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Monday, February 3, 2014

Kingdoms of Amalur: Why Must You Suck?













Open-world RPGs have been dominated the past decade by the likes of Bethesda, a developer whose games I regard with utter contempt. When smaller studios try to compete with Bethesda, their ambition usually outstretches their own abilities or resources, and they wind up with a janky mess of a game that falls way short of its potential (I'm looking at you, Gothic 3). With Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I hoped that it might be the game that would finally offer some contention for Bethesda's stranglehold of the genre.

In an industry that relies so heavily on sequels and established franchises, it's always nice to see a fresh new product from a fresh new company, so I really wanted KoA:R to succeed just for that reason alone. On paper, KoA:R has all the requisite parts to be a good game and shares many similarities to some of my all-time favorite games, but what made it seem all the more promising was the blend of headlining talent working on the game combined with its enormous budget. It was to be a big game from big names, and there was an awful lot of hype surrounding its pre-release anticipation. 

I really wanted to like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but the game itself is a sad, mediocre disappoint punctuated by the developer, 38 Studios, going out of business shortly after its release and company owners (and Rhode Island taxpayers) losing tens of millions of dollars on the financial flop. My experience with the demo almost exactly two years ago made it seem like a good game that just wasn't worth the full $60 asking price, but even after numerous price drops and sales putting it in a more comfortable budget range, I feel like KoA:R just isn't worth anyone's time.

Kingdoms of Amalur, you see, falls victim to the same problem as virtually every other would-be Elder Scrolls competitor -- in its attempt to rival the sheer sense of scale in a TES game, KoA:R only succeeded in stretching itself out way too thin. The TES games themselves fall victim to this, but it's almost worse in KoA:R because of its own misguided vision and lack of overall cohesion. There's an awful lot of content to experience in this game, well over 100 hours if you're a completionist, but after the first dozen or so hours very little of that content is actually worth exploring because of how shallow and repetitive everything truly is.

My character staring on dead-eyed and expressionless in conversation.

There are over 200 quests to complete, for instance, but the overwhelming majority of them are simple item fetching and monster killing, given to you by random, instantly forgettable characters that serve no other purpose but to give you one quest and promptly become useless wastes of space. The tasks themselves are boring as hell and there's never any reason to care about the actual quest givers. Even main characters lack any form of distinguishing personality, but the side-quest givers are especially shallow, one-dimensional one-offs you'll never see again, anyway, which makes their simple tasks that much more trivial.

This is not an RPG like Fallout, Planescape, Gothic, The Witcher, Arcanum, or Vampire Bloodlines where player choice is emphasized and reflected heavily in its quests. None of the quests overlap or conflict with one another requiring you to make tough decisions about whom to support. None of the quests require you to think or use any sort of problem-solving to reach the solution; you just shut your brain off, follow the waypoint, and kill or click on whatever has the quest arrow over it. Very few quests give you any sort of meaningful options for role-playing or alternate solutions. This is as straightforward as you'd expect for a typical action-RPG. 

Faction quests are a little better in the sense that they actually tell an over-arching story with some sort of central conflict, along with recurring characters, which helps flesh out some of the game's lore in the process. But the actual objectives prove just as shallow and boring, so the gameplay doesn't improve very much with these quests, either.

The explorable space of the world map (click to enlarge).

There are over 150 locations to discover on the world map, a large portion of those being self-contained caves, fortresses, and dungeons, but they all share the same basic structure and gameplay. You progress through a completely linear series of rooms and hallways killing enemies and looting chests before reaching the end, then spend two minutes backtracking to the entrance. I found this structure tedious in Skyrim, but at least Bethesda were gracious enough to give you an easy exit out the backdoor instead of making you backtrack through long, boring, empty hallways after every single dungeon. After a little while you discover a new location but realize you're not going to encounter anything new or interesting inside, and that the dungeons are just another opportunity to fight stuff and collect loot.

Collecting loot would be worth it if not for the fact that 95% of loot only exists to serve as vendor trash. Early on you have the potential to find cool new gear with better stats or better random effects, but it's incredibly rare that you'll ever find anything better than the gear you received from quests or that you crafted on your own (even then, quest rewards tend to fall way behind your own crafted items). With the game's arbitrary restrictions on inventory space, this means you spend the bulk of the game fast-traveling back and forth between shops and your last location just to sell all of your worthless items for worthless gold that you'll never spend in shops because all of your quest items and crafted gear is better than the shop items, too.

