Busywork: The Game
HIGH The fast-paced, flexible combat system and final boss.
LOW The mind-numbing, endless repetition.
WTF Is every daughter in the kingdom in some sort of peril?
Back when I was a teenager living at home, there were several summers when I was out of school and had nothing to do for weeks at a time. If I wasn't fishing or exploring the woods, my brother and I would play Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) until the sun went down, or we'd organize all-day Street Fighter tournaments with neighborhood kids to pass time.
During that point in my life, if someone had offered me a game that I could play straight through for hundreds of hours, I'd have jumped at the chance, regardless of quality. Now that I'm older, free time isn't something I have in excess. These days, I crave titles that deliver rich experiences without a lot of pointless filler. As such, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is essentially the opposite of what I define as quality entertainment.
An open-world third-person RPG, Amalur starts off promisingly enough; after the player is invited to create a character, this avatar promptly comes back to life atop a pile of corpses. If nothing else, it caught my attention. The introductory level then quickly walks through the tutorials and does a good job showing off what is undoubtedly Amalur's best feature: the combat. Immediately after these tutorials, Amalur lapses into a coma-inducing cycle of tedium from which it does not recover.
Giving credit where credit is due, the combat is exciting and well-constructed. The player has the choice between magic-user, thief/assassin or fighter classes (or any mix of all three) and a wide range of weapons to be employed freely. Huge swords, fire-spitting staves, deadly daggers and more... taking on enemies is fast and flowing, and it's a simple thing to go from hammer strike to poison arrow to lightning bolt. Action fans will find much to enjoy here, although players used to the slower nature of most RPGs may find themselves overwhelmed in some of the tougher skirmishes.
Apart from this real-time combat, there is little to praise.
Structurally, Amalur is an MMO without the multiplayer or the online. While the game is technically "open world," it's just a series of empty-feeling areas dotted with enemy mobs, treasure chests, and quest-givers. Expect to spend a large amount of time simply crossing these bland landscapes until a good number of fast-travel points are unlocked, and put aside any notions of any detailed exploration, puzzles or environmental storytelling. Amalur's never heard of any of these things.
In terms of character and plot, Amalur is one of the most egregious examples of telling and not showing that I've come across in quite some time. The game takes delight in taking massive info-dumps all over the player—absurd amounts of wordy, useless lore and generic, oddly-spelled fantasy names that can't be remembered a moment after being heard—and cut-scenes never put the player in any situation more exciting than chatting with an NPC about their lost book or that bandit in the hills. There's no chance in hell of mental engagement or emotional connection.
As an example of how unmemorable "role playing" side of Amalur is, I can't name a single character or explain the story even after finishing the game. There was a lot of rubbish about fate and destiny that's never backed up, and a certain old man and a vaguely evil woman in a skimpy outfit kept making appearances, but I've no idea where the plot was going or who they really were—and it doesn't matter, since nothing I did had any weight or meaning. There was no perceivable effect on the world despite doing my best to "hero up," and play never evolved past checking cookie-cutter quests off a list. Accept boring task from person with an exclamation point above their head, fetch their item or kill their monster, and then return for reward. Repeat until unconscious, and constantly wonder what the point is.
While running this infinite hamster wheel of "pifflequests", the game plods on and on while throwing monstrous amounts of loot at the player—so much so, that rather than each new sword or helmet being something to examine and celebrate, constantly clearing the inventory and selling useless items becomes a job in itself. I firmly believe there is such a thing as too much loot, and I didn't appreciate how much time I spent in menus shuffling things around before making yet another run to the nearest shop because my inventory was full. Again. I must have spent at least a third of my playtime sifting through ever-increasing amounts of stuff, and that's far too much.
While it's great to see a developer take a new (and very welcome) approach to spicing up combat in an RPG, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is purely mechanical where the soul and inspiration should be. Players who can content themselves with massive amounts of loot and an endless series of simpleminded errands may be in heaven, but RPG players craving depth and the ability to make real choices or play a role will be out of luck. It might be a great game if the goal is to kill hundreds of hours of free time, but Amalur doesn't have much to offer otherwise.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 14 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, and suggestive themes. Although the game seems to be one to watch out for, I can't say that I found it especially brutal or bloody. The graphics have a vaguely cartoonish look to them, and the violence isn't especially visceral. The suggestive themes are probably due to skimpy clothing on some NPCs... I wouldn't give this to my kids to play, but I wouldn't jump up to turn the TV off if they came into the room, either.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You shouldn't have any concerns. Subtitles are available for all dialogue, and sound plays no role so long as a few points are put into the skill which makes enemies visible on the minimap. I found no auditory barriers to gameplay.