History Lessons: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

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Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is only seven years old, but I couldn’t help but compare it to its contemporaries and successors in the role-playing genre as I played. Hence, a History Lessons post. I actually bought the game when it was released, because reviews suggested it tried several interesting things, even if it didn’t qualify for classic status. Today, the game is more famous for the scandal that followed its release: developers 38 Studios, founded and run by retired star baseball pitcher Curt Schilling, infamously imploded a few months after the game came out, resulting in bankruptcy and a tangle of litigation related to loans from the state of Rhode Island. Stories of poor management and exorbitant spending (largely on perks for employees, at least) were everywhere at the time. But when THQ Nordic announced they had acquired the old 38 Stuiods IP (including Kingdoms of Amalur) in September 2018, the game was briefly back in the press spotlight, and a lot of people pointed out that the game itself was actually pretty good. That inspired me to finally give it a spin.

When Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (let’s face it, that’s a spectacularly bad name, worthy of Name Game treatment) was released, it drew inevitable comparisons to Bethesda’s Skyrim, which had appeared just a few months earlier. A similarly huge, open-world, big budget role-playing game, Reckoning’s main pitch was that it combined the freedom and exploration of Bethesda’s flagship series with the fast and fluid combat of action games like the God of War series. That hardly sounds like anything special today, of course. We have watched as games like the Dark Souls series (the first of which actually arrived a few months before Kingdoms of Amalur) and its imitators have blurred the lines between action games and role-playing games, and as action franchises like Assassin’s Creed merged full role-playing mechanics and open worlds with their parkour and fighting systems. But back in 2012, this idea was still a novel one. Historically, a tenet of role-playing games had been that it is the player’s character’s skills, not the player’s skills, that should determine success. This philosophy dates all the way back to the original pen and paper role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, which asked players to design characters who are defined by particular statistics and skills. A player might be quite smart, but if they’re playing a stupid character, then that character won’t be able to figure out things that might seem obvious to the player. Computer role-playing games adapted these systems, often using hidden dice rolls during combat to determine success. Morrowind, the first cross-platform smash hit in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise, had such a system, despite being controlled in real-time in a similar fashion to first-person action games. It didn’t matter how fast a player could click their mouse, or how good they were at aiming; if their character was really bad with a sword, then they were going to miss a lot. Later Elder Scrolls games Oblivion and Skyrim made combat feel a little more natural, but it was still quite clunky compared to dedicated action games, and still dependent on character skill at its core.

Enter Kingdoms of Amalur, which boasts fully-fledged third person combat, complete with timed blocks and parries, dodging, and an array of special skills with cooldowns that can be applied at opportune moments to turn the tide. It even features a special “reckoning” mode that can be activated after filling up a meter through standard attacks, slowing time and turning the hero into an unstoppable fighting machine for its duration. Kingdoms of Amalur’s style is far flashier than the Elder Scrolls in general; where Skyrim features tame sword swings and the occasional fireball spell, characters in Amalur are expert martial artists, launching sequences of attack combos that might catapult enemies into the air, or shower the screen in particle effects as bombastic magic spells are unleashed. Any of the three character archetypes — fighter, rogue and mage, or a mixture of the above — is an absolute beast in combat, chaining together melee and ranged attacks with special abilities and spells as they tear through their foes. The fights are simply on another level.

Amalur delivers on its promise of action-packed combat, then, but the comparisons to the Elder Scrolls games feel a bit odd. Kingdoms of Amalur is, technically, an open world game, just like the Elder Scrolls games, but its world design is very different. Skyrim and its forebears feature carefully crafted worlds with believable geology and ecology, which players explore and traverse, traveling between cities and towns as they pursue quests or their own goals. In contrast, the five main regions in Amalur are divided into many small areas, each with its own name, that are more or less self-contained. This makes the world feel disjointed, with the player funneled through obvious paths between these areas. Further, players do not travel back and forth as they would in an Elder Scrolls game. Instead, they are ever inching eastward, visiting these small areas in whichever order they please, exploring them and completing the side-quests therein, and then moving on. There’s no reason to return to an area again.

