Kingdoms of Amalur

The Reckoning

video game review

I found Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning back when there were a few good video podcasts doing reviews of video games. Those are mostly all long gone now (at least the ones I was watching then), bought up and then killed off by TV stations looking to control visual media (I guess). At the time, I had just purchased a refurbished PlayStation 3, and was mostly playing post-apocalyptic shooters, zombie games, and RPGs. All of these games were very dark, very dreary, dusty, and wonderfully ugly. When I saw the previews clips for Amalur, my eyes lit up, because it looked like a really modern game, by which I mean it had sparkles and exaggerated motion blurs and plasma energy effects. And it had realtime combat, which I really wasn't doing a whole lot of, between all the turn-based combat and VATS and so on.

So I went and picked up Kingdoms of Amalur on release day, for full price(!) Heck, I may have even pre-ordered it, because I remember I got a special in-game suit of armour (styled, apparently, after the spacesuit of some space game; possibly Mass Effect?).

The game played great on the PS3, but when I moved abroad and had to leave that behind, I repurchased it for PC and it plays great there too. I run Linux, and unfortunately Amalur never came out for Linux and, for reasons that will soon become clear, almost certainly never will. However, there's an amazing little project called WINE ("WINE Isn't an Emulator) which reimplements hundreds and hundreds of Windows DLL files in open source code, meaning that in many cases you can put a Windows application on a Linux machine, let all calls to various programming libraries (the DLLs) be answered by WINE, and run a Windows application on Linux.

This was once a mysterious hack for only the bravest of Linux users, but it's mostly mundane now. I bought Amalur from Steam, running on WINE, launched it, and it plays at least as smoothly as it did on the PS3, if not better. The only caveat, really, is that you have to remember to launch the WINE version of Steam to play it, not the Linux version. An easy way to remember this is to just let WINE-Steam make a shortcut for Amalur in your application menu, so you don't have to directly launch Steam at all.

As I write this, Proton on Steam has been making playing Windows games easier still, so Amalur may be transparently available for your Linux gaming system without you having to think twice about it.

It's a good thing, too, because the game studio, soon after the release, went utterly bankrupt and a lot of the reviews at the time turned surprisingly sour.

For the record, this is a significant reason to open source code. Maybe a game's code can't be open source during initial sales, but eventually it does need to happen. Amalur is just one of many games that will likely only survive by the diligence of its fans. That sounds neat, like fans are keeping it warm and alive, but wait another 5 or 10 years when clever programmers have to create emulated environments to prop up old games that would fade from history otherwise. Or imagine if there aren't enough fans to keep something alive, and the historical culture that we'll lose because not enough people with the right skillset happened to like a thing. It may seem trivial now, but this is computer and game culture, and to many of us, games mark important events or phases in our lives. We want this stuff preserved, and the best way to preserve code is to open it up so everyone can make backups and ports.

Reception

Prior to release, everyone seemed positive about the game, even after playtesting parts of it. It confused me when, after the game came out, it seemed like few critics had anything nice to say. On one hand, that does seem to be the common cycle of "tech journalism": give a game all the good press before release, celebrate it upon release, and then pan it for not living up to the hype that tech journalists themselves created. Around the same time, the much-anticipated fifth Elder Scrolls game (commonly knows as Skyrim) was set to come out, so there was quickly a shift in focus, and I think a lot of comparisons got made that were not justified.

There were also a lot of complaints about the game not being multi-player, because at the time it was a "big deal", supposedly, whether a game was multi-player (meaning over a network, rather than split-screen co-op). Strangely, as far as I could tell, actual gamers didn't actually care that much, but the industry was really pushing the idea, because to them every game was the chance to establish a lucrative cash cow to rival World Of Warcraft or Minecraft. To gamers, a game was either single player or multi-player, or occasionally both, and they played a good game accordingly. Once again, it seems to me that many "tech journalists" are mostly extensions of any marketing team that hands out enough free swag, so all the tech journalists, at the time at least, acted as if lacking a multi-player mode made Amalur, suddenly, less of a game.

