February 17, 2008
Kingdom of Fire: Circle of Doom is a departure for both the Kingdom Under Fire series as well as Korean developer Blueside, which has developed or co-developed nearly every game in the series. What began as a tactical RTS on the PC and later the original Xbox has now spawned a fully fledged Action-RPG on the Xbox 360, no doubt to appeal to a wider breadth of gamers and bring the sleeper series a higher profile. However, in the rush to appeal to a wider audience, Blueside has made some critical errors of judgement that may end up doing more harm than good for the Kingdom Under Fire series as a whole.
To say that newcomers to the series will be lost when playing Circle of Doom is an understatement. Despite the fact that there are no less than three previous games in the series, Circle of Doom spends absolutely no time bridging the gap between itself and the previous Kingdom Under Fire games. While this is not critical to understanding the plot of Circle of Doom, it would have added some weight to the very flimsy and vapid narrative the story presents. The game spends almost no time explaining who the characters are, why they have been swept into this dark dimension, or what their purpose truly is. You merely get a short cut-scene that gives you only the slightest whiff of the plot, which is different for each character. All but Duane's share a common thread of a battle between Encablossa, ruler of the Age of Darkness and Nibel, ruler of the Age of Light. Apparently all the characters were whisked to Encablossa's dark realm after foiling his attempted coup of the Age of Light. Unfortunately the game does such a poor job of explaining all this that your average gamer would be hard pressed to explain the plot if asked. The quests for each character helps to shed some light on the the over-arching plot as you play through each campaign, however, and by the time you beat the game with the four default characters aside from Duane, you should have at least a basic idea of what's going on. Still, if you are looking for anything but the most basic plot in Circle of Doom, you will be extremely disappointed.
Circle of Doom is strictly a hack-and-slash, dungeon-crawling affair, more similar to Diablo than it is the previous Kingdom Under Fire games. As can be expected within such a genre, the combat is highly repetitive, with combat being limited to two weapons and two spells at your disposal at any given time. While that in itself is forgivable, the complete lack of a combo system is not. An attack combo in Circle of Doom amounts to nothing more than mashing the same button over and over. There is no way to link attacks together or even multi-button combos of any kind. The question simply becomes "do I feel like mashing the A button today, or the B button?". Despite the fact that Circle of Doom is not trying to compete directly with games such as God of War, Ninja Gaiden, or Devil May Cry, the combat looks all the more archaic and mundane next to them. Coupled with the fact that the enemy AI system seems to have been completely left out and the combat comes off as tedious and boring on all difficulties save Extreme mode. Even then, difficulty only sets in because the enemies are ridiculously overpowered and bigger enemies can now block most non-magic attacks, rather than any actual intelligence setting in.
One aspect of Circle of Doom that adds a bit of a tactical element to the combat is the way SP is managed. SP is basically the mana/magic points of Circle of Doom and like in most RPGs , you'll need a certain amount of SP to cast spells. What Circle of Doom does differently though, is require SP for even basic attacks like swinging your sword. It seems like an odd choice initially but it does add another aspect to consider during combat. If you pick up a sword that does three times the damage of your current weapon, but uses four times as much SP, you may only be able to swing the sword twice before you have to stop and wait for your SP to recharge, leaving your character vulnerable to attack. It can be a hassle at times, but it adds a bit of strategy to how you spend your ability points from leveling up and to combat in general.
As in most RPGs, your character is initially weak and you'll need to level them up to use more advanced spells and better weapons or armor. As with any dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash, you level up by killing enemies which means you'll basically be killing anything that moves. When your character levels up, you are given a certain number of attribute points to be spent on either HP, SP, or Luck. The effects of the first two are pretty obvious. Luck on the other hand is more ambiguous. The game fails to tell you as much, but luck can affect anything from the success rate of item synthesis, the quality of loot enemies drop, and even how successful your attacks are, although the latter is only really noticeable on Hard or Extreme difficulties, as almost no enemy will block your attacks on the standard difficulty. Throughout the campaign you will come in contact with three different Idols which act as, amongst other things, merchants to buy and sell with, a save point, and a place to access, store, and synthesize items. The Idols also will play a role in some of the side quests of various characters, but only in assigning menial tasks to complete before you can progress. Additionally, Idols are also where your character can fall asleep and enter the dream world, which is where all quests and plot points will occur. Each character has someone they can interact with to advance their plot-line, usually someone from their past. Characters like Kendal and Regnier will interact directly with Encablossa and Nibel and provide most of the story about the war between the two. It is also in the dream world where you can initiate quests to learn better spells, which merely requires you kill a certain number of enemies to learn a new spell. You can only learn two new spells at a time which is a bit of a nuisance. The dream world is a strange mechanic but it works well enough.
