I remember the launch night of this game like it was yesterday. It was a midnight run, and we happened to live close by the store where Curt Chilling and R.A. Salvatore would be there to sign new copies. My brothers and I headed out with eager anticipation, and got there to not only find a small line, but that we would be joined by several members of 38 Studios as well!
Then the store opened, and shortly after my brothers got their copies of the game and were in line to get them signed, I picked up my copy of Darkness II, also launching that day. You see, they were all about checking this game out, but I really didn’t see enough to draw me in when Jackie’s new and actually deserving title was coming out the same day. I had drawn my lot, and as you can tell from my review of it, I loved every second.
With some time, this game became the center of some of the saddest drama I have ever witnessed in gaming history, with the studio closing down, deep in debt and the state of Rhode Island auctioning off everything. It was not something anyone wanted to see. And EA quickly dropped the price of the game after, so I somehow doubt it did as well as they wanted on top of all of this. But due to this, someone who has cash on Origin because bioware points for Mass Effect 3 expansions can sometimes pick up something interesting cheap, and so, when this was $5, I picked it up. I finally finished playing it last night, and while it wasn’t bad, it certainly wasn’t good either.
Story: War is upon all in the lands of Amalur. No one saw it coming, but then, how could they? It is not in the nature of Fae to strike such drums, and yet they have. Against their armies, all the mortal races stand no chance. For when a Fae dies, they will only come back again reborn into the world and ready to take the charge once more. How can any mortal army survive that? The truth is, they can not, and no one is ignorant of the fact that they are only delaying the inevitable. But all that is about to change between a freak accident of epic proportions… and your death.
The game begins with you waking up literally in a pile of corpses, struggling to get out and with no memories of how you got there. Oh sure you will see your body be dumped, but that is just enough to show you whatever happened didn’t appear to work and place your character creation into the beginning narration. The important details are revealed shortly after: you died and an artifact called the Well of Souls being created here brought you back to life. You are it’s one successful result… ever… and it’s under attack. You will then escape the lab into your first town where the second big secret and the motif of the entire game is revealed. Since you died, your fate has come and gone. Unlike every other creature (mortal or Fae), you have no defined fate, and your interactions with everyone around you alter theirs.
For this reason alone, the Fae attacking everyone have a special interest in killing you, the one potential threat they face. As a result, they will soon drag you into the world-wide affair of the war with your situation pitting you in the perfect spot to literally change the course of history as you see fit. It’s a shame, however, to see this wasted on a very linear, short, and simple story. You never get a choice in what you want to do, and there really isn’t much more to the main story for almost all of the game.
Unfortunately when it does get interesting and give you any real detail, it’s at the very end of the game when one character basically explains everything to you at once in a very Deus Ex Machina fashion. You do not have time to really enjoy these details, as they are finished almost literally at the door to the final boss of the game, leaving a very rushed feel.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t interesting things going on before then. Amalur was clearly made out of a passion for MMO games, and to this end, 38 Studios did their best to create a living world, giving you 4 faction stories you can follow along side your own main one, each giving you an idea of what the world is like from the eyes of those you are assisting. These stories may well be the highlight of the game’s writing, and it would be a shame if you as a gamer skipped them all. Add to that many many many many many side quests and you have a VERY busy world on your hands.
Graphics: Amalur is shown by a 3rd person perspective and overall does not look half-bad, but it looks fairly generic for a fantasy RPG. When you run around the world, you will see all the classic settings, from rolling grassy hills to deserts to swamps, to small towns and huge castles, which actually flow into each other with the grace that only a well thought out world can, especially as you consider how few loading times this game has for it’s overworld. It all comes off clean and beautiful, but with a very “we’ve been here before” feel. Nothing really seems new, and most of this will simply fall to the background quickly because of it.
