The public gameplay debut of Kingdoms of Amalur wowed a crowd of hundreds at PAX East 2011.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has gotten a lot of hype, with aspects of its development being influenced by artist/designer/animator Todd McFarlane, author R.A. Salvatore, Elder Scrolls designer Ken Rolston, and baseball player turned 38 Studios founder Curt Schilling. The company recently took to PAX East 2011 to show off Amalur's first public demo, and the game did not disappoint by any stretch of the imagination.
The demo began with the player awakening in an underground cave with a nasty case of amnesia. At the start of the game you die, but a very short man (voiced by the actor that did Minsc in Baldur's Gate) has been working on something called the Well of Souls that brings you back to life. The interesting part is that the Well of Souls never worked until you showed up. Now, you're the only one in Amalur without a destiny, and have the ability to shape your own rather than face the one given to you. This basic concept ties into how players choose their class, but more on that later.
38 picked up a sword off a dead body and got into the basics of Amalur's action-based combat system, which saw the main character slashing his way through a few skeletons and assassins. Repeated button presses might lead to a few regular strikes, but using a bit of delay could have the player performing an upward slash or other moves. It looks very easy to get the hang of, and 38 demonstrated how the simple addition of a shield makes things more complicated. With the shield, players can block, but also use a timing-based parry which can lead to a counter. 38 Studios emphasized that Amalur is not an action game with RPG elements, but a hardcore RPG with action-based combat.
Defeating an enemy will of course allow for the opportunity to collect loot, and Amalur has a very familiar loot system. It's similar to Diablo, with randomization creating over 2 million different kinds of items, in addition to over 1,000 uniques and armor sets. The area that Amalur improves on this system is in the interface. For example, equipping items can be done from the loot screen itself. Another feature that got a big cheer was how players have a "Junk Pile" that they fill with unwanted loot. At a merchant, this pile is sold with a single button press.
After finishing up in the cave, 38 brought us above ground to what they hope will be a "world worth saving." 38's design philosophy is to create a gorgeous world that players will want to protect, and judging by the demo they're already succeeding. Imagine World of Warcraft, but with a major upgrade. The use of color, particularly within the lighting system, makes everything look vibrant and attractive to the eyes. It'll be worth it to explore the world too, because a path in the forest could lead to a hidden cache of treasure, a special gathering point, or even unique foes that you won't find anywhere else.
While above ground, we got to see more of the combat system's depth. Amalur's story revolves around magic returning to the world, so all characters use magic, not just the frail wizards of other games. The warrior that was demoed used a shout that stopped enemies in their tracks, moved up for some melee attacks, and combined them with a spell that brought rock spikes up from the ground. During battle, the spell effects and sparks resulting from parries even made combat pretty darn good looking. 38 also divulged that players will always have two weapons at the ready that can be used in the same combo chain. Want to open with a single hammer strike, slash with a sword, and then bash your foe's skull in with the hammer again to complete the combo? Go ahead. 38 appears to be implementing gameplay that makes sense in a context of a game, not necessarily the real world, which is more fun.
Next, 38 brought out a mage wielding a frost staff, showing how each weapon will perform very differently. This one shot out a "whoosh" of frost, which the mage combined with an ice rain attack and an electricity blast that immobilized foes. Instead of rolling like the warrior, the mage can teleport, giving players new strategies as a teleport can move through an enemy while a roll can't. The mage's second weapon was a set of two incredibly sweet chakram (circular, bladed throwing weapons). Seeing him use magic in tandem with the chakram, which left red trails as they sliced through enemies, was really cool. For the mage's final trick, he stood above a group of enemies and cast a meteor spell, annihilating all of them. Mages do pretty well for themselves in Amalur.
Despite 38 showing us both melee-focused and magic-focused characters, players will not choose a class at the beginning of the game. Amalur has a "Destiny" system which allows players to be whatever they want, and never "screw" themselves. As players put points into the skill trees of might, finesse, and sorcery, they'll unlock Destiny cards, which are basically Amalur's classes. They're designed to boost the weaknesses of hybrid characters and emphasize their strengths. They'll also work just fine if you want to be a fire mage or a heavily armored knight. It appears similar to the "job" system found in the Final Fantasy series.
Another exciting aspect was how enemy creatures cooperate with each other. While fighting a tough snake-type boss, fish-men that hatched from her eggs held up their tridents as the snake-type charged a lightning attack on their weapons. Further, Amalur features a day/night system with NPCs that go about their daily tasks, a weapon upgrade system called Sagecrafting, destructive finishing moves that 38 let us see but kept mum about, and what 38 hopes will be the best doors out of any game ever. That last part is not a joke.
I get the impression that 38 Studios is trying to take the best parts of the best games, from all over the spectrum, and combine them into one title with a focus on an easy-to-use interface. Schilling nervously joked that he had a lot invested in Amalur, and that's a big risk, but it seems to be paying off. Amalur is without a doubt a game that RPG fans should keep both eyes on.