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Kingdoms of Amalur: Plastic Soul

In 1974 David Bowie released an album called “Young Americans”, a top ten hit in the United States with a  number one single in “Fame”. After almost single-handedly defining glam rock with his outrageous, polysexual Ziggy Stardust character, Bowie completely changed his image and direction. Always a consummate artist aware of the importance of concept and execution, Bowie recrafted himself as a willfully phony Philadelphia soul man. The record is a meticulously crafted collection of R&B songs rife with the irony of a white Englishman earnestly performing music generally regarded as the province of African-Americans. It’s soul music without any soul at all, and that’s exactly the point.

He called it “plastic soul”. The record’s artifice is brilliant; its superficial, textbook genre survey of a highly organic music that thrives on authenticity is a statement in itself. From the Luther Vandross background vocals to “blushing at all the Afro-sheen”, it’s carefully poised and manufactured to spec.

So what does this all have to do with Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning?

Kingdoms of Amalur also features this sense of manufactured artifice, a sense of bulletpoint design that comes from studying success rather than creating it on its own terms. I’m only around six hours into the game, but there is definitely a pervading sense that this particular supergroup development team has managed to come up with a supremely competent, expensive-looking, well-made and in some areas possibly great game that feels far too studied and much too designed to spec to come to life.  It has a plastic soul.

Like “Young Americans”, the game is a veritable checklist of genre qualities and elements that have worked in the past. Crafting, flexible classes, cooldown abilities, sidequests by the dozens, NPCs that prattle on and on about any topic you care to discuss (out of five provided), big swords, an open world that’s really a corridor world…the list goes on and on. It’s a catalog of modern RPG design tropes. This isn’t necessarily bad if there’s that sense of a living soul binding it all together. It doesn’t feel alive or immersive at all. You’re constantly aware of the design as a feature list.

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The difference with “Young Americans” is that the record is artful and purposefully designed to be plastic, going through the motions of meeting genre qualifiers while simultaneously satirizing, mocking, and celebrating them. Kingdoms of Amalur has no such pretense. It’s simply trying to appease the most people most of the time. It feels almost cynical in its refusal to innovate, take risks, or challenge expectations.

It’s one of the most clinical, cold games I’ve ever played despite the warmth of the color palette and the Blizzardian mix of Warhammer brawn and cartoonish whimsy. Every single element is unsurprising, accommodating, and expected. Even the nomenclature is incredibly generic despite the clash of consonants and syllable-riffic place names. I’m thrilled to see Barghests and Kobolds in a Dungeons and Dragons game, but in a supposedly  all-new fantasy world- not so much. Also, somebody get a memo over to these guys. Kobolds don’t look like Gnolls.

The only thing that’s really surprising is how the assembly of this game feels so inexperienced and cluttered, as if it were from a first-time developer eager to please and finding its legs. The constituent parts are immaculate, professional, and evidence veterancy. But in gestalt they seem more like a kitchen sink than a focused game design.

I can see why some folks really like Kingdoms of Amalur. It’s definitely not an awful game at all, but every time I think about it, I feel like I’m hard pressed to come up with something remarkable about it. The combat is fun, fluid, and definitely more interesting than the kludgy tank battles of Skyrim, but frankly Soul Calibur V has an even better fighting system. But the benefit there is that you don’t have to sit through some gnome rambling on about some bullshit sidequest he wants you, some fateless shmoe, to do for a couple of ducats or a treasure you likely don’t need or want. Nor do you have to wander along until you find a bunch of robbers hanging out for you to beat up.

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I don’t know how much longer I’ll stick with the game because it’s just not drawing me in. I loved the demo, but I almost feel like an hour was about all I needed out of this game. I could care less about the inscrutable and completely lifeless stories the game wants to tell me about Tuatha Bobatha and I’m still not clear how they’re going to tie Indiana Jones into the whole Well of Souls thing. If the game were more focused on core competencies- like Torchlight, for example- instead of trying to do it all, I’d probably be more interested. I can’t imagine spending 25 hours of mediocrity with it, let alone the 200 claimed by the developers. It’s almost certainly 200 hours of heartless, autopilot filler.

