'Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning' review: 50 hours of mediocrity

Kingdoms-of-Amalur

The hopeful buzz on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is that the game was created by an all-star power trio. Fantasy author R. A Salvatore crafted the game’s fantasy universe. Spawn creator Todd McFarlane designed the game’s visuals. Ken Rolston — the lead designer on two Elder Scrolls games that expanded our primordial notions of open-world exploration as surely as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey helped ape-men evolve into human beings — is credited as the head creative force of Amalur. You could throw in Grant Kirkhope — the curiously underemployed soundtrack composer who defined the sound of the Nintendo 64 with Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, and Banjo-Kazooie. And don’t forget about Curt Schilling, three-time World Series pitcher who decided to have the coolest retirement ever by founding his own videogame company.

Reckoning is the first game released by Schilling’s 38 Studios. It feels like something that wants to be the tip of an iceberg. You play as a resurrected hero/heroine of variable heritage thrust into the middle of a war between various species of Scandinavian fauna — Dokkalfar, Ljosalfar, Varani, and SkarsgĂ„rd. I made up the last one, but it doesn’t matter. Reckoning‘s dialogue is turgidly expository, with every character explaining who they are, where they come from, where their parents came from, and their thoughts about current events. Any sane person will quickly begin hitting the “skip” button.

Reckoning‘s problem becomes clear almost immediately, when you set off from the first dungeon into the great wide world. Put aside for a moment that the world feels occasionally like a Paint-by-Tolkien prefabricated fantasy universe. We live in a fantasy-besotted era, and just because Reckoning hits all the expected notes — dark elves and light elves, god-cults and daring thieves — doesn’t mean those notes can’t be played interestingly. No, the bigger issue is that Reckoning seems like the perfect mish-mash of every conceivable RPG style, without any coherent sensibility.

In the multi-dimensional spectrum of fantasy gameplay, there are three major extremes. You have massively expansive story-games like Skyrim, huge worlds which seem to offer boundless opportunity for branching storylines. Conversely, there are games which are set in vividly realized worlds but which fundamentally tell a linear story with little option for exploration. These games tend to be more action-focused — think God of War, or even the most recent Legend of Zelda. And then there’s the Warcraft model, where story scarcely matters at all: The fun of playing an online RPG is in the tactical details, the hint of a large world you can never fully explore, the sensation of being a cog in the great wheel.

Kingdoms of Amalur was originally going to be an MMO, and in an interview with Joystiq, Schilling said, “We’re taking God of War and marrying it with Oblivion.” The problem is that those two games have nothing in common whatsoever: He might as well have said, “We’re taking Grand Theft Auto and marrying it to Angry Birds.” So playing Reckoning begins to feel a little bit like playing a Frankenstein’s monster of every game that has been recently popular. The action stuff is fun, but the magickry is confusing and feels tremendously simplified. Part of the fun of a Skyrim or a Warcraft is the brain-porn of inventory diving, and Reckoning feels too streamlined in that regard.

It’s hard to know who to blame here. Todd McFarlane has been a businessman — really, a business unto himself — for much longer now than he ever was an artist, and the game’s visual aesthetic has none of the eerie gore-gasmic fluidity of his bygone days. If McFarlane underdelivered, then Salvatore seems to have overdelivered — about 95 percent of the dialogue seems to exist purely to illuminate his millenia-old universe, at the expense of any narrative progress. And although Rolston worked on a pair of masterworks, it’s clear now that big videogames are created by a process, not a single creative force. (It might be fair to say that videogame designers are like album producers, or directors in the Hollywood studio system, or even CEOs as a tech company: Undeniably important, but hardly auteurs.)

Fantasy heads who have already tapped out Skyrim and Dark Souls might find something here to keep them busy. The individual tasks have a grinding lizard-brain appeal. But Reckoning adds nothing new. It can’t even properly imitate the old.

Grade: C-

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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