This is a post about an add-on for the game Kingdoms of Amalur: Recoking. You may wish to read the earlier post about the base game first. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Recokoning is, as everyone says, too long. Surely, the last thing we need is more of it? And yet, when I played it, I found it dragged the most in the middle sections of the game but then picked up towards the end, such that I was actually sad to see the finale. Against all odds, I wanted more.

Well, reader, there is more. Amalur received two pieces of DLC (that’s “downloadable content” for those who don’t know) before developers 38 Studios imploded in a storm of debts and litigation. Each provides a new self-contained area to explore with a new story to follow, new creatures to fight, and new things to do. The first, The Legend of Dead Kel, takes players to a mysterious island in search of the infamous undead pirate for which the DLC is named.

Players can access the Legend of Dead Kel DLC from the city of Rathir, provided their character has reached level 10 by that point (which is nearly guaranteed). When I reached Rathir, I had just waded through Amalur’s slowest and most overlong sections, so I was ready to press on with the main story rather than get sidetracked by DLC. But players could take a detour into the Legend of Dead Kel at that point if they so desire. There’s a navy recruiter in the pub, doing a very bad job of enticing adventurers to track down Dead Kel and bring him to justice. It seems a few have already tried, and none have returned, so he’s a bit pessimistic about it. In fact, the only captain he can find who’s willing to set sail for this is as over-eager as she is unqualified, generally regarded as the worst sailor in the city. Her name is Captain Brattigan, which almost certainly has nothing to do with this guy. But now that the player is here, I’m sure everything will be fine, right?

One shipwreck later, and players find themselves stranded with Captain Brattigan on the island of Gallows End, where there are a lot of odd things going on. Not only does this appear to be Dead Kel’s base of operations, but there’s a whole village of castaways who seem to be protected from his raids, which they claim is due to the mystical powers of their strange island god. Making us feel slightly better about Brattigan’s complete ineptitude at sailing is the fact that the island attracts shipwrecks at an alarming rate, with new castaways arriving constantly and starting new lives in the village to be safe from Dead Kel and his undead pirate crew. Unfortunately, Dead Kel attacks those who stray from the village, and sinks any ship trying to leave the island. It’s clear he needs to meet a more permanent end.

Gallows End, like the base game, is made up of small interconnected areas, although they don’t all have their own names and themes like their continental brethren, and they’re a little smaller too. I estimated the island is equivalent to two or three of the named locales from the base game, but rather than having their own stories and quests, things transpire across the island as a whole. There’s nothing revolutionary about these quests or the larger story they tie into, but it’s well told and retains the imagination displayed in the base game’s plot. I’ve described the premise above, but things get weirder than I expected, and Dead Kel himself ends up only playing a small role in it all. In some ways, the story is a smaller version of the epic tale told in the base game, with the fateless hero once again the only one able to alter events and gradually win over a populace that was resigned to its fate. But the smaller scope makes it feel much more personal, something that matters a lot to these locals but is far from a world-ending catastrophe.

As I completed this story line, and the obligatory smattering of side quests, I was ready to pronounce the DLC as more of the same, with just enough extra stuff thrown in to keep it interesting, and a surprisingly interesting tale to uncover. There are some new enemies to fight, a lot of remixed versions of older ones, some pretty beaches to gawp at, and I appreciated that some of the quests seemed designed to accommodate my sneaky play style, letting me stealthily dispatch skeletal pirates one by one as I crept through their ranks. There’s some more world-building about the other places in Amalur beyond the Faelands, including tales of the Dverga, or sea dwarves, an as-yet-unseen race that would surely have played a role in the larger MMO that 38 Studios intended to create before they went under. There’s even some new original score from composer Grant Kirkhope, which retains the high quality of the original soundtrack. I was pleased with all of this, and getting myself ready to move on to the second and final piece of DLC.

But then I was surprised to find that The Legend of Dead Kel didn’t end once I finished the story. You see, alongside the various quests, players have the opportunity to reclaim a ruined Dverga keep near the center of the island, and slowly rebuild it with the help of a gnome castaway. It takes time for the gnome to build things, so I would typically give him some materials I’d scavenged and then set out on my next quest, returning later to find he’d made some nice additions. When I finished the story before the keep was finished, I figured I’d just need to gather a few more things and I’d be done with it. But work on the keep kept going, for far longer than I expected. And it was far more interesting than I expected too. Soon I was recruiting castaways to join my keep, and they all had new things for me to do. The beast trainer could tame some of the wild creatures and keep them in the keep courtyard if I provided the right food, and each domesticated animal granted me a small but permanent combat bonus. A scholar who came to my new library could translate ancient Dvergan texts that I uncovered in my travels, telling a new story each time. A painter needed my help to restore some paintings in the great hall, each telling a little more about the history of the keep. Once I recruited a scout, I could send him out to salvage items from new shipwrecks. Eventually I had a diplomat who could travel to nearby settlements to arrange trade and establish peace treaties.