If the game were some kind of sly comment on the state of modern RPG design or subversive like “Young Americans”, I’d probably adore it. But it isn’t. It feels like product engineering more than game design, and its spiritual plasticity sets it quite far apart from games like Planescape: Torment, The Witcher, Baldur’s Gate, or other classic roleplaying games.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

27 thoughts to “Kingdoms of Amalur: Plastic Soul”

  1. I find myself having a great time with KoA: R.  I think very much because it knows I’m playing a video game.  It doesn’t try to be a world that sucks me in, it just tries to be a really good video game and it largley succeeds.  It’s the same reason I liked Darksiders so much (a better game I”ll admit).  I didn’t give a shit about Death or the end of the world.  I was hyper-aware that I was playing a kick-ass video game that knew it was just a video game and I loved it.  I don’t always want this – a game like Skyrim or Witcher that tries to trick me into being in another world is the usual go to (or shooting people) – but once a year a game that just says “Hey, remember what it was like to play games on the NES/SNES/GENESIS?  Yeah, that’s what I’m doing here, but bigger.”  I fire the game up, activate a quest, kill stuff, complete, repeat.  Doesn’t matter what the quest is.  Two hours later I go to bed.  Maybe it’s the video game equivalent of watching tv – I don’t have to think about it, I just have to play.  And that’s the key, I’m PLAYING – for it’s own sake.

    Oh, and everything you said above Mr. Barnes?  That’s all true, I agree with it all.  Except for that part were I stop playing.

     

  2. Young Americans always gets a bit of a short shrift  because it’s just before the Thin White Duke phase and the Berlin years. Bowie’s album was created by a master who took ultimate control of his environment in a way possibly only rivaled by Zappa. Young Americans was a cold and calculating album used to test the waters of a musical style that was really coming to prominence, but then got hijacked by disco.

    p class=”p1″>Anyway, I see you’re analogy as a pretty good one. I would add though that the things that made “Young Americans” great was missing from Kingdoms of Amalur. First was the multi-headed hydra of the videogame development world. Bowie would go into the studio and record the what he wanted to record with the musicians he wanted to record with. KoA was the super group that had to answer to the whims of each person, this always muddies the waters. Second big problem was the profit motive.  Bowie could have farted for 20 minutes and recorded it and at $4 a record at least made back his advance and recording fees pretty easily. KoA I think will be luck to make even a medium profit.

    p class=”p1″>I think if KoA had a Bowie like project manager and been done with a smaller budget you might have had a GOTY game because the talent was there and folks have been clamoring for a Fable-that-doesn’t-suck for years. KoA is a victim of the current videogame industry.

  3. I must say I very much agree with MisterStatic; I’ve followed this site for quite some time , but I’ve never commented and certainly was not registered. Barnes, while I do not always agree with you, this was a very well done piece. Thank you.

  4. I’ll second this notion.

    While games as a medium are indeed art and often transcend into experiences beyond mere gaming, sometimes it’s nice to just be entertained. To turn off all but the most basic of receptors and let your motor skills, honed through hours, days and weeks at the arcade of your childhood, take over.

    So yeah, there’s no world worth mentioning.. so.. yeah, there’s no great draw, no great artistic statement to be had. But damnit, Blue Elf Needs Food Badly, and that’s enough of a reason to dodge, swing and run for the potion.

  5. I’ll agree that this is a truly great piece of games journalism, and is just another example of why I enjoy NHS, regardless of whether I always agree or not. It’s not just about understanding gained through someone else’s perspective, it’s just as much about appreciating the manner in which that perspective is put forward.

    That said, I find Amalur to be a game that’s inherently about expectation. Now, granted, in this instance that level of expectation has to a high degree been created by the developers hyping the game as the saviour of rpgs. But what’s new, eh?

