Release Date: January 8, 2008
Kingdom under Fire is an unusual franchise that can't seem to get a handle on what it's got planned next. It began as a moderately successful PC real-time strategy title before moving to the Xbox with the Dynasty Warriors/RTS hybrid title, Kingdom under Fire: The Crusaders and its sequel, Kingdom under Fire: Heroes, both of which were met with generally favorable responses, although neither left much of a lasting impression. Now, Kingdom under Fire: Circle of Doom, the next game in the franchise, is dropping the real-time strategy aspect all together, in favor of a more action-oriented, online-focused, hack-and-slash RPG. The real question is: Does this version of the franchise have what it takes to succeed where the others have not?
For those unfamiliar with the Kingdom under Fire franchise, the plot is fairly simple. The two forces of Light and Darkness have had an uneasy treaty since time immemorial. During the Age of Light, the forces of Light will rule the world, bringing prosperity and peace to the land. However, as per the terms of the treaty, every so often the Light must relinquish its hold on the world and allow the Age of Dark to come, a time when war rules the land and living beings are twisted into dark shapes. This cycle continued for millennia until the ruler of the Light decided that he was tired of his hard work being constantly lost and, at last, refused to give up the Age of Light. Naturally, Encablossa, the ruler of Darkness, didn't take this lightly, and a great war erupted.
As Circle of Doom begins, the Light had just triumphed over the forces of Darkness, returning them to the Dark Dimension from whence they came. However, a number of the war heroes vanished at the same time, sucked into the Dark Dimension with the forces of darkness. Circle of Doom tells the story of these unlucky lost warriors and their attempts to survive in a dark and unforgiving land.
Circle of Doom is a full-on hack-and-slash, not an RTS like its franchise predecessors. It's not just a beat-'em-up, though, and the best game to compare it to would be Phantasy Star Online. One to four gamers, either via Xbox Live or networked 360s, join up their various heroes and travel through a number of semi-randomized dungeons, killing foes, gaining levels and finding new equipment. A bit a warning: While Circle of Doom is certainly designed to be played both single-player and multiplayer, gamers who want to really experience everything that Circle of Doom has to offer are going to want to take this title online, as many of the game's features and attributes only take full effect if you're gaming with other folks.
Combat in Circle of Doom is a fairly simple affair, playing somewhat like a mix of Phantasy Star Online and Dynasty Warriors. As your chosen character travels through the Dark Dimension, he is under constant and endless assault from the forces of Darkness, swarming to the heroes like ants to a picnic. Fighting is fairly simple: X and A are each assigned to one of your character's weapons, B and the right trigger to their special moves, and right and left bumpers can use any potions or other items that you have bound to them. Press the corresponding button to attack, dealing nasty damage to whatever is in your path. Of course, button-mashing isn't always the best way to go in Circle of Doom. Each character also has an SP bar that sort of functions as an energy bar. Every time you cast a spell or use an ability to swing a weapon, it takes a chunk away from your SP bar, which refills automatically. However, the more powerful the attack, the more of your SP bar it drains, and that means that if you just equip your most powerful weapons and abilities and swing wildly, you may find your unlucky hero unable to finish a combo or even to attack at all, leaving him wide open for a violent counterattack.
There are six different playable characters in Kingdom under Fire: Circle of Doom, each one a returning KuF veteran. Each character has a unique set of abilities, and gamers will probably want to try out each one to determine their favorite. For example, half-vampire and all-idiot Prince Leinhart wields a variety of speedy Japanese blades, like twin katanas and or a long nodachi. He's incredibly fast, but doesn't take hits as well. The warlord Reginer, however, is a mountain of a man who wields great swords and chains with such force that his every blow rends the landscape apart, but he is so slow that even towering golems can break through careless swings of his giant blade. Elvish Princess Celine is a ranged warrior, preferring magic and bows to her close-range rapier. Each of the six characters tends to focus on different attributes and abilities, and figuring out which is the best for your play style will probably take a bit of time.