About the only positive thing that can be said about the combat is that, again, each character is unique. Regnier is a hulking tank that does loads of damage but attacks in big sweeping motions that leave him open for counter attack. Celine is much quicker in her attacks but cannot take as much damage, nor does she do much damage initially, while Kendal is a balance of the two extremes. Leinhart, on the other hand, is ultra-quick as well as powerful and the one character that is not balanced in that respect. That said, because he is overpowered and a flashy sort of character, he's also the most fun to play as and is the best for beginners to start with. The number of items and different weapons and armor available for each character is also somewhat impressive although the weapons all act the same for the most part. The different suits of armor, however, all look quite unique, despite no statistical difference apart from HP.
What does save the gameplay of Circle of Doom from being totally and utterly boring is the synthesis system, in which you'll combine various items and potions you pick up as loot from dead enemies or buy from Idols. What looks like an average weapon enhancement system is actually quite deep and complex if you take the time to really get into it. Besides making your sword do more damage or your armor stronger, giving you more HP, you can add certain enhancements to weapons that will make them behave differently. For example, an item of Healing may increase your HP recovery rate, allowing you to take more damage and heal faster, while other enhancements like Greed increase the amount of XP you earn per enemy you kill. You can synthesize together multiple weapons with the same enhancements to further increase the effectiveness, maxing out at a Level 24 enhancement (note: the level of your enhancements is not bound in any way to your character level).
Most weapons and armor can have multiple enhancements, some of which can play off each other to become greater than the sum of their parts. You can have multiple weapons with different enhancements on hand for different occasions and different situations. For example, after you beat the game with one character, you may want to use them to help your other characters. Simple: make a high-level weapon of Extortion and you'll increase the overall yield as well as the quality of loot enemies drop so that you can farm valuable armor, weapons and potions for other characters. The sheer magnitude of customization is impressive and for those that invest the time and effort into it, it adds another layer to a game that desperately needs one. Probably the best use of the synthesis system, however, is the ability to synthesize a powerful weapon with a weaker weapon to lower the amount of SP required to yield the powerful weapon. By doing so you will be able to use more powerful weapons earlier in the campaign, making it much easier to smack evil down.
The real saving grace of Circle of Doom, however, is the multiplayer. Circle of Doom supports 4-player online co-op and what seems like such a little thing can completely change the way you look at the game. Playing Circle of Doom by yourself can be an exercise in masochism for all but the most hardened fans of the genre. Cooperative play, however, completely changes the experience and makes what is otherwise a mundane game so much more enjoyable, no doubt why most dungeon crawlers these days are cleverly disguised as MMORPGs. Circle of Doom essentially becomes a mini-MMORPG in co-op and somehow the combat that was once boring is not so much when you are playing with three friends. It doesn't hurt that the game compensates by making enemies more difficult as more people join. The change in perspective of the game in multiplayer v. single player is so great that it essentially makes the single player that much worse after you've played with a group. Little things like being able to trade weapons and potions with friends add to the experience, but the biggest difference is the shared experience. Somehow that in and of itself makes the game so much more enjoyable. It also serves to point out even more flaws in the single player, though, such as the inability to send yourself items between characters in single player, or even a shared item locker that all your characters can access. You read that right. To give weapons from one of your characters to another character (say from my Leinhart to my Celine) I'd have to get into a game with a friend while playing as Leinhart , give him the items, leave the game, load my Celine, join the game, and have him give me the items back. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that you will constantly, whether in single player or multiplayer, find armor and weapons that can only be used by characters other than the one you are playing as. This is a huge issue for the developer to overlook and is a critical flaw of Circle of Doom.
Visually, Circle of Doom is a rather impressive specimen. The dungeons are randomly generated and the art direction for each region is unique and reeks of high production value, although the amount of repetition in the environment within each of the six territories is high. It would have been nice to see some more diversity within each environment.
The six playable characters feature a high level of detail for an Action-RPG, each with unique and detailed armor and weapons. Enemies on the other hand are completely cookie-cutter and you'll only come across three or four unique looking enemy types in most regions, another hallmark of the genre. Still, considering the sheer number of enemies on screen at any given time and the insane amount of loot that can clog up the screen, the level of detail the enemy models display is quite impressive. Where the graphics really shine however is in the dream world, no doubt because the number of on-screen characters never goes above single digits. The level of detail in the characters here is noticeably higher than in the rest of the game and while it is a small touch to create an entirely different model for the dream world, it is a nice one. Unfortunately, the developer skimped a bit and only created one model per character so no matter the armor you are wearing when you visit the dreamworld, your character will look the same. Not a huge pitfall, but a bit strange, especially in the case of Leinhart, who's latter armor reflects his mutation.