    So to have expectations that place the game alongside a Skyrim, for example, I can fully understand being disappointed. Skyrim is guilty of many failings, certainly, but lacking soul is not one of them. And, ironically, part of what gives that game soul is the quirky identity it chooses to reveal at the oddest times. Amalur absolutely lacks that soul.

    But, and here’s my point, so did Titan Quest. Which is really, for my money, the game that Amalur should be compared to. And if viewed from that perspective, what you suddenly have is a game that possesses a combat system as engaging (and arguably better) than Titan Quests, with a main quest and side quests that provide far more depth and variety. Titan Quest worked because it was a grind fest. Grinding of loot, XP and abilities, with the ability to respec for gold, and a template that is closer to Amalur than any other comparison I’ve read. I’d even go as far as to say this isn’t really an rpg, it’s a hack ‘n slash.

    So my question is, would your opinion and rating of the game change when viewed from that perspective? Twenty hours in, and I’m not only enjoying it more with each session.

  6. I am with you, this game has zero credibility as far as world-building goes.  I am leaving forest land for… desert land!

    But it’s still great.

    I am not as musically erudite as Snr. Barnes, but to put it a different way, sometimes I enjoy a deep meaningful symphony, sometimes I like rap, and other times I just want to listen to shitty bubblegum pop because it manages to entertain me despite itself.

    Amalur is squarely in that last category.  I don’t think it’s shitty, but it is in no way a triple-A title, yet I am having way more fun with it than I probably should be.  I haven’t been able to play in a couple of days and I’m actually really missing it.

  7. I tried the demo and it hated more then how much a British Second Wife hates her step children.  It truely was that bad.

    However, I keep hearing mixed things from people.  The comabt system seems to be solid but everythign else seems flat.  Sounds to me like a perfect rental. 

  8. Gaming history tells us that most games copy each other for a long period of time.  Every once in a while a developer will make a game that alters that genre or create a new one, but in the meantime, it’s all been the same.  So apparently Kingdom of Amular was the straw the broke the camel back, which baffles me.  RPG games have followed the same formula for decades.  FPS games close to follow. 

  9. Nice analogy Barnes.  I’m not a major music aficionado, but your description reminds me a lot of Beck’s Midnight Vultures as well.  Regardless, the point about Amalor is pretty good.  To continue the theme, it’s kind of like when you get music supergroups together that seem to cancel out what made them special.  Best example off the top of my head would be my opinion of Audioslave.  Everything looks good on paper, and they typically represent their individual strengths well enough, but what was special about Soundgarden or Rage is just missing for me.

  10. I’ve been kind of surprised by the negativity this game is getting on NHS.  I guess you all got addicted to Skyrim, which I wasn’t even willing to give a chance after having been bored out of my mind by Oblivion, but I’m definitely enjoying KoA:R. 

    It seems to be a common theme to say the game is soulless, but (although I’m only a little ways into the real story quest thing) I’m getting the feeling that what it really lacks is consequence.  Not unlike an MMO, I get the sense that, although my character is supposedly capable of incredible things, I can’t really impact the world.  But calling it soulless seems way too harsh to me.  Offhand, without being exactly steeped in fantasy lore, the way the immortal Fae have built a culture around doing the same things over and over again presents a fun commentary on the lives of video game characters.  I’m not sure if the game is going to delve into this deeper or if it’s just going to be a surface analogy, but it doesn’t seem pointless and it’s not soulless. 

    I’ve certainly taken everyone’s advice and I’m not going out of my way to complete every quest available, but it’s fun to enter a new area, talk to the various residents and explore the countryside before moving on.  Their stories might not be able to compare to Fallout 3, but that’s a really high bar to set.  Their stories are certainly enough to hold my attention and I’ve appreciated the history that comes from the environments as well (although the Lore Stones would be much more useful if I could go back and read what they said). 

    I guess I just don’t know why this game seems to be rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.  I’ll admit I had pretty low expectations, but right now my main complaint is that there aren’t enough enemies to kill wandering around the world, which makes it feel pretty empty.  Mainly, though, I’m not typically a fan of American fantasy RPGs and I’ve definitely enjoyed my time here much more than either Oblivion (which I quit after 4-6 hours) or Dragon Age (which I quit after 10-12 hours).  So, it’s doing something right by me.