Characters for the most part are sadly the same way, and I think this is the big place where graphics have been shit on by gamers. When the game was coming out, we were told Todd McFarlane was the one doing these designs, and every gamer expected to see a world that would fit in with his other works, most notably Spawn. And it’s not like we didn’t have anything to go on, since his action figure lines included fantasy characters (that looked amazing, but very sinister) and even Spawn itself has seen a medieval version. So when we looked at the enemies in this game, and we saw very generic looking humans, elves, gnomes, and even the Fae basically being nothing more then what looked like darker skinned humans with wild hair, spirals painted on their faces, and wearing leaves made into clothing, we were all a little disappointed. As I said when reviewing Darksiders, that game looked more like his style then this one did.
Enemies fair little better, both in variety and in style. Unfortunately, the variety was a little scarce, and within my 30 or so hours playing, I met up with a handful of types which might have one or two variants, which basically meant either different equipment or a color change to represent they were made of something else (in the case of trolls). And while a few enemy types were actually really cool, most of them were just as generic as the rest of the cast. Still, the last boss is actually a treat to behold, so there is some light at the end of this generic fantasy tunnel.
Sound: Sadly, there is little I can praise in the way of music for this game, either. While the soundtrack fits the game, it’s also absolutely nothing you will remember when you finish playing. It is yet more generic orchestration that fills our ears when we play big budget games. Half the time you won’t even realize it’s there, and the other half, you will not care beyond it being an audio queue that, should you not pay attention to the video ones, will tell you enemies have decided they notice you and are coming on the attack. There is simply nothing in the music to distinguish this game from any other fantasy title you will play this year, last year, or really ever.
Sound effects are a little better off. Unlike a lot of games, different weapons have different sounds depending on both what they are hitting and the element they are focused on, so you will hear the slide of metal gliding against enemies and surfaces, booming of exploding fire, the wet slushing of a goo-ball, or even the zap of lightning as you or enemies use weapons that apply to this.
But all of this simply pales compared to the voice work that went into this game, and this we really should stop and praise. There is a lot of dialog in this game, from story-based events in the main and faction stories, to conversations occurring because of these and side quests, to the random things you can ask any named character (important or not) every conversation in this game is fully voiced. This, even today, seems like a rare thing for games without needing to cover this much cast, so to pull it off and to do so without anyone (that I head, anyway) doing a horrible job, I am in awe.
Gameplay: Amalur is a 3rd person action RPG title which seems to want to be an MMO, and considering the main force behind it basically was known for his interest in games like Everquest along with his pitching, this should surprise no one. For most of the game, you will run around the overworld, using your mouse and WASD keys to move around like you would in any first person shooter, though you will find sidestepping, the camera lags to recenter on you which seems to be done to get an effect of it following instead of glued to your character.
In addition, this camera shows some smart design when in combat. It will detach itself and while you can still control it’s direction, it does it’s best to back up and show the entire battle going on. The result is the game suddenly becomes a lot more cinematic looking, and the view surprisingly more useful as it seems to know how to adapt to show you a better idea of what’s going on around your character. It’s not perfect, and you will still have enemies fly in from the corner of the screen from time to time, but most of the time, you will find this adjustment a welcome change to your view as you get a better command of the battlefield you are suddenly in.
And that combat shows off a few other interesting twists that while clearly MMO inspired, adapted the style surprisingly well to an action RPG. Your mouse will do all the actual fighting as you click to use a normal attack, right click to use your currently selected power, and roll the mouse wheel to switch between your primary and secondary weapons. But at the same time, your hand on the keyboard will always be ready to hit the TAB or the number keys. The TAB key will pause the game and give you a wheel of up to 8 items in your inventory that you placed on it, and allow you to click to use it without stopping the game too long, but the really new idea is on the numbers.
When playing an MMO, the number keys are generally for selected powers you can use by pressing them. In Amalur, they are for selecting one of the powers that you have gained while playing the game and placing it on the right mouse button. As a result, it is surprisingly easy to, for example summon a skeleton and while it’s happening select a lighting spell and literally start firing the instant your character is done with his last spell, or decide to move your ass instead to avoid that incoming hit (run or dodge, your call). It is a surprisingly quick system and fits the action motif of the title very well.
