In game six of the 2004 American League Championship Series, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling beat the New York Yankees despite playing on an injured ankle — one that bled so badly that Schilling’s victory became known as the “bloody sock” game. It’s the stuff of baseball legend.
And it’s a legend that’s more dramatic than anything in “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99), the first game from Schilling’s 38 Studios. It’s a solid rookie outing for the developer — excellent mechanics, a decent fastball and a good strikes-to-balls ratio — but not quite an all-star performance. A win, but far from a perfect game.
As you can probably guess from the title, “Reckoning” is a role-playing game set in a quasi-medieval fantasy world. Once you create your character — male or female; human or elf; fighter, sorcerer or rogue — your lifeless body is dumped in a pile of rotting corpses. Fortunately, a crafty gnome has been working on a way to resurrect the dead, and you’re his first successful experiment.
When you re-emerge on the surface of Amalur, you discover it’s in the throes of a civil war between two factions of immortals: the nature-loving Summer Fae and the destructive, corrupted Winter Fae. Humans and elves, with their puny mortal life spans, are mostly caught in the crossfire. But since you’ve defied the grim reaper, you’re regarded as a savior who can bring peace to the world — or destroy it.
Of course, the most efficient way to pacify any fantasy world is to kill hundreds and hundreds of monsters. And here’s where “Reckoning” really distinguishes itself: The fighting is fluid and exciting, whether you’re flinging fireballs from a distance or slashing beasts with your greatsword. The arsenal of weapons is impressive from the start, and as you gain experience you learn increasingly flamboyant spells and attacks. Combat, typically the weakest element of an RPG, is most satisfying here.
“Reckoning” also benefits from its distinctive art direction, led by comics legend and toymaker Todd McFarlane. The characters, architecture and landscapes are more stylized and less realistic than fans of American RPGs may be used to, so don’t expect the insane attention to detail that, say, “Skyrim” offers. Instead, Amalur bursts with vibrant color — it’s like, yes, a comic book brought to three-dimensional life.
It’s a shame that all this technical and graphic prowess is in the service of a story out of Generic Fantasy 101. The studio’s “executive creator of worlds,” R.A. Salvatore, is best known for writing novels based on “Dungeons & Dragons,” and much of Amalur feels like it was yanked right out of a role-playing adventure book. Of course, every RPG owes some debt to “D&D,” but “Reckoning” — unlike “Skyrim” and “Dragon Age” — never transcends its source.
There is a lot to do in Amalur — if you tackle all its side missions, you’re in for more than 100 hours. But most of the missions boil down to one of three goals: kill the monster, find the thing, or kill the monster that has the thing. “Reckoning” does pull off a few “wow” moments, but more often I found myself asking, “This again?”
Still, there’s a kind of comfort-food appeal to “Reckoning,” and it’s enjoyable despite its predictability. Moreover, it’s a very promising debut from 38 Studios, and I’m sure we’ll see further installments. Next time Schilling and his teammates take the field, I hope they throw a few more curveballs. Three stars out of four.
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