It’s a risky move in this day and age to gamble AAA quality money on a new IP, especially one that doesn’t involve guns and warfare of the modern variety. With studios going frugal and sticking to established series for sequels, prequels and re-quels (what I call HD collections), it should go without saying that I was just a little bit excited about Kingdoms of Amalur when the first bits of information began coming down the wire. Afterall, who wouldn’t want an open world RPG that was being designed by the same person that created Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Oblivion, had the audio director who worked on Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark and had R.A Salvatore and Todd McFarlane as creative directors? To me this was was the video game equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, the 1962 Packers, hell… they were The Mighty Ducks from D2 (since that was clearly the best of the three). Much like The Mighty Ducks trilogy, Kingdoms manages to start off as something new and amazing, works into a massive and exciting experience and eventually peters off into the same old thing we’ve been doing for almost thirty hours.
Plot & Characters
The game’s intro video lays down the basics of letting you know that for twenty years, war has raged within Amalur between the king of The Winter Court, Gadflow, with his followers known as the Tuatha (who are immortal) and the other races of Amalur. You have the Varani, who are nomadic humans, and the Almain present themselves as the civilized sect of humanity. The Dokkalfar are the magically adept “elf” race and the Ljosalfar round us out as the more nature bound side of the Elvish society. There are also different variations of Fae in the game that represent The Summer Court and the Winter Court. While you can’t actually play as one of them, they do constitute a huge portion of the games primary and secondary quest lines. The game starts with you seemingly 100% dead as a doornail being carted by two gnomes into what I originally thought was a furnace; luckily I was wrong. You’re actually dropped onto a pile of corpses and thusly begins your wonderful adventure through Amalur. As you work your way through the introduction/training prologue, you’re basically informed of the fact that you’ve been resurrected by a Gnomish device known as the “Well Of Souls”. As you can surmise, the Tuatha don’t take too kindly to this and sabotage the device. After a harrowing escape from the cavern, you come across Fateweaver Agarth who kindly informs you that you are fateless and are free to weave your own destiny. From this point on you’re pretty much free to roam Amalur at your own discretion! The problem with this discretion is that Amalur’s mythology is never properly explained in any form or function. You’re basically sent out as someone who isn’t bound by fate and expected to fill in the blanks by performing increasingly monotonous questlines that inevitably make the game feel like an MMO.
One of the greatest benefits of being a gamer in this generation is being able to experience entertainment pieces that have soundtracks, scores, and audio quality that rival and sometimes exceed what we’d see from Hollywood and KoA does not fault in area in the least, and if it weren’t for the combat, I’d say that it is easily it’s strongest feature. Grant Kirkhope, who was responsible for Banjo- Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Goldeneye titles is responsible for Kingdoms soundtrack. Along with the City of Prague Philamonic Orchestra, he has managed to craft something that doesn’t overpower the experience, but works in tandem with what you’re doing. Soundtrack aside, I enjoyed the smaller details put into the audio work in the game as well. You can sometimes hear different enemies fighting each other before you get the drop on them. Creatures that populate the world (sprites, deer, etc) all have distinct sounds for interacting with the enviroment. Even combat has been fully fleshed out in terms of audio, with backstab attacks sounding bloody and vicious and higher level magical spells practically sound catastrophic. The team also saw fit to add German and French voiceover options, along with standard subtitles.
This game is absolutely gorgeous. I wanted to think of something clever or witty to say but I couldn’t. From the “Well of Souls” to some random cave you find, everything is in the details with this game. Certain fauna reacts to your characters latent magical abilities. The vast treelines you come across in the starting areas are scattered with ruins and encampments. Different armors have different visible patterns and unique weaponry is detailed enough to distinguish it from your run of the mill stuff. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I need to get to one of my major gripes with the game. It looks like World of Warcraft, almost disturbingly like WoW. The starting area of Dalentarth looks like nearly every other wooded area I’ve ever seen. The desert region of Detyre looks like every cookie cutter desert section that you’re bound to have come across, hell I was surprised I didn’t see Link heading out to find the Mirror Shield. All of this brings me to this conclusion… why would you craft such a large and expansive world with an amount of lore behind it to rival the Elder Scrolls series and make such bland and generic settings that copy/pasts places we’ve seen before?
“We’re taking God of War and marrying it with Oblivion.”
Those are the words of the President of 38 Games, the company responsible for KoA and in all honesty they speak the truth, but you may as well say that Dante’s Inferno was like The Legend of Zelda having a one night stand with Ninja Gaiden. It’s all well and good to borrow from the greats and recognize what makes a good game, but while it blends action based combat with a deep enough RPG skilltree system to allow you to play to almost any style that suits you, the combat itself is done a disservice because of the lack of variety in the enemies. Since the games creatures don’t progress with you, you’re forced to complete quest lines to level up or wander off into unknown territory and hope that you don’t come across something substantially deadlier.
Moving away from the combat, I feel that it’s time we touch base on what I consider to be the biggest issue with the game overall and this, honestly, is the one thing that I feel keeps Amalur from reaching it’s true potential as one of greats… no co-op. The fact that this game lacks any form of co-op whatsoever is absolutely inexcusable since anyone with any sense of awareness in gaming can see that this game is meant to be a launching platform for their upcoming MMO. From the races, to the world, and right down to the enemies, everything in this game has lead me to the conclusion that this was some grand experiment to test the waters with the mythology and gameplay to see if it would fit into the MMO-mold. The irony is that even though I seem to be railing against this, I don’t have an actual problem with it. 38 Studios and BHG have managed to craft an entertaining game that serves a dual purpose for both consumer and the developer. But by leaving out co-op I feel like the game has been castrated in a sense and forces the players into an a sense of open world linear gameplay. Whereas if I could run around with a friend then I could explore higher level areas, tackle larger enemies and tougher quests. What makes this even worse is that the only people that tend to fight alongside you in game are pre-scripted quest based NPC’s. Wouldn’t it make more sense that people would be lining up to fight alongside someone that basically can script their own fate and that of those around them? Instead we are left with boring NPC’s who whine about fate and how bad things are but don’t want to do anything to change it.
Kingdoms presents a unique challenge for me as both a reviewer and a gamer. I love the game, but the things that keep it from achieving it’s full potential are so obvious that I’m not entirely sure where that leaves the game it’self. It’s almost like the prom king in high school. We all assume he is going to marry Becky and become rich and famous, but realistically he’ll wind up a mid-manager at a Wal-Mart wondering why Becky left him. In short, it seems like wasted potential. The combat is solid and immersive, but reptitive. The mythology is steeped in fantasy tradition and could be something amazing if it wasn’t so fragmented and scattered through a world that is generic and forgettable alongside a game that doesn’t reward a player for wanting to learn about it in the first place. I suppose the best way to end this is to simply state the obvious. I really wanted to love Kingdoms of Amalur, but in the end I just liked it.