But as with any RPG, combat is only a part of the picture, and sadly, it is really the shining gem of this game. Going with it are some rather dull side missions that scream of MMO fetch quests and a lot of running around. Amalur’s world is HUGE and many quests (especially the side ones) will send you to the ends of the earth and back. The problem here is that the best you can do to traverse the area is run… across the same places… repeatedly… for sometimes several minutes on end without any interruption because the monsters on the way are already dead by your hand. This is a serious design flaw as it’s easy to get bored waiting to get to the next objective you are currently working on. This game really needed some form of either fast travel or a steed to let you get where you were going faster.
But with all this action and non action, a descent RPG also needs a good leveling system, and I have give Amalur credit, it did a descent job here. You will gain XP from killing enemies and completing quests as you would expect, but in addition, you have a bar of “fate” in your on screen stats that when full, will let you unleash devastating damage to everyone on the field while the whole game goes in slow motion. So long as you actually finish someone you take down (by hitting F close to them) before the fate bar is empty, you will perform a finishing move, killing everyone you brought to their knees and potentially gaining up to double the XP for the whole lot. Knowing when to use this and when to save it can make fights with bosses a lot easier and/or earn you much faster leveling.
When you do level, you go through 3 steps to do so. First, you will be given a skill point which you can place in one of a set of social skills, be it anything from persuasion, to black smithing, to picking locks. Certain points in the graph will cause the skill you choose to grant very tangible bonuses (such as being able to see hidden doors on your map or extra chances to dispel cursed treasure before it explodes in your face and makes you have to go spend a lot of cash to uncurse yourself), adding a little bit of variety to what you can choose to do.
Next you will be given a set of 3 skill trees (magic, strength, and finesse) and 3 points you can add to them. Each level of each tree unlocks when you have put X points on it, and in addition there are several abilities that actually have upgrades as you unlock your upwards progress. This is the place where you will gain the abilities that the number keys will let you select between quickly in combat, as well several passive ones. Most of these can be upgraded, usually with 5-6 levels in each. In addition, a lot of your armor and weapons will require you put X points in one or more of these trees to use in addition to a level minimum, so how you balance these heavily effects how you will equip yourself in the game. If you think you made a mistake, you can easily respec yourself, but like the curses mentioned above, this can be a very expensive proposition.
And finally, based on these trees, you will get a final screen with what “destinies” are available to you. Destinies are titles that will grant you benefits. You can switch your current destiny with any other you have unlocked and they are organized into several 5-level trees, each building up level by level. The trees themselves are organized based on what they use as their requirements. There is one for each of your skill trees as well as one for each combination you could focus on… including building all 3 at once. Your choices are yours to make, and the game will let you make them.
Bugs: This game is very well put together, and I really only saw two bugs in the entire thing. One happened a few times, but was nothing more then an annoyance, while the other could have serious repercussions to someone who wants to play using only the game’s auto-save:
- Camera, Get Out of the Dirt: This issue happened several times while fighting enemies on more uneven areas, especially paths suspended in the air or near cliffs, but the camera would basically drop to ground level, often putting the empty unrendered space below the map into clear view and taking up screen space. It never hindered combat, and as soon as the game realized the fight was over, the camera would return to it’s proper place behind my character, but, it was jarring and took me out of the game while it occurred.
- Stuck on the Corpse: This bug has a lot more potential to ruin some days. It only happened once, but while fighting a bunch of enemies, I somehow ended the fight on top of an enemy body… standing on top of it, and with no path by the game to get back down and continue on the map. I was literally stuck. I attempted to save and reload, but the saved game kept me in that same spot. For me the answer was to reload the previous save game and fight the battle again, but should the game decide that was the time to autosave (since it only uses one file) anyone not saving on their own would have just had a game ending bug.
Overall: Walking away from this game, I can not say I didn’t overall enjoy myself. Sure the game requires you to run way too far with nothing happening to get some missions going and yes the side missions are for the most part not worth your time. And hell, this game is exceptionally short for an RPG with a core story that is way too simple until suddenly at the end with all the timing of that “I need this done by tomorrow” report showing up at your desk 5 minutes before the end of your work day, but the game somehow holds up to be a descent time despite all this. When this game came out it was simply not worth the asking price of a new game. But considering you can get the game for $20 now, it may well be worth it, provided you are in need of an action RPG.