Thursday, February 16, 2012

30 Minute Playtest: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

If you were an RPG developer, you’d be forgiven for taking some time off. The last few months have seen the RPG market take a double hit in the form of Skyrim’s accessible mix of addictive exploration and action, and Dark Souls’ rather less accessible but no less addictive mix of incredibly inventive environments and endless player death.

Between the two of them, you’d think it would be pretty much impossible to sell an RPG right now, best wait a few more months until the fuss dies down. But no, Big Huge Games and 38 Studios have decided to give us Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

To be fair, it has the sort of pedigree that would make it stand out for geeks: Executive designer Ken Rolston worked on the Elder Scrolls series, writer R A Salvatore has a swords and sorcery background writing the Forgotten Realms D&D spin off novels, and the art was provided by Todd MacFarlane, a man who made a fortune out of derivative art, poor writing and a bratty refusal to acknowledge other creators' intellectual property. Still, it’s an eyecatching team. Rather than use their skills to create something entirely original, however, they seem to have chosen to blend the best bits of the genre.

The game mixes RPG and fantasy fiction tropes in equal measure-you get a stirring score, portentous dialogue, crates that need smashing, rats that need killing, and a looming mystical threat of apocalyptic proportions. So far, so standard. Amalur saves itself, however, by merging the best bits of recent RPGs: it has the visual style and easy playing mechanics of the Fable series, but with the deeper skill trees and levelling capabilities of harder edged RPGs. In essence, it sits somewhere between the RPG-lite stylings of Fable and the character building of an Elder Scrolls game.

The third-person combat is more convincingly physical than the featherlight blade waftings of Skyrim and Oblivion, and is built around a basic block-dodge-bash mechanic using the trigger, face buttons and sticks. It’s fast and fun, and its simplicity can be built upon by learning new special moves, using the basic one-button archery, or dropping in the odd bit of overpowered, underfuelled magic: you can do serious damage with a single spell, but you can’t throw many.

Combat is a lively case of mixing up the buttons you most fancy bashing, although the boss fights do descend into fixed camera smack-em-ups that end with simple QTEs.

The ability to use magic, archery and melee combat all in a single character is nearer the generalism of Fable, but those who favour specialism will find that the levelling system, which consists of a page of general skills and three pages of multiple skill trees divided between Magic, Might and Finesse, allow for a very respectable degree of character customisation.

Any RPG fans who’ve recently chugged their way through the complex menus of Dark Souls or the unintuitive ordering of Skyrim will find the inventory management in Amalur refreshing. What might be more disappointing are the environments - a half hour playtest isn’t enough to be sure, but the early impression is one of linear paths through modestly sized and discrete play areas, rather than a complex map to decipher a’la Dark Souls, or an epic open world to explore as in Skyrim.

It’s a little unfair on Amalur that it gets compared to so many other RPGs, but to be honest, the comparisons are neither unwarranted or unfair. This is a very enjoyable game, and one that’s likely to appeal to action oriented players as much as hardcore RPG statgrinders. It definitely gets a continue from us.