I think it's time to look back at Amalur, though, and give it a proper review. I want to separate it from marketing pushes and bankruptcy scandals, and look at it as an action RPG video game.

Art direction

The artwork in the game was directed by Todd McFarlane, known best for his Spawn comics. I didn't know much about his actual work, and I still don't, really, but his art for Amalur is gorgeous. It's that kind of fantasy art that is just fanciful enough to be slightly absurd, but never so over-the-top as to break all hope of suspension of disbelief.

In fact, at this point, it's pretty refreshing to see fantasy drawn more like it was drawn by, say, Frazetta or Vallejo; I like fantasy that looks fantastic. I like that my character is a mere mortal and yet can wield a warhammer as large as, and three times the weight of, him or her. I like that the caravans in the game are elaborate and decorated, and I like that the environment sparkles and glimmers and glows at every turn.

It's a beautiful game. It's a world you don't want to leave.

Massive Single-Player Offline RPG-Lite

Amalur is a huge world. You'll explore for weeks and still just barely get your head around the map. And that's because the map isn't just a map. There are extensive caverns under the map, and in every corner of the map there dwell several different factions and royal houses you can discover and join along the way. The more you explore, the more side quests distract you, and the more side quests you do, the more map you uncover.

The reason this is possible, to the extent that it is possible, is because the map was designed either for or as if though it was an MMO, ready for lots and lots of players hanging around in vast regions of a huge world. I don't know if the Amalur team was preparing for MMO readiness or not, but the world doesn't come across as a theme park constructed especially for your little adventure. You get the sense that there are lots of stories happening within this setting, and then you actually get to partake in many of them.

Equally as exciting is the sense of discovery when you come upon a beautiful glade or a bioluminescent cavern or a set of old ruins wherein there isn't a quest-driven story. It's just a part of the world, with the merest suggestion of a history that you'll never truly know, but that inspires you all the same. That's one mark of a good world, for me: untold but clearly implied stories.

Combat and Combos

Amalur features realtime combat. There's not a bit of turn-based computerized dice-rolling here, this has full-on video game fight tactics, complete with out-of-this-world cool combo attacks. The combat is pretty easy to master, and the auto-aiming logic is pretty good. It probably lessens the "seriousness" of this game by enabling button-mashing tactics, but frankly it's just really really fun. Death often comes from either negligence, or really big hits, or poor timing.

Combo attacks are some of the most intuitive I've ever used. I think I probably discovered half of the combos myself just by noticing what I was pressing and what happened onscreen as a result. All enabled combos are explained in your Inventory screen, though, in case you don't stumble upon them yourself. You can get new combos as you level up and gain new abilities, and you also have special attacks that you can assign to certain keypresses.

There's also a really solid defense system (you can use your shield or you can duck-and-roll), plus a host of potions and tonics that you can use as temporary boosts to either yourself or your weaponry. In addition to all that, there are gems that you can find and refine (or just outright purchase) and socket into your armour or weapons for added power.

The combat doesn't strictly have to be melee. You can level up on stealth and just sneak around, slitting people's throats from behind, or you can master the bow, or a sorcerer's staff, or chakrams, and do your battling from a distance. There are lots of ways to do battle.

And if that isn't enough, there's the get-out-of-jail-for-free card: Reckoning mode. When you kill enemies, you build up your Essence of Fate, and when your Fate hits its maximum level, you're able to go into Reckoning mode. In Reckoning mode, all your enemies slow to about half-speed and the one that you kill gets slaughtered in a special fancy move that also awards you extra XP. Your Essence of Fate expended, you work on building it back up until you need to go up against your next formidable foe.

That trick is, admittedly, a good example of how one might argue that Amalur has training-wheels on by default. If you want something more challenging, though, you don't have to use these "cheats", And indeed I've played some parts of the game with no armour on or without using magic, and so on, as a voluntary handicap.

