February 11, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning: Worth Playing?

Faeblades are really awesome!

My first impression of Kingdoms of Amalur were based on about 90 minutes of gameplay. I've since played for 10 hours and I've realized that this is a game far too massive to do a single writeup for. Instead, the review will come in parts. In this first installment, I'll explain what Amalur is and is not as well as commenting on what works and doesn't at this point in the game.

Being a brand new RPG series means inevitable comparisons to existing RPGs. It's unfortunate that people want to compare this game to other RPGs instead of judging it on its own merits because I think players will end up being disappointed or turned off.

This is, without a doubt, the most common comparison. I have no idea why. There are only a few minor similarities between the games. First, is the construction of the world. The map, I would say, is more similarly constructed to Fable 2 than anything else. It's divided into five regions, each divided into several smaller regions. Not every space on the map is traversable. Likewise, you can't jump in the game so if you're standing on a cliff overlooking the water you can't jump down into it unless you're at a special jumping-off point. Amalur also borrows its magic controls from the original Fable. Holding down the right trigger enables spell hotkeys for the face buttons. You can customize your appearance in-game if you own a house, but unlike Fable altering your hairstyle or tattoos is free of charge in Reckoning. You can enhance your weapons with stones similar to Fable's augmentations, but you can make them yourself in Reckoning. One could make the argument that the game's combat takes inspiration from Fable 2, and I can see this to a certain extent. It's a "one-button" system where each weapon only gets one attack button (as in no light/med/heavy attacks or something) and specific attacks can be performed by pressing the corresponding button in a particular rhythm. The thing is, the system in Reckoning is way better than in Fable 2. For one, you can actually take damage and die which provides you incentive to be efficient with your attacks. Second, you can map any two weapons to the x and y buttons allowing you to switch out on the fly. Third, special attacks are much easier to pull off. You don't have to hold down the attack button, pull the analog stick in a certain direction to charge up and then release both. Finally, there's a block button. In Fable 2, you had to hold down the attack button to block. In Reckoning, it's handled by the left trigger. Plus, you can dodge and attack out of a block. Both games use a similar control setup but that's where the similarities end. None of the games in the Fable franchise are really similar to Amalur in any ways except the ones mentioned above.

The area I've partially explored in around 10 hours.

I understand why people would compare the two (they came out three months apart, after all, and the lead designer worked on Morrowind and Oblivion), but they're completely different beasts. At this point in my Amalur journey, I'm inclined to think that Amalur is better than Skyrim. I'm sure you could easily observe what's similar between the two, so let's look at what makes Amalur better. 

Both games have similar non-combat skills. Hell, the lockpicking is nearly identical. Amalur, however, does several of these better. Although alchemy is more or less identical, blacksmithing and enchanting (sagecraft in Amalur) are much improved. Let's start with the excellent blacksmithing system that I've invested quite a bit into. Any weapon or piece of equipment in the world of Amalur can be destroyed and salvaged for parts. These parts can then be recombined to make new weapons and armor. The higher your blacksmithing skill, the better the stuff you can craft. In my experience, this actually causes you to pick up almost everything you come across in the game, even junk, so you can salvage the parts for later. Let's say you have a bunch of useless longswords sitting around in your inventory. They're average strength but not as good as the one you have equipped. You can break them all down into component parts, say:
  • a blade that does 31 damage
  • a hilt that adds another 8 fire damage and 10 burning damage for 7 seconds
  • a grip that gives you +10 health
  • rivets that give you +1.5 mana regeneration per second
Then all of a sudden you have a pretty kickass sword. At the highest level, you can craft "master" quality weapons with up to five components. Additionally, blacksmithing is a lucrative business in Amalur. I'll often create weapons that I know I'll never use (such as hammers) so I can sell them. My barter skill is something I've yet to invest in, but I've still gotten up to 700 gold for a crafted weapon before. I love crafting so much, in fact, that everything I have equipped on my character is something I've made myself. I thought it was cool in Skyrim when I was able to make my own helmet, but this blows it out of the water. The stuff you make is just as good if not better than the stuff you find, plus it's worth a hell of a lot more than in Skyrim. And (thank God!) the merchants have unlimited money and can buy all your crap!