  11. Just to clarify my last statement in my post above – I agree in the sense that I can see the reasoning behind Mr. Barnes’ judgements being leveled against Reckoning.  But those things certainly aren’t ruining the game for me, and as I detailed above might actually be one of the reasons I’m enjoying it so much.

  12. I don’t agree with your logic at all. All FPS games are hardly the same and it’s an invalid shortcut to assume that they’re all copies of each other. Call of Duty is very different from Halo. I will give you that there are games that have attempted to mimic aspects of those games (such as Homefront, for example) but there’s a big difference between being influenced by a game or maintaining current trend and simply following.

    FPS games are like death metal. A Taylor Swift fan might hear a record by Death and and a record by Possessed and not really be able to tell them apart. But for people that are really into that music, the differences are apparent. I’m a big fan of FPS games and in particular the more “alternative” FPS games, and I think it’s a completely disingenuous argument to suggest that they’re all the same or that they’ve been exactly the same since Doom (or Wolfenstein 3D).

    RPG games have NOT followed the same formula for decades. The RPG titles of the 1980s- Ultima, Wasteland, Wizardary, and so forth- look, play, and feel very different from the RPGs of the 1990s or 2000s. Your argument also doesn’t account for differences between Western and Japanese RPG design, MMORPGs, roguelikes, Bioware-style dialogue-heavy RPGs, action RPGs, text-based RPGs, open world RPGs, or any number of other variations or changes to the formula. A formula that really isn’t all that much about _role playing_ to begin with. Futzing around with equipment and stats is not role playing.

    The problem with Amalur, as stated, is that it’s too studied and purposefully designed to accomodate almost every tenant of modern, post MMORPG design.

  13. You know, it’s funny because when I was thinking about this article I was considering actually writing more from that “supergroup” angle…I’ve been listening to the Electronic albums lately (Bernard Sumner of New Order and Johnny Marr from The Smiths with Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys and occassional help from Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk) and although there’s a couple of tremendous singles (“Getting Away With It” in particular), it definitely has the sense that Amalur has that it’s good, but it dosen’t have that chemistry that these folks had in the original teams or bands. That “specialness” is gone, and in that is something resembling soul, I think.

    There is also that sense of heightened expectation when proven successful creative folks get together.

    “Midnight Vultures” is a good record too…and yes, it does have a similar kind of artificiality to it, and Beck is definitely doing that on purpose. Man, I haven’t heard “New Pollution” in years.

  14. The thing about expecations and Amalur as far as I’m concerned is that I really didn’t have many. I think Salvatore is a pedestrian fantasy writer, I don’t think I’ve ever liked anything Todd McFarlane has done after Spawn, the whole Ken Rolston thing is sort of lost on me because I’m not bananas for Bethesda, and I don’t know what team Curt Schilling plays quarterback for. All I know is that he’s a rich game nerd that owns the rights to Advanced Squad Leader.

    I agree about Skyrim- there is definitely a much stronger sense of _living_ in that game exactly because of that loose, anything can happen sense. It isn’t nearly as structural or contained as Amalur.

    I loved Titan Quest. It was HUGELY addictive and the skill system was awesome. But it was also a post-Roguelike Diablo antecedent, not a full blown “open world” RPG. The problem is that Amalur has enough layers of mechanics, concepts, and storyline that it dilutes the entire game. I think you might be right that if it were wholly focused on being a hack-and-slash lootfest then it would probably be a better game. That’s kind of what I was getting at when I said that I’d like it more if it stuck to core competencies.

    Just to reiterate though, I don’t think the game is bad. It’s good. It’s just empty.

     

  15. That’s a great point, distinguishing the more artist-focused creation of a record and the more team-based collaboration of game design. And it does loop back again into that whole “supergroup” concept. The thing people forget about when they get excited about supergroups is that the constituent members are usually coming from bands or groups where there is a particular chemistry that brings out the best in all members. Take them out of that context, and something usually gets lots.

