An assured, substantial fantasy brawler, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning began life as an MMO, and it's tempting to ascribe the game's failings to this mingled inception. The massive, 60-hour-plus world is composed of sloping, easily navigable but seldom invigorating basins that squirrel off into fractionally more labyrinthine dungeons, seemingly built to accommodate parties, not lone rangers.
Penned by novelist R.A. Salvatore, the fiction speaks to multiplayer tropes in spicy ways: it's founded on endlessly cycling heroic tales (read: quests) lived and relived by the immortal Fae - tales that spin awry in response to the tyrannical antics of renegade Fae sect the Tuatha. An MMO world whose static narrative structures are shifting and decaying? It's a sharp conceit, one the script has fun with, though it's suffocated by charmless dialogue direction.
The aesthetic screams World of Warcraft, too - cut together by Todd McFarlane, it has the same cartoony, club-footed charm - but the more sustainable comparison is Elder Scrolls, a series Amalur imitates, sometimes betters and often falls short of. Executive designer Ken Rolston's credits include Elder Scrolls III and IV, and his latest work kicks off like Morrowind held up to a mirror looted from Planescape Torment.
Your character is a lump of shrouded carrion, his or her race, physical traits and stat-skewing patron god fleshed via a gnome post-mortem. Magically restored to life (sans memory, of course), you're left to chart your Destiny as the Fateless One, an individual capable of reshaping fate - or, in other words, the lead character in a role-playing game.
Before you can wrangle with Destiny, you'll need to overcome the sheer awfulness of Amalur's tech. The scenery, models and effects are sub-Fable, yet the engine lumbers like a mage bowed under the weight of Dragon Bones. Load times push past 20 seconds, even for simple interiors, and while the game does an adequate job of streaming the outdoor environment, the tiniest additional burdens flatten it. Characters show up late for cutscenes, popping in halfway through a sentence, architecture wriggles and minor changes to the 2D map aren't always immediate. This deep into the console generation, it's rather a shock to encounter something that wouldn't look out of place on the original Xbox. Installing the game to hard drive is a must, as Big Huge Games has been at pains to point out.
The comfy vibrancy of the art offers some consolation, making a point of the low-key textures, and combat animations are thankfully smooth as silk. Battle is Amalur's biggest saving grace, taking the expected stew of blades, powers and tune-ups and peppering it with Devil May Cry's cocksure adaptability and pace. You can segue between two of the nine weapon classes in real time - pummelling foes with bolts from a mystic sceptre, for instance, then unsheathing the dual Faeblades to slice and scatter them up close.
There are swish combos, delayed attacks, juggles and slams to unlock per weapon, plus spells and abilities like the Flame Mark - Splinter Cell's execution-stacking with added firestorm - and a cunning vortex spell that yanks enemies together so they're more vulnerable to area effect moves. It's nowhere near as technical as a true arcade fighter, but few RPGs can rival this one's dance of death.