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Off TopicMar 4, 2019 2:00 pm CT

Off Topic: Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning is the best RPG you didn’t play

Games come and go. There are some games that debut with a huge splash, such as The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim, which came out in November of 2011 and dominated pretty much every platform it was available on, with legions of loyal fans seemingly overnight. And then there are games like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which are released a few months later and which just seem to miss people’s attention despite being, hands down, one of the best games of the past decade.

I’ll say it again. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one of the best CRPGs published in the past ten years. It’s on my top ten list for best CRPG of all time. It’s a lush, lavish game with hours and hours of questing and gameplay, a character progression system that’s flexible and robust, a satisfyingly and endearingly cheesy storyline about fate, destiny and heroism that manages to subvert quite a few ‘heroic fantasy’ tropes even as it plays them exceedingly straight, and in general is just an amazing game.

So why haven’t more people heard of it?

Wrong time, wrong place

Well, two reasons. One is, I think, the fact that it’s a CRPG that launched within a few months of Skyrim. Think about how many games got swamped when Red Dead Redemption 2 came out and seemingly overnight the internet fell in love with a dreary realism simulator that felt like making weird flexes about how lovingly it rendered horse testicles. Skyrim had a similar effect, whether you love it or hate it — the tsunami of its impact didn’t lift all boats, to put it mildly. Then of course there’s the tale of the implosion of 38 Studios, which is a longer and sadder tale than I can go into here. But if being published so close to Skyrim wasn’t a boon for KoA:R, having your game studio disintegrate overnight in a scandal of mismanagement was like a hammer to the back of the head and the game never recovered.

Which is a shame, because Amalur and its two DLC The Legend of Dead Kel and Teeth of Naros are quite frankly spectacular. This is a game where you can feel the influence of Ken Rolston at every turn, and in my eyes it’s some of his best work. That’s not lightly stated, either — Ken Rolston is a legend and in a way Amalur is a more direct sequel to the Elder Scrolls series that Skyrim is, as Rolston’s influence on those games is long established. This is a big, slightly goofy, self-aware game that wears its influences on its sleeve — they hire Todd McFarlane to do art for the game and R.A. “I invented Drizzt” Salvatore to write it! You play as the Fateless One, a blank slate who literally wakes up after an experiment trying to resurrect the dead without a fate of your own, able to change the fates of those you cross paths with on both the small and very large scale. And even as the game takes you into the usual ‘find X crates’ quests, you’re always being directed down a path where you can topple factions, raze or defend cities, and grow into a terrifying demigod with the power to change the destiny of everyone for good or ill.

In other words, it’s an RPG that knows it’s an RPG and actually makes that part of the game.

A game that loves what it is

Gameplay itself is fast and frenetic — you can specialize as a brawler who favors in your face melee, a stealthy assassin or ranged sniper, or go full on into the mystical arts and float around throwing lightning and fireballs at people, or you can be a hybrid of any of these approaches. Want to be an in your face fighter who can also throw some lightning around? An armored knight who still dabbles in poison and stealth? An assassin who favors daggers but who can summon a tornado when outnumbered? Amalur allows all these approaches and more, the only limit is how many points you have to spend. There’s some advantages and disadvantages to each approach. You won’t be able to wear the absolute best gear for a specific playstyle unless you’ve spent enough points in that tree (Might, Finess and Sorcery respectively) to qualify, so a generalist who spends points in all three trees might end up wearing older gear longer waiting to catch up. But the combat system uses a variety of dodges and rolls and blocks as well as special flourishing moves with your weapons of choice that make each option feel unique and fun. My Might/Sorcery build character uses staves and greatswords and he’s a terrifying presence in his prismere armor hurling waves of magic to break down several foes at once.

Quite frankly, games put out recently still haven’t caught up to Amalur‘s gameplay.

The skill system is pretty expansive, if you’re into that level of metagaming, and it gives you another reason to explore the really remarkably expansive world. People talk about open world games and I’m always surprised and disappointed that they don’t talk about Amalur when they do, because it’s a vast world reminiscent more of big sandbox MMO’s than the RPG’s we were getting in 2012. To put it into perspective, here’s the various zone maps for KoA and their scaling levels. If you sat down and did every quest in every zone in the game, not even touching the DLC, I suspect you’d easily be spending well over a hundred hours.

A world I wish we’d gotten more of

The quests range from simple fetch quests to long story chains that deal with the lore of ancient groups like the Warsworn, the Travelers and the Scholia Arcana, and frankly they’re a lot of fun and often have significant choices that let you customize the kind of character you want to be. Do you want to save the House of Ballads from their ancient enemy or change fate and help her finally overcome them after countless failures? Do you lock the ancient Niskaru Lord away beneath the mountains or accept its promises of power and make a deal? Amalur lets you make your own decisions because, as the Fateless One, you’re the only one who really can. The game essentially makes being the player character a part of its metastory — everyone you meet is fated to a specific end and has no choice about what that fate will be, but you do. I remember laughing out loud when Agarth, a Fateweaver who becomes an ally of yours early in the game, complains that when you changed his fate so that he didn’t die and end up dinner for an ettin, you made it so he’d end up having to pay his tab at his favorite bar. He’d been expecting to die before it ever came due.

If you missed Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning when it came out, get it now. It very much still holds up all these years later — if anything, it actually looks and feels better than it did because so much of what we’re getting in our current CRPG’s just doesn’t have its spark or engaging gameplay or its breezy, fun, self-aware storytelling. You can get it on Steam and as a download for Xbox One — that was a pleasant surprise for me as I owned the game on Xbox 360, so I didn’t have to pay for it again. It’s not on PS4, but if you have a PS3 laying around, you can get it there too.

Also, the voice acting is pretty great — you’ll hear lots of WoW voices in there, like Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Matt Mercer, Jim Cummings and a whole lot more. The fall of 38 Studios meant that we never got the promised ‘Project Copernicus’ MMO set in Amalur, and that’s a shame, because the Faelands we get in KoA are just sublime and in a world where things worked out differently we’d probably be on the second or third big expansion for the Amalur MMO.

Don’t get me wrong — KoA is a game that is unabashedly goofy at times. A game that gleefully embraces all the tropes of RPG design and storytelling and while it does subvert them on a few occasions, it utterly embraces them more often than not. Half naked elf ladies killing giants with tiny knives? Check. Cackling evil overlord played by Jim Cummings? Check. It’s outright cheesy at times, and that to me is a refreshing change of pace from the doom and gloom and ‘we’re so serious’ angle we get from games nowadays. I love this game.

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