Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Over the weekend I downloaded the three gigs of demo for the terribly titled game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. So, simply, I thought I should let you know what I thought of it. If you want to try it out for yourself, the demo is available through Steam right now. It’s releasing in February. Apparently R. A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane worked on the setting. I’m not fucking with you.

I’m suffering from a strange ambivalence. I did enjoy it as I played. The combat is nice and actiony, and I like the mixture of weapon types it gives me. There’s a longsword, which is a typical enormous blade; there’re the daggers, twin-blade style action with the possibility of stealth kills; the staff, enchanted with some sort of extra damage, the first being fire; and a longbow. Gameplay footage often showcases rapid switching between some or all of these. I saw a character smash someone with a longsword and juggle them with arrows. There are more weapons available later, including, I think, a harpoon, for all our Scorpion-related dreams.

There are combos, which are always a mixed bag for me. But I always appreciate their presence, so long as the game doesn’t require me to get great at doing 40+ combos to progress (Christ, does anyone else remember Legend of Dragoon? That damn game…) There’s also a power-up system when you kill enough dudes that lets you quicktime event them to death.

The leveling system is simple but interesting. It looks a bit like it was influenced by Mass Effect, at least visually. One adds points by selecting fixed-width blocks on rows, each row being a different ability. There aren’t too many. Apart from what you’re already assuming they have, there’s both a physical and magical lockpicking ability (for different sorts of locks), alchemy, and “sagecraft.” The demo doesn’t explain what that is, or what the crystals related to it do. But I assume they provide buffs of some sort.

The setting is cool. It’s a little generic, but I learned recently that game developers still tend to avoid hiring writers, so what else would we expect? It uses western/northern European backgrounds mostly for characters and legends. The bad guys are the “Tuatha,” referencing the Tuatha de Danann of Celtic myth. The Well of Souls is the big Macguffin that brings the protagonist back from the dead — you start the game not alive — and that’s a reference to the magic cauldron of Celtic myth that brings people back from the dead. I even thought it was a little amusing that the main character never speaks — though the game gives you dialogue options, no one voices anything, not even “surprised sound #1” — because the cauldron would take away the power of speech from anyone revived in it.

But despite all that I kinda don’t want to play any more. Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade fame have both talked about the combat. It is super-fun. But it feels like that’s the only part that’s been polished.

The writing, like I sorta hinted at before, is pretty bad. Not really much worse than other games in the genre, but its dialogue trees and combat remind me of what I played of Dragon Age II, and the writing was much better there. And I mean more than just the words themselves. The voice acting is pretty bad overall. Some characters were cool, but others wanted to make me kill them, not help them. And the dialogue trees are dull and pointless. It has a direct ripoff of the Mass Effect / Dragon Age II dialogue tree circle thingie, but the options are as fascinating as “we should go” versus “I’ll stay and fight.” Yay… Even the sarcastic options — when they’re even present — are limp and lame. “Are you drunk?” Really? This is the response to the legit fortune teller informing us that we technically don’t exist. If you want to sell disbelief, even sarcastic disbelief, “are you drunk” is pretty low-rent.

Related problem: the writers fucked up when you learn what. They refer to things you haven’t heard about yet, and then forget to actually introduce the information properly anyway. That fortune-teller guy is actually sort of an alcoholic, but you can’t get to that dialogue option until after the crack about drunken fate tapestry reading comes up. Uh, what?

I dislike most of the voice acting, like I said. And the writing is strained at best. But they come together, yes they do. That leads to me actively hating the NPCs I’m supposed to be helping — both as the world’s savior and as the person doing this quest to get one healing potion for an injured elf (or “fae,” as the game calls them — fair enough, whatever). They’re dumb and sometimes offensive, like the woman who talks about having to keep her house tidy and orderly for her husband to come home to, and that’s about it. Fascinating.

And the game’s just a little creepy. The main character never speaks. You’d think that’s fine, and I did at first, too, through most of the scripted first dungeon. But when you get to the over world, free play area, it’s weird. At least, that’s when it’s noticeable. Thekittymeister helped me figure this one out — it’s in third person, not first person. Oblivion, Half Life, they may have silent protagonists, but they’re also us. Third person silent people, like Link, still make some sounds. That, plus the way the models are animated, make the characters look and act more like dolls than people.

And there’s been no attention paid to detail. A self-professed coward who’s too afraid to ask the local fae for advice is the biggest single human male I ran into in the demo — he’s as big as Batman, and I mean Capullo Batman.

It’s that doll-like nature of the game that gets to me. The whole thing feels like an enormous doll house. Sure, it’s big, and there’s plenty to do — even in the demo, as it gives you 45 minutes to explore wherever you want, and it’s kind enough not to count pause screens or dialogue — but it’s like the biggest, bestest doll house you could imagine. Eventually, if you want your character to be more than the Barbie or the Ken with the most room to run around in, you’ll go with something else.

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