No matter how you play it, all combat in Amalur is satisfying. Your character glides around screen like a pro, you go into combo moves, and compound moves, and you use special abilities, you duck, you dodge, you strike from behind, you clobber, you mesmerize, and you absolutely slaughter. It's insanely gratifying.

RPG

I play as much tabletop as I can, so I view the idea of a video game RPG with reservation. A video game cannot match the infinitude of a group of human minds imagining a world together.

Bearing that in mind, Amalur probably leans more toward action-RPG than something like, for instance, Dragon Age. The choices you make in Amalur don't affect the world or the story, except that if you decline to help one faction, then you don't unlock the storyline about that faction. In a true RPG, your choice would likely have an affect either way. For example, if you accepted, then maybe the enemies of the faction are now your enemies, opening up new dangers and adventures for you. If you decline to help, the faction might crumble into disarray and the local township, formerly supported by them, might fall into chaos.

Amalur's story is basically the same for everyone who plays it, but that's only one measure of an RPG. Building a character in Amalur is quite good. You use a base model for your character, choose a race (human, sea-faring human, dark fae, or light fae) along with the accompanying minor racial benefits, choose the physical features, mold the face a bit, and you've got a character. In addition to that, you get to pick a religion, and you do get benefits depending on which god you choose to follow, or you can take a token benefit for being godless.

That's just your base playable character. The development of your character has some important and significant innovations, like skills...

Skills

You can build talent in a number of skills in Amalur: Alchemy, Blacksmithing, Detect Hidden, Dispelling, Lockpicking, Mercantile, Persuasion, Sagecraft, and Stealth. You increase these through your initial racial bonus, and then later through leveling up or buying training from books or NPC masters of the art. It works quite well, but most everything is just icing on the cake. With the exception of Persuasion, which can get you out of some jams through new dialogue choices, and Stealth, which can literally change the way you play the game, all the other skills affect things you don't absolutely need in order to play the game. Lockpicking is nice to have, but you don't live or die by it. Detect Hidden is cool, but you can only loot so much.

The skills are, however, functional, and they do affect your game. My favourites are Persuasion and Stealth, but Alchemy is fun too, since you can use it to make interesting potions. Lockpicking is nice because it makes the act of picking locks (which involves a sort of mini game) easier, and Dispelling makes the mini game of warding evil spells from locked loot chests easier. So the skills change your game, without question, but they aren't your character. In Amalur, you can be a stone fae and wield a war hammer just as well as a barbarian, or you can be a barbarian and still pick locks, or be stealthy, and so on. Skills are things your character can do apart from their class. And speaking of class...

Class

In one sense, the class system in Amalur is modern and slick and progressive, and in another sense it's basically meaningless. In a traditional RPG, the class of a character dictates your abilities but it also betrays your past. You don't usually find someone who grew up in a cloister of monks doing transcription of ancient spells all day who grows up to be a ruthless beserker, and you don't find a tough barbarian who grew up in monster-ridden wastelands who end up being stealthy thieves, and so on. A character's class is not just their set of special abilities; it's who the character is.

In Amalur, there is the recognition that it's the 21st century and it's a video game, so why should users be forced to choose a class at the beginning of the game, without really knowing yet how it's going to play, and be punished for wanting to change their class halfway through? The way Amalur solves this is by establishing that your character has no fate, and therefore can switch classes at will (with the help of a Fate Weaver). Multi-classing is available in the form of Destinies, allowing you to build, for instance, a tank who also happen to use magic, or a thief so good at burglary that it seems magical, and so on. There are lots of cool combos, depending on how you choose to mix the different categories of Might, Finesse, and Sorcery.

So this is a really nice feature, and it ends up becoming a sort of RPG Nouveau, a class-less system with class-like bonuses. It makes game play very dynamic. You don't design a character and run with it; you assume an avatar and dress it up in whatever class-clothing you want so you can play as that class.

