Efficiently packaged, low cost, and high calorie. Amalur is the fast food joint of fantasy RPGs.

1100 calories, 1300 mg of sodium, 80g of fat...
1100 calories, 1300 mg of sodium, 80g of fat...

Have you ever experienced a sort of weird, short-lived obsession with a cheap burger joint? You know, similar to how Dan Ryckert is so infatuated with Taco Bell, except instead of it being some sort of permanent way of life, it's a brief two-week stint of you being sort of taken by how this latest fast food place, that for some reason you'd never tried up until now, wasn't all that bad. You go in and for five bucks you're getting a decent bundle of food. It's not until your third or fourth time going that it dawns on you, it's really not that great. The novelty has worn off, and maybe you only dug it so much at first because you were really craving a half-decent sandwich that day and it just so happened to do the trick.

That's sort of like my time Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Last week I found myself kind of bummed out, having just finished up Lords of the Fallen, and thinking to myself "You know, I'd love a nice, simple, fantasy RPG experience that doesn't get on my nerves right about now." A quick browse through my Steam library reveals having picked up Amalur several months ago, which I vaguely recall being on sale at the time for practically pennies. I install it right away, and before I know it, I'm six hours in, mindlessly trudging along through a well-worn, very familiar, high fantasy universe of good vs. evil.

And this is Amalur's greatest, or perhaps most devious, attribute. It's a great example of video game comfort food. Every medium has these things, and everyone has their weaknesses. For some people, a schlocky romance book is a great escape. Or maybe you're into queuing up endless hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix and vegging out for an entire Saturday. Kingdoms of Amalur falls perfectly into the category of media that isn't rocking the boat. It's easy to pick up, doesn't ask much of you, is colorful and lighthearted looking, and pleasant enough to waste hours and hours in without realizing it. But by a certain point for me, Amalur's spell broke, and I realized just how much time I was wasting that I could've used on much better games.

  • Kingdoms of Amalur has a great opening bit, but the story gets stuck in a ditch for almost the entire game.
You're literally a science experiment.
You're literally a science experiment.

It's to Amalur's credit that the opening of the game is so effective at setting up the world, where you are now, and where you're going to be heading right from the get-go, or else it might not be so effective at masking what is, underneath, an aggressively generic experience. Let's see if I can sum it up:

The world of Amalur is made up of two very distinct groups of beings: the "young races" and the Fae, which are less like traditional humanoid creatures and are more a manifestation of magic given a humanoid form. They are immortal, more or less, while the young races aren't. A rogue faction of the Fae, called the Tuatha and led by some evil red dude named Gadflow, disrupted the balance of power in their bid to rid Amalur of the mortal races, kicking off a conflict known as the Crystal War that has been raging for roughly a decade, and the young races are slowly losing.

In an effort to turn the tide of the war, the gnomes (which look suspiciously like cliche World of Warcraft-esque dwarves) began a massive Manhattan Project-like experiment to replicate the Tuatha's trump card in the war: their immortality. Called the "Well of Souls" and led by a gnome named Professor Hugues, it attempts to capture the manifestation of people's souls as they die, and reinserting them into their bodies, bringing them back to life. Never has this succeeded, until you.

The Tuatha immediately catch wind of this, seeking to eliminate this existential threat, and the tutorial of you escaping the collapsing Well of Souls ensues. It's an excellent tutorial, as well, making you experiment with every variety of combat style, and the miscellaneous mechanics. After escaping the Well, you're told to head to the nearest town, and you run into a Fateweaver. See, "fate" in this game is a literal thing, everyone's destiny is immutable, and only people sensitive to the force fate can perceive it. So when this Fateweaver realizes he cannot read your fate, its as if you don't exist - like a vampire or something that can't see your own reflection in a mirror. You're an abomination with the power to directly alter fate's weaves. In a way it's reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic 2, with the main character of that game being basically a mini black hole in the Force. With this power, you could conceivably put an end to the war.

  • Amalur is a perfect example of the important distinction between "lore" and "story."
Spoiler: He has no answers.
Spoiler: He has no answers.

If the above sounds compelling at all to you, you wouldn't be wrong to feel that way. It's actually told really well in the opening cinematic, effectively setting up the universe of Amalur, all of the important players, and why they're doing what they're doing. Where Amalur fails utterly is keeping a consistent pace of interesting events in the story throughout the rest of the main questline. After the revelation of what you are, which is really only in the first hour or so of the game, Amalur stalls in second-gear for hours upon hours, with absolutely no surprises. It's just a lot of going from Point A to Point B, with the initial goal of "dude, we need to figure out what the hell is going on" shifting to "Let's go kill the bad guy!"

