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Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

Written by Lee Mehr on 10/13/2020 for XONE  
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A baseball legend's tarnished dream and a New England state’s ruinous investment once seemed to be the final chapter on a failed financial venture. It was as if Fate itself stacked the deck against these otherwise respectable intentions. But like the source material itself, THQ Nordic gave Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning new life with the help of developer Kaiko. The dilemma? For as solid of a job as 38 Studios and Big Huge Games managed the first time, Re-Reckoning presents that frustrating issue of expecting too much gold for too little work.

The expansive world of The Faelands, one of Amalur's kingdoms, begins with your player character's death, alone among a pile of corpses. Your reawakening is wholly thanks to the Well of Souls. There's nary a scratch on you, but amnesia clouds most memories of your past life. After a few bouts with the bad guys, known as "The Tuatha," you discover your special place within this world: the role of "The Fateless One," someone unbound by predetermined destiny. With this new life you're tasked with leading the charge against the wicked Gadflow and his Tuathan army.

Both the previous developer and publisher, EA, enjoyed playing up best-selling author R.A. Salvatore's name during its release. But when you get past the exercise of learning a glossary's worth of information between each mortal race, the Fae, various wars, and so on, you're left with a typical story. You'll set off to faraway lands with exotic flora and fauna, fight enemies hatching devious plans against innocent villagers, and maybe handle a few fetch quests along the way. The structure and stakes are formulaic for anyone who's walked down the fantasy aisle in a bookstore.

This doesn't mean I dismiss the story entirely. Despite unadventurous turns made in the plot, the key storytelling hook about existing outside the bounds of Fate is so fascinating and substantial. Through the leveling structure and specific character interactions, tarot cards and destiny are central thematic tenets for the person you want to be. "Fateweavers" can look into the Tapestry of Fate to view anyone's future. Since you're the first enigma to ever cross their way, this essentially means you create a butterfly effect that can alter everyone else's circumstances; furthermore, Fate itself essentially prophesied this eventual occurrence long ago. That concept still blows my mind. It also neatly captures a distinct parallel between most western and eastern RPG developers of the era: where many Japanese titles (Final Fantasy, etc.) maintain tradition, Amalur and several North American contemporaries look to have the player's will shape the world around them.

For all the embellishments Salvatore and company took in telling you this important feature, showing wasn't as high a priority. There's an MMO-like design to quests, main or otherwise. You're lured to an exclamation mark on your mini-map, told to do something that typically involves fighting something to the death, and being modestly rewarded with no meaningful changes to the surrounding environs; in fact, one of the biggest alterations I recall in the main game was helping three ginormous flowers bloom across a desert wasteland. From my experience, the most notable example is set aside in the Legend of Dead Kel expansion: completing various tasks go towards rebuilding your new keep. When choices so often feel like checklists it's easy to see where Amalur could've expanded.

This constrictiveness even worms its way into dialogue options. For the first entity to ever craft their own destiny, selection comes down to the "incredibly diverse" options of agreeable or snarky-but-agreeable when moving the story forward. Truly a marvel of RPG speech-crafting! It's interesting to look back in time and compare this to EA's other published RPG of 2012, Mass Effect 3. Even if someone can point to smoke n' mirrors for their story beats, that series consistently sold me on my world being unique. Amalur aping that dialogue wheel system and capturing neither the expected production values nor gameplay potential is among its biggest fumbles.

There are more successes found within the story's presentation than its structure. Aside from an odd creative decision of Amalur's lead villain sounding like Winnie the Pooh's voice actor, the eclectic cast of characters properly fit their roles. Even with a limited amount of grandiose cutscenes Amalur sprinkles just enough breadcrumbs to remind you of this larger world; the power fantasy never wanes like the script's quality. Your main companions are...serviceable, but it's a real shame I had to seek out the Dead Kel expansion questline to discover someone wonderful and inimitable like Captain Rast Brattigan (obvious Futurama reference). Since companions aren't with you full time, there's this bungled structure in respect to critical information. As an example: the leadup to the final confrontation is when you get a huge exposition dump about your past. This mismanagement springs up now and then after the game’s first act.

Though harsh, the specified criticisms aren't the death knell to a game I still enjoyed playing. I was in the mood for a safe high-fantasy tale about good and evil. Although I only did some skim-reading through the lore, the main conceit about being "fateless" continually fascinated me and the solid pacing of the 25-hour main quest kept my attention. It's also supported by some enjoyable side quests that breathe life into the more obscure inhabitants of The Faelands.

Where Amalur often misses the mark in story, its gameplay feels like Robin Hood splitting his own arrows by comparison. Leaning into an arcade hack-n-slash vibe, this template shares a strong Devil May Cry heritage compared to its RPG peers. 

The breadth of options tied to a relatively fluid moveset is one of the greatest appeal. You're given two face buttons to switch between primary and secondary weapons on the fly. This arsenal includes a bevy of disparate options: longswords, greatswords, bows, two-handed hammers, daggers, magical staffs, faeblades, and chakrams. Each of these have their own windups and utility that you'll quickly learn through experimentation. The different combos with each one, expanded upon if you dedicate stat points towards new abilities, tap into your lizard brain saying, "This feels so good." I've done the generic greatsword combo hundreds of times, yet there's still primal satisfaction in hoisting a minion into the air and juggling them with my bow and arrow.

