The scenery will stun you, but at some point, Amalur runs out of steam.
That point was at about forty hours into my second play-through. My obsession with side quests abruptly died, and my attempt to return to the main story left me confused and disinterested. Where was I going, again? Look, there’s an interesting cave. Oh, I’ve already gone there. I haven’t even reached that one port city yet?
First time through, I relished in the freedom Amalur presented me with. I could run around harvesting regents for hours on end if I wanted. No one was going to force me to participate in the main quest beyond a few lines of dialog if I accidentally brushed proximity with them. I could gleefully hunt down every exclamation mark on the map and demand a job from involved parties–again, for hours on end, if I wanted. (And sometimes, I did. It wouldn’t be an RPG without some high-quality, time-wasting grinding.) There was nothing about the main story or the faction quests that particularly pinged my radar, but they were fun enough to participate in, so I went along with it. Winning titles at the end of long, gruelling side campaigns gave me a brief glow of accomplishment.
I was ready to do it all over again, too. Maybe I’d make different allegiances this time. Guilt complex notwithstanding, I could decide to betray all of those peripheral factions and the good-ish people who helped me along the way and become some kind of megalomaniac.
Ultimately, though, the choices were definitely not numerous. Megalomaniac or saint: there was no in-between. And, in the end, what you do in your spare time (inviting the Niskaru Big Bad for tea and slaying all Warsworn, for example) doesn’t at all impact your main quest; you’re still going to save the world, no matter what. Seems a bit contradictory, considering that the game constantly throws in your face your status as the Fateless One. I felt far from fateless; I was continually dragged toward a predetermined endpoint. Apparently you’re also excused from facing the consequences of your actions; minor aspects of the game aside, your choice does not affect your ultimate showdown with Gadflow and Tirnoch.
The other major problem is what could also be considered the game’s most interesting aspect; your character is tabula rasa, the perfect blank slate, a reincarnation of some poor shmuck who was tied to destiny and thus died chained to his grisly demise. You, on the other hand, are displaced from the weave of fate all around you–and, unfortunately for everyone else, you’re also capable of screwing up all their fates, too. Your mere existence is a disturbance in the natural order. Times are a-changin’, my friend, and it’s all your fault.
Too bad you have no idea who you used to be, or maybe you’d be able to form some kind of connection with your character, who is really just a silent hunk of fate-destroying disruption. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t change how you related to other characters, too, but oh, goodness gracious, it does. There are a lot of people in this world who sort of know you or even deeply know you, but lacking the knowledge of the history between you–since they’re certainly not telling–means that you constantly feel adrift in the world of Amalur, one step behind the grand schemings of a world mad on self-destruction. Everyone else is a dozen or a hundred steps ahead of you, and you’re lollygagging behind, trying to contribute to the war effort without really knowing why the war’s on in the first place. I expected to be distracted by side quests, but I didn’t expect to dread returning to the main story when I’d depleted a region of all its exclamation points, and that is exactly what happened.
Amalur also manages to somehow incorporate all of the obvious character stereotypes: your sort-of adviser is an old white man with a beard and wisdom to offer, whenever he pries himself away from his alcoholism; the villain of the piece is creepily voiced with glowing red eyes, so you’d be unlikely to miss that he’s EVIL, capitalized, after your first encounter with him; and, of course, your female sort-of romantic interest is mysterious, scantily clad, and has no more backstory than a thumbtack. Despite the fact that Alyn Shir kicks serious ass, she somehow isn’t aware that armor would be a fashionable (and, more importantly, logical) addition to her wardrobe.
I get the sensation from Amalur that so much effort was used up streamlining the gameplay and erecting massively impressive scenic views that there wasn’t any time left to also devise a revolutionary plot with compelling characters. Let it be said that the gameplay is indeed extraordinary; it’s a seamless fix for turn- or time-based attack systems, which feel bulky and unwieldy in comparison to Reckoning’s invigorating battles. Similarly, this is obviously a game too pretty not to stare at. The graphics are nothing short of incredible.
That being said: Video games are notorious for uncomplicated characters and stories, but uncomplicated does not have to mean boring. It also does not have to mean repetitive. This is a fantasy story that’s been told time and time before–with elves and dwarves and mischievous gods, oh my–and the only differentiating element is your character, who is fateless and anonymous. Since this actually causes more of a disconnect from the world of Reckoning than it helps connect you to the storyline, I wouldn’t count that as an aspect worth introducing.
I was visually stunned, but all other brain regions were dark. I sank dozens upon dozens of hours into Reckoning, but what I got out of it was, at best, a very fuzzy memory of the story I was being told, or the characters that were supposed to intrigue me. Maybe the point of an RPG isn’t to wax poetic, but I still prefer a gameplay experience that leaves me with more than a fly-catching “huh” after I’ve saved the world. What was I saving it from again?