highly customizable, and more importantly, accessible in a way that feels relevant. There's a lot information to take in on the menus. It feels like a callback to the days of a paper-and-pencil RPG character sheet, which may create a steeper learning curve at first but ultimately results in a more rewarding and personal experience with the player character. While the burden of keeping your gear in good repair is always present, you don't feel like you need to incessantly loot every last corner to get a full game experience.

In addition to combat and logistics, “Kingdoms” has some truly excellent music, fast loadtimes and a ton of flexibility. It's simple to alter one's experience based on the class and race you choose and how you develop your character, the appropriately named “Fateless One.” The game has a lot going for it that make the prospects of the planned companion MMO exciting for those who like spending time in Amalur.

The first title of a partnership between Timonium's Big Huge Games and 38 Studios is not without its disappointments. There are probably more famous people from their respective fields attached to “Kingdoms” than in any other RPG in history. 38 Studios is the brainchild of Curt Schilling, baseball's legendary Cy Young winner and the first elite modern athlete to self-identify as a habitual hardcore gamer. The art was guided by Todd McFarlane, creator of "Spawn" and uber-mogul of all things that can be turned into comics or figurines. The universe and lore was written by R.A. Salvatore, best-selling author of dozens of the most widely-read and loved fantasy and sci-fi novels in history. The game's lead designer is Ken Rolston, a legend of the RPG genre who most recently worked on "Skyrim's" precessor, “Oblivion.”

So why is it the world of “Kingdoms” isn't more engaging? Maybe it's too much to ask every video game to make you forget you're playing one, but the atmosphere of “Kingdoms” doesn't immerse you in its world as much as it could. The colortones, animation style, the “bounciness” of it all, never let you forget you're playing a game. The races, locations and imagery feel vaguely familiar, harvested from a few centuries of fantasy literature into a hodgepodge that doesn't quite feel like enough to exist as a world on its own. It's hard to get “scared” when you're playing “Kingdoms” because the stakes simply don't feel that high.

“Epic” is a far too overused word in today's culture, due largely in part to the Internet's tendency to beat a linguistic dead-horse into particulate dust. However, afficianados of fantastical fiction and games crave for their adventures to be “epic” by definition. The sheer amount of things you can do and the ways you can do them in “Kingdoms” is certainly of epic proportions, even if the atmosphere in Amalur leaves something to be desired.

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