Kingdoms of Amalur: Bad Timing

Have you played the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning demo? It’s an excellent case study for the importance of properly timing a video game release.

Reckoning (as I’m going to call it from now on) is a role playing game by Big Huge Games, a developer stacked with talented industry veterans. The game appears to blend the deep customization and stat-porn of RPGs like Oblivion and Fallout, the active, responsive combat of character action games like God of War and Darksiders, and the whimsical, vibrant art design of games like Fable and World of Warcraft.

As it turns out, some of the folks behind Reckoning also worked on some of the Elder Scrolls games, like Oblivion, and it shows. There’s a surprising amount of depth as you drill down into the character menus. From what I’ve played, the combat seems responsive and dynamic. Unlike most stat-based RPGs, the action in Reckoning feels more dependent on player skill, not on levels and behind-the-scenes dice rolls. And the art style is incredibly bright, lively and brimming with character—it’s a refreshing bloom of color in a dull gray winter.

It seems to hit all its targets. So Reckoning should turn out to be a great game right? Maybe.

The responses I’ve seen from the demo aren’t exactly positive. Yes it’s true that the game seems to be lacking a layer of polish—the menu UI feels very last gen, the Mass Effect style conversation wheel appears inconsistently throughout dialogue, and many of the non-combat animations feel a bit stilted—but I wouldn’t call it bad. It’s a fun game with a lot going for it, which is why it’s a shame that it’s being released now, and not in the summer or late spring.

The two games I hear Reckoning get compared to most are Skyrim and Fable. The Skyrim comparison comes up because of the talent behind the game, and because of the rich lore and customization those same talented individuals have boasted about. I’m not sure about the story yet, but Skryim crushes Reckoning in terms of UI with its elegantly designed and intuitive menu system. Reckoning’s menus are clunky and a chore to navigate, they lack the streamlined fluid presentation Bethesda brought to the table with Skyrim. Skryim is also a little more open, and less structured. If that’s a plus for you, then the slightly-more-focused Reckoning might feel stifling.

Then there’s Fable. Reckoning has a similar cartoonish art style, but I think they take it a step past Fable. Just look at the environments and animals, they’re all heavily stylized, and I think the game looks great—it’s not as derivative as some people say it is. The action-oriented combat is similar to Fable as well, but again, Reckoning wins the comparison. Fable’s one-note combat doesn’t hold up to Reckoning’s deeper, skill-based action.

As for the story, that remains to be seen. Reckoning’s got a heavy amount of lore—the game makes the fantasy mistake of dumping a dozen different gibberish names on you within the first five minutes—but I didn’t get much of a sense for the actual main-line story. I’m not even close to finishing Skyrim, but I’ve seen a lot of really cool narrative stuff there, so if Reckoning is going to compete, it needs to step it up. I’ve never cared for the stories in Fable games—couldn’t even tell you what the first one was about. I hate the way your hero has zero input, but can, for some “humorous” reason, fart on command. So in the story department, Reckoning already beats Fable.

And that’s the problem. Reckoning stacks up favorably against the Fable series, especially the polarizing Fable 3. But it’s not looking so hot next to Skyrim, and it’s way closer to the release of Skyrim than the last Fable game. I feel like the reception of Reckoning would have worked better if it was Fable 3 that came out back in November and not Skyrim. People would be saying stuff like, “this is what we wanted from Fable 3”, or “It’s like Fable, but better.” Instead they’re talking about how it’s like Skyrim, but worse, except for the combat, which is kind of cool. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. I know there’s business stuff going on in the background and you can’t just move release dates around, but still…bad timing.

I’m interested in Reckoning, but with so much of Skyrim still unplayed, and Mass Effect 3 just a month or so away, I doubt I’ll be playing it any time soon (it comes out next week). This would have been a great game to release in late spring or early summer. Far enough away from Skyrim and Mass Effect, or any big game in the genre, at a time where gamers might not be suffering from RPG fatigue.

Here’s hoping it does better than expected.