Throughout the entire game, the only things I bought from merchants were lockpicks and repair kits. Early on I bought a few health potions not realizing how completely unnecessary they would become -- I ended the game with hundreds of restorative, defensive, and offensive potions cluttering my inventory for which I had literally no use because of the game's easy difficulty. I bought an amulet once that gave a +1 bonus to sorcery abilities, an effect I hadn't seen on any other pieces of equipment, and I bought one or two dirt cheap greatswords just so I could break them down and use components to craft my own sword, because I didn't want to wait for random enemy drops. I had zero points in the mercantile skill and still ended up with over two million gold, having nothing worthwhile on which to spend it.

Big, open space without much interesting structure.

Exploring the overworld map proves dull and boring, too. The explorable space is technically pretty large, but the entire world is divided into a series of enclosed, open areas connected by long, winding valleys, giving the feeling of simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia. You're constantly surrounded by borders, but the areas within those borders are often vast, barren wastelands with nothing but random mobs and treasure chests strewn about. Even the confines of major cities are massively spread-out, so the effect of exploration is to make you spend a majority of your time just running across its landscape getting from point A to point B with nothing to see or do except fight random enemies, which feel entirely obligatory.

Even just wandering around the game's overworld and repetitive dungeons would be bearable if not for the almost complete lack of music. The visual design is somewhat cartoonish, full of brilliant colors and fantastical, evocative scenery that you don't see in other games, so it's pretty to look at and has a lot of personality, but a game such as this relies on its music to establish its whimsical atmosphere and to help with your immersion. The music itself isn't outstanding, but it does the job sufficiently, except that each track in any area seems to play for only a minute or two before fading out, leaving you to wander around in complete silence, making the long treks running across the map especially boring and uneventful. It got to a point where I started watching TV on the side just to keep myself occupied.

What makes the feeling of shallow repetitiveness stand out is that KoA:R is essentially an MMORPG masquerading as a single-player RPG, without any of the benefits of the "MMO." The way the world is designed feels like it's meant to accommodate dozens of players running around the same spaces at the same time, in terms of how large and spread out everything is and the way clusters of mobs are spread around the map. The quests are all dumb waypoint-following "item fetching" and "monster killing" tasks that all too prominently feature in MMOs, and the quest-givers all stand around with giant yellow exclamation points above their heads. Towns exist basically to serve as quest hubs as you follow the hub-to-hub sequence of exploration across the map while grinding to higher level areas.

Random scenery sure looks pretty.

Kingdoms of Amalur feels a lot like Guild Wars to me, except with a more robust combat system. The feeling of exploring the world map feels just the same as being in an instanced zone of GW, trying to get to the next mission hub, and the NPCs exhibit the same lifelessness as any MMO NPC whose job it is to sit around all day delivering the same bits of dialogue and quest rewards to hundreds of players over and over again. Every MMO I've ever played ultimately felt lifeless; it was the other players that brought the world to life. In KoA:R it's just you and its population of soulless mannequins. We might argue that at least KoA:R has a main storyline with fully voiced dialogue and cutscenes -- Guild Wars does that just as well, but playing through the campaign alone is not exactly fun in GW, and it's not much better here.

In much the same fashion as MMOs, KoA:R even seems to require level grinding to reach new thresholds. Playing as a mage, for instance, there are only 10 magic spells in the game to unlock, so in order to balance the pacing at which you earn skill points and unlock new skills so that it all lasts throughout the entire game, acquiring those 10 spells gets spread out over the course of 40-50 hours. The result was for me to spend an awful lot of time having essentially the exact same fight spamming the same two or three offensive spells over and over again for dozens of hours until I unlocked another active skill to mix things up.

Yet while KoA:R seems to necessitate grinding to unlock the best parts of its skill trees, the sad fact is that being a thorough completionist -- completing all quests and exploring everywhere to maximize experience points, or simply to experience all of the game's content -- just goes to break the game's difficulty balancing as you become vastly over-leveled. I started out on normal mode and before long was one-shotting every enemy in sight with my basic tier 1 fire spell. After a while of this I got bored and bumped the difficulty up to hard, which helped for a little while, but before long I was back to one-shotting everything with no difficulty. After the 45 hour mark I was so bored with the unrewarding quests and exploration and so over-leveled that I stopped exploring dungeons and doing side-quests altogether so I could concentrate exclusively on the main questline and reach the end of the game.

Shooting jets of flame to propel away from enemies.

The game's only saving grace is its combat, which feels much more akin to God of War, Devil May Cry, and Vindictus than what's typical in fantasy RPGs. Combat is real-time and has you attacking in combos, blocking attacks, roll-dodging, and executing special skills, often against multiple enemies at once. You really feel the weight and impact of each attack, with enemies flinching and recoiling to attacks (and you likewise flinching to damage) and the more elaborate skills have a dramatic, over-the-top kind of flair that makes them fun to pull off.