The audio is nothing to shout about. The dialog in the game is not particularly well acted in most cases, what little there is to begin with. Some of the dialog and especially the delivery of it can be surprisingly humorous, though, in Duane and Leinhart's campaigns specifically. The music is different in each region, although for the most part it really amounts to nothing more than background noise. The music swells during combat into what can only be described as a fight riff which is played ad-nauseum throughout the game.
The achievements are a mixed bag as well, with the difficulty ranging from extremely easy to frustratingly time consuming. About half of the achievements are earned by completing the various campaigns and completing the boss battles along the way, some of which are unique to certain characters so if you want a full 1000 points in Circle of Doom, be prepared to play through the game no less than six times. The rest of the achievements are pretty straight forward and, for the most part, can be earned through the course of normal play including multiple achievements for synthesis and leveling your character. There's also a couple achievements for completing the quests of each character, most of which are straight fetch quests. Duane's quest, however, is limited to dueling over a woman and is about the most boring thing you'll ever encounter in your entire life. Even if you never lose a duel, you'll have to play no less then 34 times to get all three dueling achievements. This should be considered an act of torture by NATO if it isn't already. The achievement you'll find the most discouraging, however, is Curse of the Developer, which requires you to level each of the six characters to level 80 or higher. While this may sound like it will take forever, if you and a friend can power-level each other, it is possible to get a character to level 80 in about 2 hours. The game does not feature any specifically multiplayer achievements which is disappointing, but any and all achievements can be earned in co-op. It's definitely not an easy 1K, but if you actually enjoy the game, they are a pretty decent set of achievements.
In the process of trying to widen the audience of the Kingdom Under Fire series with Circle of Doom, developer Blueside has made some critical mistakes. Rather than feeling like a natural extension of the series, Circle of Doom comes across as a one-off in the series that has little to do with the other games besides a a shared title and characters. The time was not taken to flesh out a proper plot and, coupled with the very basic no-combo combat system, makes Circle of Doom a hard pill to swallow for anyone that is not a dungeon-crawler fanatic. If you can sucker some friends into getting it too, however, it's actually not a horrible time to be had. With a little extra time, this could have been up there with Marvel Ultimate Alliance as another great Action-RPG for the 360. Instead, it comes off as a mundane and mediocre experience best left only to the hardcore.
The voice acting all around is sub-par. The dialog is delivered in flat, monotone voices by most characters while others are too over the top with their accents and delivery. No happy medium is ever reached. The music is pretty much just there most of the time. It doesn't hinder and doesn't help. It just exists.
For a game that regularly has 30-40 characters on screen, the level of detail of both the enemies and heroes is quite impressive. The environments look great with some fabulous art direction. That said, the level of repetition within the regions really brings the score down.
The complete lack of a combo system in this day and age is unforgivable. There is absolutely no break from the repetition in the combat and there is literally nothing there for anybody that is not a hack-and-slash nut. The online co-op is well done, however, and is about the only saving grace that makes Circle of Doom approach being fun. The completely linear environments offer little to no replay value. Instead, the game offers randomized dungeons that only seem to rearrange the same 3-4 sections over and over.
Except for a couple instances in the Hall of Arrogance, the camera stays out of your way for the most part. The story is vapid and devoid of any substance and what little there is is not explained well or fleshed out. The disconnect from other games in the series is very disappointing as well. Some background information on the characters would have made all the difference in the world.
A challenging set of achievements to be sure, most of them can be earned through playing the game with each character and doing their side quests. A couple, however, like Duane's fencing achievements will make you curse the developer's name if it doesn't make you fall asleep first. If you play online with friends, most of the leveling achievements aren't as daunting as they may seem.
Unless you are hard up for a four-player cooperative play game or are just a dungeon-crawler fanatic that loves slaughtering thousands of enemies for loot to pimp out your character, this game is probably going to seem as painful and unwelcome as a root canal. But for those that love the genre, it's a decent entry and the synthesis system will let you get as obsessive about customizing your character and gear as you can handle. Only the truly hardcore need apply. Everyone else, proceed directly to Marvel Ultimate Alliance instead.