Bethesda Softworks’ first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, took FRPGs by storm in ’94 packaging an entire continent on a set of eight 3.5″ discs requiring only 25MB of space on your hard drive and experiencing it all in first-person.
The randomly generated terrain and quest system created the illusion of endless adventure spanning a vast wilderness rife with cities, isolated towns, secrets, swamps, and barren deserts. Nearly 20 years later, new entries into the series herald hundreds of hours of lost productivity and countless memes as players take extended vacations into the worlds that Bethesda crafts under its banner.
Others have also tried, with varying success, to emulate that success and now 38 Studios’ freshman effort has boldly staked its own claim. After years in development and with EA taking on the publishing duties on this sandbox, history could be repeating itself.
You start the game off as a corpse. Or at least you were until a miraculous invention brings you back to life. No Frankenstein monster, you’re truly returned from the dead and apparently a little better off for it with new powers the likes of which no one has ever seen. More importantly, you have no fate or a place in the weave of destiny becoming a sort of Messianic figure.
This is a big deal in Amalur because everyone seems to be predestined for something. Fate plays a big role in this world and everyone has one. Fateweavers, fortune tellers that can determine the immutable future of each person, had spread their craft far and wide before people began shunning them for things such as finding out when and how they would die. Despite having that knowledge, everyone seems fixed to whatever end fate has for them no matter what they do. At least, that’s how it seems.
But you’re different. You have no fate to speak of and more importantly, you can change that of everyone else around you. The big question is why. That is what you will be trying to discover before someone manages to kill you off a second time. While brazenly emphasizing how unique the player will be within this world as “the chosen one”, as clich as that is, Amalur wholeheartedly embraces it without question in making the player the center of its world.
There’s also a war on between the immortal Tuatha Fae of the Winter Court and the “young races” such as the elven Alfar and human Almain. The Tuatha want to exterminate all life, even that of their cousins in the Summer Court, all in service to their twisted king, Gadflow.
That backdrop is patched with what occasionally comes off as recycled bits and pieces from Celtic myth and legend, but the themes underlying the names and people help reinvigorate them on an epic scale. The theme of war, its effects on those around it especially to the immortal Fae and their cousins, all stand at the cusp of tectonic changes to the world. By the time I finished the game and had discovered the truths behind many of Amalur’s mysteries, I felt that my character had truly been made a part of its history.
It should be no surprise considering that it spans ten thousand years of lore courtesy of renowned fantasy author, R.A. Salvatore, that delivers itself not only through a cornucopia of visual variety but impressive vocal work lending even the lowliest NPC some shred of personality. Though your own character doesn’t say a word, everyone else isn’t shy in talking for hours on end. The downside to all of this verbage is the occasional tendency to repeat what is being said. As much as I don’t mind having to listen to characters mouth off on what is gong on, the novelty can wear thin making me thankful for subtitles.
Dialogue is also colored with choices that not only allow the player to learn even more of Amalur’s world and its people turning it into an encyclopedic primer, but they can also twist the endings of some quests leaving only the consequences. Simple icons such as a thumbs up and a thumbs down indicate only “yes” and “no” responses, but the more interesting ones depend solely on whether you want to play things naughty or nice. There’s no moral scale in Amalur, only results and not all of these are as clear cut as they can often start off as on the surface.
It doesn’t try to challenge the ambiguity that Geralt of Rivia’s world in the Witcher specializes in but it proffers up a small taste of what it is like. Should you decide to fall in with an immortal who wishes only to break free of the cycle that they have been doomed to play? Or deliver justice and follow the script laid out for them to preserve the natural order of things? Which is worse? And it’s inside these quandaries that Amalur’s fractured world begs other possibilities.
Small quests can just as quickly become epic storylines in the game, especially those related to the three major guilds in the game. Much like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls has done, players can rise to head up all three if they so choose to and gain “Twists of Fate” which act as permanent bonuses to their abilities whether it’s doing a percentage more of damage or being slightly more resistant to the elements themselves.
Another reward from doing quests, or crushing enemies before you, is the massive amount of loot that Amalur throws at your feet. D&D gamers used the term “Monty Haul” after the host of “Let’s Make a Deal” to describe loot heavy adventures and Amalur is definitely a Monty Haul campaign of pocket busting order. At the same time, gold is pretty tough to come by early on and the prices for certain services can seem astronomical at first. But by the end of the game, I was swimming in enough coin to make me the Scrooge McDuck of Amalur.
Extra storage is also equally tough to come by until you find merchants that can sell you extra slots. Weight doesn’t matter in the game, only how many slots your character has hearkening back to the older systems where characters could conceivably carry around several suits of armor without breaking a sweat. While it doesn’t even try to be realistic, it works for what Amalur wants of it as a loot machine. Even houses are a little hard to come by without doing a few favors first. Fortunately, anything you sell remains in the inventory of merchants. Just don’t expect them to sell back that Prismatic Chest Plate at the same chump rate you sold it to them at, though.
