This game is the definition of a genre sucker punch. A title that does what’s expected, but equally manages to pull off the unexpected, not to mention throwdown with its multiple award winning contemporaries and come out looking at times superior. Kingdoms of Amalur is an underdog with star making power and one of the freshest, most exciting role playing games of this hardware generation.
It doesn’t hurt that Kingdoms has a perfect storm of talent, timing and quality backing it up to create a game that begs to be played. You’ve got the artist Todd Macfarlane creating a world or weird and wonderful flora and fauna, writer RA Salvatore constructing a hundred years of history and myth and building a story on it and professional giant fantasy game maker Ken Rolston, lad designer for Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion.
This evil looking chicken monster is one of your deadlier opponents
The world of Amalur is very big on the concept of fate. Everyone has one and fate weavers can anticipate a person’s fate and tell them how their life plays out right down to their death. So everything, every war, every government, every civilisation, is predestined; until you come along and mess everything up. You’re a fateless one, brought back from the dead by a device (then conveniently destroyed) called the Well of Souls. You have no fate and have the ability to change the fates of others. Then things get more complicated with immortal races, ancient orders, dragon worshipping cults, a dark lord and saving the world. Its big high fantasy stuff, with plenty of magic, monsters and lots of fighting.
As a game mechanic, particularly for an RPG, the whole resurrected fateless one thing is very handy. It means you’re a full grown blank slate, all ready to learn new skills and abilities on your quest to save the world, or the fate, or something. After picking one of the four races you start your adventures and after from tutorial bits and world building you get to pick the start of your new fate which is your first introduction to the talent trees.
No dungeon or ruin is dreary, every space is full of motion, colour and energy
The talent trees are simple, but incredibly versatile. As you level you distribute points across might for strong attacks and heavy weapons and armour, finesse for long range and sneaky weapons and light armour, and magic for magical weapons and armour. Each of these trees has a number of abilities that you can use. Some of them are passive, like improved skill with certain weapon classes, others are unlockable combination or charged attacks and again others are special abilities. For magic your special abilities are basically magic spells, but for might and finesse they’re kind of magical too, causing earthquakes with a ground slam to disorientate opponents or dropping freeze traps with as a finesse ability are the tip of the iceberg. There are twenty two abilities across the three skill areas so explore and play with. As you level you can focus your points in a single area to become a kickass warrior, ninja or wizard; or you can sprinkle them across the three areas. If you ever want a change you can visit a fateweaver and have your fate undone for a big pile of gold so you can redistribute your points.
Amalur gives you some powerful gear early on, while it's balanced you never quite lose the feeling of badassness
The abilities and levelling your character is what keeps Kingdoms of Amalur interesting when similar games are so quick to become a drag. The game is closer to God of War than Elder Scrolls when it comes to play style as you’re constantly engaged by new abilities and weapons that change your play style. Hack and slash fans will feel right at home with the controls, action is all about timing and combinations, mindless button smashing will get you killed against large groups or tough opponents, especially as the flashing sparks of your wicked attack animations give you a false impression of how much damage you actually deal. Overall it’s a game where combat rewards skill and timing over semi religious stat calculation. That makes Amalur sound dumber than it is, it’s not with common RPG elements like critical strike ratings and elemental bonuses all playing important roles in battles, but it somehow makes the execution of these elements a lot more fun than most RPG titles manage.
Stab the groin! STAB THE GROIN!
At its heart, once you really dig into Amalur, it may seem a little shallow. Really it’s all about running around and killing things and all your quests could be boiled down to the same thing, go kill some things, or occasionally gather some things. But Amalur does a superb job of dressing this up, creating some of the most hilariously peculiar quests I’ve experienced in a fantasy game. A memorable early quest occurs when you meet a crazy vagrant staggering awkwardly around the forest, complaining about wearing pants. When you talk to him he claims to be a wolf transformed into a human by cruel magical creatures who wants desperately to go back to being a wolf. Almost all the quests in Amalur are of a beguiling outlandish quality to them, especially those offered by the weird and immortal Fae who live their lives based on prewritten poems. They're usually quests you've played before, wayward young priests getting in trouble, woman's husband lost in the forest, strange monster killing folk, but Amalur executes many trope quests with a twist and a surprise that keeps things much more interesting than you expect. You rarely feel like you're grinding, often you genuinely want to follow the story you've created and find out what happens.
The comic book touch of Todd Macfarlane is in every creature design, even the simple Imps as seen here
What it has trouble dressing up is imbuing the game with a personality. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and equally difficult to define (especially for hack reviewers such as myself) but the most successful games, the games that really stand out, have a consistent vision, a central running idea that’s pinned to a wall somewhere. It might be a simple idea, maybe just one word, but it’s a concept that the rest of the game is crafted around. Kingdoms of Amalur has a feeling that the central idea wasn’t established or adhered to during production, likely as a result of the different heavy weight creators behind it. It’s not a crippling element, and I freely admit I'm totally guessing about this, but there is something missing that does cause the game to fall short of real greatness. In short it's a stellar game that succeeds over titles like Skyrim and Fable in some ways, but falls short in others. You do get the notion that this is a game that was originally intended to be an MMO, you can see the blueprints behind the scenes if you squint. It's very much like a single player Warcraft experience with awesome controls in parts.
The reliable Travellers are always good for selling a pile of gear (that you stole)
Bottom line is if you thought you had to wait for the next Todd Howard led title or the Witcher on Xbox to enjoy a massive world RPG then worry no more. Amalur is here with thousands of canyons, forests, deserts, villages, caves, mines, dungeons, jungles, marsh lands, fields and plenty of other locales for you to stomp through searching for seer stones, quest items and bad guys to kill. Then later on, when you're detect hidden skill is up, you can backtrack and find the hundreds of hidden areas you missed the first time. And as a bonus you get a fantastic control scheme, with action as visceral and exciting as God of War, or whatever you're very hack and slash game of recent times was (probably God of War right?). Finally, if you're looking for pure longevity, Kingdoms of Amalur is a loooooooong game. You could easily play it non stop for six months and still discover new elements as you play. It's just a huge world. If the stat heavy and cumbersome controlling RPG's of the past have put you off the genre before, the flash and pizzazz of Kingdoms of Amalur might be just what you're looking for.