A STYLE ALL ITS OWN
The first thing that jumps out at you about Kingdoms of Amalur is Amalur itself. The world, originally crafted to be part of an MMO game, is absolutely beautiful. Bright colors abound, and 38 Studios chooses to go with slightly exaggerated, almost cartoony character models instead of the more realistic models seen in such games as Skyrim and Fallout.
The art style is so bold and bright that at first, I thought I was playing a child’s game. It certainly makes an impression, and once you settle in, the art augments the game nicely. Just as good is the lack of load times; you’ll endure very few stoppages in play as you travel Amalur, unless you choose to fast-travel to a location.
Once you delve into KoA, you’ll find it plays much like Skyrim, even if its world does seem slightly smaller. You’ll spend your days and nights exploring a large open world, taking on sidequests, fighting enemies, looting chests, and, well, you get the idea. But the art style definitely proves memorable after those jarring early moments; this is a bright world, more Legend of Zelda than Dragon Age: Origins.
It’s this art style that sticks with you more than the story, unfortunately. 38 Studios takes a solid approach, one that’s almost self-aware of how trite the genre typically is. You play a voiceless protagonist who has come back from the dead and happens to be the only person in the entire world of Amalur who can change the fates of the world. Everyone else’s fate is set, NPCs repeatedly tell you, and only you can change things.
The initial moments, as you discover your identity and search for your place in the world, are fun and the main quest is good enough to hold your attention throughout. But while the world looks brilliant, the NPCs rarely come alive. With only a few exceptions, your sidequests quickly grow bland and repetitive, amounting to fetch this, bring me that or kill him.
By the end, you’ll have played through a decent tale, but it is the look and feel of Amalur that you will still remember most.
FIGHTING THE GOOD RPG FIGHT
There may be one other thing you will remember, and that’s the combat, which is so good that I undertook a plethora of quests simply so I could run about and kill some more. In most RPGs (think Fallout, and Skyrim, and Dragon Age, and all those Fables), battling is less joy and more chore, thanks to almost-but-not-quite mechanics.
KoA has no such problems. 38 Studios spent a lot of time on its battle system, and the result is as fluid and fun as anything you remember from God of War or Bayonetta. Your character can handle a bevy of different weapons, each with its own unique properties. Greatswords are predictably overpowered but tremendously slow, while daggers and faeblades are best for sneak attacks.
The ability to easily wield a secondary weapon by pressing the Y button allows you to essentially mix fighting styles and mix things up against your enemies, and, eventually, you’ll learn the timing and button-pressing cadence required to learn the various combos (yes, there are combos) of Amalur.
On occasion, KoA also gives you a sidekick, and these assistants usually function solidly in battle. It’s a shame, however, that your enemies don’t always put up a tremendous challenge. Yes, they will occasionally overwhelm you with numbers, but for the most part, battles are routinely easy to fight, as long as you maintain some level of patience and take time to block. Still, the depth of KoA’s combat is easily the finest in the genre.
Fighting is made even more appealing because of the great variety of armaments you will come by as you travel through Amalur. Here, 38 Studios seems to take cues from the likes of Diablo and Skyrim, giving you plenty of loot in treasure chests, fallen enemies and dead civilians. And as in Diablo, you will acquire some weapons with open sockets; you can modify these as you go on.
The sheer variety of all this combat is tremendous, making Kingdoms of Amalur a worthwhile play even if you don’t enjoy RPGs one bit.
STILL WORLDS AWAY FROM PERFECTION
For everything that KoA does well, it does have some shortcomings; this isn’t quite a replacement for Skyrim. While the game is tremendously stable and far less buggy than the shaky demo released in January, it also has some subtle areas that lack polish.
This is most obvious during conversations. For some reason, KoA uses both a radial menu and a regular list for conversation options, and while you eventually get used to it, it’s still a strange decision. Even worse, half the screen is shaded in black during these conversations, obscuring too much of the beauty of Amalur for little good reason. Then again, maybe it’s not such a bad decision; camera angles during conversations occasionally wreck your viewing, anyway.
There are other minor issues, too. The camera never gets stuck, but, especially in larger battles, it will come in too close on you, forcing you to adjust as you defend yourself. And, unlike Skyrim, where just about every room came alive in some way or another, many spots in Amalur’s towns are rooms where nothing can be done, mere window-dressing to pad the game’s length. Repetitive sidequests remain an issue, too.
But none of that can remove the luster from this game. It’s early in 2012, and you need some RPG to play until Mass Effect 3, right?
Kingdoms of Amalur may be exactly what you need.