Few games appear as pretty as Reckoning. Every branch, stone and leaf in the world designed by Todd McFarlane is delicately placed and the otherworldly appearance of the Fae races of Amalur seem at home in their sculpted dwellings and outdoor spaces. I was content just running around the fields, forests and plains, looking at the gorgeous scenery.

The visual appearance of Amalur is doubly impressive because Reckoning is not a tightly-paced and structured role-playing game. You are free to explore and investigate every nook and cranny. You want to talk to every character and learn just that small bit more about the world around you. You will explore – at first to smash boxes and find loot, but later just to see who is under that tree, what is past that ridge. Through it all, the art is striking.

As fantasy settings go, the lore of Amalur takes a bit to fully grasp. It’s probably unfair for a fan of Tolkien to say this, but the onslaught of names, places and terms makes it difficult to understand the nuance of what’s going – especially in the first few hours. Eventually, you suss out the difference between the Seelie and Unseelie Fae – also referred to as the Summer and Winter Courts – and how they are immortal, unlike the two elf races of Ljosalfar and Dokkalfar. Men and gnomes fill out the Children of Dust, as the Fae call the lesser races, and they all are under attack by a new rogue branch of the Winter Court called Tuatha. All those are terms and names are stolen from other sources, and not very far from most fantasy conventions, which is perhaps why it’s difficult to keep it all straight. The easy dialogue and well-acted characters – not to mention the excellently crafted loading screen bits of lore – allow you to ride the wave of confusion until you start appreciating the intricate connections.

R.A. Salvatore wrote 10,000 years of history for this setting, but the designers picked a dramatic moment for Reckoning. After a clever character creation sequence, the main character wakes up in a pile of corpses, left for dead. The magical experiments of the gnomes finally had a positive result – you are the first mortal to regain life through the Well of Souls. Protective of their own immortality, the Tuatha try to kill you as you search for allies among the lesser races and the immortal Fae of the Summer Court.

For how much of the lore is delivered through dialogue, it would have been nice if more energy was spent in how conversations are presented. I’d care more about what the Fae with crazy tattoos on his face said to me if the weapons strapped to my back didn’t consistently block my view of him. The same two or three facial animations get tired quickly, as do the alternating over-the-shoulder shots. Once you’ve traveled to enough locations, fast travel from the world map is essential for efficiently turning in quests, but this is where the loading times become interminable. Installing Reckoning on your console’s hard drive alleviates some of the wait, but that’s not an option for everyone.

Even if you care nothing for story or which elf did what to who, Reckoning offers several fun options for fighting monsters and taking their stuff. The trees of Might, Finesse, and Sorcery feel like standard action RPG fare, but by investing skill points in different trees, you can forge your own hybrid class as you level up. Even within the talent trees, you can build a unique character without feeling like you are forced to make choices too early. Combat is not easy – learning an enemy’s rhythm of attacks is essential for melee warfare, while magic-wielders must discover how to keep enemies at a distance. You can even gain new weapon moves, and string them together for combos, but ultimately you must learn how to effectively kill with a style that suits you. Every player will fight differently in Reckoning, and that shows how deep the combat system is.

The interaction between combat and leveling is brought down, however, by a simple user interface problem. Spells and abilities all use mana, but the user interface only has space for you to use four abilities in the thick of battle. That essentially means any points you spend purchasing more than four active abilities are wasted, which seems silly given that the strength of the system is being able to snipe abilities you like from each tree. Worse, there is a radial menu with plenty of slots available, but you can only map inventory items like potions there. Why? Were the designers just taunting me by waving this unused real estate in front of me when I needed it for all my spells?

Some abilities don’t work as advertised, which compounds the problem. My Storm Bolt spell is supposed to turn into a Tempest when I hold down the button, but no matter if I tap it or hold it down, the long casting time of Tempest is triggered. I don’t know if that’s caused by a bug or not, but I didn’t appreciate cutting down the already slim offensive options. The rest of the game was relatively bug-free, in contrast to a lot of other expansive games.

The otherwise helpful loading screens don’t tell you to only invest in four abilities, but, don’t worry, fate is on your side again. If you buy a skill you don’t like or can’t use, or you just want to completely revamp your character, you can pay a Fateweaver to erase all the points you’ve spent so far. Doing so is possible because your character has apparently been reborn outside the Fate that governs all living things in Amalur. Even the repecs are connected to the lore.

The action is supported by all of the common pursuits like crafting and treasure-finding, and Reckoning‘s waters run deep here, too. Finding new weapons or armor drives many an adventurer, and those people are rewarded handily in Amalur. You will likely sell much of what you find, but unlike many games, there are plenty of items worth buying from shops, some of which cost hundreds of thousands in gold pieces. It’s nice to have a reason to save up gold again.

Standard vocations like alchemy and blacksmithing are presented with small innovations, while a new concept like dispelling warded chests puts a refreshing spin on collecting loot, even if the minigame associated with it is damnably hard. I especially liked the Detect Hidden skill, even though it meant spending hours picking through the same rock piles and wooden logs scattered throughout the world. Amalur is so beautiful that I needed little excuse to explore it.

While there are many choices in how to succeed in playing your character, Reckoning does not give many chances to express yourself in playing a role. Because the protagonist isn’t voiced, dialogue choices are generally cosmetic and characters don’t treat you any differently if you are a jerk. A select few quests are resolved differently based on how you accomplish them, and the Persuasion skill offers some interesting options, but shaping your narrative comes more from choosing what you don’t do. Which factions you align yourself with inform your story, just as ignoring the scholar who wants you to collect 10 lascivious books means you don’t have time for frivolous tasks. That’s fine, but I wish there was more interaction with how the story unfolded than just choosing which order you completed quests.

The world of Amalur introduced by Reckoning is – to take a cue from the psuedo-Scottish accents prevalent there – frickin’ huge. You can get lost for a hundred hours or more looking in each hole and completing each side quest, but even the main story will easily gobble up a quarter of that time before you know it. Reckoning may not revolutionize the roleplaying genre, but it delivers a consistently good package that will keep you entertained throughout.

Bottom line: Reckoning surprised me with its energetic combat, rich story, and dazzling visual style. The weight of all its parts threatens to pull it down, but the rigid skeleton holds strong.

Recommendation: Don’t pass on Amalur just because it’s a new IP from a new company. Fans of RPGs with a focus on action won’t be disappointed.

[rating=4]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Genre: RPG
Developer: 38 Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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