This week, Zero Punctuation review Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
I know I can't speak for everyone - at least not until "The Device" is completed - but surely it's not just me who's getting fed up with fantasy. That's generic-style fantasy, not the personal kinds of fantasy where I'm locked in a small room with a nuclear bomb in a schoolgirl outfit that can only be disarmed with a vigorous spanking. This is precisely my point - the word "fantasy" is supposed to evoke any wondrous scenario the imagination can conjure, but for some reason, we keep coming back to the elves and dwarves! Elves and dwarves, elves and dwarves, elves and motherfucking dwarves. Also wizards. Mass Effect brought us a race of all-female bisexuals culturally obliged to bang anything that moves, and you wonder why I prefer sci-fi these days.
And another thing: why does every fantasy game practically demand we learn a second language? I start up Kingdoms of Amalur and it's like skipping ahead three tapes on the "Teach Yourself Norwegian" course: "The Tuatha are engaged in a conflict with the Sealie Fae and the Jotun in the lands of Knickknackknocky and Bingilybongilyboo."
Well, here's what I could decipher at the outset: you are an adventurer, and then you get killed. Off to a flying start, aren't we? But then you're resurrected by some experimental arcane process and set off to begin anew. Possibly as a consequence of this, however, you suddenly possess the inexplicable ability to manipulate destiny. As in, if a bloke has been predetermined by fate to eat a sandwich, you can slap that sandwich out of his hands, forcing him to go to McDonald's and get hit by a bus. I actually think it's an interesting idea, considering that in most generic fantasy, you can't walk down the street to the chemist without some prophecy saying you would.
The elves - they don't call them elves, but they are fucking elves - are all doing the Lord of the Rings thing, going, "Ooh, fate has determined that our time in this realm is coming to an end", swanning about being all accepting and dignified and shit, and I imagine you could make them all feel like a right bunch of 'nanas. What confuses me, though, is when it's implied that the coming of the one to whom prophecy is so much blank verse has itself been prophesized. That's insane! That's like breeding a fly that eats rolled-up newspapers.
So what with this being fantasy and everything, Kingdoms of Hurbedur is an RPG. They were going to make it a tactical squad-based shooter, but you know how people are. At first I was somewhat reminded of Fable, 'cause the art is colorful and stylized and you start off with a small amount of skill in every ability so you can figure out which one you suck at the least. The classes available are monumentally-standard: the rogue, who attacks quickly and stealthily with daggers and longbows; the fighter, who knocks the arseholes about with 2x4s and lampposts; and the sex worker, who fights by bending over, hitching up their skirt and farting venereal diseases. Sorry, I meant wizard. But I've known sex workers who were pretty wizardly in their own way, I'll tell you that. If you're indecisive though, and have been known to spend hours picking your five films for ten bucks at the video shop, Kingdoms of Alamo is a modern thinker perfectly fine with class-mixing as long as you do it behind closed doors. Every specialization path has six sequential tiers, including the mixed classes, so the person I feel sorry for is who on the development team had to come up with six different names for a sneaky wizard, or a brawny sex worker.
Once you get out into the world, though, the Fable comparison shrivels humbly at the urinal as we catch a glimpse of World of Warcraft 's ever-fearsome member. Again, the visual design is quite similar, and the main plot leads you by the nose through a parade of increasingly difficult territories full of enemies borrowed from European folklore, picking up quests from every Johnny Peasantpants whose wife hasn't come back from picking mushrooms at Monster Death Face Eater Junction. One might almost think Kingdoms of Whatever It Was was at some point planned to be a MMORPG but chickened out when they saw all the skulls piled up outside World of Warcraft 's cave. In a single-player game, I don't see any reason to keep respawning monsters in areas we've cleared out and done all the quests in. Not doing so might actually give us the sense we're achieving something rather than running a failing pest control business. True to the developer's name, the world map is indeed pretty Big Huge, but after nine or ten hours of aggressively-samey questing, I still had an area the size of Bermondsey to plough. You certainly get your money's worth. But then, it'd probably be pretty inexpensive to fill your mouth in with industrial-grade concrete, too.
Where things differ from WoW is that combat is not merely taking it in turns to smack each other and the winner is whoever showed up with the biggest piece of wood, but a much more skilful hacky-slashy-ouchy-dodgy setup which flows quite smoothly and intuitively, but the problem is that was about as challenging as using a sewing machine with a dwarf slave working the pedals. I went for a pure rogue, 'cause I've got nothing against mixed classes but I wouldn't want to leave them alone with my kids, so I had the mastery of fast dagger weapons, and virtually every enemy including bosses got stun-locked like a drinking bird toy on roller skates. I'd start off trying to be artful with fancy charge and dodge attacks, but eventually realized I'd get equally reliable results pounding on the attack button like it were looking at my bird. Sometimes I'd use the one special attack rogues get that flings four knives in an arc in front of me, 'cause if you stand close enough to a large enemy so that all the knives hit him, then his health disappears like Jaffa Cakes around my dog. We really are running a failing pest-control business, 'cause if this were an epic fantasy adventure, it'd feel more gratifying than running a sprayer across the top of someone's kitchen cupboards.
I've called Kingdoms of Amalur a lot of things - "single player World of Warcraft", "Fable with a shriveled willy" - but I think I've found the soundest comparison: it's "Baby's First Skyrim!" Pretty much the same gameplay features but substantially less complexity and with boring, claustrophobic environments. Or at least that's what I thought. When I took a moment to stop and take a good look around me, I realized that the environments were actually quite expansive, epic and artfully-designed. It just didn't feel that way because the camera is angled slightly downward, so that [at] any given moment of gameplay, 60 to 70 percent of the screen was taken up by the floor texture. If I'd been in charge of designing ceilings in this game, I'd be out for fucking blood right about now. Just goes to show how the smallest tweak of a core feature can have ruinous consequences, like prodding a tiger's bollock.
In conclusion then, who is this game for? Maybe someone with no internet connection and a hell of a lot of time to kill. So consider this a recommendation if you've just put out a contract on your own life, but the hitman's flight's been delayed 36 hours and you've already burnt your house down.
Lost heir to a forgotten kingdom: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I swear the name of this game switches back and forth between Alamur and Amalur every time I look away