There are two sides to the RPG coin. The eternal yin and yang of CRUNCH and FLUFF. Or, to put it in its most simplistic terms, mechanics versus storyline. Now, each gamer will find their own place along this sliding scale, which is why you may find WoW servers where everyone insists on playing 100% in character, and others where BartSimpson563 is just running round bellowing the lyrics to Sisqo’s ‘Thong Song’ just for the lulz.
Now, here’s Kingoms of Amalur: Reckoning, an action-RPG put together by a star-studded team featuring Ken Rolston (of Morrowind and Oblivion fame), R.A. Salvatore (the renowned fantasy wordsmith who’s penned more D&D-flavoured novels than a dwarf’s had warm beers) and Todd McFarlane (cartoonist extraordinaire, and inventor of Spawn). Famous writer, famous artist, famous designer… surely we’re looking at the fluffy end of the scale, right?
Well, no actually. Reckoning is a game that has drank freely from the melting pot of RPG game heritage – listing the RPGs that aren’t immediately apparent in its design would make for a shorter list than those that are – and then finishes off with a lip-smacking smorgasbord of action game inspiration that includes, at its core, the likes of Darksiders, God of War, and The Force Unleashed. Now that’s not to say that it’s fluff-light, you understand. There are reams of dialogue, and a lot of thought has gone into the game world – a suspicious amount, in fact. So much so, that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was planned all along to be the first game in a new franchise (spoiler – an MMO is already in the works). There are elves, humans and gnomes aplenty (with Irish, English and Scottish accents respectively, yet all voiced for the most part by American voice-actors gamely attempting to not murder the accents, and occasionally even succeeding). The vast world is broken into different lands with distinct visual styles. There is history, culture and variety into which a player who is so inclined can delve for hours.
But none of this is really at the heart of the game. Because Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is crunchy.
Really, really crunchy. And in a familiar, Diablo-ey sort of way. Character progression is dealt with in a really clever, incredibly elegant way. Basically your character is built from three primary statistics: Sorcery, Finesse and Might. Each skill point spent in each of these three trees not only unlocks a new ability or spell, or increases your efficiency with one you already have, but it also increases your total for that statistic by one. When you reach a certain number of points in a particular statistic, a new destiny becomes available. These destinies are your character classes, and this is where the really clever bit happens. A destiny might be unlocked for just points in, say, sorcery, that will give you more mana, or more powerful spells. Then, when your sorcery score increases even further a better, more powerful destiny will unlock that not only buffs your powers but gives you a handy, short-range at-will teleport. So you want to specialise with one statistic, right? Well, maybe, if that’s your thing. But look at this: if you split your points between, shall we say, might and sorcery, you’re going to unlock a destiny that allows you to regain mana when you hit things with your sword. Suddenly, it all makes sense. You really can play the game any way you like without penalty. And if you fancy a change, just find a Fateweaver and pay him a bunch of gold, and he’ll unravel the whole lot, allowing you to rebuild your character from scratch on the fly. Voila! Sorcerer becomes barbarian in two minutes flat.
But beyond the character progression system, they really grab you by the chainmail codpiece with the magic items. These days, it’s all about crafting your own. All the kids are doing it, so I’m told. Reckoning’s crafting system is a game in itself, in fact for me it pretty much became the game. Sure, I enjoyed the quests and the world and all that, but I was like a crackhead for the crafting. It wasn’t even pretty.
Basically, in my head all of the conversations with the NPCs went like this:
“You look like a proud warrior, I wonder if you could help me with an urgent quest?”
“Uh, sure, but, look, I’m really after some flawless divine rivets. Do you have any?”
“Our village mascot, Selwyn the Buzzard, has been kidnapped by kobolds and taken to their lair…”
“Yeah, OK, I get it. Buzzard. But back to these rivets…”
“Without our mascot, we are as mewling infants. I will be sure to reward you…”
“With flawless divine rivets? You see, because I’m planning on forging these gauntlets, see, and…”
“Great songs will be told of your bravery…”
“JUST GIVE ME THE RIVETS! I NEED THE RIVETS! I NEED THEM NOW!”
The questgiver backs away in horror as the symptoms of advanced Lootingson’s Syndrome become apparent: waxen skin, uncontrollable shivering and terrifying, hysterical gigglecrying.
See, there’s not really anything entirely novel about the crafting system – through a combination of blacksmithing skill and sagecraft (to create augmentation gems which can be socketed into some items or, later on, incorporated directly into newly-created items), a staggering array of new items can be created that allow you to tweak every facet of your approach to the game, and it’s thoroughly addictive.
Of course, when I say ‘your approach to the game’, I really mean your approach to combat, really. See, with a game this crunchy, it’s really going to live or die by the combat system. Fortunately, combat is fluid and, for the most part, incredibly intuitive – short weapon combos can be strung together with spells, or switching weapons, or teleports between opponents (some of which deal damage actually while you teleport) to create a blood-soaked dance. The camera zooms out a bit during combat and moves with you, usually exactly where you want it, so you can focus on picking out enemies and dodging incoming attacks. Smash enough monster teeth in, and you’ll power up your fate bar which allows you to munt out bonus damage for a while before finishing one opponent off in an extra-grisly style for multiplied experience points. Oh, and it makes your eyes go all glowy, which is always nice. While balancing all the numbers or being quick in combat will get you so far, you really have to get down with both if you want to excel.
I’m not going to liken Reckoning to Skyrim, because if you like RPGs it’s a safe bet that you’ve already followed the advice of our great leader and bought it. But after Skyrim’s critical hit on the games market with its +4 warhammer of sales, it’s going to be up to someone new to follow them. Reckoning doesn’t actually break a lot of new ground in terms of straight up and down innovation, but what it does is smeldge just about every good idea from the past fifteen years together and see if it all works.
Fortunately, it does work, and work well. I must be completely honest – I was worried when I first set out with Reckoning. The graphics aren’t photorealistic vistas of beauty, they’re almost cartoony in places; ‘Warcrafty’, if you like. Combat seemed too straightforward for an RPG. But once I really got the hang of the levelling system and the lovely, lovely crunch, I found something to fall in love with here. The quests are nothing you’ve not already seen, the graphics are, for the most part, the caves, mines and forests of traditional fantasy game design and the game concepts are familiar to any fan of the genre, but what it does, it does sublimely. Don’t expect your decisions to come back and affect you with every twist of the path a la The Witcher. Don’t expect companions with emotional needs and dreams that entwine their stories with yours. Just tune in for gigantic swords that burst into flames, questgivers with enormous exclamation marks above their heads and all the good, crunchy fun you can possibly eat.
Written by: Stuart Thomas