What's especially fun about the combat system is the open class system that allows you to make hybridized classes, picking skills from all three skill trees. Skill trees are divided into basic mage, warrior, and rogue categories, and you're always free to dump points into any tree, becoming a battlemage wielding greatswords and casting devastating magic spells, or a stealthy assassin who's not afraid to whip out a giant hammer when the going gets rough. With the game's nine different weapon types and three skill trees, there are a fair amount of options to play around with; the system even encourages experimentation, allowing you to redistribute your skill points freely at any time by visiting a fateweaver.

The only real reason to play KoA:R is because it's an open-world RPG that actually has an engaging combat system. It's unfortunate, therefore, that the game's insultingly easy difficulty undermines any sense of challenge to be had from combat. As novel as combat is, it gets to feel pointless and boring after a while when you realize you're just having the same fights over and over again, and when you're constantly one-shotting entire groups of enemies with the same spell. There are a fair number of enemies to fight, but the game also commits the cardinal sin of repeating many of the same enemies later in the game at a higher level -- I was fighting level 2 wolves in the starting area, and 30 hours later I was fighting level 20 wolves in a different area.

Combining gem shards to sagecraft an epic gem.

The other worthwhile aspect of KoA:R is its elaborate crafting system. Any piece of equipment can be broken down into component parts (which give the item its unique stats and effects) and then you can create your own gear from dozens of components. A mastercrafted sword would be constructed from five different parts, for instance, and you might have a dozen options to choose from with each component type. It's a pretty open system that, like the class system, gives you a lot of freedom to customize your character. There's also sagecrafting and alchemy skills, crafting systems that let you make gems to socket into equipment and brew potions from harvested ingredients, which also let you experiment to find new combinations.

These skills, unfortunately, are part of the very reason the game is so easy. The game is already easy enough, but these skills are what allow you to maintain a status of "indestructible killing machine" throughout the entire game, even on hard mode. These skills also ensure that you'll have no use for hardly any of the loot you find in shops or from defeated enemies, except maybe to salvage a component for later crafting, and no use for any of the money earned from selling looted items.

Among the headlining talent working on Kingdoms of Amalur is R.A. Salvatore, brought on board to help with world building. I assume this means creating the world's lore and backstory. Having read some of his books, I can vouch that Salvatore's fairly good at depicting fantasy worlds and telling interesting stories within them, and it seems he's done a good job in KoA:R of making a world that's at once familiar and also unique. At first glance it would seem like a typical fantasy world with lush forests populated by light elves and dark elves and with gnomes living in mountainous caverns, but when you start to look a little deeper you realize there are some unique aspects to this world.

One of the small villages in the game.

When you meet with human villagers in the starting town you learn about the fae -- magical creatures that seem like a cross between faries and elves, known to the humans for their immortality. If you pursue the faction questline for the House of Ballads, you end up working closely with the fae and learn that they're not really immortal but in fact live their lives as (essentially) actors in their traditional ballads that get repeated through the seasons. When one fae dies, another assumes the spirit of the ballad and becomes the new embodiment of that character. The questline deals heavily with a saboteur acting against the threads of fate to alter the outcomes of ballads, and with you trying to put everything back together again.

Fate itself plays a prominent role in this world, with every person and every action pre-ordained by fate. Professions exist called "fateweavers" whose job it is to examine the threads of fate and predict the future. When at the start of the game your character is brought back to life by the Well of Souls, a gnomish experiment on reincarnation, you break the strands of fate and become known to fateweavers as "the fateless one." You were fated to die, but your unexpected resurrection allows you to exist outside of fate as the only person capable of altering people's destinies and changing the outcome of events.

These are all very interesting concepts suggesting you've just become part of a very rich, deep world, but unfortunately the game struggles to convey its lore to the player through actual experience; rather than showing you its world and letting you experience the lore for yourself, it's more apt merely to tell you about it through rigid dialogue screens delivered by flat characters. There are a ton of Morrowind-style dialogue options that let you prompt characters for more details on various subjects as they bring them up in conversation, but this tends to lead to information overload as you get bombarded with walls of text talking about unfamiliar terms and concepts for which you'll never get any sort of actual context.

More random scenery.

For that matter, the game doesn't do a very good job of rooting you in its world. The game introduces you to so many characters, concepts, and locations right from the start and quickly prompts you to move on to new locations to meet new characters who'll talk to you about new concepts. I was never able to develop any sense of the game's society or become familiar with its world because the game never takes the time to develop any of its characters or locations; they're all so fleeting that I can't remember the names of hardly any characters or towns, and no parts of the landscape stand out as distinct or memorable to me. The whole game felt like a transient blur of same-looking, generic sights and nameless, faceless characters.