This design doesn’t make the world feel like a natural place where people actually live. Interaction with the world is also limited. Where the Elder Scrolls games are packed with incidental detail, such as tables strewn with food and cutlery and goblets, the only items of note in Amalur are the ones the player character can use. There are a few junk items, and a smattering of books, but nothing to match Skyrim’s selection. As players explore Amalur’s small areas, they will constantly hit invisible barriers, are unable to jump except at certain predetermined points, and can occasionally swim but can never dive underwater to explore the depths. These contrivances seem to be a holdover from Amalur’s action game inspirations, in which locations serve the action first and foremost. They are pretty backdrops, but upon closer inspection the player can see the seams, and almost make out the red “X” mark denoting where that crazy fight with a troll will happen.

I’ve read that Kingdoms of Amalur’s world design is similar to that of an MMORPG, but since I’ve never played one, I’m in no place to confirm this. It would make sense, since 38 Studios were planning an MMORPG follow-up game before they folded, one that would share the world and lore of Amalur. This design isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does make the comparisons to the Elder Scrolls feel misplaced. And it makes certain features that were directly copied from the Elder Scrolls games rather awkward. Perhaps the developers felt obligated to include joinable guilds with their own quest lines, because that’s what big-budget role-playing games like the Elder Scrolls series have. But they don’t really fit. In the Elder Scrolls games, these guilds represent choice: rather be a villain than a hero? Ignore the main story and join the Thieves’ Guild or the assassins of the Dark Brotherhood, and live a life of crime, with its own story to follow. Or lead a more scholarly life in the Mages’ Guild. The guilds offer a place for players to live in the world, a base of operations from which to launch their adventures, and a home to return to after the latest one. In the earlier Elder Scrolls games, many guilds are even mutually exclusive, encouraging players to start over with different characters to experience a different side of the game.

But that approach does not fit with Amalur’s world design. It’s not a world you can just live in, it’s one you must travel across, constantly heading to new areas. The guild story lines don’t feel much different from any other side quest in Amalur, and it’s hard to feel particularly invested in a guild when it’s really just adding a few extra quests to do during the journey east. Often, the guild quests don’t even require players to return upon completing a task, instead adding new quest-givers conveniently along the route they’re already traveling for the main story of the game. Rising to the top of a guild and moving into the swank personal chambers reserved for its leader is a fleeting pleasure, because there’s no reason to return after the first visit. Players must abandon their post immediately and move on. The same is true of the upgradable player houses, which will never be visited again after the final brick is laid. There are quests to do elsewhere.

These aspects pale in comparison to the Elder Scrolls series, then, but Kingdoms of Amalur’s design excels in other areas. The story, for one. With the possible exception of Morrowind, the main story lines in the Elder Scrolls tend to be weak, perhaps understandably so since many players will ignore them completely in favor of guild quests or simply mucking about. In Amalur, however, the story is central to pretty much anything, guild quests and side quests included. The world may feel like a game environment rather than a real place, but the greater events taking place can be felt everywhere. It helps that the world of Amalur and what’s happening in it are more interesting than the worlds and events of most role-playing games. 38 Studios brought in a lot of high-profile talent when making the game, including Todd McFarlane (famous for The Amazing Spider-Man and Spawn comics) as art director, and R. A. Salvatore (famous for his Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels for which he created the popular character Drizzt Do’Urden) as creative director. Salvatore not only wrote the game’s script, but also designed a 1000-year history for the world. Amalur, you see, is a world bound by fate. No one can escape their own destiny, which wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t some people who are able to see the tapestry of fate and tell your future. It’s easy to find tragic figures who are constantly chasing some dream, even though they know they are fated to fail. It’s just as easy to find those who have fallen into despair as they face the inevitable, knowing in advance the manner of their own death. The player character is different, however, because they are already dead.

The game opens with a gnome scientist who is trying to develop a way to bring people back to life. The player character is this experiment’s first — and only — success. In the process of coming back from the dead, the player character is freed from the shackles of fate, able to forge their own destiny and even change the fates of others they encounter. This ability makes them the only person who might be able to change what’s happening in Amalur. The only source of hope, when it seemed none would be able to escape a horrible doom. This sets up some classic role-playing tropes, such as an amnesiac hero who is the only person able to save the world, but it’s justified in such a fantastic manner that I hardly minded. And the nature of the world-ending threat is fascinating too. It all concerns the Fae, you see. Here Salvatore took heavy inspiration from Celtic folklore, casting the immortal Fae as members of either the Summer or Winter Courts, as they live out their endless, repeating cycles of death and rebirth, playing out the same way again and again. Change is not a concept that the Fae understand. While the world of Amalur is larger, the game is set entirely within the Faelands, in which the mortal races (the only ones available to players) are relatively recent arrivals. The Fae find mortals utterly confounding, but have come to tolerate them in light of the strange events afoot. The endless cycle of the Fae has been disrupted, as a usurper seized the throne of the Winter Court, twisting the Winter Fae into his new army of Tuatha to wage war in the name of a new god. That wasn’t supposed to happen, and the remaining Fae seem completely at a loss as to what to do about it. Mortals had no such problems, and the Alfar (read: elves) have been at war with the Tuatha for years, locked in a bloody stalemate. The Tuatha are still Fae, so when they fall in battle they are simply reborn, to head to the front and fight again. The Alfar have no such luxury, and it seems they will inevitably succumb. Unless the player can change their fate, of course.

