Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - 2/20 hours

I am aggressively apathetic to Kingdoms of Amalur's main story. I have a page full of notes about it, and I just can't bring myself to care. Which is weird, because I love everything else about the game.

Once you get out of the tutorial, the opening area is this grand forest with trees that stretch to the sky and wrap around the ruins of some monumental architecture and everywhere you look there's colorful flowers and foliage. The environment feels ancient and arcane and it begs you to explore.

The combat is similarly amazing. It's very kinetic and fluid. You'll find yourself dodging around the battlefield, executing combo attacks and hurling magic like nobody's business. It's an action-rpg that puts the emphasis on action.

And character advancement is pretty great as well. There are three main paths - might, finesse, and magic - and in each path are several different abilities that you can distribute points into and once you reach certain point thresholds in a given category, you can unlock "destinies" which are a little like classes which give you powerful and broad bonuses like increased mana regeneration or greater critical hit damage. Plus, there's a parallel system of non-combat skills that can dramatically change how you interact with the world. Chasing the level-up bonuses is very satisfying.

I can't think of another game with such a dramatic disconnect between the gameplay (yes! I could do this for 100 hours) and the story (oh god, no, where is the skip button), and I wonder why this is. It's not as if the story is bad. It's just . . . overstuffed. It's like they had a list of interesting fantasy conceits and then rather than limit themselves to a few to flesh out into their most compelling form, they just said "fuck it, let's use them all."

It's like, there's this division between fae creatures and mortal races and you could build a great setting around exploring the cultural clash . . . except that some of the fae have started worshiping this dark god and have declared war on mortals, which, okay, could be a logical extension of the initial premise and would give you plenty of excuse for action-rpg combat . . . except the dark fae literally cannot die and thus the war is unwinnable for the mortals, which is fine, that gives the game a central mystery, so your path to victory is more complicated than just hack-and-slashing your way to the main guy . . . except the gnomes have invented an incredible magi-tech device, the Well of Souls, that can potentially bring back the dead and even the odds and that is something with such dramatic philosophical and storytelling implications that it surely must be the keystone of the plot which we must explore and defend over the course of the story . . . except that it gets blown up during the game's tutorial and the project's one and only success (the player character) must flee for their life, which is a strong premise for an entirely damned different game . . . except that you then subsequently find out that your character is uniquely outside the bonds of fate and has the potential to manipulate destiny to an almost godlike degree . . . and what the fuck are you doing, Kingdoms of Amalur, it's only one hour into the game?! 

It's an approach that's mirrored in the game's treatment of NPCs. You wake up with no memory on top of a pile of corpses in grand RPG tradition. After wandering about for a bit, you meet up with one of the morgue gnomes from the opening cutscene and he's obviously a tutorial guide, a temporary companion who explains how things work and then sends you on your way. So far, so good, but this gnome, Encel, tells you that your first objective should be to find Professor Hugues, the scientist responsible for your resurrection. In any decently designed game, Hugues would be your mentor and quest-giver for the first act of the game, the guy who slowly introduced you to the lore of the setting while acting as a familiar face in your first hub area. But all he does is give you an info-dump and then sacrifice himself to save your life (never mind that it doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense for the inventor of resurrection technology to die instead of the first successful subject of the technology, at least if we're talking about who should nobly sacrifice themselves for whom). Okay, so he's a red herring, a sacrificial lamb so that we know the resurrection technology is irreplicable. Surely, in any halfway-decently designed game, the next major character, Agarth, the scruffy, drunken fateweaver who tells you about your next unique lack of destiny, would be the persistent mentor, but he immediately tells you about a third guy you need to get lore from, and it is at this point that I completely lose interest. If I recall, Agarth stays with you for a couple more quests, but it doesn't matter because he eventually hands you off to a dull non-entity and then hangs around a random town as a vendor for the rest of the game.

I think it's because I get jerked around so many times so early in the game that once I check out and start chasing random side quests, I never check back in. I've actually finished the main story, but I couldn't tell you anything about it. There's just not a strong enough through-line to attach a memory to. There aren't any really great characters along the way, and the ones with a glimmer of potential don't stick around long enough to matter.

Oh well, killing hordes of monsters in meaningless side-dungeons is super-fun, an in the end, isn't that why I'm playing the game?

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