Not only are all of these more involved than I first suspected — the scouting and diplomacy especially hiding unexpected intricacies — once I’d completed construction on everything in the keep, I found I could now sit in the liege’s seat and take petitions from my subjects. Each person I’d recruited to live in the keep had a new quest for me, letting me get to know each of them a bit better. These quests fit each castaway’s personality, and range from tackling serious external threats to helping with everyday life in the keep to humoring some good-natured dares. And there are far more of them than I expected, as I continued to find new castaways I could recruit. There’s easily as much to do for the keep as there is for the main story about Dead Kel and his crew, and of the two, the keep is the standout.

In my post about the base game, I mentioned how the player never settles in any one place, making the houses they can purchase feel pointless. The Legend of Dead Kel solves this problem elegantly. Its story is set entirely on the island of Gallows End, so it’s natural to return to a common base of operations throughout. And, crucially, there’s tons to do at the keep, and plenty of reasons to make the player care. Initially, going after Dead Kel is motivated in part by a simple desire to get off the island and back to the Faelands, but by the time I had the opportunity to do that I already had reason to stay. The keep is so much more than just a place to live; it’s a community that players get to build, full of people to care for, and one that even begins to establish itself on the wider world stage as a political entity in its own right. It feels like a place that matters. If I were forced to be critical, I would point out that the mechanics of all of this are very simple, consisting mainly of repeatable tasks with timers on them such that they run in the background (or, if you wish to fast-forward to completion, just rest or fast travel somewhere). Nothing here is a reinvention of how Kingdoms of Amalur works. But it’s remarkable just how evocative these simple systems can be. Building up the keep was a refreshing change from the constant motion that characterizes the base game, and by the end I felt I had a place for my hero to retire.

I do have some criticisms of The Legend of Dead Kel. The main one is its awkward, fumbling attempts at handling romance. This was largely avoided in the base game, but it seems the designers wished to add a little love to the DLC. I made a lot of comparisons between Kingdoms of Amalur and Skyrim when I wrote about the base game, and it’s time for one more: Skyrim features many characters which the player can woo and eventually marry, something I believe was done in response to the multitudes of user-created mods for earlier games in the series that added romantic partners. It seems a large subset of players wanted something like this in their games, so Skyrim offered it. I never pursued any of these romantic avenues when I played Skyrim, but a huge array of male and female characters in the game are available to be married if the player wishes. Race and gender do not matter; players can pursue whoever they wish, or even ignore it entirely as I did. The romantic side of this is a little simplistic, as players just need to gain favor with the object of their affection, often by completing a quest or other task, and then love automatically follows. But at least the system is very open-ended. As is usual for the Elder Scrolls games, the player is free to play the way they want.

There is none of this freedom in the Legend of Dead Kel. As I worked on establishing my keep, I sent my diplomat out to broker peace treaties with settlements on nearby islands and coastlines, a task which required improving relations through trade agreements and tribute first. Upon establishing a treaty with the local Ljosalfar settlement, I discovered that their leader had sent his daughter to be my bride. She was now hanging around in the keep, and would demurely inquire as to when our wedding would take place if I talked to her. There was no dialogue option to tell her I wasn’t interested. She just waits there, and eventually marriage is a requirement to complete a quest. Technically I didn’t have to agree, and could have just left her hanging forever. But it’s clear the designers intended for players to accept. And upon doing so, I was treated to a cringeworthy scene in which the new bride praised my character’s performance the night before. Ugh.

Then things got even weirder. Once I was done with the keep I returned to Captain Brattigan to set sail for the mainland, so I could investigate the second and final DLC for Kingdoms of Amalur. But when my character spoke to her, she revealed that she wished to be lovers. Out of nowhere. Apparently, if players are nice to Brattigan throughout the story line about Dead Kel and his crew, she will decide that it’s time for romance. I was not given any opportunity to weigh in on this. There had been no hints of romantic feelings in previous conversations, just some standard banter. This was especially disappointing because, while I had no romantic interest in Brattigan, I did like her. She’s genuinely funny, which is a rarity in games, and she provides much needed levity to proceedings. I was happy for my character to be her friend and wished that conversations about a romantic relationship hadn’t been thrust upon me, especially since my character had just gotten married, also largely against my will. Neither of these matter at all either, as Brattigan still just waits at the docks to ferry my character between Rathir and Gallows End, and my character’s new wife didn’t get new dialogue at all, still asking about when the wedding would be whenever spoken to. And where Skyrim offers many options for romantic partners, the two available in The Legend of Dead Kel are both Ljosalfar women. Neither of them seemed to care about the hero’s gender or race, but no allowance is made for different preferences on the part of the player. At least the designers didn’t opt for Dokkalfar women, who are universally sexualized in the game to a ridiculous degree. Although The Legend of Dead Kel doesn’t escape that entirely; a merchant I recruited to join my keep was a Dokkalfar woman, who not only flirted with me on occasion, but also accentuated her revealing outfit with a veil covering her face as if to indicate that she should be objectified as much as possible.

It would have been better to just omit romantic options than include ones that are so superfluous and restrictive. But despite that souring the ending, I enjoyed my time with The Legend of Dead Kel. It has more of what makes Amalur compelling and fun, and adds the excellent keep on top of that, finally giving players a place that feels like a home. If you played the overly long base game and somehow still wanted more — as I did — then I recommend checking it out. Who wouldn’t want to retire to a nice island of their own?

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and its DLC are available from Steam and Origin, as well as for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.