Of course, picking a character isn't the only thing upon which gamers will have to decide. While there are six characters, each can wield one of six or more unique kinds of weapons, and each character also uses two at a time. Each weapon has its own unique attributes, and someone playing as Reginer, who focuses almost exclusively on his default gigantic blade, will require very different tactics than one who takes advantage of Reginer's arm-mounted cannon and long whip-like chain weapons.
Beyond the default weapon types, each weapon that you find in the game also may have special bonus attributes that can change its use. Certain weapons, for example, have the Bloodlust attribute, which lets the player perform combos, the weapon's attack power growing stronger with each successive blow. A different weapon may have Fatality, an attribute that grants the weapon a percentage chance to land a critical blow, doing four times the damage of a regular attack. Incorporating these abilities into the various play styles is going to be very important in creating a successful character. Speedy Leinhart, for example, benefits greatly from Bloodlust; his ability to combo with his short and quick blades makes ranking up easy combos a breeze. However, the Power attribute, which allows a warrior to "charge" his weapon for a more powerful swing, might be almost useless for him, but could turn Reginer's great sword into a powerhouse.
Of course, for every useful weapon you find, your character is going to find 10 or 20 weapons that don't serve a purpose. They can be too weak to use, too heavy on the SP or be a weapon that only another character can use. The good news is that even if these weapons are useless in combat, they have another purpose that is just as important. At every rest point in the game, you can find an Idol, who basically functions as a shopkeeper. You can sell your excess items to get more cash, but these seemingly useless items actually have another, better purpose: synthesis. By paying a hefty sum, you can actually fuse together different weapons to get new and better versions. For example, fusing together two identical katanas with the Bloodlust attribute will earn you a similar blade, but with a higher level of Bloodlust equipped. Alternately, you can fuse a strong and weak weapon together, which might lower the overall attack power of the stronger weapon, but can also pass along powerful attributes or lower the SP cost of attacks enough to make it feasible to use. While it's possible to get through the game only buying and finding weapons, synthesis is going to be the difference between a good character and a great character.
While weapons are great, sometimes you need something a little more hard-hitting to really go medieval on the forces of Darkness, and that is where Abilities come into play — special moves that each character can equip, up to two at a time. They can vary from something simple like dashing forward or a knockout punch, to the most unique, such as summoning vampire bats to swarm and confuse your opponent, or causing massive explosions that blow foes apart. While there are some abilities that every character can access, such as the always-useful Heal spell, each character also has a group of abilities that is unique to him or her. However, abilities are not learned as they would be in most RPGs, via leveling up or items, but instead in a more MMORPG manner. You go to a quest giver, located at each rest spot in the game, and ask him to learn an ability. In exchange, he gives you a list of "sacrifices" that must be made, or rather, a number of enemies that must be killed in order to earn this ability. Simple abilities to learn may require you to kill the plentiful skeletons or lizard men that populate the world, while the most powerful and unique of powers will force players to hunt down rare and elusive foes or even to battle bosses multiple times.
One thing you've got to say about Circle of Doom is that it looks fantastic. The character models are large and detailed, the enemies disgusting and foul, and the locations surprisingly beautiful for a place that is supposed to be the Dark Dimension. Even better is that the environment can be interacted with in a number of ways, certain weapons and abilities allowing the heroes to smash and damage almost everything onscreen. Battling a swarm of raging "flesh men" in a graveyard is impressive enough, but it really becomes special when each swing of your character's giant blade leaves a huge gash in the ground, smashes the tops off grave stones and carves furrows into tomb walls. It's even more impressive when you end up backtracking and discover that all of those war wounds remain as a silent testament to the hard-fought battle that occurred in that location. It's particularly impressive since slowdown is at a minimum, despite the huge number of enemies onscreen at one time. Given the environmental damage, graphical effects and overall amount of things going on at once, the 360 handles it all with nary a hiccup, at least offline.
While die-hard fans of the franchise may lament the loss of the series' trademark RTS features, the ever-changing Kingdom under Fire franchise has mutated once again, and it's shaping up to be an overall positive change. The game certainly looks fantastic, and the wide variety of different character builds means that gamers will almost certainly find a play style that suits them. Even better, Kingdom under Fire: Circle of Doom looks to finally satisfy those neglected 360 owners who are searching for a multiplayer Diablo or Phantasy Star Online experience.
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