    That’s also a good point about budget, financing, and performance expectation- it’s a huge title with heavy promotion, so it’s very hard for it to be that subversive, innovative Fable-that-Doesn’t-Suck that I think we all kind of want.

    For the record, “Young Americans” is my all time favorite Rock Band number. 100% on simultaneous bass and vocals on expert.  I really know that song.

  16. You’re getting at the reasons why I love Platinum Games (also Treasure, Cave, and some of Suda 51′s stuff). I absolutely love for games to completely be video games and absolutely wallow in the medium’s syntax, iconography, and grammar. I love it when a game has a power-up that’s a big floating strawberry or when I hit something and gigantic numbers tell me how much damage I did.

    But for me, Amalur isn’t really attempting that. It’s pretense isn’t really in that frame of mind, and it’s obviously not over-the-top and post-modern like that.

    Funny that you bring up Darksiders, because I really liked it. I was TOTALLY aware that it was one big homage to the Link to the Past formula, but I still had a good time and yes, it had that “you are playing a video game” feeling. But it still had that intangible sense of heart and soul there, it felt affectionate instead of academic. That counts for a lot, I think.

    I definitely appreciate the sentiment you’re expressing here though, regardless.

  17. I wouldn’t say that I’m completely negative about the game. It’s really very well made. It just doesn’t engage me like I had hoped it would.

    Interesting comment about consequence- I think that’s getting at those sort of intangible things where the game goes wrong. It really feels like this whole world is set up for you to encounter, but it never feels like it’s alive without you. Almost like the characters are just sitting there waiting for you to talk to them to make them come to life or something. But when you do something, the impact feels minimal. The way crime is handled is so perfunctory and off hand, it really shows how features are there simply to tick off a box on a design document.

    I don’t know if the game will go that deep with the recurring fate concept, I doubt it will. But that could be a very cool subtext for a more high-minded game to pursue.

  18. I like all kinds of music- and games- too so I see where you’re coming from.

    You know, it may be that this game has such pointed, focused aspirations on establishing its AAA “cred” that some of the clinicalness and coldness comes from how calculated it is on those terms. It is like one of those modern bubblegum pop songs that brings in a little hip-hop, a little house, and a little rock to try to please the broadest demographic.

    There’s a lot to enjoy in the game, I’m really not surprised to see you and others getting into it.

  19. The problem with supergroups are that you’re generally focused on the ‘stats’ and nothing else.  Not unlike the Peyton Manning to 49ers rumors that were cropping up here lately.  On paper that sounds outstanding, but from a chemistry standpoint it’d likely never work.  Also, there was a situational specialness in Indianapolis that I don’t think would instantly transfer with Peyton to San Francisco, but as a fan you’re generally not thinking about that sort of thing.

    You know, sometimes I think part of the problem with supergroups are that in order to be part of one you have to be at a certain point in your career (aka ‘super’ for past works), and I’m often convinced that most people lose the spark/hunger/what-have-you by the time they achieve that status.  Countless examples of that in music.  So, in the end a supergroup is a bunch of unhungry artists there because they were previously awesome and believe that all it takes is surrounding yourself with equally regarded people.  But maybe that’s a tangent.

  20. It doesn’t really matter to me what Amalur was trying to do, what matters is what it IS doing.  Regardless of the designers intentions to create a deep AAA title, what they actually did was create a throwback game that makes me feel like I’m playing an old Genesis game (Landstalker! Or some such).  Somebody talks at me, I kind of pay attention, then I get to engage in some really solid gameplay.  Chaining together a solid combo gets me a squirt of dopamine.  Landscape and environment design is fantastic.  Controls are smooth.  Crafting is engaging without punishing me for doing it or not doing it.  The point-allocation is easy to use but allows thoughtful placement of points.  It is a game that is full of good systems that play well and mesh well.  Everything is designed to allow me to work towards a reward rather than avoid a punishment or suck up my time uselessly (which lately seems ot often be the case). That’s a good game.