The action vocabulary is inflated further when considering arcane attacks. Holding right trigger and any face button enables a suite of customizable options between elemental, fire, ice, and other special attacks to keep enemies off guard. Beyond your health and mana meters there's also a third gauge: a fate meter. Once maxed out after successful kills, using it momentarily slows down time and boosts your damage output; ending it with a finisher brings up a quick-time event prompt that'll maximize experience points. These features, along with on-the-fly potion-chugging, stealth attacks, blocking, counter-attacking, and evading options create a nuanced rhythm that even made random encounters feel like a new opportunity.

Amalur is more than combat. In respect to RPG elements tied to crafting and looting, few modern examples can really match its breadth—doubly so for RPGs releasing in the early 2010s. The panoply of tools at your disposal can be a time sink unto itself: gem-crafting, blacksmithing, potion-making, and so on. Most items looted from dead bodies, local fauna, locked chests, and cursed chests could have utility fit for your playstyle. And the subtle ways players have room to try new things is impressive. For example: not having a specific potion recipe doesn't restrict you from experimenting with various reagents in your inventory. There's a risk in losing said materials when going in blind but that bestows greater weight on the successful discoveries.

There's a grocery list of other small extras I can't help but appreciate with Amalur's gameplay. The mini-games for lockpicking and dispelling various chests are simplistic yet mildly rewarding in their own right; self-crafted armor sets and weapons that you’re able to name lends you an unappreciated kind of authority; badass armor and weapons aren't locked until the very end of the game; and most of all, the palpable ecstasy in discovering new things rarely waned because it felt worthwhile.

None of this is to say it's without major blemishes. Imagine me trumpeting this point with a huge megaphone atop Mount Everest: I absolutely hate failed side quests! Without prior warning, witnessing a temporary companion die from their own boorish determination should have been changed in this remaster. Even with save-scumming I could not get my quest-giver to the finish line on Shadow Pass (towards the end of the game). I never saw his health bar, there's no aggressive/passive commands to give him, and I couldn't find a way to hand him any health potions. That's not the only side quest where I experienced that either. It's one thing to be unfairly damaged or killed, which Amalur has no problem doing with its occasionally wonky camera, but this is something else entirely.

The bane of my existence aside, Amalur's satisfying loop of combat, quest-hunting, and various side activities is the true bedrock of its success. Although I still wish there was some scintilla of purpose behind various choices made throughout the journey, I can't deny there's a niche to be made with this "single-player MMO" routine; like a solo version of completing dailies in a multiplayer game. Looking back on its advertised 100+ hours of content, though, I see the potential for a more concise experience by removing its wasteful quest fluff.

Another marketing juggernaut for Amalur was Spawn creator Todd McFarlane heading its art direction. Despite often sticking with expected fantasy ideas, there is an extra splash of character to the overworld and surrounding wildlife. I've always taken a special liking to World of Warcraft's weird blend of slightly exaggerated/realistic look to humanoid anatomy. When you're not buried in yet another dingy dungeon, The Faelands' outdoors has a good variety of locales with just enough significant landmarks for players to navigate without getting lost.

The art style does a good job shouldering a rather modest graphics engine (even by those standards). The basics like character lip syncing and movement during dialogue in particular look rigid. Other technical aspects on this in-house Big Huge Engine fare better for an open-world game, but nothing of note really grabbed me as some other late 7th-gen games.

In respect to technical achievements in sound, Amalur succeeds as something of a generic AAA game would at the time. Rounding out the legendary names involved with Amalur, Grant Kirkhope’s score has a couple solid compositions but is mostly just a customary soundtrack that left no mark—to my chagrin. Sound design is an odd mix between aurally satisfying slices and smashes with melee weapons but piddling impact sounds for stricken arrow shots. Merely listing out these criticisms makes me consider doubling back on equating it to the level of the usual late-7th-gen AAA game too, nitpicky though these issues may seem.

Were I to approach this as my early-2010s self, it's safe to say I wouldn't have the same enthusiasm as Gaming Nexus' Jeremy Duff did at the time. I'd still credit it as a competent RPG whose net positives outweigh the negatives though. But of this remaster today? Considering the solid work from other THQ Nordic remasters, such as Destroy All Humans! and Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, this feels like a half-hearted port charging you $40 for the privilege of playing.

Such a stinging assessment is one I don't issue lightly. I acknowledge that this comes with the original's expansions and supplementary armor and weapons DLC; even with this considered, the amount of superfluous bugs which remain and quality-of-life tweaks never implemented points to a rushed development time. It's so weird how fast travel typically drops you outside of the main destination only to deal with another loading screen once you try to go inside. Framerate hiccups occur when smashing too many crates or enemies at once. A plethora of other annoyances like disappearing textures, NPC’s perpetually spinning heads, and more are easily found throughout. In summary: they bundled all of the original's content, added some inconsequential visual options, and tweaked a few things in the rendering engine. Outside of that? There's nothing else to credit.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a foundation for an RPG series that could nest alongside the other greats. It's critical that I make that point clear. Re-Reckoning on the other hand takes said foundation and does so little to justify its heightened price point. When looking at efforts like Gears of War: Ultimate Edition or DmC: Devil May Cry Definitive Edition, way more than a modicum of effort and time was afforded to those (at the same retail price too!); and due to that, they actually feel remastered as a result. It's with that heightened emphasis with which I deliberate a harsher sentence against this lazy rerelease. You got caught red-handed and you can't bribe your way out of this one, THQ.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the story of marketable talent crafting a competent—if flawed—RPG in 2012; Re-Reckoning is that same story hastily repackaged in 2020 and resold at an overinflated price point.

Rating: 5.5 Mediocre

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Lee's gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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