Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom gets an action-RPG make-over, trading series’ staple strategizing for button-mashing and dungeon-crawling
The Kingdom Under Fire franchise is best known for its moderate success on the original Xbox; Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders and Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes both earned a cult following on Microsoft’s big black box by offering a unique hack-and-slash and real time strategy hybrid experience.
With Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, the franchise’s next-gen debut, developer Blueside and publisher Microsoft are hoping to transform the series from a modest cult hit to a monster mainstream success by shifting its gameplay focus. The strategy elements from the previous entries have been completely exorcized making way for brand new RPG mechanics and a heavier slant towards non-stop, hack-heavy action. The result may leave the franchise’s faithful following longing for some cerebral strategizing, but may offer seasoned dungeon-crawling addicts a new reason to pick up their gamepads.
We must stress that you’ll find absolutely none of the RTS elements of The Crusaders or Heroes in Circle of Doom; this is a full-on button-mashing action-RPG affair, so please, if you’re a fan of the previous entries, leave your troop management skills at the dungeon door. If you are, however, only looking to litter a fantasy landscape with the limbs of countless underworld beasties, then come right in, your prey is waiting. After selecting one of six warriors, players will embark on a sword-swinging, spell-casting, blood-soaked journey through six lengthy dungeons to uncover the mysteries behind an epic battle between the Lord of Light and the Lord of Dark. We’d love to offer more narrative details, but there really aren’t any; Circle of Doom’s story is near non-existent aside from the most basic tale of good versus evil. Seriously, if you’re looking for narrative depth or engaging character development you’d better pick up a novel because you wont find it here. Of course, with any action-RPG, we generally expect our thumbs to be sorer than our brains by the time the end credits roll; we’re in this for the swarms of enemies falling under our blades, not the promise of thought-provoking drama.
So, does Circle of Doom fill our blood-thirsty bellies with the carnage and chaos we’ve come to expect from a fantasy-themed hack fest? Well, if a brimming body count made possible by a daunting selection of melee and ranged weapons is any indication, then the answer is “yes.” Regardless of which brave warrior you let loose in this unforgiving world, you’ll be faced with endless armies of unearthly grunts looking to foil your quest. In addition, all character classes, from the agile elf hottie to the armored-from-head-to-toe knight (and even the prissy half-vampire pretty boy), have access to more weapons–ranged and close combat–than you’ll know what to do with. In fact, half the fun is discovering which death-dealer best suits your style; do you enjoy clothes-lining a crew of skeletal warriors with a Castlevania-like chain-whip, or would you prefer to take them on one by one with a broadsword that stands as tall as your ass-kicking avatar? The decisions don’t stop there as you’ll also be armed with ranged weapons such as crossbows and arm-cannons that, if carrying the appropriate attack power, can potentially knock a giant tree golem on its splintered ass. However you decide to arm your character, controlling him or her is a breeze; a melee weapon is mapped to one button and a ranged armament to another. While this keeps things simple and fast-paced, some gamers will crave a more combo-heavy experience. Each character is limited to one animation per weapon, so no matter how cool it is watching your warrior skin a sand demon, it can become repetitive as you endlessly jam on the X and Y buttons. If you’ve been button-mashing since Diablo (or Gauntlet for the older folks), then you’ll appreciate Circle of Doom’s simple, quick-paced combat, but if your idea of satisfying swordplay is unlocking and learning combos then you best stick to Ninja Gaiden’s ballet of blades.
Aside from the button-mashing melee, players can learn special abilities to complement their blades-and-bullets repertoire. Physical moves, like dashing head first into a crowd of menacing monsters, can supplement your more traditional blood-spilling means. Additionally, some less hands-on mystical measures, such as the ability to heal, can be learned and acquired. Gaining these extra skills requires you to enter a dream state in a designated area; while dreaming you’ll talk to characters offering new abilities in return for slaying a specific type and number of baddies. Once you’ve, say, slaughtered six rabid plant queens, you’ll return to the dream state and unlock the new skill. The process is slightly tedious, especially for some of the less impressive abilities–we could have done without learning how to stomp on enemies–, but others–like the aforementioned healing spell–is worth the tedium.
Upping the RPG-inspired ante, Circle of Doom also allows crafty gamers to synthesize their own weapons and items. The learning curve for this is steep, and you’ll likely create plenty of useless crap before you get the hang of it. However, the satisfaction you’ll feel after a successful synthesis will likely keep you coming back to this optional mini-game; turning your drab broad sword into a slick looking beast-slayer that’d make Conan jealous is an addictive incentive.
If you find that tinkering with jewels and trinkets in hopes of fashioning a prettier, more powerful sword only distracts you from collecting the heads of your demented enemies, then you can keep things simple by buying and selling gear from merchant idols located in the same safe spot as where you slumber into the dream state. You’ll actually want to visit these idols frequently to unload the ridiculous amount of goodies you’ll loot from the fresh field of corpses left in the wake of each battle; there should be Costco-sized shopping carts stationed at each dungeon’s entrance so we’d have something to carry all the items left by our fallen foes. In a nice nod to these crazy loot drops, the developers have even included an Xbox Achievement challenging players to collect all the items scattered about after a boss battle.
Despite its extra RPG efforts, Circle of Doom is, at its heart, a dungeon-crawling, level-grinding, monster-masher. The synthesizing and skill-learning are great RPG additions to the franchise, but it seems they could have been implemented better to become a more integral part of the overall experience. As is, they serve mostly as an optional distraction from the core gameplay. Still, for genre enthusiasts it’s nice to have customization options beyond the expected leveling-up of your SP and HP. As a carnage-fueled hack-and-slash orgy Circle of Doom mostly gets the job done, although the one-note gameplay can definitely grow repetitive. The linear level design doesn’t do much to break this monotony either; environments are pretty, but aren’t especially varied and offer very little in the way of destructible items. The character designs, on the other hand, are often breathtaking and will have you constantly anticipating what ugly horde might be lurking ahead. The musical score is hit or miss; the atmospheric stuff is appropriately mood-setting, but the cheesy rock anthems can become a bit grating.
With six characters ready for battle, there’s certainly plenty of play packed into Circle of Doom. Playing through with just one hero could take upwards of twenty hours, and 4-player online co-op stretches the fantasy fun even further. If you’re a fan of the tried-and-true action-RPG formula, then this one won’t disappoint. However, if you’ve never understood the satisfaction of slogging through demon-filled dungeons or, more importantly, never stayed up until the sun creeps through the cracks of your drawn blinds in hopes of seeing “Level Up” pop-up on the screen just one more time, then this may not be your cup of mead
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
Environments are a bit bland, but character designs are impressive. 4.0 Control
Simple and straightforward with free camera control. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Score is a mixed bag. Voice-overs are minimal but quality. 3.5 Play Value
Simple, fun, fast-paced hacking and slashing (even better in co-op). Can grow repetitive. RPG elements could have been implemented better. 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.