There's also a pretty sweet sagecraft system that involves crafting gem fragments into gems with you can socket into weapons, armor, and equipment. Like I said before, it's kind of like augmentation in Fable except that you make the stones yourself. You can make three types of gems: weapon, armor, and utility, with have different benefits (fire damage vs fire resistance, for example). Like blacksmithing, the higher your skill, the higher quality gems you can make. It reminds me most of the system in Torchlight, except that you can have the gems removed without destroying the weapon.

I didn't even talk about how open the dungeons are.

So where was I? Oh yes, Skyrim. Reckoning apparently has about the same number of hand-crafted dungeons as Skyrim, 120. The outside world is so interesting, however, that they're almost overshadowed. It's vast, colorful, creative, and beautiful. It's got that whimsy that's been missing in games this entire generation. The locations are wonderfully varied, from enchanted forests to arid deserts to tropical beaches and more. The world is just more beautiful and interesting than Skyrim's. I'll be honest, when I first played Skyrim I was impressed by the varied locations. But it was more of a "Wow, I can't believe they had this much variety in a region of snowy mountains." Amalur doesn't have this restriction.  The world of Amalur is just more... fantastical. When I think of Skyrim, I think of it as the gritty "next-gen" RPG full of gray and brown. When I think of Amalur, I think of... well, games like Skyward Sword, Rayman Origins, or Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Full of vibrancy, life, and wonder.

Besides, the games don't really play alike. The combat's completely different, for one. And Amalur is more like a traditional RPG in the leveling sense. You get skill points, you invest skill points. The destinies system (discussed in this preview) is pretty neat, but overall it has more of a dynamic class system when compared to Skyrim's classless system. If I had to pick which I like better, I'd probably go with Amalur, though I think a combo of the two would blow everything ever out of the water. Now that I'm thinking about it, Reckoning is probably more comparable to Torchlight than any of these other games...

Seriously, it's not. Why does this comparison exist? The two games aren't anything alike at all. Let's stop this nonsense, okay?

Amalur is, so far, an excellent third-person open-world action RPG. It doesn't innovate so much as it does refine. It takes tried and true RPG staples and improves on them. For me, it's been the little things that make the difference. I can add items in my inventory to a "junk" bag and then destroy them straight from there. I automatically collect gold when I break boxes and crates. I can name any item I craft. I can run infinitely. I can compare and equip items before I even pick them up. The world is full of ambience with a variety of creative non-hostile creatures (like neat little turtle-crab things). 

Of course it's not all great. Like every game, it has its share of troubles. It's surprisingly non-glitchy, especially compared to the demo version. If there are any glitches, they're restricted to portions of the game that don't directly ruin anything important. Maybe the camera aligns itself behind a building during dialog or a sound effect plays a second too late. These are minor annoyances. While I'd still prefer a manual lock-on system, I've grown completely used to the automatic one in place. Once you find your niche as far as playstyle, you get accustomed to working around the camera that occasionally has a mind of its own. My weapons of choice are faeblades (rogue) and chakrams (mage). Faeblades are great because they keep you protected from all angles while attacking. This way, I don't have to worry about an enemy sneaking up from out my view and attacking me (although the detect hidden skill aids with this, too).


One of the things that really sets Reckoning apart, and something the developers really wanted to drive home, is that the choices you make when developing your character are not set in stone. This is where having money comes in handy. In most RPGs money is completely useless. It's fairly plentiful in Reckoning, but you'll use it to undo things a lot. Take that gem out of my weapon! Reset my skill points!  Expand my house! Okay, so that last part isn't undoing anything but it is a place where money comes in handy!

So far, definitely worth playing. All RPG fans should find something to like here. Hell, even action game fans might find something to like. Just don't go into it expecting it to be some other game. It's not. It's Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning, just as it should be.

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