One Fantasy Game Too Many?

As competent and appealing-looking as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is, I have some reservations about it. At what point, I found myself asking as I played, will we finally reach a fantasy lore saturation-point?

Others have already tackled the intense and often ridiculous lore of Skyrim (specifically, Tom Bissell and our own Tim Rogers). I've spent so much time lately reading about the people, places and monsters of one meticulously catalogued and lore-drenched fantasy world, and the thought of learning another is, frankly, exhausting.

At the start of my hands-on session with Reckoning, the folks representing the game handed out not one but two multi-page printouts loaded with the names of places, races, and historical facts like:

"When the Tuatha marched on the Plains of Erathell without warning 12 years ago, the Alfar hastily organized an army under the command of General Tilera Gwydion to strike back against the assault."

Is there room for Reckoning in the current gaming landscape? Are the millions of people playing Skyrim and the millions more anxiously awaiting Diablo III really going to sit down and level up yet another smithing skill, invest 100 hours in another mage/rogue hybrid? I am not asking that question rhetorically—the answer may well be "yes." Reckoning is well-made, good-looking, and entirely functional. The calculated blending of Fable and World of Warcraft doubtless sounds like a dream game for a subset of gamers. But all the same, I have my doubts.

Reckoning is an open-world role-playing game set in the new fantasy world of Amalur. It's being developed by 38 Studios and Big Huge Games, and it comes out on February 7 on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Players design a silent protagonist from four races, choosing a class from rogue, wizard, warrior or some combination. The player character is a "chosen one" who is fated to play a vital role in a conflict that has engulfed the region. There are moral choices throughout, and players can be a goody two-shoes or a total bastard.

We've been hearing about it for a little while now, and in the past have felt hopeful about the game. That's in part because its creative team is an all-star squad: it's headed up by Ken Rolston (with whom Brian Crecente spoke at length about the game), one of the creative minds behind Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion. The backstory and lore was written by bestselling fantasy novelist R.A. Salvatore, and the art is by Spawn mastermind Todd McFarlane.

One Fantasy Game Too Many?

At the start of my hands-on session, I had the option to load a pre-made level 20 character or start from the beginning. I had yet to play the game, so I started a brand-new character. I went through character selection, where I chose a race and appearance for my character. The available races are the Almain (humans who are good at smithing and alchemy), Dokkalfar (dark elves who specialize in magic)… you know what? Let's sidebar for a second here:

(Psst! Hi, it's me. Have you ever played a fantasy RPG? Have you made a character before? Then you've made a character in Reckoning. You choose from preset faces. You choose a race that will complement your play style (Magic, stealth, combat). Reckoning's character creation is, in every way, the same experience you have had before.)

There is a conflict among the Fae, and an immortal evil guy has begun a war against the immortal good guys. It's all very "high fantasy."

So anyway, I made my character, an attractive-looking elf lady, and was taken into the opening cinematic (actually, the cinematic may have happened before character selection). In the cinematic, a narrator tells the story of the Fae, an immortal race of elf-like people (they are basically elves) who populate Amalur. There is a conflict among the Fae, and an immortal evil guy has begun a war against the immortal good guys. It's all very "high fantasy."

Lights up on my character, who was… lying dead. Two dwarf-like workers (basically, they are dwarves) were wheeling her body along, talking about the "well of souls" and other such fantasy stuff. Right off the bat, I was struck by the solid voice-acting and appealing character design—everything in the world is much more stylized than a comparitively realistic game like Skyrim or Two Worlds. There is a rounded, comic-booky quality to the world that feels like Darksiders with a touch of Fable.

After the dwarves finished delivering their exposition, my character was left to rot on a pile of bodies, where she magically came back to life. I climbed out of the pile of bodies and found a sword, which let me do basic attacks. After that, I met up with one of the dwarves who had handled my corpse earlier; he informed me that my coming back to life means that the well of souls works! Hooray. After that, I played through an introductory dungeon that was… the most "introductory dungeon" introductory dungeon I've maybe ever played. You can watch plenty of YouTube videos demonstrating this part of the game, if you'd like to see it in action. During this part of the game, I did the following things:

  • Got a sword, and learned how to use it by fighting some basic enemy soldiers.
  • Got a bow, and learned how to use it in combat and how to hold down the fire-button to charge up shots.
  • It turns out I have magic too! So I learned how to use that, by holding down RT, which toggles the four face-buttons to assignable shortcuts.
  • Picked up both heavy armor, light armor, and mage robes—light armor is better for rogues, heavy armor for warriors, mage robes for… mages.
  • Learned how stealth worked (you toggle sneaking by pressing RB), and quickly stealth-killed a couple of guys who were conveniently set up for stealth-killing.
  • Fought some more guys and used all of those abilities in tandem. I was able to effortlessly switch between melee, ranged, and magical attacks. It felt almost exactly like Fable.
  • Met with a guy who told me about the Well of Souls and how I was proof that it worked, and therefore a Very Special Fantasy Person.
  • Fought some giant spiders. It wouldn't be an introductory dungeon without some giant spiders.
  • Fought a final battle against a few soldiers and a big troll who had a variety of standard "big enemy" attacks. I defeated it and did a God of War-style button-prompt kill.
  • Exited the dungeon into a big, open field, free to explore the world of Amalur.

