After playing some of the more recent heavyweight RPGs and finding them great but always lacking in one area or another, I recalled conversations I had with friends over the years about the “perfect” RPG we’d make if ever given the opportunity. It would combine an open world with tons of legitimately interesting lore and backstory, intense combat full of options and spectacular attacks, and a conversation system in which each character wasn’t simply a re-recording of the same three or four dialogue choices from every other NPC you meet. Fortunately enough, I now don’t have to worry about making it, because 38 Studios and Big Huge Games did it for me with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
At this point, the game’s pedigree has been discussed to death. While impressive, that isn’t what’s going to sell you on the game. What will sell you Reckoning is the fact that it gets nearly every facet of open-world role-playing so completely and satisfyingly right, and calls to mind some of the best parts of the greatest RPGs past.
Much has been said about the game’s combat, from its open-ended approach to customization and class-building to the sheer ferocity of your varied attacks. It’s not surprising, then, that the fighting is addictive, rewarding, and exciting throughout the experience. But what truly sells the adventure, and the reason why you see the big shiny Editor’s Choice badge on this page, is how fleshed-out and utterly entertaining virtually every other aspect of the game is. From crafting and exploring to lore and side-questing, there really is something for nearly every kind of RPG-lover, and it’s all wrapped up in some incredible production values and a relative absence of the major glitches than can sometimes plague open-world games. There are a few missteps to be sure, but much like The Elder Scrolls series, they are vastly overshadowed by the glut of quality gameplay to be found here.
The game opens with the death of your hero and his (or her, if you like) being unceremoniously carted off for disposal. Before the sheet covering your body is pulled off, you get the chance to pick from one of four mortal races, access the usual collection of character creation dials and knobs, and then you’re left to awaken in a stinking pile of rotting corpses. What follows is a tale of a man (or woman) torn free from the normally inescapable constraints of fate and your journey to right the wrongs of the land, changing the destiny of everyone you meet in the process. It’s a somewhat standard fantasy tale, but much like Dragon Age: Origins, the devil is in the details and how the world is presented to you. If you manage to avoid doing any of the huge amount of optional content, you could finish the story in about 20 hours on normal difficulty—and then have more than half of the game left to explore.
Gameplay is made up of exploration, conversation, and combat. The world isn’t as massive as some other genre heavyweights, but it’s still quite large and packed to the gills with people, places, and things to discover. While exploring, you have your usual suite of conveniences, like quest trackers on the minimap, waypoints, and fast travel once you’ve reached a location. The world map shows you every vendor and crafting service available in each town, and the local maps do a great job of allowing you to plot your course with roads, rivers, and jump shortcuts marked clearly and accurately.
Exploration is made more enjoyable thanks to the number of dungeons, ruins, and mines you can stumble into, as well as lorestones, which provide you with a bit of fully voiced lore in song or poem format. Finding all of the lorestones in a certain region nets you a nice experience bonus, as well as other rewards. There are also unique chests, which can only be unlocked by a particular kind of key found elsewhere in the world. If you choose to invest in the Detect Hidden skill, you’ll start noticing hidden treasure caches, secret doors, and a number of other little secrets. There’s a ton of ground to cover, and there’s almost always a sweet reward in store for those who want to comb the landscape. Additionally, there are tons of quests to undertake, and while some of them can be relatively simple tasks, they’re always accompanied by unique voice acting and a number of conversation points about them, so they don’t get that “generated randomly” feel that some of the tasks of Skyrim had. Lastly, there are a substantial number of notes, journals, and books to read, and many of them are quite interesting.
While the game has no morality system, you’re usually given a good amount of leeway to roleplay your character in conversation. Speechcraft is a useful skill and can help you solve disputes peacefully, earn additional rewards, and gather up a bit more background story on the world and characters. A major part of your character’s history is his/her lack of a predestined fate, so you’re free to be as nice or as cantankerous as you choose. It doesn’t seem as though most of your choices have a major impact on the plot, but the cities and people do remember you for being particularly just or vile, and that can score you some monetary discounts and other rewards. If you have no interest in any of that, you can burn through conversations and take a just-the-facts approach.
Combat is, simply put, totally stellar. This is good, because you will definitely be doing your fair share of fighting. You’re not forced to pick any particular route or class for your character, and are free to mix and match weapons, skills, and passive abilities from the Might, Finesse, and Sorcery skill trees. The core combat engine is solid with attacks that look fluid and dramatic, and once you start mixing in the many different skills and potions at your disposal, you’ll be conducting a symphony of death and destruction. Even when things get particularly hairy, the game manages to keep up the frame rate, though there are a few exceptions here and there.
On normal difficulty, the game starts out very easy, but it curves smoothly, and you’ll find yourself with plenty of opportunities to make full use of your abilities without feeling like any battle is particularly impossible. Your abilities are mapped to the four face buttons on the controller and a trigger button, and you also have access to wards and shields, two weapons at once, a dodge roll, and a radial menu for the numerous potions you can get your hands on.