It should come as no surprise that the appearance of a fateless hero and the upending of the endless Fae cycle are related events. But learning exactly how they fit together was a pleasure, especially compared to the generic stories that typify the genre. Its in the telling of this tale that Amalur’s world design makes sense. Players begin in Dalentarth, the ancient forest of the Summer Fae, where they learn about the tapestry of fate, and meet some Fae and learn about their customs. The first joinable faction is here, and it’s wonderfully strange. The Summer Court House of Ballads is tasked with reenacting the Fae legends, with certain Fae taking the roles of ancient heroes and villains, as a manner of honor and remembrance. Every cycle they repeat their songs and performances exactly. But this time the ballads aren’t going the way they’re supposed to go, and they need the help of a mortal, who is accustomed to change, to figure out what’s going on. After this memorable introduction, players learn more about mortal affairs as they continue east and start to see more and more evidence of the war. The small, individually named areas of the world allow for self-contained stories, lending character to each locale and giving room for the grander events in the world to have smaller, more personal consequences. One area might have once hosted a thriving mining operation, but when the war caused the gnomes to pull out, the workers had no recourse but to turn to banditry to survive. Another might be full of the ruins of a much older Alfar kingdom, with deserters-turned-treasure-hunters searching for relics in the rubble. Closer to the front, the player will come across packs of refugees fleeing the coastal raids, and eventually the harried troops themselves, weary from long years of battle. These places are made even more evocative by the game’s excellent score. Composed by Grant Kirkhope, the score avoids the cliches of most orchestral fantasy soundtracks, opting for a more haunting sound, and generating tension and excitement in battle without being overly brash and percussive. The music that plays in the outdoor sections of Dalentarth is an obvious standout, but I was also enamored with the music in the deserts of Detyre and the green expanse of the Plains of Erathell.

In practice, there’s little variety in the actual quests players will pursue. Most just send the player to a dungeon or outdoor area, to fight through some baddies and find an item/person/whatever, then return. But it was a pleasure to have such lovely context for it all. Dungeons, incidentally, aren’t particularly interesting, all featuring the same maze of right-angled corridors and small rooms. This is especially disappointing for locations with some significance in the world, like a castle in which a quest-giver spent his childhood but which bears no resemblance to any logically designed castle, let alone a place anyone could actually live. Again, the design serves the action, rather than the other way around; corridors are massive to give room for the third-person camera and to allow fights to occur at any point. The dungeons do look fantastic, though. My favorite type are the Fae hollows, which are tangles of tree roots, vines and flowers that form underground passages. But even the more generic castles and ruins look great, full of crumbling masonry, vegetation, cobwebs, and even the occasional view of the outside world through a smashed wall. In fact, Todd McFarlane’s art direction is excellent throughout. The art is stylized rather than hyper-realistic, and the environments and creatures of Amalur have a distinctive, almost painterly look full of bold colors. People and creatures have a certain heft that is likely a holdover from McFarlane’s work in comics, making the action feel weighty and responsive, even when the screen is filled with flashy particle effects. My only complaint about the visual design is an over-reliance on post-processing effects to instill a sense of gloom or dread by draining scenes of their colors. It’s a shame, because when the colors are left alone — like in the Plains of Erathell, for example — they are gorgeous. The post-processing feels like a lazy way to evoke atmosphere, rather than expand on the already excellent art.