This is kind of heartbreaking in a way, because there is so much lore that drenches the game everywhere you look. NPCs are practically walking encyclopedias (which reminds me of Morrowind, in a way) and are happy to give details on every aspect of their surroundings. If you're the type of person that gets off on these minute details, Amalur is right up your alley. You'll find little villages out of the way with their own unique regional problems, such as hordes of spiders, or a plague, and most people involved will give you the whole history of the town, if you ask.

But this is what is, to borrow a meteorological analogy, the difference between climate and weather. In very simple terms, climate is the broader history of the behavior of the atmosphere in a longer time frame, while weather is the short term, day-to-day. The lore of Amalur is lengthy and comprehensive, but the actual moment to moment plot details, and the actions it has you do, are incredibly dull. It's a prime example of a game that can both set up a universe with great lore and history, but actually tell a terrible story.

In fairness to Amalur, there are various faction missions that aren't so bad. When the writing of Amalur hits, it hits a cut above the average game's quality of writing, and it's worth checking out some of the faction stories, but all of the other side missions are boring busywork, usually on the level of "I lost my ring in this cave, can you get it for me?" or "There's a bounty on this bandit." The level of importance to the side missions is also really poorly differentiated, which I noticed in one of the early towns. By completing a side missions there, I was given my own house as a reward. You would think they'd want to make a quest with that kind of important reward stand out from the others.

  • From that last paragraph, I can already hear someone saying "Well Skyrim does the same boring thing though."
Skyrim is more of a goofy RPG playhouse than anything else.
Skyrim is more of a goofy RPG playhouse than anything else.

It's unfortunate Skyrim and Amalur came out so close to one another, because they really shouldn't be compared as much as they were at the time. Bethesda's games are such a fundamentally different style of RPG that they almost exist within a sub-genre unto themselves.

Unlike Amalur, which is a conventional RPG more focused on linearly telling you a story along a certain path, Elder Scrolls games are like hyper-interactive dollhouses for you to play around within. Sure, there are stories preset within them, but there's a reason Skyrim (and Fallout) has such an obsessive modding scene and an entire DLC package dedicated to you Playing House. It's a sandbox first, a focused experience second. In a way, it's an older kind of roleplaying experience, where you are literally, yourself, as the player, playing a role you create in your damn head.

Even though, yes, Skyrim also suffers from similar problems of "go to these caverns and kill these bandits" the world itself is so much more immersive and interesting to be a part of, and feels more alive, than Amalur. Characters in Amalur have very little standout personality, and the amount of interactivity you have with any part of the world is minimal, and even that is generous. Where I would carefully sneak through a cave as a stealthy archer in Skyrim, I would sprint through a cave in Amalur wrecking anything that tries to stop me in just a few seconds, because there's absolutely no incentive to take things slow, think things through, or just generally ever care about what you're doing. Like I said at the beginning - it's fast food. You get in and get out.

  • The combat feels satisfying under ideal conditions, but the game's balance can be broken almost by accident.

Kingdoms of Amalur features a combat system more akin to God of War than most RPGs, which is usually a great deal of fun. It's a fast paced system with a move list, two weapons you can swap between on the fly, blocking, parrying, and a dodge roll that feels pretty good. It's by no means the deepest combat system you're going to find, but it's fast and fluid, and most importantly, the weapons feel good. If you're not going to go for depth or complexity, you better at least make the fighting have a sense of satisfaction.

The camera in this game is going to be right up your ass most of the time.
The camera in this game is going to be right up your ass most of the time.

There's variety, too. Amalur prides itself in you being able to completely respec at a moments notice, for a nominal fee at any Fateweaver throughout the world, allowing you to, at the drop of a hat, completely switch from being a full-on mage, to switching into the Finesse tree and trying out dual-wielding daggers and a bow, or just throwing on heavy armor and being a tank. In fact, there exists incentives in the game to drop points into all three trees at once and embrace being a Jack of All Trades.

One of the most annoying things about the combat, though, and just traveling around the world in general, is the fucking terrible camera this game has. It is aggressively zoomed in behind you, and there is no game-supported method of fixing this at all. Immediately after finishing the tutorial I investigated possibly modding the game to zoom out more, but this seemed to carry the risk of the game randomly crashing all the time, so I just did my best to adjust to the fact that I had very little peripheral vision whatsoever. I can definitely see this being a deal breaker for some people, because it wasn't easy to get used to. It's such a baffling decision to me, because there's no way to play this game for any length of time and not have enemies just lunge at you from completely out of your view, all because you can't just zoom out a little bit. It's like playing a game with a main character who has impaired vision, or something. Amalur refuses to let you have a good view of the action at any time.

