Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur - 20/20 hours

Kingdoms of Amalur was really easy. And I mean that both in the sense that getting 20 hours for the blog was completely painless and in the sense that the actual gameplay quickly became trivial. I think the designers erred on the side of making the game winnable even with a terrible, non-functional character build, and that's why anyone with even a half-decent character can breeze through without breaking a sweat.

It's been a long time since I've played a game that's been so aggressively unchallenging. I'm certain this is an oversight. Something must be wrong with its level scaling and/or equipment balancing. You unlock so many cool situational moves as part of the complex leveling up process, but you barely have to use those tools at all.

I don't have a problem with that, though. It's embarrassing to admit, but I get a thrill out the absolute sense of power playing an easy game gives to me. Kingdoms of Amalur is especially clever in that it somewhat disguises how stacked the deck is in your favor. Sometimes enemies will get a good hit in and briefly stunlock you. But you can use potions even while stunned, so it's only the illusion of danger. Similarly, the tougher enemies, even while posing no real threat, can still dodge and resist damage just enough that you have to focus on killing them. It's a big, mindless brawl connected by an assortment of minor rewards that is extremely relaxing in a "turn off your brain and button mash" sort of way.

Around hour 12, I suddenly realized that I was more than halfway through my play period and I hadn't even touched the DLCs that were the whole reason I bought this bundle in the first place. I went to work rectifying this immediately, and while I didn't get to finish the Legend of Dead Kel, my experience with one and a half Kingdoms of Amalur DLCs was sufficient for me to render a verdict - definitely worth the money, with the caveat that what the money is buying you is still, at the end of the day, more Kingdoms of Amalur.

The DLCs, by dint of being smaller and self-contained, manage to do a better job of storytelling than the main game, but they still share its fundamental structure, for good and for ill. By the time I'd finished the Teeth of Naros main plot, I'd managed to collect a half-dozen barely-related sidequests that I had already outleveled. A similar thing would have happened with Legend of Dead Kel, but I resolutely ignored every marked quest-giver I could, in the hopes of finishing before hour 20 came up.

On the other hand, both DLCs had villains with strong characterization and a definable relationship to the player-character, both had companion NPCs who stuck with you long enough that you might even be bothered to learn their names (not that I did), and both had plots with an easily-comprehensible set of stakes and a reasonable (if sometimes obscure, thanks to the machinations of the villains) route to solving their central problems. This is more than I can say for the main game (though, to be fair to the main game, I haven't actually been on the critical path since around hour 2).

My favorite part of the DLCs was Teeth of Naros' decision to just go all-out weird with its setting. It felt a lot like playing one of those outlandish medieval-era travellers' tales - in the land of Prester John there are cities that float in the sky and are populated by giants with skin like stone who wear togas and sun-dresses and believe that scholarly debates are best settled by one-on-one arena battles. The fact that the expedition to find this exotic land was inspired by the memoirs of an insane missionary is probably not a coincidence.

I didn't get as long a look at Legend of Dead Kel's setting, but it, too, tries to be interesting and distinct. What with mysterious gods making a generational pact with villages of stranded sailors to take one of their own and make them a living conduit for the god's power and will (while simultaneously, the god has a suspiciously cozy relationship with the undead pirate whose depredations initially stranded the villagers in the first place). It's a good setup for drama, though it does seem to suffer the main game's bias towards the baroque.

Overall, I'm glad I bought this bundle, despite having the main game on console already. I could easily play this game for another 40 hours, chasing the level cap and trying to maximize my skill gain, but ultimately, Kingdoms of Amalur is so trivial and vacuous that these extra hours would have been a pure waste of time . . .

Which is exactly why I will definitely be playing Kingdoms of Amalur again. Sometimes time needs to be wasted, and when it does, a casual loot-driven brawler with about a million pointless sidequests can be a hell of a way to do it.

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