'Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning' Sounds a Wake-Up Call to the RPG Genre

VIDEO GAME ALL-STARS: What do you get when you combine the talents of game designer Ken Rolston, fantasy author R. A. Salvatore, and comics artist Todd McFarlane? A surprisingly good game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

VIDEO GAME ALL-STARS: What do you get when you combine the talents of game designer Ken Rolston, fantasy author R. A. Salvatore, and comics artist Todd McFarlane? A surprisingly good game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

Somewhere in England, Fable series developer Peter Molyneux is crying into his tea, or sobbing at a soccer match, or whatever it is that British people do when they’re sad. Whatever form his lamentations take, he no doubt knows an awful truth—the Fable game he always wanted to make has finally been made, and it had nothing to do with him.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a vast, immersive fantasy epic that has a lot to teach the self-proclaimed visionaries of the industry, having seemingly come out of nowhere to blow many of their best creations out of the water.

Reckoning is on several levels very much a Fable-like game. The core mechanics, the basic rhythmic flow of the combat, and the distinctively cockney flair of Reckoning’s fantasy world bear no small resemblance to their Molyneuxian forebears, a comparison few developers want to see so easily made given Fable’s dubious reputation.

But where the Fables were each variations on the theme of the buggy, disappointing mess, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is at once massive and streamlined, simple and complex, familiar and utterly new.

Attribute at least some of this to the inclusion of fantasy author R.A. Salvatore as Reckoning’s resident loremaster. A best-selling fantasy writer since before many of Reckoning’s players were born, Salvatore made his name as one of the first authors to turn the idea of RPG-related fiction into a viable career. Having him write your game’s backstory is like having Abraham Lincoln come to San Dimas High and narrate your world-history project.

Salvatore’s mark is easily discernible here. Reckoning’s Faelands are the stuff of old-school high fantasy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by way of World of Warcraft. It’s a world completely unafraid of its own stereotypical nature, with layers upon layers of beautiful (if in no way unexpected) scenery at every turn. Forests give way to steppes give way to mountains give way to deserts, all littered with villages and ruins and undercut by caverns and tunnels.

Where Salvatore’s work ends, Ken Rolston’s (of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Oblivion fame) work begins. Reckoning plays like the love child of an Elder Scrolls game and an MMORPG, which makes a lot of sense considering that it was initially developed as such.

Many MMORPG design conventions made their way to the final product—main hubs serve to fill a character’s to-do list, the contents of which progress from simple fetch errands to larger multipart storyline quests, the last few of which typically send the player to the next main hub. Repeat this process enough times, and you’ve got yourself the bare bones of a game.

Fortunately, Reckoning escapes the pitfalls of modern massively multiplayer design. Some of this is due to the simple fact that its designers cut that pesky MMO prefix off their RPG. Building a code base for between one and several thousand simultaneous players makes for a game with a lot of compromise; by focusing instead on a single player, Reckoning focuses on that single player’s experience, which allows combat to be tighter, skill progression to be more dynamic, and the game’s story to be told more in a more robust fashion.

Reckoning features expansive character growth options, forgoing a strict class-based setup in favor of several loosely affiliated skill trees divided between warrior, mage, and rogue archetypes. These trees can be mixed and matched with few restrictions, with a series of extra perks and noncombat skills granting bonuses and gameplay options on top of a character’s chosen skill set.

This allows players the freedom of a system that offers as much choice as possible without burdening them with an overabundance of complexity. When stripped of context and analyzed strictly mechanically, Reckoning’s system appears similar to other adherents of the classic warrior/mage/rogue triumvirate, but as implemented within the game, it feels a shade more intuitive than the systems of its predecessors.

That gives Reckoning a level of freedom rare in modern RPGs. There’s a lot to experience here, so having some of its fundamentals be content to get out of the way—and do so effectively, instead of attempting and failing like the Fables and their ilk—is refreshing in a gaming environment too often focused on micromanaging and number-crunching. In a game with a lot of strengths, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s greatest is perhaps its ability to actually be played.

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