There are a lot of little things, too, that make the game feel a little amateur. When you interact with an NPC, they have to finish whatever animation they were in before the dialogue screen pops up, and then spoken dialogue becomes noticeably quieter once the dialogue screen is actually up. Only one line of dialogue can be playing at any one time, so if you talk to a second character while someone else was talking, the first one will suddenly be cut off. Once in dialogue, there's almost a complete lack of facial or bodily animations, with characters just staring at each other. The interface is extremely clunky (long list of inventory items buried in sub-menus) and the excessive amounts of solid black in things like dialogue and mini-game screens is just ugly to look at. Inability jump and rigid collision meshes cause you to get stuck on small bits of terrain too easily.

Causing an earthquake in combat.

Other things suggest consolization ranging from weird to extreme. While looking at the map, you have to press "3" to toggle between the world map and the local map, and you have to press "2" in the inventory screen to assign an item to the joystick-oriented quick-access hotwheel. The game's default, unchangeable field of view (at least, not without a third-party mod) is extremely narrow, preventing you from having any peripheral vision whatsoever and having the camera pressed really close to your back. When in combat, there's an intense auto-aim feature making it difficult to use ranged attacks on the targets you want, since the system is apt to pick a different target for you.

In general, KoA:R feels like a Bethesda-esque open-world, exploration-heavy sandbox game crossed with a more restrained BioWare-esque story-driven RPG, dressed up in the skin of an MMORPG, but without any of the good aspects of any of those types of games. The game feels stretched too thin and with a complete lack of focus, as if the developers took elements from different popular games and mashed them together, making the entire game feel bland and generic despite the talent and effort at work. Kingdoms of Amalur feels like it would've worked much better as a smaller 20-30 hour game that focused on being a more straightforward action-RPG, instead of an open-world RPG. As it is, KoA:R deliberately wastes your time with shallow, repetitive content padding and unfocused, poor game balancing, all in an effort to make it seem bigger and more epic than it truly is.

3 comments:

  1. Hmm, I had actually heard good things. But my minimal experience was of a too bland MMORPG.

    I think this is an area where sequels might actuality be necessary. To get enough lore to even attempt to fill out a TES-like, I think in general, just requires many games of development, I think if you wanted to start the first game of a series, you would need to set it in set it in LotRs, or Forgotten Realms, or something. Let us not forget, TES had two more confined games under its belt before it went huge open world, and I think the series is really thought to have sort of started at its fourth entry. Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim; Is the series most people have played.

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  2. I agree with the entire thread. However, I did enjoy playing, though it became tedious after making it to the plain of um...yea that place with the fanatic snobs. It started great, the shops were useful at first, the story was intriguing. I was waiting to find out what i was. And suddenly, after teasing through the whole game, they just blurt it out. And the answer is generic. I was hoping I was some sort of long forgotten erathi or fae queen or something...but nope, just some well, i wont say. Anyway, the side quests were so boring. I did appreciate the house but really what's the point? Truly, i put all my special gear in stash in case I encountered the rest later..but only completed one set. I do not do grinding. I rarely visited any of my homes...why would i? And anyway, the special gear sucks compared to master crafted. I thought, no surely not! But yes it does, or at least the one I found did. Random loot fails. It's okay to have random garbage loot in certain spots. But in faction quests, main quests, I should be finding awesome stuff. Idk who the hell came up with that idea, but it's stupid. Same goes foe tes. Why???? And they needed tp balance the game better. I don't mind a laid back game but this is ridiculous. What is the point? I like to do all quests available, but if that is going to lvl me like crazy, pls accomodate the local enemies to my level! Or take some of the quests out. All in all i don't hate it. But was expecting so much more...

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  3. This is exactly how i feel about this game right now. I first played the demo and watched some reviews on Youtube (f*king angry joe hyped this thing so much) so i was really excited to play it. The first hours were entertaining as i was new to the whole thing, but then i decided to follow the House of Ballads quest line. The lore was interesting, so i completed it and finally became the king of all faes even though i "betrayed" them at the end, but it was utterly pointless, nothing changed, they continued to act the same. Finally i gained nothing (aside from a card and some shitty blades) and the world did not reflect or react to the (according to the disjointed text) world-changing decisions i just made. In the end it was crystal clear that the importance of your character is a lie, your decisions don't matter at all.

    Anyway, hours later in another main quest a mystic fae book appeared and a character tells me "hey let's go to the House of Ballads, they can help us out!" and proceeds to explain to me what they are ¿wasn't i supposed to be their almighty king by now? Go figure.

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