Review: Kingdoms of Amalur (PC)
by Robert Hubbs on March 13, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
PC
Developer: 38 Studios/Big Huge Games
Publisher: EA Games
Genre: Action RPG
Release date: 2/07/2012

The action RPG genre has been getting a lot of attention the past couple of years. Thanks in part to the European developers that kick started the resurgence with the help of new IP’s like Risen, Two Worlds, and The Witcher, the later two of which have turned out incredibly amazing sequels that easily stand up to anything put out by long standing companies. Originally, Kingdoms of Amalur was supposed to be an MMORPG, but was later transformed into a single player Action RPG. On top of all that, you have a game that has its lore and story written by R.A. Salvatore. Salvatore is world renown for his work on the Forgotten Realms novels and its most popular character, the drow Drizzt. With all these things going for it, does Kingdoms of Amalur have enough merit for it to stand on its own, or will it just be a game caught in the shadows of mediocrity?

Story

Starting out in Kingdoms of Amalur, you are immediately entrenched in the game’s lore. The setting takes place during a great war in the Faelands, which is one of supposedly many “Kingdoms” of the world of Amalur. The Faelands are home to the immortal elf looking Fae race that are currently losing a constant war to Tuatha Deohn (an army of Fae who are corrupt). The Fae’s losing the war is due in part to it being their fate. Kingdoms of Amalur puts great emphasis on fate, as it implies that nothing and nobody can alter it, with exception to the Fateless One, i.e. you. So while the war is waging on, some gnomes are experimenting with corpses in an underground lab called the Well of Souls in an attempt to cheat death and change the fate of everyone in the Faelands. After many failures, you emerge from a pile of corpses and learn that the Well is under siege by the Tuatha.

Right away, Kingdoms of Amalur is painting a pretty bleak and gritty world for you to traverse. However, that couldn’t be any father from the truth. Now while you play through the game, you will find yourself eventually experiencing the gritty, dark and foreboding world that was explained to you, but it won’t be until you are near the end of the main plot. As you explore the vast world of the Faelands, you find yourself mostly surrounded by bandits, mythical beasties and wildlife for over two thirds of the game before you even get a sense that any kind of war happens to be going on. And it’s truly a shame, too, that the main plot pushes the lore about the war between the Fae, because Kingdoms of Amalur has some really good side quests that reveal lore about the Faelands, its inhabitants, and history. There are these seer stones that are placed throughout the Faelands and, once activated, tell small stories ranging from legends to histories of the land.

Here is where one of my biggest issues with Kingdoms of Amalur‘s main story and setting come into place. The main plot is kind of weak, thanks in part to the poor execution of building up this war and not letting you experience it from the beginning. On top of that, the game easily distracts you with all the extra lore in place, from side quests, factions and simple tasks that you perform. It’s hard to be sucked into the story of a game where a country is destined to lose a war due to fate and not have a sense or inkling of that, or any connection with the Fae’s plight.

Story Rating – Good

Graphics

Just like the plot, the graphics of Kingdoms of Amalur are also a mixed bag. On one hand, you have a huge, vibrant, beautiful world that is teeming with life, but at the same time comes across as bland and uninspired as well. As you traverse the world of the Faelands, you’ll find yourself in many different environments, like lush forests, dark caverns, rustic deserts, wide open plains, dreary swamps, huge cities and more luscious locales. Towns and major cities are especially vibrant, with unique architectures inspired by the citizens occupying the region, but there are a few exceptions where the layout and architect of some cities are a little absurd. For instance, you will arrive at the major gnome city at some point during the main plot. Since gnomes tend to be rather short in stature, it just seems a bit overdone to see a town with gigantic towers and huge buildings. This also leads into my statement about the environments being bland. Now, while the cities and lands of the kingdom look luscious and vibrant, they feel inorganic most of the time. Landscapes and bodies of water have tendencies to not be detailed or highly textured. I don’t see swaying grassy fields, just static grass patch placements. There aren’t any realistic rippling water effects when I am either swimming or running run through a stream or river. The majority of the dungeons that I’ve explored look alike in layout and design, with the only difference being slightly different lighting effects and different floral arrangements. The flora and ambient life in each dungeon help to make them stand out more from the rest of the open world in Kingdoms of Amalur as they are rich, vibrant and give off an organic feel.

Characters, monsters, wildlife and NPC’s all look great, feature well detailed, fluid animation and come in many sizes, ranging from small hermit crabs to the monstrous Balor. There is a good variety in enemies and dangerous wildlife throughout your adventure in the Faelands. All are nicely detailed and menacing looking to distill fear and intrigue in the wandering adventurer. One of the best parts of the enemy sprites is that you will rarely (if at all) find any palette swaps, so every encounter you have will always feel unique to whichever region you in. The same can be said about NPC’s in every town you encounter, which also helps to keep the game fresh.