Curt Schilling, retired baseball star and founder of 38 Studios, is also an avid World of Warcraft player and that influence shows in the color coding used in Amalur’s loot. Anyone coming in from WoW will instinctively recognize “purple” named items as being the most unique. And if you aren’t coming in from WoW, the system quickly grows on you.
Visually, the game is something of a cross between Lionhead’s Fable and World of Warcraft giving it a whimsical, almost comic-bookish aesthetic that plays right into the speedy third-person action and arcade-like combat that will dominate most of the time spent in Amalur. Even the war blasted areas of Alabastra and the broken fields of Mel Senshir look as pretty as the Moon Camp outside of Rathir or the crystal caves worming their way underneath the Winter Court. While not as gritty or as sharp as Skyrim or CD Projekt’s Witcher 2, Amalur’s unique and colorful art style easily stands out in giving it a solid, inviting identity when it violently comes together.
Though the game is light on customizing the look of your character, the extensive development system behind their abilities is crammed with enough options to make it a builder’s smorgasbord. Upon leveling up, a character gets a point to add to one of their “Skills” such as Lockpicking or Blacksmithing. Each skill also has its own set of milestones that empower you with even greater advantages, and unlike a few other RPGs, players won’t likely be able to master all of them especially with a level cap at 40. Books are also around that can add a point to specific ones, but they’re rare and hard to find. There are also skill trainers that you can purchase expensive lessons from though they’re only useful for a one-time boost.
Not all of these skills are particularly useful, though, and can come across as red herrings in which to waste points in though even that isn’t as life changing as it can be elsewhere. I think I might have only invested one point in Lockpicking before discovering how ridiculously easy Amalur’s lock system makes things. The only points that ended up in that skill were from trainers or from books that I found.
After the Skills screen, an additional three points are given to the player to distribute among the class-specific abilities. These are broken down into three major categories: “Warrior” for melee mastery, “Finesse” for the more roguish arts, and “Sorcery” for the arcane minded. A wide range of skills with various levels of growth tile each one and as more points are added to a category, more eventually open up.
Finally, depending on how you’ve distributed those points, you can pick or change your own “Destiny” which identifies the path that you’ve taken awarding you with a few more bonuses. Destinies can be easily changed from the menu so if the bonuses under one aren’t working out, you can always try something else without penalty.
Any mistakes made can also be reversed, for a price, at your nearest Fateweaver. All points are then dumped out making it amazingly easy to experiment with different configurations without having to recreate a wholly new character or start a new game from scratch. With more than a hundred plus hours of questing that there is to do in the game, it’s nice to know that you won’t have do it all over again just to find out how good a mage you could have been instead of a warrior. The more hardcore can always opt to ignore using Fateweavers, but having that option easily makes the game much friendlier at the outset especially to those that have never tried a sandbox FRPG before.
The biggest difference between Amalur and its peers like Skyrim and Two Worlds II is how it carries itself in combat. Amalur is a game that emphasizes flashy moves, instant fixes to equipment in the middle of combat, quick healing, explosive spells, the slaughter of hordes, regenerating arrows, and no need for spell points – only cool downs for special abilities. It’s a button masher’s paradise that simplifies things turning the game into something of a third-person arcade action beat ’em up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, not everyone will find its fast and loose combat to be their cup of earl grey tea.
These are battle mechanics tuned for spastic flurries of blows with dual chakrams or slow, crushing damage with hammers the size of go karts. The mix of sorcery and swords triggered at your fingertips can turn confrontations into frenzied explosions of pyrotechnic or Tesla-inspired fury tossing corpses about like broken dolls.
Different moves can also be unlocked via the points invested in whatever class skills you opt for. For example, with chakrams, a special “power up” move can be unleashed by holding down the attack button and then letting go in order to become a bladed dervish of death for a few slicing seconds. Other moves can be triggered after dodging or mixing up your attack pattern, but I tended to simply mash my way through most fights.
Fate points earned in battle fill up a gauge that, once satisfied, allows the player to trigger a brutal finishing move on a weakened enemy for experience point multiples. Again, the more hardcore fantasy types out there might be put off by a fancy light show more at home in a fighting game, but that’s what Amalur gives the player to revel in.
No one class is the best and mages can take up bows and warhammers as those along the Warrior or Finesse paths can. Though they might not wield them as well if they had concentrated more points into those categories, there’s nothing to really prevent them from trying out anything in the game. There are some gear restrictions, but those tend to be low allowing most any class to experiment with anything that they find. Heavy armor won’t weigh down mages or rogues and if you want your Warrior-inclined hero to sneak about like Schwarzenegger’s Conan, you can do that, too.