The theoretical "problem" with this idea is that in a "real" RPG, part of the challenge is often in the skills and abilities you lack. If your character can swap destinies almost at will, what happens to the character building aspect of the RPG? In practice, I find that momentum is a powerful force. When I start a play-through of Amalur, I more or less decide what set of skills I'm going to use, and stick with it. If I have a burning desire to try something different, I just start a different character in a different game. Not a big deal, at least for a video game RPG. I don't think I'd enjoy it much on the tabletop (then again, I haven't tried, so who can say?).

Music

The music of Amalur is not just good, it's undeniably, unignorably, astoundingly great. I'm a big fan of the music of Dragons Age but I recognize a synthesized orchestra and choir when I hear one. The Amalur soundtrack was performed by a live symphony orchestra, and you can tell. But of course an orchestra without sheet music is nothing; Grant Kirkhope composed the score for all of Amalur plus two or three DLC packages, and it is, every minute of it, amazing.

How amazing? I bought the soundtrack, and then downloaded the four free piano demos he released, and then bought the Big Fights amendments to the official soundtrack release, and then finally the DLC soundtrack, and would buy them all again happily.

The music is by turns magical and stately. It is powerfully orchestrated, and out-performs in both sound and impact most of the scores for any motion picture I've seen in the past decade or so. This is the real deal; in fact, this is real-er than the real deal, because it's an actual, thoughtful score rather than a paint-by-numbers soundtrack.

If you enjoy modern orchestral music, including classic soundtracks like Willow, Hamlet, and Excalibur, then you must listen to this music. Even if you hate video games, you must listen to this music.

Story

The story in the game is credited to R.A. Salvatore, most famous to gamers as one of the driving forces behind Forgotten Realms. The main plot revolves around the idea that in the world of Amalur, everyone's fate is proscribed. There is no escaping your fate. Except for, of course, your character. For whatever reason, you alone exist unbound by the powers of Fate. You can manipulate it, choosing your own path through the world, and storing up the power of Fate in order to unravel the way things should happen.

This is demonstrated, to the degree that is demonstrated, in a battle which, according to the Fate weaver Agarth, the evil Tuatha Deohn should have won. But you win the battle by unraveling Fate and reconstructing it the way you want it to go. Ostensibly, you do this any time you use your Fate-o-meter (it's not really called that in the game) to boost an attack.

The problem with this story angle is that it's very difficult to convey in a meaningful way to the player. Agarth keeps telling you that you are the Fateless One, and by extension you must assume that everyone else in the world is bound by a prewritten fate, but that has no effect on the game or your experience of the game. It turns out that a little indie game called Braid actually implemented the idea (not in so many words) a lot more effectively: you can actually rewind time in the game world of Braid when you make a mistake (or when you make a mistake on purpose to trigger some event that you can then leverage by rewinding time). In Braid, fate becomes an actual element of the game world that you can, and sometimes must, leverage in order to complete a level. In Amalur, fate is unfortunately a synonym for rage or power-attack or any such get-out-of-jail-free abilities that you earn in any action game.

That's not really a problem with a story as much as it is a problem with translating a story into a mechanic (no easy task). The story itself is good: the Tuatha Deohn are ravaging the land, being the angry winter elves that they are, and the forces of good are struggling to fight off the forces of evil. There are twists and turns along the way, plenty of subplots and side quests. It's a standard fantasy plot. But where the story excels is in the in-between places. The moments between the plot and the quests, the quiet times when you are discovering the world that is Amalur.

Throughout the world, there are lorestones, magical totems upon which citizens of old have imprinted tales ranging from idle gossip to mystical legends. You can find unmarked lorestones all over the map, and you can earn an achievement for finding them all, and it's a true pleasure to listen to these forgotten tales.

Less magical are all the places you find the remains of a lone traveler, being picked over by harpies or brownies. Or the ruins of a forgotten encampment or town. Or a wanderer in search of an ancient legend, sometimes true and sometimes a scam.

And then there are the factions and houses fae, each with its own story and inner conflict.

The plot of Amalur drives you forward through the world, but it's Amalur itself that makes you never want to leave.

Images from Kingdoms of Amalur, now owned by EA.

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