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Thirty hours and counting with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
by Andrew Testerman

I try to stay away from open-world games.

I appreciate the charms of their huge, sprawling environments, and I understand what attracts people to them, but they've never held sway for me. I prefer my games focussed, linear and respectful of my time. I want bang for my buck, and I like moment-to-moment gameplay that keeps me on the edge of my seat. After resisting the likes of Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, I've finally met my match with EA's newest fantasy RPG, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

Except it isn't for the reasons I thought. Whenever a game gets into my head, as Kingdoms of Amalur has, it's because the story has firmly snared me in its tendrils, or because I've bought so heavily into the game's world. Instead, I'm counting down minutes on the clock until I leave work, raring to go home and fire up my Xbox 360, because Kingdoms of Amalur is so bloody fun. It's both exciting to play and engrossing to explore, and it renders me incapable of playing for less than two hours at a time.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an action-RPG from developers Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, a games company founded by former Boston Red Sox pitcher, Curt Schilling. Kingdoms of Amalur's design is informed by open world RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls, which fits, given that its executive designer, Ken Rolston, was also the lead designer on the latter series, working on both Morrowind and Oblivion. Like those games, Kingdoms of Amalur is all about exploring, levelling, and combing each and every dungeon for epic drops.

At the outset of Kingdoms of Amalur, your character wakes up amid a pile of corpses, and soon learns that they've been brought back to life by a magical artefact called the Well of Souls. That's not all, though; it seems as though your character is unaffected by the hand of Fate, a very real and present force in Kingdoms of Amalur, and your destiny is completely yours to decide. It's your task to find out what killed your character in the first place, and why Fate cares about you even less than Americans care about football.

Kingdoms of Amalur's fiction comes from the mind of author R.A. Salvatore, whose catalogue of fantasy literature includes the Forgotten Realms series of Drizzt Do'Urden books. Similarly to Mr. Salvatore's previous works, Kingdoms of Amalur's lore comes thick and Tolkien-y, and wastes no time in presenting players with halflings, dark god-kings and names in dire need of a pronunciation guide (amongst them: Ljosalfar, Alyn Shir, Dalenfarth; a race of elves, a person and a region of land, respectively). I find the game's intense dedication to popcorn high-fantasy tropes endearing and entertaining, even though it often seems borrowed from an overly-enthusiastic fourteen-year-old's favourite Dungeons & Dragons: 2nd Edition campaign.

After a brief opening tutorial, players are dropped into the main world with complete freedom to explore, taking quests or simply ambling about and taking in the scenery. It's usually during this section that open-world games lose me, but Kingdoms of Amalur does a good job of leading players along, cataloguing sidequests and keeping everything organised during the course of play. Not only that, the game also implements a very forgiving and flexible fast-travel system, cutting down on wasted time and letting players dive right into the action; travelling slowly and stopping every now and then to smell the flowers, however, is not without its perks, particularly not when the game looks so great.

Kingdoms of Amalur's art style comes from graphic novelist and artist Todd McFarlane, best known as the creator of dark antihero, Spawn. McFarlane gives Kingdoms of Amalur a brightly-coloured and slightly-cartoony vibe not unlike World of Warcraft, resulting in a completely different feel than games with a more 'dark fantasy' bent, like Dark Souls or Skyrim. I've only just finished with Kingdoms of Amalur's first main area, but so far I've enjoyed running amidst its giant trees and swimming through its many lakes.

Where the game truly shines, though, is during its action-packed, fast-paced combat. Kingdoms of Amalur's enemy encounters feel akin to stylish action games like Devil May Cry or God of War, with mid-air juggles, dodge-rolls and split-second blocks and parries fuelling the fun. Players are given freedom to pick from a large roster of weapons, choosing standard-fare equipment like swords and bows, or opting for more unique equipment like faeblades, wrist-mounted daggers capable of delivering more quick cuts than Tony Scott [1], or chakram, magical ringed blades that return after having been thrown like flaming boomerangs.

Magic usage is just as accessible and intuitive as mêlée fighting, as players can also hotkey a number of different spells to the face buttons, from lightning bolts, to healing charms, to a magic harpoon that pulls enemies in for further beatings (eliciting a loud "Get over here!" from me whenever I cast it). Finally, as a last-ditch effort, players can fill up their Fate Meter and enter into Reckoning Mode, granting players increased strength, slowed down enemies and an experience boost after having performed an over-the-top, gory finishing move. Combat in open-world RPGs tends to bore me greatly, but in Kingdoms of Amalur, enemy encounters are fun enough to actively seek out, making even the most tedious fetch-quests feel invigorating.

Another of Kingdoms of Amalur's selling features is its class system. Players deposit ability points gained from a level into one of three different categories: might (sword- and warrior-related techniques), finesse (bow- and rogue-related) and magic (self-explanatory). Kingdoms of Amalur offers players a good deal of flexibility when crafting their character, whether they want to concentrate purely on one category or mix and match. I opted for a combination of all three, giving me access to powerful long-range arrows, strong up-close sword strokes and crowd-clearing fire and ice spells.

Players also acquire skill points upon levelling, which can be spent on attributes like alchemy, persuasion, and stealth. Some, like lockpicking, give players greater success in Amalur's minigames, while others, like dispel, can offer different dialogue options. I poured all of my points into blacksmithing and sagecrafting, letting me forge my own weapons and armour and imbue them with powerful gems. Best of all, Kingdoms of Amalur lets players reassign their skill and attribute points at very little cost, letting them experiment with different play styles and find the one that works best for them. Freedom of choice is the name of the game, and you're encouraged to play.

So far, I have had the time of my life with Kingdoms of Amalur, but I do have several complaints as well. There is no option to turn off the mini-map, which can lead to ignoring the environmental art in favour of chasing after quest markers (think Detective Vision in Rocksteady's Batman games). Also, choices made by the player aren't reflected very well in the game, which is odd given the fuss that everyone makes of your Fate-proof demeanour. Lastly, while I do appreciate Amalur's goofy fantasy vibe, I currently have no idea whatsoever about what is going on in the main story, which is as thin and tasteless as a crêpes made of papier-mâché.

Still, these are only small gripes about one of the most engrossing and life-eroding games I've played in some time. It's by no means perfect, and veterans of The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age might be put off by the game's shallow world-building and storytelling, but for me, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an effective blend of epic scope and satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay, and I can't wait to put in another thirty hours. And, perhaps, thirty more after that.

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- Andrew Testerman

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