IGN Review of Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom
Games typically try and unite an audience. After all, publishers and developers are looking to sell as many products as possible which means hitting as many markets with one title as they can. For the end user that translates to a game that attempts to bend genres and combine them into one package. Sometimes that means a racing game with action elements, other times we'll see a strategy game with a hint of role-playing character customization to spice things up. When it works, the games can be great, but when it doesn't things come apart at the seams in the worst way.
The Kingdom Under Fire series has always been rooted in strategy elements with touches of leveling and spellcasting like you'd find in most RPGs. With Circle of Doom however, the developers at Blue Side decided to move in a different direction -- a direction that puts players on a course for button-mashing action. Gone is any element of strategy. There are RPG customization elements similar to past iterations, but these do nothing to lift Circle of Doom. Are there enjoyable elements to be found? Yes, but only for the most hardened of dungeon crawlers among us.
Kingdom Under Fire's strongest point is its use of the six different "storylines," one for each of the playable characters. Each storyline differentiates itself from the other so you feel a bit like you're playing a separate adventure rather than just a new character. Play styles also vary from hero to hero. Using different characters forces you to alter tactics to take advantage of their different skills. Duane, for example, is slow and lumbering so I had to carry a big whoopin' stick to lay the hurt when I got the chance, whereas Leinhart -- who many will remember from the last Kingdom Under Fire game -- is much faster and plays much closer to Ryu Hayabusa with fast sword slashes and shuriken tosses but without any of the inventive combos or counters.
As we said, this latest Kingdom Under Fire is about action. While you'll stumble across plenty of pieces of armor, weapons and items, it's clearly all about hacking up enemy after enemy… after enemy. Sadly that's Circle of Doom's greatest flaw. The inherent design -- which puts players on a painfully linear path from stage to stage to battle against hoards of enemies -- essentially cripples the experience. It's clear that the developers had the notion that this might not be enough to satiate the appetite of Kingdom Under Fire veterans, so to change it up they added the oddly convoluted system of idols.
As you progress along your predetermined path you'll stumble upon three different idols. There are the Idols of Death, Greed and Love and they show up randomly at predefined spots throughout a level. They act as save points and provide your character a place to take a nap from the action (more on the odd dream world of Circle of Doom later). They also allow you to store some of your items since you'll run out of space in your inventory in a hurry. Not only can you store little bits of goodness here, but you can also synthesize (read: "imbue" for RPG vets) weapons and other items together to make them more powerful. The process of synthesizing items is nothing more than investing the gold that you accrue to up the chances of success then pairing items together in hopes of creating something more powerful. The whole thing feels very undercooked and tacked on. Why don't my items level up by assigning experience points or through general use?
Then there's the aforementioned dream world which is easily one of the oddest conventions I've seen in a videogame in recent memory. Rather than delivering a traditional storyline through the usual methods of in-game cinematics or bona fide cut-scenes we have to warp to an alternate dimension in which your chosen character converses with characters in the dream world to unearth what passes for a plot. There are no inventive dialogue trees that bend differently depending on your responses. Instead you'll have to speak to the characters at the proper time to unlock different quips and monologues. It feels like something that would have been passable in titles from the last-generation but is definitely not in this one.
All of this might be okay if the action was engrossing, perhaps having the same feel as Ninja Gaiden (something the developers were clearly striving for with some of the quicker-moving characters) but the combat is reduced to nothing more than mashing the same buttons over and over without a single true combination in sight. I had countless battles where I'd walk up to a group of enemies, stand at a safe distance and launch my ranged attack over and over. A few would turn and look in my direction, maybe they'd even lumber over, but I it was all too often that I was able keep myself at a distance and take down a gaggle of bad guys. Then there are the times when you're surrounded by baddies and can't escape the animation of getting hit. It happens repeatedly and there's nothing you can do about it.
In an effort to add some new spice into the formula, there are snazzy magical abilities that can be unlocked. It's just too bad that some of these spells, such as Clap, are completely worthless in battle. No joke, they do absolutely nothing to help you. Others like Chain Lightning are more impressive, but the mechanic of selecting your chosen skill and then having to take out a certain number of different baddies to earn that power feels forced when you have the natural experience point progression system at work elsewhere in the game.
That not only speaks to the limited nature of the two-button -- sometimes three or four buttons if you can accrue a few spells -- combat but it also has to do with the almost total lack of AI. You'll travel across six good-sized regions, each with its own look and feel, but the enemies in each are entirely too similar to one another. They have the requisite new skins and color palette, but their behaviors are identical. They slowly stomp towards you and launch their melee attacks or sit in one spot and launch their arrows, fireballs or whatever manner of ranged offense they have with no change in sight. It truly is painful to see how stupid these guys can be.
Fear not Kingdom Under Fire fans, the gameplay is not without one shining star. It's clear that Circle of Doom was meant to be played cooperatively, though without the ability to play locally some gamers might be left scratching their heads (we're with you). You and three friends can link up online and hop in and out of one co-op game, so long as the host doesn't leave. You can swap items and aid each other in combat just as you'd expect. The story and gameplay don't change in any way. The experience of Circle of Doom is enhanced greatly by playing on Xbox Live, but in this day and age there needs to be more to a game than a mode that expects gamers to sit and play a nearly 40-hour adventure with their friends online. At least one as directionless as this.
The audio and visual presentation of Kingdom Under Fire is another positive aspect of the package. While the graphics won't earn it a place on anyone's mantle, they do offer worlds that have a very different visual flavor from one to the next. The enemy designs, and this doesn't carry over to their behavior, certainly do a good job of fitting into their given world with some gruesome models and equally as eloquent designs where appropriate. The frame rate hitches here and there, but it's in such odd spots that it never disrupts the action.
The aural offering is also more good than bad with a reasonably powerful soundtrack that chimes in when moments of action are about to transpire. The main theme that you'll hear on the menu screen does a good job of preparing you to go to battle, now if there were only more to do. The dialogue drops the ball and sounds cheesier than it intends. Characters try and sound deep, brooding and evil at times but they occasionally come off as comical.
©2008-01-09, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved