By Elliot Adams
Amongst all the promising big-budget RPGs on the way, early demonstrations of 38 Studios’ single-player RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning have passed quieter than a fart in a courtroom. Perhaps this lack of interest is because, as I did at first, people see the game’s title and consign it to the banality pit at the back of their minds. ‘Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’ sounds as though it was picked from random pages in The Big Book of Fantasy Clichés – sorry, I meant ‘Ye Prophesied Tome of Hackneyed Phraseizor‘. The game continues in his manner too, rabbits will be renamed ‘smeerps’ at every opportunity; elves are ‘Ljosalfar’, dark elves are ‘Dokkalfar’, humans are ‘Almain’, the Scottish are ‘Varani‘ and gnomes are adorable.* The protagonist will awaken from one of those not-really-deaths that have been popular since ‘Planescape and trot off across the Faelands seeking their incompetent-killer and smushing kobolds with swords and spells – presumably saving the world in the process. The story is not yet particularly impressive, but the team behind ‘Reckoning are.
New York Times bestselling author RA Salvatore created the world itself and its extensive lore, with Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, working on the visuals. Salvatore is apparently a big deal in expanded universe fiction and is somewhat famous for being the author who killed Chewbacca, I like to think he convinced the CIA to shoot him as a known drug smuggler and anti-Empire terrorist(Update: I have learned that he dropped a moon on him).
But for me the promise in Reckoning‘s pedigree comes from the game’s executive designer Ken Rolston, the lead designer of the last two Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion, both of which won numerous awards and remain benchmarks for the genre.
It’s being pushed as the bastard offspring of Oblivion and God of War, which is a pretty firm match. As in the latter, combat will be based around timing button-presses to build up combos, or to ignore if you prefer button-mashing. But the game will also be very familiar to Oblivion players. It is a persistent living world in day to night cycles with an NPC population that, if left alone, will go about their own business interacting socially and visiting pubs and shops. Also while combat is somewhat arcade-style, there are no class limitations on weapon use and magic can be used alongside any number of weapons and items without switching equipment – a simple crafting and gathering system has also been announced to bolster these items, though hopefully it avoids the drudgery of Oblivion‘s alchemy process.
‘Reckoning is a multi-platform release and will be lumbered with some of the difficult-to-port relics of console gaming, so even if you’re on a PC expect to be occasionally called to hammer on a mythical ‘triangle’ key to avoid instant death.
Even though such Quick Time Event sequences are a regression to a form of cinematic gaming we discarded with FMV sequences some time in the early 90s, I’m not necessarily against them. A reflex test is a fair, if arbitrary, method of distracting the player from their loss of control in cutscenes – you’re essentially playing a jarring version of Typing of the Dead. But QTE are never been properly integrated into gameplay so it’s impossible for the player to really be ready for being wrenched from one type of game and into another.
But regardless of these problems, names like Rolston’s are fast approaching the trusted status previously restricted to the old videogame industry doyens like Warren Spector, Tim Schaffer or Ken Levine – who, in showing their willingness to rethink the types of world and narrative that can be built in the medium, have proved capable of making the oldest videogame tropes seem new and entertaining. ‘Reckoning is certainly trying something new with the single-player fantasy RPG – which seems like an endangered genre of late as more developers just go straight to MMO – so they are to be applauded for that, and considering the calibre of the development team they may just be successful. Expect it in early 2012.
*To my dear Scots, I don’t mean to imply you aren’t human, I live among you and wouldn’t do so if I didn’t find the majority of Scottish people rather likeable. But in the world of fantasy fiction you are essentially another martial species, you’re just lucky that in this instance Scottish people aren’t bearded axe-wielding midgets.