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Kingdoms of Amalur delivers high fantasy, deep philosophy in equal measure

A screenshot from Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a vast new fantasy role-playing game from a dream team of game makers and storytellers

Electronic Arts

Just moments ago I made the decision to focus my review of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning – a hugely ambitious open-world fantasy role-playing game conceived and designed by a dream team of collaborators including Bethesda Softworks alum Ken Rolston, comic book artist Todd McFarlane, and fantasy novelist R.A. Salvatore – on the fascinating ideas contained within its sprawling narrative.

But now I can't help but wonder whether I really made this decision myself, or if it was foisted upon me by inalterable circumstances.

I blame the game, which explores concepts concerning fate, freedom of will, and how all of our actions, no matter how small, come with repercussions.

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Players take on the role of a soldier recently killed in combat and newly resurrected. This is the first time such a thing has happened in Amalur, and it is a harbinger of future unpredictability in a world which, until now, has been guided by the comforting principles of destiny and determinism.

As we set out on a journey through Amalur's colourful kingdoms, we slowly learn that its people are resigned to be bound by – and, indeed, in some ways rely on – their fates. Humans employ "fateweavers" to make sense of the threads that tie their destinies like knots, while an immortal race of humanoid fairies, or "fae," see the world as timeless and unavoidably repetitive. Even the planet's trees have an understanding of the future's unswerving relationship with the past. Our hero's unanticipated arrival – and, more importantly, his apparent lack of a predetermined future – is cause for alarm for all of them.

He disrupts the course of fate for everyone with whom he comes in contact. Sometimes it's for the better, as when he alters an acquaintance's long-known destiny to end up as an ingredient in a monster's stew. But it could just as easily destroy future events deemed good and desirable. Hence, why the insane leader of an army of undying soldiers to the East has taken a keen interest in his doings.

In a world devoid of self-determination, the free man is king.

All of us have at one point wondered whether if, rather than turning left we turned right, we might not have avoided some personal disaster in our lives. Most of us have taken this one step further and questioned whether such a choice was even possible, or if we were fated to make our decision through either an infinitely complex series of physical cause-and-effect events or by dint of some great blueprint drafted by an omnipotent intelligence.

Obviously, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning doesn't provide an answer to these thorny questions. It's a fictional world governed not by reality but rather rules conjured by a team of writers and programmers.

But it makes us think about the problem.

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The trolls, gnomes, and fairies we encounter, do battle with, and assist may be pure fantasy, but they are often human enough in motive that we can sympathize with their plights. This forces us to consider the implications of a world with and a world without destiny. Can we blame the creature who, through some mindlessly cruel cosmological force beyond its control, is destined to play the role of a villain? Is there any meaning to be found in a world governed by random chance? Perhaps most importantly, is freedom of will the prized possession many of us believe it to be, or is it merely a delusion we're unwilling to abandon?

These are the ideas that have kept me so enthralled as to invest some 40 hours in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in the space of a mere 10 days, and they're why I will keep me coming back for more over the coming weeks and months.

Of course, I'd be lying if I said my interest didn't also have something to do with its more game-y elements, which, for the most part, I've quite enjoyed.

I have pages of notes on its fast and frenetic combat system, which I was going to suggest is a simpler and more accessible version of the one found in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings thanks to a smart, Zelda-like auto-lock system.

I was going to liken its vast, free-to-roam world to that of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the unofficial monarch of open-world RPGs, but discuss how the latter delivers true openness right from the start while the former parcels it out bit by bit until we finally have a mammoth map upon which to traipse unhindered.

I'd thought to call it the game fans wished Peter Molyneux made instead of Fable; to commend it's try at a branching dialogue system, even if, in the end, it isn't as good as the ones we've seen in both Dragon Age games; and to remark on how its enormous and elaborate fantasy mythos, given life by an excellent cast of voice actors, rivals in scope and drama that of many popular fantasy books.

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But then I thought the Internet would, in the coming days and weeks, likely prove a bountiful resource of such discussion and speculation, and that my few words on the game would be better spent on something different.

Was this a choice that I made? Was it free reasoning? Or could I not have decided differently? Was it destiny? The inevitable result of some indescribably intricate sequence of physical events in the chemistry of my brain? I can't say that I'm certain I know. But, thanks to a video game, I'm giving it some serious thought.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PCs

Developer: 38 Studios, Big Huge Games

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Release: February 7, 2012

ESRB: Mature

Score: 9/10

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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