The balance of the game is also easily thrown off by doing almost any of the side content, too. If you spend even just a few hours on the side doing some faction missions or helping out a town with their local problems, you're going to find yourself totally outpacing any of the enemies in the area, turning the combat encounters into more of a time wasting nuisance than anything satisfying, so I highly recommend picking a faction or two, only doing what they have to offer, and nothing else. If you're really feeling like nullifying any challenge this game could pose, throw on a few regeneration and physical damage resistance gems into your armor. You're not going to have to heal again until maybe the final bosses.

  • A very big, and very empty, open world.
Only around half of the world is really used all that well, but it could be worse.
Only around half of the world is really used all that well, but it could be worse.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: [Insert game here] feels a little bit like a single player MMO.

Honestly, it's kind of an easy line people break out these days and it isn't always fair, but in Kingdoms of Amalur, it genuinely feels a lot of the time like you're the lone person poking around in the private server for a long-dead MMO. The design of the world, from the way almost all of the areas narrow out as they approach the point where they intersect with another zone like a loading screen should be there, or the way the main story sort of pushes you through all the areas of the world so you get caught up in the side missions along the way. The way that buildings are wildly oversized and yellow exclamation marks are all over the place. It feels so much like how MMO level design works.

I don't really think the "like a single player MMO" description is inherently negative, because there are many games I like which have been the target of that accusation, but Amalur feels like an MMO in all the wrong ways. The world feels quiet and empty. Beelining from one place to another is done in almost complete silence, and the art style, which is very WoW-like, almost cheapens the way the world looks. With the right screenshot this game could pass as one of those crappy browser games in obnoxious webpage ads. Those cartoony night elf girls with gold text above them saying it's the hottest new game around? You know the one.

It doesn't help that the protagonist is such a nobody. The main character displays no emotion, has no real agency, and has no voice. You can pick dialogue options, sure, but otherwise you're just following the orders of NPCs with marks over their head, telling you bluntly to go from one place to the next. It contributes to the overall feeling of complete lifelessness, in a universe that should be brimming with cool places to go and things to see, given the exhaustive setting up in the beginning. I almost feel a little defensive, because the "single player RPG with MMO inspirations" can be, and has been, a lot better than this.

  • At the end of the day, Kingdoms of Amalur can't be considered bad. Just not very good.

See this? That's a plain old, boring ass McDonalds cheeseburger. It's not pretty looking, it's not even all that great, and it's definitely not very nutritious, but it's cheap, and sometimes you just want a damn burger. That's a lot like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Amalur isn't especially memorable, the story isn't very well told, it looks pretty plain, but if you've played most of the Western fantasy RPGs out there on the market, and you're hankering for a fantasy fix, Amalur is going to hit the spot, at least for a little while.

Just about every town in the game may as well look like this.
Just about every town in the game may as well look like this.

That's sort of the thing about Amalur; none of it is actually bad. Everything about Amalur is varying levels of competent to decent, if a little uninspired, but you can't criticize much of it for being terrible or frustrating. It's an RPG that ticks all the boxes and does all of it just competently enough that it could be satisfying to you if you just happened to be in the right mood for a very basic high-fantasy experience. At no point does the game linger on any one thing for very long, making sure that it's easy to quickly bop from one quest to another and not challenge you or put you off in any way. It's as if this game was grown in a lab to be as inoffensive and plain as possible. It's the very definition of "okay."

Personally speaking though, it's hard to not be a little disappointed after the game busts out of the gate so strongly, and with such a compelling, if not very original, set-up. After trudging along doing uneventful thing after uneventful thing for the vast majority of the game, literally right before entering the final fight of the game Alyn Shir, the female character that has been following along with your journey from the outset, pulls you aside to dump a bunch of plot on you. See, in your previous life, you were a pretty resourceful individual who had discovered the secrets of Gadflow's power, and set out to stop it, with the help of her, your partner. In so doing, you died, but the evil God behind it all imbued you with the power that allowed you to come back to life, knowing you would come back to set her free without all your previous memories. The aforementioned female character took it upon herself to guide you back to this point, but at no point decided to ever let you in on what was actually going on. So instead of peppering these plot revelations throughout the story as the game progressed, it's just a whole lot of nothing until an exposition blowout at the very end.

Earlier I referenced Skyrim as being more than just the sum of its parts. There's great synergy between all the various different elements that make up Skyrim to be a very specific kind of game. Amalur, in contrast, is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get. It's a collection of different elements that are all kind of mashed together under no clear vision, but none of them are bad on their own, so its hard to get too upset about it. If you ever find yourself wanting to play an fantasy RPG, but not wanting to actually think about it very much, then Amalur has your back.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3 / 5