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Fire-wreathed fae blades, lightning-imbued stormscythe chakrams - this is one serious RPG...
If we were to sum up Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in one word it would be this: Comfy. Like an old jumper, or a tattered pair of woolly socks, Amalur feels warm and familiar. Slipping into its colourful cartoon world - ensconced snugly in well-worn fantasy tropes and straight-laced action-RPG systems - we felt safe, secure. A degree of familiarity was perhaps inevitable given that Amalur’s key creative architects - R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, and Ken Rolston - are each responsible for such well-known projects in the geek/gamer mind-space. Rolston devised D&D supplements before masterminding the gameplay systems of Morrowind and Oblivion, Spawn-creator McFarlane cut his teeth drawing for Marvel and DC comics, and best-selling fantasist Salvatore - who has written 10,000 years of lore for Amalur - is so LARP that he once wrote an entire novel in longhand by candlelight. Consequently, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they’ve built a game on fairly well-established Fantasy RPG foundations; they drew-up those foundations in the first place, after all.
As in our earlier preview, our demo began in the opening section of the game, as a crumbling gnomic stronghold falls in a surprise Tu’atha onslaught. This time we chose to fashion ourselves as a waifish emo lass with a talent for ice magic. While the initial choice of race and divine-benefactor do confer certain class-specific bonuses, the game allows a great deal of flexibility in how you later develop your character; mage, rogue, and warrior skill trees can be traversed at will, and later in the game it becomes possible to reassign points and re-specialise your avatar entirely. Key to this developmental flexibility is the Destiny system: Destinies are essentially perks that augment specific class-combinations, so that mage/warrior/rogue hybrids don’t fall behind pure specialists of a single discipline. Given the various weapon specialisations available to each class (warriors can be nimble swordsmen, or lumbering hammer-wielding tanks for example), this allows for a large number of varied characters, each with their own distinct approach and feel in combat.
Shortly after the opening section (and just as we were getting into a side-quest involving a mad nun called Zelda, a suspicious priest, and a narcissistic monk who’d dubbed himself Casmaran the Eternal) our character was wrested from our hands, levelled-up via a dev menu, and transported to a much later section of the game at the climax of a battle between the Tu’atha and the elven Alfar. High atop the battlements of a vast grey castle we cast an eye over the seething throng of clashing warriors below. Our character had gained a fire-wreathed fae blade, a pair of lightning-imbued Stormscythe Chakrams, and a whole range of new and devastating mid-level magic attacks. Thanks to the simple control system (one button for primary weapons, another for secondary equipment, hold right trigger for magic) all of these could be combined freely during battle, with advanced juggles and parries activated through accurate timing. We cut a fearsome figure in battle by this point; our advanced hybrid mage/rogue Arcanist Destiny had augmented our dodge with a short-ranged teleport, allowing us to flit in and out of battle while launching barrages of icy missiles at dazzled foes. Arcs of lightning crackled at our fingertips and engulfed whole sorties of Tu’atha aggressors as they scrambled up ladders (which we promptly kicked over to slow their advance). Best of all, the Mark of Flame let us tag multiple enemies with a smouldering flicker, before blasting them all at once in a roaring incendiary explosion.
Our rogueish bent allowed for superior stealth play too. Venturing deeper into the castle we found a group of Alfar soldiers held captive by a Tu’atha platoon – by crouching low and sneaking up slowly, we managed to execute each silently without raising the alarm (this despite some rather grisly stealth execution QTEs). Killing enemies with style fills your Fate Meter, allowing you to enter Reckoning Mode, a turbo-charged state in which you deal massive damage – this proved extremely useful for dispatching the two sub-bosses we encountered: an undead dragon summoned by a powerful mage, and an agile warlock with an enormous Cyclops minion. After a spot of rather incongruous blacksmithing (who really has time to forge an Arctic Longsword of Gluttony in the middle of a siege?) we emerged at the highest point of the castle, ready to do battle with the (now rather lonely) slobbering cyclops, Balor. Balor certainly looked impressive - with spit slathering down his amorphous undulating jowls – but for all the visual spectacle, the fight itself was a rather predictable pattern based affair: dodge as his flabby limbs smash into the ground, hack at them until his head slumps down in exhaustion, stab his eye, rinse and repeat (while dodging the odd laser eye-beam assault, naturally).
Immediately after the battle (and the inevitably brutal QTE dispatch of Balor), an Alfar commander enquired about the fate of a loyal general that had fallen heroically during the turmoil; we denounced her as a coward - claiming the glory for ourselves - and were thereafter hailed as ‘the hero of Mel-Senshir’ by local NPCs (who also berated her lack of valor when prompted). Side-quests in the nearby port-citadel of Mel-Senshir ranged from the quotidian (defeat five warriors in a series of one-on-one battles) to the macabre (confront a malevolent medic that’s been conducting gruesome experiments on her patients), and a brief trip across the sea opened up a whole new coastal environment with its own broad selection of optional quests. It’s clear that there are many distractions off the beaten track in Amalur, and fans of immersive game-worlds will have much to keep them busy (there are even three different types of crafting to master).
While Amalur doesn’t seek to do much that hasn’t been seen before, it’s still shaping up to be a well-executed exploration of familiar Action-RPG themes. Combat is responsive, and the vibrant, colourful environments ensure that Amalur remains a charming place to explore, even after several hours. Enemy animations are particularly fluid and deserving of special mention. We do have some concerns about the depth of the combat over the long term, and there are some potential balancing issues with Reckoning Mode (which seems to make boss fights rather too easy on occasion). Still, perhaps Amalur’s greatest strength is that it manages to make a traditionally obtuse genre remarkably accessible. That it stays so resolutely within the bounds of traditional RPG convention to do so will likely win it fans and detractors in equal measure.