If I were assigned to review Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom using only a single word in the English language, the word I would choose is “huh?”. That word (I picture it boldly exclaimed in 62-point Times New Roman font), basically sums up my feelings because there are so many head-scratchingly puzzling things about this Xbox 360 game that it’s hard to know where to start.
First off, it’s curious that the developers would stray from the formula of the original games so much. The first two games were a hybrid mix of strategy and action RPG using large scale battles involving hundreds of units at a time.
With Circle of Doom, however, the developers at Blueside decided to go for the good ol’ action-roleplaying route, a genre which has seen some new developments recently due to games like Mass Effect. Even so, when you strip the fancy graphics away, Circle of Doom could have been released in 1995. Hack, slash, pick up loot, repeat…gone is any element of strategy. You can simply hit the same button over and over on an enemy creature to attack. There is very little skill or strategy involved in the combat, but then again there’s something strangely mesmerizing about it for a while. Unfortunately, hacking up groups of 20 enemies at a time gets old, especially since bad guys never get tougher, except for the occasional boss battle.
The second bizarre thing about Circle of Doom is the story, if you can call it that. Before players mash their ‘A’ buttons into oblivion by fighting countless hordes of bad guys, they are treated to a short, nearly non-sensical cinematic. For instance, if you pick the old, fat, balding Duane (whose description makes him sound more like a Wal-Mart greeter than a fantasy character), you start out in a field. There’s a beautiful woman dressed up in Victorian-era costume like a character from a Jane Austen novel, and Duane begins to try to dance with her. She then disappears. Boom, there’s your backstory.
To learn more, you have to warp to an alternate dimension in which your chosen character talks with characters in some sort of dream world. In Duane’s dream world, he appears as his narcissistic younger self and tries to win the affections of the aforementioned woman by engaging in a sissified slapfight with another well-dressed gentleman. I suppose credit should be given to Blue Side for taking the plot beyond the usual Dungeons and Dragons-type stuff, but a little coherency would help.
The enemy character designs are also a bit on the crazy side. For instance, there are walking skulls that spray tears as they try to bite your ankles. And then there are the fat naked guys who advance upon you by squirming on the ground. Or how about the men chained to spears who spurt blood with every sword blow.
As you progress along your extremely linear path in Circle of Doom you’ll stumble upon the Idols of Death, Greed and Love, which show up randomly at predefined spots throughout the levels. They act as save points and provide your character a place to take a nap from the action. They also allow you to store some of your items since you’ll run out of space in your inventory very quickly. The idols also allow you to synthesize (upgrade) weapons and other items together to make them potentially more powerful. The process of synthesizing items is nothing more than investing the gold that you accrue to up the chances of success, and then pairing items together in hopes of creating something better. It sounds interesting in theory, but it ends up being insanely confusing and boring.
Of course, all is not lost for Circle of Doom. The multiplayer cooperative mode is surprisingly fun, at least for a while. Four people can link up online and hop in and out of one co-op game, so long as the host doesn’t leave. Even then, though, it’s a lot to ask to get your friends to play a sub-mediocre game for nearly 40 hours. Once you talk them into it, they may not decide to stay your friends for long.