Graphics Rating – Good

Audio

Kingdoms of Amalur‘s sound department was in good hands, thanks in part to composer Grant Kirkhope. Grant was the composer for every Rare game released in the past 15 years, starting with Goldeneye up to Banjoz-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts before he left the studio. The music he composed fits perfectly with the game’s explorative nature and dangerous environments. The combat music is heavy and engaging in a subtle way. It doesn’t try to play over the combat too much, but lets you know that tensions are high. When you’re not fighting for your life, the music tends to become nothing more than ambient background noises, which are calming and relaxing, allowing you to hear the calls of the wildlife in the distance. The music usually returns when you enter a town, buildings, caverns or ruins. Now, unfortunately, there are moments where the music is flat, and it’s always during a cut scene where the story is trying to be fleshed out. It’s not that the music is bad, but is, rather mostly forgettable, because it just seems to try too hard to set the mood up for whatever is about to come your way, be in an encounter with an ally or just before fighting off a siege by the Tuatha.

One of the best parts of the game’s audio is the voice acting and dialog. Never have I heard such a diverse amount of good voice overs before in a game like this. Even some of the best action RPG’s out there have moments of bad dialog or a drop in voice acting quality, but I have not once encountered anything of the sort in Kingdoms of Amalur. Even when you encounter races with different dialects in the game they don’t sound silly, forced or incomprehensible.

Audio Rating – Great

Gameplay

Straight up, Kingdoms of Amalur raises the bar for Action RPG’s everywhere for combat. The combat is incredibly deep, rewarding and so satisfying. Depending on how you customize your character, you can use an array of attacks and skills in three categories. Those categories are finesse, might and sorcery, and you can decide to either concentrate on just one specialty or give yourself multiple abilities to balance out your character. Each category also has its own weapon specialties that you can master. For finesse you have faeblades, bows and daggers, for might you have swords and hammers, and in sorcery you have staffs and chakrams. Each weapon manages to feel fresh and satisfying as you swing them at your foes. Some weapons, like the chakrams, do take some getting used to, because it is easy to be interrupted during combos.

On top of your many varied weapons, you have your combos and special abilities that take combat even deeper. Like taking a page from God of War, your combos are very damaging and quite brutal. You can mash them out if you like, but if you delay your inputs or perform other motions you can add some fanciness into the mix along with dealing some extra damage. The abilities you have are huge game changers that can help tip the balance of a difficult fight in your favor. If you are about to be swarmed by a ton of beasties you can make the sky rain down with arrows, you can give yourself some insane strength or weapon buffs, casts amazing spells like earth spikes or even lay traps to immobilize or deeply damage your enemies. One of the best abilities in the game is your fate meter. Once you fill your bar up, you can go into fate changing mode, for a limited time, which slows down your enemies, increases your damage output and increases your experience bonus. On the final hit, you are put through a Quick Time Event where you have to mash a button that appears on screen to increase your experience bonus. The final hit also usually includes an over the top, awesome looking execution move that is beyond satisfying.

Now, outside of the game’s amazing combat, you have a very deep gameplay experience awaiting you. For starters, you can heavily customize your character in just about anything. Like I mentioned earlier, you have three classes in which you can either mix and match or just concentrate on one. You also have specialties that you can add points to every time you level up, like lock picking, mercantile, detection, persuasion, sneaking and more. Leveling up your lock picking and detection are definitely the most rewarding aspects of Kingdoms of Amalur, as they allow you to find hidden treasures throughout the Faelands. Aside from ability customization, you have your expansive inventory to mess around with. The game has a ton of unique and rare weapons, armor sets, enchantments and ingredients spread across the Faelands that allow you to outfit your warrior. The armor sets are actually hard to come across in the game, and when you complete the set, they give you amazing stat bonuses, which make them truly worth the hassle of hunting down.

Unfortunately, there are two really weak gameplay aspects in the game. The first is the player creation at the beginning of the game. You are given four races from which to pick, along with their sex, but sadly, the options to customize are severely limiting. While you can alter everything from hair style to tattoos to skin complexion, you only have a handful of options for each category. There’s no option to alter the body type, aside from the premade selection before and a height meter. It’s very disappointing in this day and age when you have other Action RPGs that offer deep character creation kits.

The second disappointing gameplay aspect, and it’s a biggie, is NPC interaction. Pretty much all you do is talk to NPCs to get or completes quests, purchase something, get information on where to go next, or gather more knowledge about the game’s lore. This is extremely disappointing, especially since I have been spoiled by Fable 2‘s amazing interaction system, and it’s a shame that even today games just don’t seem to want to implement any of those ideas into their games.

Gameplay Rating – Great

Replayability

To start off, the main quest of Kingdoms of Amalur is very short and disappointing. It will only take fifteen hours to complete the main quest, which is about twenty five hours shy of what EA promised. Fortunately, however, Kingdoms of Amalur has so much to offer for those that love to get the most out of their games. All around the Faelands there are secrets like hidden treasure chests, tons of NPC quests, ruins for exploration and even downloadable quests via downloadable content. There are a ton of quests in the game that you can do. Aside from side quest, there are even factions you can join that extend your gaming time.