    I think in some respects we’ve been trained to have a game present the so-called “soul” to us, rather than seek it out, or create it on our own through the act of playing the game.  I’m excited to watch the industry transform towards story and really build up the idea of what a game can do in terms of delivering an emotional punch, but it seems to me that sometimes comes at the expense of the joy of just playing a game.  There’s some kind of tie back there to the rise of indie gaming, but laying that out seems like an aweful lot of typing right now.

  21. Your comment reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago when we were talking about  punk and early UK indie versus new bands and established band still performing/recording. He said one of the most astute things about why bands in those genres today simply aren’t as vital or engaging.

    They’re not desperate. There are no “last chance” recording sessions. There’s no kids scraping together pennies to by a broken guitar at a pawn shop because they’re so desperate to play music. There’s no hunger.

    I think you’re on to something here. The guys that made Amalur have nothing to prove. They’re all doing well for themselves and are all upper middle class if not outright wealthy. There’s no desperation in what they’re doing in Amalur. They’ve got nothing to prove other than that the game will sell.

    That’s totally on the money about the whole “supergroup” thing too, and could very well be why almost all are disappointing.

  22. I don’t think it feels anymore souless than Skyrim. But I’m the type of guy who gets his quest and goes to the flashy arrow.

    That said the game isn’t good, but it is fun.

    What I’ve done at this point is stopped doing the sidequests and started knocking out faction quests and the main quest. Everyone else can stand their with an exclamation point over their head until I trade it in.

  23. I agree with all of your thoughts about the soul of the game.  There’s a lot of issues with the structure of the game.

    But, you gloss over the combat so quick, it seems like it doesn’t matter.

    I love Skyrim’s world, but its combat was some of the worst I’ve ever seen.  I can only do two seperate things without having to pause?  That seems like a pretty terrible design decision.

    In Amalur, the action is fast, frantic, and fun.  I’ve never played an RPG that has as fluid of a combat system.  Yes, the game feels like an MMO where the world would be static if the player wasn’t there.  But when we get down to what people do 60-70% of the time, Amalur is fantastic.

    I’m a little confused as to why you talk about only RPG’s for the entire post except when you talk about Amalur’s combat (which you then put it against Soul Calibur).  If you’re going to compare the world to every other RPG, then you should also compare the combat to every other RPG.

    You’re entirely correct that a large portion of this game feels like a checklist.  But you’re discounting the combat system which is one of a kind in this genre.

  24. That’s a fair point, but again it goes back to what I’m trying to say about the game sticking to what it does best. I don’t really buy the “combat is good…for an RPG”  thing. Yes, it is better than most RPG combat including a lot of great action RPGs. But we start getting close to questioning whether the game is an RPG or a brawler with heavy RPG elements. It might be the the latter.

    Soul Calibur probably isn’t a fair comparision because the development team there is entirely focused on the fighting system. But that’s a purpose-built game versus a checklist-built one. It’s also an established system, whereas Amalur is not barring its obvious influences that are more brawlers than RPGs (there’s that thing again).

    The problem is that there’s so much RPG stuff from the 2012 RPG Designer’s Handbook that you can’t get around it. So yeah, I agree, the combat is unusually good for an RPG…but in comparison to Bayonetta or Arkham City (the gold standards for third-person fighting IMO), does it really hold up? Or is it just checking off boxes from THAT list?

  25. All of your points are excellent here.

    My sister and I were chatting about the combat and we arrived at a conclusion.  I would love the combat in Amalur a whole lot more if mistakes were punished more.  I can carry a hundred health potions and cover up dumb mistakes.  I think the combat in Amalur would be near the level of Bayonetta and Arkham City if there was more consequence.  There are amazing parry attacks and excellent juggling, but why do that if you only have to use a potion to cover up a weakness in your base combat?

    All in all though, I’ve finished the game and enjoyed it immensely despite its faults.

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