So, yes: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is like every other RPG you've ever played. I don't mean to give the impression that I don't like the game—it's actually perfectly appealing. Running about the first section of the map, I was struck by the art in particular—everything looks lush and colorful, and there is a specificity to it all that pushes it just past "generic fantasy." I was playing on an Xbox 360, and everything looked good and ran smoothly. The art style is reminiscent of World of Warcraft—characters and buildings are large and readable, and everything looks distinct. The music is essentially a perfect blend of Danny Elfman and John Williams, and while it often leans pretty far into "Star Wars Clone" territory, it's quite nice-sounding.

(Warning: Copious amounts of fantasy backstory and lore inbound)

One Fantasy Game Too Many?

I figured I'd seen enough low-level stuff, so I loaded up one of the pre-made level 20 characters, opting to stick with the rogue build I'd used for the introduction. My level 20 ranger was hanging out in a fortress/castle called Mel Senshir, which was under siege. As the attacking Tuatha (evil Fae) army prepared their attack, I teamed up with a warrior lady and went on a covert side-mission to assassinate a powerful enemy and take down the monstrous Balor, a huge slug-like beast.

I made my way through a linear series of hallways, taking down enemies and working my way towards an inevitable showdown with Balor. I got familiar with many of the high-level rogue abilities—by holding down the right trigger, I brought up the aforementioned assignable face-button shortcuts, including a warp-dash that let me blast to behind an enemy, a quick-stealth smoke bomb, and a sustained poison power-up that gave me the ability to poison my enemies. I made short work of my foes, who were the usual blend of smaller enemies and the occasional larger troll.

Eventually, I came up against the Tuatha's Witch Knight, which was one of my main targets—as he and I fought, I kept track of my health and mana bars, drinking health potions whenever my health got low. Eventually I held down both LT and RT to engage a slow-motion mode that drained my "fate" meter while allowing me to get in a ton of attacks and defeat him pretty easily. At this point, Balor appeared—Balor is, I believe, a Niskaru, which is a huge slug-monster with a cyclops-eye that shoots a firebolt. My companion and I chased after it.

We fought through another few rooms full of enemies before finally coming up against Balor it/himself—my female companion bravely sacrificed herself to wound it, which left just me and a giant slug. The fight was essentially the colossus fight from God of War II—a giant beast's torso looms up from below, and it engages in a preset series of attacks. Sometimes it launched a fire-beam from its eye in a preset pattern, other times it swing one of its claws across the floor, necessitating a dodge-roll. It would then swing a claw at me, which would get stuck in the ground and open it up for an attack. Enough attacks and Balor's head would fall to the ground, which would allow me to run up and slice away. Rinse and repeat, and eventually, Balor went down.

One Fantasy Game Too Many?

With the quest complete, I gained a level, and got to take a look at how the higher-level systems work. Leveling is much like you'd expect—you choose non-combat specializations like smithing, lockpicking, and stealth, and then level up perks in either the warrior, thief, or mage skill-trees. You're able to choose "fate" cards as well, which correspond to the skill-trees that you've chosen. One fate card can be active at a time, and gives a bonus to stats associated with its given class (for example, the thief cards generally boost critical hit chance, stealth, and the like). Fate cards are the closest Reckoning comes to having distinct classes. My character was entirely leveled in the "finesse" (read: thief) skill-tree, so I only had thief fates available to me. But it's possible to level two trees, which give you the option of choosing unique hybrid fate cards, or even to choose cards that incorporate all three builds. If you ever get sick of your build, you can visit a "fateweaver" who, for a one-time payment, will let you completely re-spec.

After poking around some more in the skill trees (there are a lot of skills, but nothing jumped out at me as being all that different from the perks in countless other RPGs), I went ahead and chose to strengthen some of my core thief skills and continue on. I loaded up the level 20 mage to look at the magic abilities, which look more interesting than the thief ability, but still the same sort of fireball/whirlwind/shield spells we've seen before.

(Lore-explosion complete.)

I have to ask: Is there room for Reckoning in the current gaming landscape?

Critics often talk about how a game "knows what it wants to be." What they mean is that some games feel like their developers knew right from the start what they were making, and as a result are possessed of a certain clarity of design. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is absolutely one of those games—it is a near-perfect blend of World of Warcraft and Fable, with a touch of Darksiders and Dragon Age II.

That's nice, right? With the exception of Dragon Age II (snap), those are all good games. But here's the thing: If you've played those four games, you've played Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. That's not to say that it won't be a game worth checking out—it's got a colorful art style, ridiculously deep leveling and character customization, and a near-endless amount of quests and content. I'm also hesitant to dismiss it because I felt similarly about Darksiders before it launched—that game that was an equally formulaic mash-up of God of War and Zelda, and I wound up enjoying it much more than I though I would. Could Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning succeed in the same way? Sure. But given the number of deep, lore-drenched fantasy options currently available to gamers, I'm not certain that the scene is ready for one more.

Make a character
Choose some powers, kill a troll
Sounds familiar, no?