You can also go ingredient hunting and create potions and elixirs to restore health, buff your stats or even collect extra experience points with each kill. You can also forge your weapons to become stronger, create enchantment runes with offensive or defensive buffs and insert them into your weapons or armor. Now, while this doesn’t seem like a lot to do, the time most certainly does fly by while doing so.

Replayability – Great

Balance

Now here’s where most of my major issues take place with Kingdoms of Amalur. While the combat is incredibly fun and engaging, it can also unexpectedly become frustrating and difficult. There have been moments when I have found myself surrounded by a group of beasties who constantly overpowered me, interrupted my movements, leaving me unable to defend myself or evade. I’ve also come across several enemy encounters where damage output was abnormal or inconsistent. I’ve fought basic enemies that could kill me in only a few hits, whereas I can take on a boss and only have minimal to normal damage received. On top of that, it made certain fights really lopsided where some basic groups of monsters were incredibly hard to fight off but some boss encounters were incredibly easy. There is a nice touch though, where if you are defeated too often, the game will offer to decrease the difficulty upon reloading your game.

I’d like to also point out that some areas, like lock picking and dispelling chests, are unbelievably easy and almost feel like there was no thought put into those game mechanics, aside from making them different from other games with unique lock picking scenarios that require skill, like Two Worlds 2 and Skyrim.

Balance Rating – Above Average

Originality

The world of Kingdoms of Amalur is a rich world full of history and lore that was provided by the great R.A. Salvatore. His extensive workings in the Forgotten Realms novels have allowed him to come up with a world that wants you to continue exploring and discover more history about the lands you’re trying to save. The people and enemies you encounter are all unique twists on classic fantasy races, and while giving off a sense of familiarity, also give you a feeling of something new. What I also like is the focus to make the combat as unique and rewarding as possible. Unlike most Action RPG games, where you do the same combos over and over, here we can add some variance into our attacks and make our combos and attacks much more satisfying, while also delivering a boatload of damage. The combat engine basically raises the bar for all other Action RPGs to follow, in my humble opinion.

Oringiality – Great

Addictiveness

Kingdoms of Amalur is definitely an addicting game to play. It has that “one more quest before bedtime” feeling going for it. There are so many quests in this game that it would take around sixty or more hours, estimated, to complete them all. One of best parts is the quests aren’t one simple quest but are usually a series of quests that can be completed right away in succession or saved and put off till later. Another great thing that helps keep the player drawn in is how short all the quests are. They are just the perfect length to keep you from losing interest and just quitting the game. Sure, you do have some long quests, like trying to recover a bunch of books for an NPC, but for the most part the average time to complete a quest is about ten to fifteen minutes. I also find myself trying to complete as many quests as I can one after the other because of how quickly they can be dispatched. It can be quite engaging.

Of course, when you aren’t questing, you do have the ability to slow down and work on your rune crafting and blacksmithing skills. It’s not that hard to traverse the lands of Amalur to collect the items you need for either skill. Whereas some games make ingredient collecting a chore, I don’t feel that here because I don’t have to fight my way past hordes of beasties to get to a certain location to find what I need. No, instead the stuff I need can be found just about anywhere, and it practically encourages you explore the vast landscape.

Addictiveness Rating – Classic

Appeal Factor

If you are a fan of the genre then Kingdoms of Amalur is pretty much THE game to get. Sure, it doesn’t nearly hold a candle to Fable 2 with its strong ties to NPC interaction and stronger story narrative, but the deep, rewarding gameplay is more than enough to keep you playing. You like exploring and discovering unique land markings? This game is for you. You enjoy spending lots of time crafting and fine tuning your arsenal of weapons and improving your armor sets? This game is right up your alley. You love fast exciting in your face combat? Then why haven’t you picked this game up already?

Appeal Factor – Great

Miscellaneous

There isn’t much left to discuss honestly. Kingdoms of Amalur is a huge game to explore with many elements that are waiting to be discovered. Oh, and of course the world is looking to expand, thanks in part to downloadable content. Big Huge Games is looking to branch out of the Faelands a bit in their first set of upcoming DLC and it looks very promising.

Miscellaneous Rating – Good

The Scores
Story – Good
Graphics – Good
Audio – Great
Gameplay – Great
Replayability – Great
Balance – Above Average
Originality – Great
Addictiveness – Classic
Appeal – Great
Miscellaneous – Good
Final Score: Incredible Game!

Short Attention Span Summary:
In a nutshell, Kingdoms of Amalur is the Action RPG title you have been waiting for. It’s a complete adventure with hours upon hours of encouraged exploration. It also offers the deepest and most satisfying combat system in the Action RPG genre and is pretty much second to none. Of course, it does fall short on a couple of offerings, like a short main story campaign, beautiful but sometimes bland environments, some balancing issues, and its somewhat lacking character creation kit. However, it is an experience I will soon not forget, and in fact I will probably find myself continuing to play this game for a long time. Kingdoms of Amalur is a must have title for everyone who loves the genre even a little bit.




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