The latest iteration of the Kingdom Under Fire series sees a complete genre shift. The previous console games were tactical combat balanced with RPG-lite progression, whereas Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom takes us down the road of action adventure with a bigger focus on level progression and item upgrades.
At first glance it’s easy to pan this game as a simple button-masher with the typical overacting that has followed the KUF series like the dust-cloud behind PigPen. I’m pleased to say that, although the progression and storyline are slow to develop and at the onset are hard to follow, there is some gaming happiness to be found if you are either patient or enjoy item collection that rivals Diablo II.
Let’s get to the nitty gritty, shall we?
The visual presentation found in Circle of Doom is consistent; what I mean is that is what is good is consistently good, and what’s bad never changes.
The art and the character models and presentations is stylish and uniquely Kingdom Under Fire, from the pretty to the grotesque you’d not mistake it for any other game. The respective characters have different types of weapons to choose from and a decent visual variation within those types; these are shown on the character which helps keep the immersion. It’s not a full paper doll dressup game, but it’s got more than enough variation to keep it from being repetitive.
The bad points are, however, more than just a little obvious. From the sometimes wonky camera angles during boss fights to frequent graphical tearing while swinging the camera while moving, it seems like they didn’t get all the problems worked out before the game shipped. The backgrounds are well done, with exception given to the one indoor level where the textures are so overused it is easy to get lost with all the repetition.
I’d just like to mention that the game starts you off with blood turned off; turning it on changes it to a much more visceral presentation, and should have been on by default.
The problem with hack-n-slash games is that the sounds get used over and over and … well, you get the idea. Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom is no different. The positional audio is well done though, so once you recognize the sounds made by certain monsters, you know exactly what is behind you.
The voice acting is neither excellent or abyssmal. There are some characters that are overacted and they tend to stand out, and some of the NPC’s tend to keep repeating the same thing until you’ve progressed further.
The music is good and although I never felt the need to change it, given that this is on the 360, feel free to replace the music with something from your own collection at any point in time. I recommend Tool, as the tone fits the mood.
BlueSide did a decent job using the buttons on the 360 controller, but it’s just too bad they didn’t allow you change things up or use the directional pad for anything. A and X are your two weapon attack types, B and RT are your magical abilities. From there you have Y to interact, pick up, or use a “detection” enhancement which lets you see what item drops are as well as revealing invisible enemies. You also have two potion slots that can have health or recovery potions assigned to LB and RB buttons.
The one terrible part of the control in this game is movement within the environment. The maps are linear and your character runs into invisible fences before they even get close to anything solid. It’s a little jarring, and the sacrifice they made to avoid clipping issues (where parts of you pass through walls) was a bad trade-off. There is one other problem with the invisible fence: items can drop outside the fence and then are, unless you happen to have a character that can “pull” items with a special ranged attack, completely inaccessible.
The left trigger (LT) is used to aim in first person, and when using ranged attacks or magic this is the preferred method; the only problem is you need to use your right thumbstick to aim and hit the A, X, B or RT at the same time. This can be cumbersome and would have been solved with being able to change my controller configuration.
Here comes the love and the hate. The game is a mix of Ninety-Nine Nights and Diablo II; frantic hack-n-slash combat with endurance limitations coupled with leveling up your stats, picking up tons of item drops and learning new skills. Circle of Doom has so many appealing qualities it would be hard to not recommend, were it not for the glaring problems with the game.
First off, it is a frustrating start if you’ve selected a character with slow combat skills such as Regnier`s slow swinging blade or Duane and his gattling gun that takes an eternity to start. Sticking with Celine, Kendal or even Leinhart is strongly recommended for the first timer; they get weapon abilities that actually help you in the lower level ranges. That’s not to say the other characters aren’t worth playing; it`s best that you experience them once you know the lay of the land. All the characters have fairly interesting storylines that occur during dream sequences, so each character is worth playing at least once.
Let’s talk about the repetitive nature of combat; you are meant to play the same levels over and over and over again. As a matter of fact, for you to unlock skills (aka combat skills and magic spells) you often need to reach a kill quota to learn it. This means using the oracles to teleport back to places where the required monsters are. Sure, they randomize the map so you don’t always have the identical layout, however there are no two ways about it; expect to be killing the same enemies over and over again.
Variation in melee combat is not without it’s fair share of problems either; you can use AAAAAAAAA or XXXXXXXX. Take your pick. You could change things up with AAAAAX or XXXA but it won’t do anything special, you’ll just be either fighting with one weapon and then switching to the other. There is a little more depth once you have weapons with different stats and abilities (think powerups like ice damage or piercing) but ultimately the melee combat formula is the same; try to wear out your A and X buttons, and little to-no interoperability. Magic and ranged combat also have the same inherent flaws; shoot until you can’t, backpedal, repeat.
On the last sour note, boss fights are hectic, and I’d put forth that BlueSide was trying to get the 360 to go head-to-head with Nintendo on the category “Most controllers thrown through a television screen”. Thankfully the autosave feature works very well, and if you can’t handle the boss you can always teleport back to a different level and build yourself up to give it a go later on.
Now if it sounds like the gameplay is horrible and this is a game to walk away from, hold on a second. I’ve given you the hate, and now I’m going to share with you the love: Items. The ability to synthesize items to create new and potentially more powerful items is a terrific draw to the game; where I compared the system to Diablo II (collecting fallen treasure en masse) Circle of Doom takes it one step further.
Rather than being limited to finding and donning items simply because they are incrementally better, Circle of Doom lets you take that item and mash it together with your existing equipment. Find a ring with fire protection? Synth a compatible weapon with and add the ring and voila, you have a percentage chance to set you enemies on fire with each swing.
When you first start out the items only seem to average each other out; the synth engine is pretty indepth and there are intracacies that are best left to buyers of this game as you won’t really start seeing the depth of it until your character is more than half-way through the first run-through.
You can level each of the six playable characters to 120, so don’t be thinking that once you’ve cleared an area that you won’t be back again. Once you’ve beaten the game you unlock harder difficulties so there is even more fun to be had beating your A button into oblivion. Also there are a ton of cool items that can’t really be accessed until you’ve created them, so expect to sink a lot of time into killing naked fat men chained to spikes that leap up from the ground.
Oh, and did I mention my favorite part about the replay value to this game? Co-operative. That’s right folks, outdoor dungeon-crawling with up to 3 friends. Monsters that ramp up in difficulty with each player added and ninja-looting galore. Having a mixed party that works to support each other. Weapon and Armor ability that works with other teammates.