Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Hall of Ballads: A Great Quest Line from Kingdom of Amalur

Kingdom of Amalur the Reckoning is a very impressive RPG withe some surprisingly good storytelling.  I have just completed the Hall of Ballads line and I was really impressed by the mini story it tells. Even though it is only an optional faction quest it is clever, thought provoking and well written. Once I got into the story I quickly got hooked and felled compelled to follow it through to the end to find ou what happens. My description of the quest below naturally contains spoilers so if you just want a quick summary of my thoughts on Amalur skip down below the spoiler marks.

[Spoilers Follow]
The Hall of Ballads are a group of Fae (a magical race) who devote themselves to preserving the heroic legends of the past. However these long lived folk are not content to just tell the stories. They actually relive them. Every cycle the heroes and the villains go through the old adventures over and over again. If a hero dies then a new volunteer is chosen to join the hall. They take the name of the fallen hero and ever after play the role of that hero in the reenactments (the Tellings). The villains themselves seem to be re-incarnated every cycle to play their parts once again although it would appear that this perpetual reenactment is not  entirely voluntary on their part. Your character gets involved when things stop going according to plan and it gradually becomes clear that one of the arch enemies is availing of the general upheaval in the world to try and break the cycle and let the bad guys win for once.

It is a very clever story that gradually unfolds as you are sent on a series of errands to fix up the tellings that are going wrong. It actually works on several levels.  Despite their stuffy reverence for the tellings the much vaunted heroes turn out to be pretty useless when an enemy fights back rather than going through a series of pre-ordained steps. By the end of the saga it is hard not to feel sympathy for the arch enemy who is really just fed up of being the perpetual villain and wants to be on the winning side for a change. At the end of the saga you get to choose whether to kill the villain and preserve the Tellings or let the villain live and break the cycle forever. This is not an straightforward black and white choice in my opinion but I do not know yet what impact this choice will have on the rest of the game.
[End of Spoiler]

As I said above the game is very impressive and it is a terrible shame that the company which spawned it is no more.  Amalur has a huge bright colourful world that reminds me a lot of World of Warcraft. It has a clever combat system that combines third person action and rpg elements. It has rich progression system with plenty of options for flexibility. It has a deep crafting system for weapons, potions and gems. It has a positively ridiculous amount of loot to be collected with stashes behind just about every rock, log and bush in the game. It also has a huge amount of quests including a main quest, several major faction based quest lines and a tonne of side quest. Added bonus they use native speakers to voice most of their characters Scottish for Gnomes, Irish for Fae and British for most Humans. The  Irish accents are hammed up a bit but for the most part genuine so I assume the others are similar.

The game does have flaws but any game as ambitious as this is likely to have flaws. Perhaps the most serious flaw comes from the sheer size of the game. There are so many quests and so much loot that it gets to feel repetitive. Many of the side quests are fairly generic and if you try to religiously work your way through all the content you will likely get bored.It was a major turning point for me when I consciously stopped trying to complete every quest and when I decided not to bother min-maxing my weapons and equipment. Making those choices allowed me to concentrate on the stuff I liked and was essential in allowing me to enjoy the game.

The game relies on levels and gear like a normal rpg but it uses combo based fighting like a third person action game.  I think this combination of so many variables makes it harder to balance the combat difficulty in the game. The difficulty never feels just right to me , encounters are either face rolling easy or just too hard. I ended up increasing the difficulty slider to hard in order to get some challenge from the many many trash mobs in the game but some of the bosses are now extremely hard to kill in normal combat. There is a built in fix for this though because the game gives you a super duper slow motion ability called "Reckoning" that allows you to kill everything easily. I just save that up for the tough bosses but it is so overpowered it feels like cheating.

Another gripe relates to the level scaling. Mobs and loot in a zone scale to a level within a fixed range depending on the level you are when you first set foot in the zone.  Unfortunately this means that if you are given to exploring, like I am, you can easily spoil whole zones for yourself by blundering into them and locking them at a low level before you are ready to go questing there.The huge number of side quests means that it is easy enough to out level areas anyway but it is even more frustrating to go to a brand new zone and find all the mobs there are grey to you because you accidently visted the place some time ago.

Regardless of the gripes I still think it is a terrific game and I strongly recommend it to any rpg fans. If you shop around you can probably find it on sale from the likes of Amazon or Steam.

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