There is no obvious level scaling in the game, and not much of a need to really grind, though a number of major encounters do seem to be tweaked to be as close to your current level as possible with equipment providing the major difference. Certain zones are clearly unfriendly to specific level ranges with red lettered monsters roaming about swatting careless adventurers into mush. Leveling up one or two times can dramatically change that, however.
Yet most combat, even at the default difficulty, was relatively easy to tear through especially with the right gear. It can occasionally throw a surprise or two into the mix to keep things interesting and the setting can always be changed for an even greater challenge or an easier one. Experience rewards also shift downwards the better you get to encourage venturing further afield than on picking on bandits from the first area you started in.
Ingredients are scattered everywhere for potion making or in building your own arsenal to rival even the best rare pieces found in the game – depending on your skills, of course. The freedom to explore these options is incredibly fun and hours can be spent poring over parts to construct that “perfect” piece of armor or death dealing toy.
Between the quests and crafting, there was always something new to play with. At the same time, Amalur can also come off as Baby’s First Sandbox. For one thing, being unable to jump was a bizarre design decision. The only places that you can do so are at designated spots located throughout the game world. Invisible fencing hemmed me in at almost every turn, even when it was trying to leap down to a stream only a few feet below forcing me to take the long way around.
There’s no real reason for it to cut the player’s knees out from under them with this much action until you start looking at how it might have affected the fighting engine and the time it could have taken to get things to work with light feet, though that only begs the question of whether it was cut as a matter of time.
It’s also something of a tribute to the designers that much of Amalur rolls beneath your feet as opposed to being forced to bunny hop your way up the face of a mountain. In the same way that its distinctive art style exaggerates certain aspects to create its unique look, heights tend to vary between negotiable and unscalable heights that negate any usefulness that jumping might have. Still, Amalur’s world continually pricked my patience over missing this feature with every tiny ledge inches above the ground that my mighty Universalist couldn’t get around.
However, jumping is the least of Amalur’s worries. Its deep character development system and detailed world also hide the kind of cracks that the bugs and shoddy condition of its presentation mar much of the experience with. After a hundred or so hours, dealing with these can test the patience of even the most jaded adventurer.
The PS3 version requires a mandatory installation to help ease up on the load times though it apparently does little to help stream some of the audio in the game. Voices can often miss their cues in syncing up with the lips of who is supposed to be talking creating awkward in-game interludes. The remarkable soundtrack occasionally cuts itself off or stops playing altogether. Lag can build up in the menu over long play periods requiring one to exit the game and then go back in to make the “X” button work in a more timely fashion all over again.
Subtitles are potholed with a number of contextual issues for certain words. In another instance, a word was actually truncated splitting a letter off onto a separate line. Sometimes death animations for enemies halt them in midair as if they had landed inside an invisible cube of jello before finishing their fall a second later.
The detail that the menu system gives players at a glance within the inventory is worthy of mention yet it also has problems that can become grating after so many hours. The built-in ability to collapse categories of items down is something that every inventory list should consider having. Having a “Junk” option makes selling items a breeze as you can quickly sort whatever you find in the field into that bucket for quick transactions.
Magic crystals found everywhere are used as raw materials for gemstones that can be used in crafting or to socket equipment with, but creating high quality crystals often means having to button mash through each grade to combine them. Having a command to “upgrade all” would have been much more helpful. And when crafting your own gear, there’s no indication as to how many of a certain ingredient you have at the forge aside from exiting and then painstakingly scrolling all the way down to that part of your inventory.
Finishing the main campaign can take about thirty or so hours which doesn’t include everything else outside of it that can actually triple the count. The ending is brief making Amalur a case of where the journey, and the final battle, are much more important and it leaves things open for you to mop up anything that might still be lingering. The good news is that completing Amalur didn’t leave the distinct taste of having to wait for DLC. Instead, I’d like to see some for the game to add in new quests and to knock out the cap.
There will be inevitable comparisons to titles such as Bethesda’s Skyrim. Both are gripping, free-roaming adventures that approach the question of how to immerse the player in their own worlds using different methods and there’s no doubt that Amalur’s high fantasy action is just as inviting.
This is 38 Studios’ Elder Scrolls Arena moment. In the same way that the iconic series had begun with Bethesda nearly twenty years earlier, Amalur plants the seeds for another new world for adventurers to lose themselves within time and again despite its stumbling first steps. It’s hard to deny the pull that the extensive quest catalog, layered story, and thrilling action had on my wanderlust over the course of this adventure making it easy to expect the next vacation into Amalur’s fantastic world will be even better.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
EA / 38 Studios / Big Huge Games
Microsoft Windows / Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed for PS3)
Rated: M for Mature