Even the greatest role-playing games aren't necessarily known for their great combat. They're frequently praised for their ambitious worlds, their involving stories, and the element of choice. But when you talk about your favorite RPGs, it's not often that the action is what you talk about first.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is not like those games. In the future, when you talk about Kingdoms of Amalur, the first thing you will probably mention is how fun the battles were. Incredibly, this RPG's combat is so exciting, it could have been used in a pure action game and would have held up just fine. In fact, from a swordplay, loot, and leveling perspective, Kingdoms of Amalur is as good as any RPG in recent memory. This is the role-playing game you should be playing if excellent action and progression are your primary concern.
Of course, RPGs are about more than just swinging swords. The best of them aren't just games--they're worlds, in which unusual people mill about, inviting you into their homes and telling you of unimaginable treasures protected by unimaginable monsters. It's here that Kingdoms of Amalur falters. Amalur is nice enough to look at, and there are lots of things to do there. But each thing you do is pretty much like the last thing you did. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you stumble upon a coven of cannibals and have telepathic conversations with a dog. In Mass Effect 2, you explore the painful past of a troubled young woman and witness the ultimate conflict between mother and daughter. In Kingdoms of Amalur, you kill stuff and listen to a bunch of nondescript characters spout line after line of unexceptional fantasy lore. There's so much talking, so much effort put into all this dialogue. And yet Amalur never develops an identity in spite of it all. There's a lot of tell, but not a whole lot of show.
There's at least a great premise providing a foundation for your adventure. You see, you are dead. Or at least, you were dead before a device called the Well of Souls brought you back to the land of the living. Upon reawakening, you find yourself in quite the position: you no longer have a fate. And because the laws of fate no longer apply to you, you can change destiny as you see fit. Save innocent lives. Kill your enemies. In conversation, act like a jerk--or like an angel. Like other RPGs, Kingdoms of Amalur occasionally grants you the power to choose. However, the story’s very premise nods to the fact that you are a blank slate, free to progress as you see fit. You're special in this world because everyone else is tied to the threads of fate. Before you came along, the future was unchangeable.
It's a pity that Kingdoms of Amalur doesn't know what to do with the setup. You gradually learn more about your self-named, blank-slate character, but the game is more interested in getting you into battle than it is in developing its people. You can talk to the inhabitants about all sorts of things, but doing so is rarely more interesting than reading some dusty tome. It's nice to have a world fleshed out by conversations and books, but in any game, it's better to see and experience an adventure firsthand than it is to hear someone talking about one. There are some nice narrative touches that resonate, such as a conversation with a woman angry that the church has outlawed female clergy. But most dialogue is wooden description.
Many fine RPGs don't feature great central plots or superior dialogue, so the humdrum storytelling may not be a bother for you. It's too bad that the side quests don't pick up the slack. There's so little variety here. Kill spiders, find a missing person, collect these items, and so on. A few of these have a spark of creativity. You partake in a bizarre reenactment of an old legend, speak with a wolf cursed to roam as a human, and assist a dimwit who has been deceived by pranksters pretending to be something they're not. But overall, questing in Kingdoms of Amalur is a game of "chase the waypoint," in which you run toward quest goals without caring about why you're heading there. The dullness of questing is reinforced by your own voiceless character during cutscenes, who mutely stares into space during every conversation as if he or she has heard it all before.
You may have heard Kingdoms of Amalur compared with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in the sense that they are both open-world fantasy RPGs. But such comparisons aren't really accurate. Amalur is "open-world" in a pedantic sense, yet it's not an enormous landmass, but rather a collection of big areas separated by winding corridors. (All you have to do is open the world map to see how different this game's world structure is from an Elder Scrolls game.) It's more akin to a large-scale Fable, with loading times and winding pathways used to segment explorable areas, dungeons, and towns.
The art design may also remind you of Fable (or maybe World of Warcraft), though Kingdoms of Amalur isn't so self-consciously lighthearted. It is certainly lovely, however, in a vanilla sort of way. Bright red and blue flowers dot sun-dappled meadows, where antelopes graze and hop about, prancing away when you draw too near. Crooked lampposts and skewed wooden rooftops welcome you to a desert village and its brown cobbled streets. It's all so pretty, pixie dust rising from enough grassy knolls and daisy patches that it looks like an army of fairies just exploded. But the visual design lacks identity, embracing the middle of the road and never reaching beyond. Kingdoms of Amalur doesn't have the exaggerated charm of Fable II or the rich detail of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. It happily embraces its pedestrian prettiness, like the front cover of any fantasy novel you might find on a bookstore's shelf.