What’s most rewarding about the combat though, is how it really does reward experimentation with the different trees. You can easily (and inexpensively) reset all of your ability points at any time, so trying a different style is always viable. There are various abilities in one tree that work very well with another—for example, the mage’s vortex staff attack, which draws all enemies in to one point, works very well with the rogue’s ice trap. You can lay the trap and then force all of the enemies to converge on it, freezing them all and doing a nice chunk of damage. There are tons of combinations to be found, and even when I found some I particularly liked, I still spent time mixing up my abilities to see what others there were.
The only issue I had with this system was that the console version limits you to four skills at a time, whereas on PC you have access to nine. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it does limit your options when you’re picking through abilities, since sustained passive skills take up a slot. One work-around I found was to equip the sustained skill, activate it, and then unequip it—the skill will stay active, and you’ll be free to use that skill slot for something else. As I said before, this isn’t game-breaking, but it is disappointing and obtuse, and it’s hopefully something the developers can address later with a patch.
The destiny system is the game’s version of a “class,” but much like with your abilities, you aren’t locked into a particular destiny (which also plays into your character’s backstory). When you reach certain milestones with your skill points, you unlock a new destiny that offers bonuses tailored to how you’ve built your character. Spend a lot of points in sorcery, and you’ll unlock a bonus to your mana and change your dodge roll into an instantaneous teleport. Divvy up between finesse and sorcery, and you’ll find that while that mana bonus becomes smaller, you also receive a boost to your critical strike damage, and that teleport suddenly poisons your foes when you pass them. The destinies won’t drastically change your play style, but they go a long way towards giving you a little extra panache when customizing your character.
You also have access to a full suite of noncombat skills, which you receive one point per level to specialize in. These include all crafting abilities, speechcraft, detect hidden, stealth, lockpicking, and more. These can also be easily reset along with your abilities, and it was only after playing the entire game that I found how useful each skill could be. Leveling up in crafting skills allows you to utilize more and more components, as well as salvage or forage more powerful components from old equipment or the environment. Points in detect hidden allow you to see secret chests, enemies, and hidden doors on the map; lockpicking and dispelling make these two tasks much easier to manage. Crafting is particularly enjoyable, since it allows you to create tons of different types of potions, break down the loot you find (and with a Diablo-style system of prefixes, suffixes, rares, and unique, you will find a lot), build new equipment, and socket a number of different gems into your gear.
From a technical standpoint, the game is a success. On Xbox 360, I encountered no game-breaking glitches, a rock-solid framerate that dipped only a few times during my entire playthrough, and relatively tight controls throughout. There are some small glitches, such as subtitles staying onscreen much longer than necessary, physics foibles, and some visual problems like slow-loading textures, but by and large they are inoffensive and don’t hinder the experience in any meaningful way. The camera is mostly competent, though it can become irritating during particularly heated battles due to how it tracks enemies—I got smacked around a few times because of this, but it wasn’t frequent enough to become more than a minor irritation.
Save and load times are always quick (though I do recommend installing to the hard drive if you’re playing the 360 version), and menus are quickly and painlessly accessed. Lastly, and the developers deserve huge credit for this, there is a junk folder in your inventory which can be sold to vendors with the push of a button. When picking up items or searching containers, you can press the A button to add it to your general inventory or the Y button to add it to junk. This is a simple feature, but one that goes an incredibly long way to keeping you out of menus and in the game world, and something I hope more developers incorporate as elegantly in the future.
The graphics are colorful, detailed, and varied. Characters look great, and the different pieces of equipment (save rings and amulets) all show up on your avatar. Weapons and shields have the strange habit of disappearing when they’re not the most recent thing in use, but it’s something you eventually get used to. Enemies, while not hugely varied, look good as well, particularly the few big boss fights in the main story. Spell effects look rich and powerful, and your attack chains look devastating. There’s a huge variety to the different landscapes you can explore—helped by that smooth frame rate that I’ve already mentioned. Dungeons and caves are all handcrafted, and while some of them can start to feel a little similar structurally, this never becomes a glaring issue, and they all look visually unique and are full of secrets.
The sound effects are equally good, and the sounds of blasting enemies with ice storms and slicing them to pieces with faeblades remains consistently satisfying. The voice acting is similarly good, with no outright bad voices, a few decent ones, and a large number of greats, including Jim Cummings as the main villain. The music is good, though standard fantasy fare. It accompanied the game well, hitting all the right highs and lows, but save for the main theme, was not something that I see sticking in my head—at least, not when there’s so much else in the game that does.
There’s a lot more than can be said about this game than I could ever communicate in a review, but this is one that I feel especially strongly about. This is a game designed by lovers of RPGs, for lovers of RPGs. It sidesteps much of the typical issues and tedium found in the different subgenres of the role-playing game in elegant ways, offers brutal and inventive combat, a huge world full of lore and characters to steep yourself in, sky-high production values, and hours upon hours of content. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was clearly a labor of love from creative people with the ways and means to bring their ideas to fruition, and it shows.