KINGDOM UNDER FIRE is one of those bizarre cult franchises which constantly pops up on the radar again and again despite nobody in the mainstream video game community knowing or caring about it. The initial title in the franchise was an unremarkable RTS for the PC which incorporated elements of dungeon crawling RPG action games to stand out from the crowd. The franchise then hit its peak with 2004's KINGDOM UNDER FIRE: THE CRUSADERS, an Xbox title which combined DYNASTY WARRIORS style hack and slash mayhem with RTS gameplay, all wrapped up in incredible visuals. Despite being a critical success, the game was too damn complicated and failed to earn satisfying commercial reception. The next entry in the series, HEROES, met a similar fate. Faced with a dilemma, the producers decided the first title for the next gen systems would have to be dumbed down a bit. Thus, they pooled all their resources together a simpler, lighter and more mindless entry in the franchise with the intent of attracting a new audience as well as appealing to old fans. Hence KINGDOM UNDER FIRE: CIRCLE OF DOOM was born. The game eschews all the strategy elements of its predecessors in favor of a DYNASTY WARRIORS style hack and slash/dungeon crawler setup. Given that KINGDOM UNDER FIRE has never been an exceptional RTS franchise, it stands to reason that it's initial foray into the dungeon crawler genre would also be mediocre. Alas, such speculations would be accurate. CIRCLE OF DOOM, while a lavish production, is probably the most repetitive and mind numbing hack and slash title I've played in a while (although that may be because I've mainly been playing shooters as of late). If you want to play this game, you better have an OCD fixation with the dungeon crawler genre, because that's what this game is all about.
The plot for CIRCLE OF DOOM is different for every character, but there is an overarching story of sorts. Basically, after the war depicted in the last KINGDOM UNDER FIRE game (HEROES...which I've never played), many of the heroes were lost to a void created by the Lord of Darkness, Encanblossa. Awakening in a dreamlike realm, the heroes must come to terms with their pasts, slice the crap out of millions of monsters, and descend into the bowels of Hades to defeat the Dark Lord. Now this story is really just pulled from the instruction manual and the prologue screen as the game itself does a very bizarre job of conveying the plot. Actually, a naive player could easily be fooled into thinking there is no story given how lightly its handled here. Basically, every time the player encounters a rest area amidst all the carnage, he has an option to sleep. If he sleeps, his/her character enters the Dream World, where he/she can converse with other characters from the fictional universe. These conversations are practically the only attempts at storytelling the game offers. Seriously...that's it. It doesn't help that the dialogue in these conversations is incredibly cryptic; heavily based on references to events from the previous games. The problem is if you haven't played all the previous games (like me), then you obviously won't have the foundation to understand these references. Folks who fall into this category are (for a lack of a better word) screwed, and the story will make no sense.
If plot was all that mattered in a video game, then CIRCLE OF DOOM would get an F. Fortunately such is not the case. The gameplay component, the dungeon crawler aspects of CIRCLE OF DOOM, are incredibly prominent and horrendously addictive. If you've played DIABLO or any dungeon crawler in the last 20 years, you know the routine. You walk around nicely realized environments slicing up endless hordes of monsters. Your slicing earns you loot, equipment and experience, which is used to power up your character so he can slice up even bigger hoards of monsters. CIRCLE OF DOOM doesn't take too many risks with this formula. It's just one room to the next filled with hacking and slashing and hacking and slashing and even more. The only elements to break up the carnage are those aforementioned Rest Areas where you can do business with vendors (Idols of Greed/Death/Love) and Sleep. But after that, it's back into the fray for more unremarkable hack and slash action.
The best examples of this genre (I'm thinking especially DIABLO) know how to balance out this system so that's entertaining as well as addictive. New startling monster designs, dynamic environments, an interesting plot (AH-HA!), unique and powerful magical weapons, etc. all keep your initial playthrough feeling somewhat fresh and genuine so that you want to continue and find out what lies over the horizon. CIRCLE OF DOOM does not do all these things. Well...it does, sort of. Just not very well. For example, in DIABLO II, each realm you visited had a diversity of caverns and tombs you could plunder, as well as a number of side quests you could also take on. In CIRCLE OF DOOM however, each realm is composed of several different "levels". These levels all have layouts that are practically identical to one another and look exactly the same. So imagine you enter Realm 3 (a giant mansion). Realm 3 contains 5 floors, each floor looking exactly like the floor above it. Wouldn't you get lost trying to navigate such a maze? Better yet...wouldn't you be bored running through the exact same level design 5 times over? Enemy designs are also repetitive too..the first 3 levels usually contain the exact same enemy types and only in the last 2 will you notice some variation. Side quests are also nonexistent for the most part (apart from trying to learn spells, which is also cumbersome and repetitive). So you're basically just running through the same level design 5 times over fighting the exact same enemies (for the most part) several times over until you reach the end. You fight a boss, move onto the next region, which consists of 5 more identical looking levels and enemies. It just feels so...padded out.
The hacking and slashing, combined with the loot and positive reinforcement, will be your main incentive to continue. I already mentioned before that the hacking and slashing was unremarkable. It's really not THAT bad...the sensation of watching your sword skewer through crowds of enemies and the accompanying sprays of blood, sparks and ferocious screeching of metal are pretty entertaining. The enemy designs are also wildly inventive too, ranging from agile lizardmen to towering plant monstrosities to horned demons which bathe under showers of lava to oozing naked fat men which pop out of the ground and try to suffocate you in their corpulent embrace. Also, the environments, while redundant, at least have enough detail to admire. The sound is also pretty good too. Although the cheesy Heavy Metal soundtrack is annoying, the screeches of your enemies will stick with you for a while to come.
Still, the combat feels awkward. The game implements a Stamina Bar which controls how much you can swing your weapon. Every time you swing, you lose a certain amount of stamina, which recharges at a rate dependent on what you have equipped. Now since the action is modeled off DYNASTY WARRIORS (like the previous games), you would expect it to be very fast paced and combo heavy. Wrong. There are combos, but they are restricted. The stamina bar determines how many attacks you can unleash in a combo. So if you don't have enough stamina, you can't do a full combo. The system is very odd though. Sometimes your character will even freeze in an attack animation mid combo until the stamina recharges to the right level. This all contributes to making the combat feel kind of slow paced and clunky...not at all like DYNASTY WARRIORS. You can get Stamina by applying your XP points toward the Stamina Bar. Fortunately, if you've got the right equipment and have attributed your experience points appropriately, the stamina bar recharge rate will offset your attack expenses and you should be able to perform combos pretty frequently. But once again, this is something you'll have to work at to get...expect to be able to perform only a couple swings at a time early on in the game.
CIRCLE OF DOOM is not a great game. However that's to be expected. With the exception of THE CRUSADERS, I don't think the KINGDOM UNDER FIRE franchise has ever produced an entry which could be considered "great" (and even CRUSADERS felt more experimental than a fully realized masterpiece). Personally I thought it was just way too repetitive and awkwardly programmed. Unless you have a fetish for the dark fantasy world of KINGDOM UNDER FIRE (like me), there are better options out there. If you're new to the franchise, I'd recommend you start with CRUSADERS anyways.
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