Then again, maybe that was necessary because of the sheer size of the game. The reviews at the time all said it, and they were right: Kingdoms of Amalur is too long. Even with a world divided into bite-size chunks, there are so many of those chunks that playing through can easily start to feel like a slog. Although if I’m honest, I always enjoyed my time playing, but often struggled to motivate myself to boot the game up again for the next play session. When working through one of the game’s small areas it’s easy to feel like progress is being made, but afterwards it’s easy to feel like there are still so many more to go, and they’re going to be more or less the same as what came before. This was worst in the middle of the game, when the main story bifurcates and each branch involves a lot of travel through areas packed with side quests. It may have felt particularly stagnant to me, however, because of how I was playing my character. Players may pick and choose skills from the fighter, rogue, and mage trees, and I opted for a mixture of rogue and mage. This meant I was usually using fast weapons like daggers and faeblades as I darted around between enemies, firing off spells between my relentless melee barrages. It was fun, but since the higher-tier skills in each tree have a bunch of prerequisites, it meant I didn’t get these skills until much later in the game. So in the middle sections I was stuck with the same skills for a while, only getting incremental upgrades in their effectiveness as I leveled up. It didn’t help that I had little experience with the third-person action games that inspired Amalur, and it took me a while to get effective at the basics, especially blocking. My melee-heavy style was also tricky with this type of character, as I was using light armor that offered little protection, and could easily be taken down if swarmed. I also spent a lot of time trying to sneak up on enemies to dispatch them unaware, which was difficult to pull off and honestly felt at odds with Amalur’s high-intensity combat design. It turns out that backstabs work much better when paired with the mid-tier Smoke Bomb skill in the rogue tree, which let me turn invisible for a limited time in the middle of the fight (although with a long cooldown to prevent spamming). Similarly, higher-level spells in the mage tree made it much easier to keep enemies away from me, and I even started using bows regularly later in the game due to the multi-arrow spread-shot ability I acquired higher up the rogue skill tree. In retrospect, I might have preferred to focus on a single skill tree in the early stages of the game, and branch out later. Reassigning skills in Amalur is as easy as visiting a Fateweaver and having them unravel your fate for a small fee; I rarely used this while playing but probably should have.

Now that I’m talking about my character, I realize I do actually have one more problem with the art direction. I opted for a female character because I was pleased to see that women in the game aren’t sexualized, as they so often are in nearly all fantasy-themed media. But I soon learned that the developers actually decided to put all the sexualization onto a single race, the Dokkalfar. One of the two Alfar races, the Dokkalfar are pitched as diplomats, spies, and mages who prefer to talk their way out of problems or otherwise avoid a blunt force approach. Their cultural predilection for flamboyant dress and fineries is used as a flimsy excuse to dress Dokkalfar women in absurdly sexualized outfits. The worst offender is a major character in the main story line, who travels and fights in some sort of black leather dominatrix bikini that looks absolutely ridiculous. And before you ask, no, the Dokkalfar males are not sexualized in the same way; their open tunics are much more in line with the “flamboyant” cultural description without screaming “sex” at the player. I was disappointed to see all this, because the Dokkalfar are otherwise quite interesting as the main force opposing the Tuatha in the war. My own character, a human Varani, did not suffer the same problems, and it was a pleasure to find new sets of armor for her that never made me cringe. It’s too bad the game doesn’t escape this entirely.

I’d read that Amalur wasn’t a particularly hard game, and that doing all the sidequests would leave players higher level than most of the opposition, so I’d selected the Hard difficulty and largely ignored the “extra experience” options from Reckoning mode and certain items. This was mostly fine except for some big difficulty spikes that really put a damper on my progress when they popped up. I don’t regret playing on Hard, but if I were playing again I’d go for the extra experience since higher levels means access to those higher-tier skills which are not only more effective but add more tactical options to battles. As I unlocked these later in the game things started to pick up again, helped along by a more focused world design with fewer side quests and a greater emphasis on the escalating main story line. Given the length of the game, I was surprised to find I was disappointed to have it end. Kingdoms of Amalur has its weaknesses, but it’s fun and interesting enough to be worth your time. And who knows, maybe we’ll see a sequel someday from the new owners of the franchise. If not, the original game is certainly hefty enough on its own.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is available from Steam and Origin, as well as for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

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2 Responses to History Lessons: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

  1. It’s always good to see another article posted on here, even if sometimes months apart. The wait is worth it and a new article always a nice surprise.

    • waltorious says:

      Glad you enjoy the articles! I still try to write about each game I play, but these days I have less time for both playing and writing. Also, finishing this particular game took a very long time!

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