Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom


Review by · April 1, 2008

We’ve all heard the saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think we’ve all experienced games that, while flawed in many areas, seem to provide a fun experience in the end. And yet, I believe this is the first time in my life that I have ever played a game in which the whole is worse than the sum of its parts. A game which takes above average key elements–sound, graphics, and gameplay–and manages to amalgamate them into a product that is just not fun to play, really deserves notice. Thus, on to my review of Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom.

Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom puts you in charge of one of four characters; Kendal the paladin tank, Regnier the naked elf with a big sword, Celine the speedy elf with a short sword, and Leinhart the half-vampire. There are also two other characters you can unlock, Duane the gun guy, and Curian, the amnesiac paladin tank. You can go through the game together with friends in multiplayer or in single player. Each of the characters has a backstory linked to the previous Kingdom Under Fire title, Heroes. While each character has a separate motivation, they are all veterans of the war between the Age of Light and the Age of Darkness. Every so often, the rulers of the ages swap control, but Light got greedy and didn’t want Darkness to rule, so they went to war and Encablossa, ruler of the Age of Darkness was killed… or so the heroes thought. Instead, they all got transported to Encablossa’s dimension, in which the characters have to save loved ones, face personal demons, etc. It’s not the old save the world concept; you actually probably did that, and now you’re in some sort of hell. This is a somewhat novel take on a game’s plot, and it was ripe for deep character interactions and explorations of the nature of right and wrong, good versus evil, and could have truly become a moral relativist’s field day.

And it might have too, if instead of including interesting, poignant dialogue, the designers made each character’s story nothing more than a tool to facilitate fetch quests and killing sprees. A character’s story goes something like this: meet old guy in a dream, he tells you you’re in Encablossa’s dimension, and to get out or save your friend/lover or have freaky sex you have to kill X number of enemies and find a mcguffin. Then, in order to open up the next part of the story, you have to go through another area that looks very similar to the one you were in before, kill Y number of enemies and find a widget. Lather, rinse, repeat. Now, personally, I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but this game had potential to tell a decent story, and it completely flubbed it. Throughout the game it seemed as if the designers wanted to make a hack-‘n-slash game, which is fine, but half-assing a story to make it seem more legit is kind of a waste of effort and actually detracts from the main focus of the game, which is clearly pushing the A and X buttons.

But let’s say, for a moment, that you’re not looking for a game with a story. No problem, as long as the game has solid gameplay, right? Well, the problem is that KUF: CoD has a solid gameplay system, and yet that system isn’t fun. I actually enjoy a good hack-‘n-slash game every now and then, despite the lackluster quality of its story and characters. If you don’t believe me, check out my Shining Force Exa review. But for some reason, Kingdom Under Fire takes the standard button mash fest and robs it of all its joy. You have your character walk along an extremely linear path, every now and then encountering a horde of monsters. You bash A or X to kill them, get hit sometimes, use a potion, maybe some magic, pick up the loot they drop, and head to the next idol. This accurately describes 99% of your gameplay experience with Kingdom Under Fire. What makes the situation worse is the limited number of enemy types you’ll encounter; I was literally bashing the same lizardmen hordes for the first two hours of gameplay. I guess now I know how MMORPG players feel. Perhaps I’d have gotten more out of the game if I had played multiplayer, but none of my friends wanted to suffer through what, to them, looked to be a particularly uninteresting game, and I don’t have a penchant for online play anyway. The single player mode, then, is pretty devoid of interest, then, so if you do decide to pick up this game, play it with someone else.

When you’re not bashing in the skulls of the same hordes over and over again, you can attempt to synthesize the items you’ve picked up into better items. The system is not well explained in the manual, but fortunately, when you synthesize, the game tells you what the outcome will be, and what you have to pay for a 100% chance of the item synthesizing correctly. The downside is that figuring out what to combine to make better gear is a matter of trial and error, and most combinations result in something worse than you had before. Add to that a more or less limited, albeit upgradeable, amount of inventory space, and you’ll either be spending a lot of time scumming enemies for their loot, or, like I did, avoiding synthesis altogether. While it can make it more difficult to obtain more powerful weapons, I found that just picking up better loot from enemies and leveling a bit kept me where I needed to be to maintain the challenge level.

A special note must be made regarding the system of character improvement, though. Your character has three stats: HP, SP, and Luck. SP is your stamina points, and every time you use a weapon or ability, it decreases. When you run out, you have to wait until it builds up again. The more you have, the more you can swing away before having to stop. You increase these three stats by paying attribute points received upon level-up. You level up by killing enemies. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is also magic in the game. You obtain new spells by… yeah, killing a certain number of enemies. The interesting thing about many of the spells is that a whole ton of them are pretty useless and rather bizarre. They involve bleeding on enemies, crying at enemies, throwing angel statues at enemies, among others. Very emo. And yet, even this mechanic doesn’t bring fun back to the game, which is quite an impressive bit of design work.

But what about graphics? What about sound, and music? What about control? Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with any of it… or so it seems on the surface. The graphics are nice, character models are well detailed, although frequently palette-swapped, and the environments seem to have been given a decent amount of detail. However, while the technical merits are on the higher side of average, the artistic aspect is abysmal. Everything is so drab and colorless. The environments are repetitive and uncreative. I suppose the designers wanted to convey a feeling of desolation and ruin, but at least be a bit creative with it. The blandness detracts so much from the graphics that it ruins the technical merits.

Sound suffers a similar fate; the music is not bad, and it’s surprisingly memorable. Unfortunately, this isn’t because it was emotionally tinged or stirring, but rather that it was limited in scope and quantity, and thus repeated ad nauseum. The same battle tracks play over and over in the same regions, and the rest is ambiance. While there is a good balance of both, they just get boring after a while, and become burdensome rather than compelling. Voice acting also suffers the same fate, with the main NPCs, such as Moonlight doing a great job, while the PCs, at least the ones I heard, were bland and monotone.

Finally, there’s the issue of control. If you can mash A and X and move the analog stick, you’ve got it made. Every now and then tap a shoulder button to use a healing potion, and press start to bring up the menu. The controls are fairly responsive, and although you can get stuck in some combos, leaving you swinging at nothing, this is more an issue of learning the combo system. Yet, here again, the issue isn’t with the aspect of the game, but how it’s used. If you’re just going to need to mash A and X, it’s kind of a letdown.

So in the final analysis, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom takes a bunch of decently designed aspects and mangles them into an unfun experience. While it’s very possible that there’s more fun to be had playing with friends, I’m sure that the 360 has many more titles which are a lot more fun than this one. Caveat emptor.

Overall Score 50
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Damian Thomas

Damian Thomas

Some of us change avatars often at RPGFan, but not Damian, aka Sensei Phoenix. He began his RPGFan career as The Flaming Featherduster (oh, also, a key reviewer), and ended as the same featherduster years later.