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Is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning the most accessible RPG ever?

Does Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning knock it out of the park or get caught on the warning track?

38 Studios

The story behind Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an interesting tale. Its development house, 38 Studios, was founded by former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling.

After finishing up his baseball career with the Boston Red Sox, Schilling refocused his energy (and a lot of money) into the company in addition to tying up sci-fi mastermind R.A. Salvatore and comic book veteran Todd McFarlane.

While its story and characters are less than memorable, Reckoning is a lot of fun to play and has a combat system that's good enough to stand on its own. Historically, RPG games don't even have much of a fighting mechanic, but the one in Reckoning is totally out of the ordinary--and that's a good thing.

To me, Reckoning feels like an RPG stripped of its inaccessible number-crunching stat-trackers and at times comes across as a linear adventure altogether. That said, all the usual RPG suspects are accounted for, including choosing your class, upgrading a varied and complex skill tree, and deciding which quests to take on.

While it might be a blast to swing your sword at droves of enemies, Reckoning doesn't do much for me in the character development department. Considering the major players involved in the game's creation, it's a bit shocking to see that a lot of that energy may have been devoted to the game's expansive backstory instead of conveying a world filled with characters that players can identify with. You can talk with nonplayable characters in the game, but I'm not sure you need to.

It's this disconnect that I found myself struggling with when playing Reckoning, but it's by no means a deal breaker. The compelling gameplay elements here far outweigh the game's inability to capture one's imagination. It's easily one of the most accessible RPGs I've ever played, and it perhaps contains the best in-game action of any role-playing title you'll see.

38 Studios

The moment I looked at the box for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I wanted to put it away on a shelf and never look at it again. That says nothing about how Reckoning plays, but it says a lot about how it's being sold, down to its cookie-cutter art and confusing name. I don't like fantasy games, or fantasy novels; Dragon Age, Skyrim, you name it, I'm probably not playing it. That raises the question: why am I covering this game? Because, as the box proclaims and I was told by the publisher, Reckoning reinvents the combat system in a way that's supposedly fresh. I wanted to see if I could get into a fantasy game like Reckoning without caring for the fantasy genre. After all, isn't that the test of a great movie as well: to defy the boundaries of genre cliche?

Amalur gets the most important part right: the game is, indeed, easier and more direct in its pick-up-and-play style than any RPG I've recently played outside of Zelda. The action feels like any hack-and-slash game, but that's far preferable to any sense of simulated combat where I tend to get lost in the weeds. The world, with its various main and subquests, unfolds in a labyrinth of subplots. The very, very deep lore, crafted by a fantasy novelist R.A. Salvatore, has problems escaping its own genre force field. Enthusiasts may not mind, but after so many conversations with random townsfolk about the epic history of the Fae, my eyes started to glaze over. For once, I'd prefer a game that somehow balanced its epic lore encyclopedias with a compelling dramatic pull in the here and now (the original Star Wars game does the best job in that regard, perhaps because much of the tangled lore hadn't been written yet). Reckoning succeeded in sucking me in with its interface and design, not by its strength of storytelling.

You'll spend countless hours in Reckoning, and it's a surprisingly addictive and beautifully tuned experience. It felt a little too much like a single-player version of an MMORPG, but many would love to buy a game like that. The real question is, will a game that deserves playing--like Reckoning--be able to escape the shadow of recent time-sucking RPGs like Skyrim and Star Wars: The Old Republic? That remains to be seen.

38 Studios

There's a special circle of hell reserved for those who ankle good games (or films or television programs) with bad names. The words that make up this particularly troublesome title are either cliched, nonsensical, or context-free (if you don't know, the game's "rage mode" is called Reckoning). Which is all a shame, as this is a top-quality game that deserves access to a wide audience. I'd compare its potential crossover appeal to Dragon Age or Skyrim.

While there's a level of complexity to the game that will turn off simplistic hack-and-slash gamers, there is also less detail-heavy inventory management or collecting-and-crafting than in Skyrim or Dragon Age. Both of those activities are still important parts of the experience, but there's a feel of constant forward momentum that keeps you from getting too bogged down in the submenus.

A big part of that kinetic vibe comes from the visceral combat in the game. Much closer to a third-person action game (some have compared the melee fighting to that in God of War), Kingdoms gives less of a feeling, common in RPGs, that your button clicks are merely masking some virtual dungeon master's dice rolling behind the scenes.
38 Studios

The game has a ton of content, with seemingly endless characters, conversations, and quests--although much of it has that wax museum feel, common in many video games, of animatronic automatons standing around waiting for you to come up and talk to them. While it wasn't always successful, Skyrim (and the earlier Elder Scrolls games) at least made an attempt at creating the illusion that its populace lived their own virtual lives while you weren't looking.

So, this is a well-made game, with lots to do, and a name-brand creative team (including artist Todd McFarlane, author R.A. Salvatore, and game designer Ken Rolston); what's not to like? There are a few things, most of which depend on your tolerance for a certain style of fantasy storytelling.

To call the game's themes and ideas derivative would be an understatement. There's little here that hasn't been done to death before, from the basic character classes to the chatty shopkeepers dispensing expository information to the perks for leveling up. And unlike the fantasy worlds of the Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, or even Fable, the storytelling here is often so painfully earnest as to border on self-parody.

38 Studios

Playing the PC version of the game, I had high hopes that Kingdoms of Amalur would be a good opportunity to stretch the legs of my GPU in return for some stunning visuals and precise controls, especially as the company that developed the game is run by former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling, an old-school PC gamer if there ever was one.

Unfortunately, the game feels more like a console game ported to the PC than the other way around (although that may not actually be the case, as early work on the game was for an online MMO version). Case in point, the mouse-and-keyboard controls are needlessly complex, and have a floaty feel. Plugging in a USB game pad was a far superior solution, even though I usually avoid that on a PC when possible.

But despite these issues, there's still a lot to like about Kingdoms of Amalur. The backstory to the game's universe and society is deep and genuinely interesting, and the combat-heavy mechanics really do feel like someone merged a fast-paced action game with a traditionally nerdy RPG--a quest in itself that has brought down many challengers over the years.

38 Studios