An Entertaining Romp Through Well Trod Territories.
One of the things about reviewing, be it games, films, books, music, is that all too often the subject matter in hand is interesting in inception but poorly carried through. You sit there and think that the writer, the director, the animators, sound guys, whoever, somehow misjudged either work itself, or more often their ability to bring the product to life. In the end what is produced tends to be a mishmash of poorly put together elements whose only real appeal lies in the strength of the original concept. Unfortunately that sort of game, film, book etc... tend to wear out its welcome astonishingly quickly. The flaws in production leave you frustrated that such a good idea was wasted. That hasn't happened with Kingdoms of Amalur, this game is as lively and fun to play as most things on market right now. It's only real drawback is its breathtaking lack of originality.
A third person action RPG, Kingdoms owes a great deal to the Elder Scrolls, Fable and, in one way or another, just about every popular role playing game of recent memory. You could almost play it as a drinking game, taking a shot any time you notice an element which has been lifted from somewhere else. Of course you'd be dead from alcohol poisoning within the first three hours. However if you actually play the game for the game itself you're in for a very pleasant surprise. Kingdoms is a buttery smooth action experience, with beautiful graphics and a quite magnificent fighting engine. In fact almost every element of the physical game play, be it the hack and slash, the stealth or the magic, is well thought out and a bundle of fun. I've had many happy hours learning the systems to various combinations within the traditional Fighter/Thief/Wizard triumvirate and they've all had something to recommend them. Added to this the exploration is excellently done, yes you might complain that dungeon lay outs are bland with few unique moments and you'd be right, but the joy you get from fighting through the hordes of darkness more than makes up for it. Also there is an excellent and easy to use crafting system. It could be considered a game breaker as you can end up with weapons which allow you to one hit kill just about any non-boss in the game, still you have to invest your time and skill points in order to do that so it is a fairly decent trade off. Not to mention that this game is not meant to be a challenge, it is simply fun. If you're looking for any feeling of accomplishment go play something else. One of the things which adds to that fun is the fact that the game looks fantastic; in an era in which ever more bleak and depressing visual styles have become the norm it's refreshing to see a game which revels in splashing great swathes of primary colours all across the screen and to use them to beautiful effect. The last RPG I can remember which was this overtly joyous in its pallet was Dragon Quest VIII.
As it happens Kingdoms is probably as like DQVIII as any console RPG to have come out in the intervening years [ahem all right I didn't actually know about Ni No Kuni when I wrote this sentence, that game, as good as it is, sometimes feels like a direct clone of its older sibling] , it has a huge world to explore, but you open up new areas as you advance the plot. Unlike that game Kingdoms has an ridiculously handy quick transport system built in from the start of the game. Once you've discovered a new area, town or dungeon you only need click on it on the map to be back there. Also, as with DQVIII and many other RPGs, the main character is depressingly mute, oh, you have dialogue options but you never get to hear them spoken. It's an outmoded game style and I'd hoped that it was one which had been phased out of AAA titles. Unlike DQVIII, or for that matter Skyrim, Mass Effect or to a certain extent Fable, the dialogue, the over arching plot and the characters are simply not that interesting. They are, by far, the most pedestrian part of this game. For all that Kingdoms was trumpeted as the first game by a big name fantasy writer, this material is generic and utterly devoid of anything resembling tension or surprise. If it weren't for the fact that almost everything in the game is fun to do, you wouldn't bother spending any time doing it. It is a shame because had this element of the Kingdoms been even slightly above par this new franchise would be a phenomenal success. As it is there is a very good chance that once you embark on your quest you will plough dozens of hours into Kingdoms, as I said it is a hugely enjoyable experience. It fails to lift itself any further and become a game that will live in our minds after we play it but for a pop-corn, brain off, game playing extravaganza you really can't complain. It gives you almost every good element of every other RPG out there, it presents them beautifully and with a lot of style. Just don't expect to feel anything afterwards.