Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Preview - Castle Crashing
Written Wednesday, December 14, 2011 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
There's something reassuringly old-school about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. From the unrepentantly geeky fantasy name, to the classic mission structure and the antiquated boss battles, little about Big Huge Games' fantasy RPG pushes boundaries. But thanks to the quality of the combat and the solidity of the stuff that surrounds it, Reckoning is pleasing enough. It's like a beaten up pair of old, comfy slippers.
The last time we got to spend time with the game, we made our way through the first couple of hours of the adventure. Starting with the protagonist's miraculous rebirth and the subsequent realisation that he may just be the saviour of Amalur, it gave a decent overview of what we should expect. This time, however, we got to jump in a little further into the story, levelled up and armed to the nines.
The demo began with us looking down from the walls of a castle at a large-scale Lord of the Rings-esque battle; all battle cries and clanking swords. However, a closer look revealed that the little character models in this battle were barely animated and lost in murky ill-definition. Whether that was a mark of a game still in development or an indication of the final game's quality, I'm not sure. But whatever, it's enough to communicate the point - war is happening!
Speaking to General Tilera - a tall female Elven warrior – we were bought up to speed. Malwyn, king of the witches and all-round bad dude, is set to release a beast called the Balor. If he manages to do that then the battle is effectively lost, so we must stop him before he gets the chance. Each going in our own directions, General Tilera and I set off through the castle to hunt down our prey.
Passing through battlements as ally soldiers fired arrows down at the chaos below, I had the chance to warm up the old combat muscles again. Boosted to Level 10, I was armed with Salamander's Tail Fae Blades as my primary weapon. Loaded with additional fire damage bonuses, they were swirly-whooshy blades of awesome. With these badboys you pirouette and acrobatically swish around, slicing and igniting foes as you go.
I've already written at length about the secondary weapon with which I was equipped. In our last Amalur preview I called them them the Flaming Frisbees of Death, but they're actually called Chakrams, a class of medium range weapon that you can fling out in broad swooping arcs in front of and behind you. The type I tried before were obviously imbued with fire powers, but in this latest demo they were called Stormschythes and they crackled with lightning power. My character chucked them around with style - like a big, burly rhythm gymnast.
Put these two weapons together and combat is an absolute blast. There's nothing new about it, you merely chain together hits, occasionally combining moves with certain button patterns to achieve more damaging attacks - the same as the few million brawlers before it, basically. But it just feels so good.
It's in this way that I guided my character through the castle in search of Malwyn, while engaging bog-standard Tuatha soldiers and the more powerful, cyclone and fireball-flinging Tuatha Priests on the way. Each died in a flurry of fizzing frisbees and flaming blades, the camera taking advantage of the tight, linear level design to zoom in and out dynamically as I went. It's hard to overstate just how enjoyable all of this is, even when you're just button-mashing.
Occasionally the environment would pull that rusty old trick of locking you in a room with enemies, forcing you to beat them before you could progress. Often chests of loot would be scattered around the place. These are either locked - necessitating a Fallout/Skyrim style lock picking mechanic - or guarded by magic, circumvented by a rhythmic mini-game. Neither is particularly taxing, both offer up gold coins and items galore.
Continuing through the castle, I also encountered rooms with Indiana Jones-esque traps; giant swinging axes and blades that slipped through the walls. These were made somewhat easier to avoid by my character's levelled-up evasion techniques. Where you start the game with the ability to execute nimble, diving rolls, by the time you reach level 10, if you've invested in the right perks, you'll be able to teleport short distances, zipping a few metres forward in the blink of an eye. It made avoiding the traps a breeze.
By the time I made it out onto the ramparts ready to face Malwyn, General Tilera had beaten me to it. I arrived just in time to see her take a vicious blow from the witch king, sending her crumpling to the floor. 'I'll have you - you bastard,' I thought. But before I had the chance to act, Malwyn did what had been feared all along.
By now, it was getting dark outside, the battle still raging beneath us. Malwyn took a horn from his robes and blew on it, making a hilarious comedy parping noise. In the background, what had looked like a silhouetted mountain stirred and rose. Swinging into view, mounted by an ugly little dude perched like a flea on the back of its head, the monster roared. The Balor was unleashed.
For now, however, it seemed that the giant, hulking, fan-foreheaded beast wasn't interested in us. Instead he unleashed his wrath on the ally soldiers battling it out beneath us. It was time to take out Malwyn.
I must have died at least three times before I worked out how to beat him. Not because it was difficult, but because I am a giant idiot. Time after time I would wade into him, a blur of chain attacks and noisy effort, but his energy bar didn't budge. Meanwhile, all it took was two or three solid swipes from Malwyn and I was toast.
The problem was my choice of attack. Rather than weaken him, my fire-equipped Fae blades were actually healing him. So while the electricity Chackrams may have been knocking his health a little, every blow with the Fae blades was topping it straight back up again. If I had stopped blindly button mashing and actually taken notice of the screen I would have known what was going on. If the numbers springing from your enemies are yellow, they are doing damage. If they are red, then your enemy is resistant to the attack.
Once I had got that into my thick skull, Malwyn became an easy target. Taking advantage of his weakness to lightning, I concentrated on pouring my magic into him. There are four different magic types with which you can use, all of which are enabled holding down a trigger. This turns the face buttons into your magic options. My character's lightning attacks had been significantly boosted, so the giant balls of electricity I hurled Malwyn's way did considerable damage.
Every now and again, the witch king would call on the Balor to help him out. The beast would bend down over us and fire giant beams of light from his eyes. General Tilera was back on her feet by this point and would cast a protective shield around her, a shield that you would have to dive into to avoid getting hit. The Balor attacked like this a couple of times before I was able to down Malwyn once and for all.
It's safe to say that the Balor didn't enjoy his master being killed. Hardly a happy chappy before, he was now enraged. Following a plot point I'm probably best not mentioning, I disappeared back into the bowels of the castle, the Balor's roars shaking the very foundations.
When I finally had to face the beast, he proved to be a little less challenging than his hulking frame and fearsome roar would suggest. This is boss design according to time-tested tradition, merely a matter of learning the pattern of the attacks before finishing the Balor off once for all. Indicative of the rest of the game, the way this climactic battle pans out is hardly groundbreaking, but it was quite fun. Don't come to Amalur looking for startling innovation.
With blood pissing out of his eyes, the Balor fell to the ground, crushing stray soldiers in the battle beneath. An enemy Captain shouted, "Battle's lost. Run fools!" - and it was over, we were victorious.
There's something a little odd about Kindoms of Amalur: Reckoning. With ex-Elder Scrolls lead Ken Rolsten taking an executive designer role, best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore advising on the story and famed graphic artist Todd McFarlane consulting on the visuals, you would be forgiven for expecting a few more fireworks. But the truth is that none of these aspects of the game truly shine. They are good, solid, dependable, but not sparkling.
Instead, based on what we've seen so far, the real highlight comes from less-celebrated members of the development team. It's the combat that sets this game apart. With a kind of devastating fluidity, hacking up bad (and occasionally) good dudes is where the real fun is to be had. Everything else is merely comfortably familiar, adding nicely crafted context to the button mashing. After pumping endless hours into Skyrim, Reckoning may well offer the perfect alternative.