Review: Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom (XB360)

Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom
Genre: Hack and Slash/Action RPG
Developer: Blue Side
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 01/08/2008

Quick note before we begin: Phantagram is the development house that owns the Kingdom Under Fire franchise, but according to Blue Side’s website, their team consists of all of the core developers responsible for any and all Kingdom Under Fire related games from The Crusaders onwards, so we will refer to them as the core team responsible for any and all KUF gaming properties.

The Kingdom Under Fire Franchise is something of an amorphous thing. While the first game, released for the PC some time ago, was more of an RTS product akin to something like Warcraft or Command and Conquer, the two games the franchise is known for (The Crusaders and Heroes) are more of an RTS/Dynasty Warriors hybrid, featuring massive battles surrounding notable characters at the front lines of epic wars and all of the appropriate superlatives one can apply. Instead of continuing with the game design schematic that has brought them acclaim to this point, however, Blue Side has chosen to give us a Kingdom Under Fire game that takes the Dynasty Warriors elements of the franchise as the primary gameplay design, with some smatterings of Diablo thrown in, in their newest franchise title, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom.

At first glance, KUF:COD bears more than a passing resemblance to parent company Phantagram’s Ninety-Nine Nights, which was also something of a Dynasty Warriors clone. Once one digs a bit deeper, however, it becomes apparent that these are two wholly separate games with their own dynamics, which is probably for the best; N3 might have scratched the DW itch for some, but it ended up being a touch underwhelming in more than a few respects. Not that it was bad, mind you, so much as not the same sort of experience. But while N3 was more of a “run around and destroy everything in sight with some mild RPG elements incorporated” sort of title, KUF:COD is a “run around and destroy everything in sight with some solid RPG elements incorporated” sort of experience, which, as you can clearly see, is TOTALLY different.

That’s not actually supposed to be sarcastic. It’s like the difference between Dynasty Warriors and Champions of Norrath, you see. Got it? Good.

The storyline in KUF: COD is essentially designed to be readily accessible to fans of the franchise, though folks who are tuning in now will be left confused. Essentially, at the end of Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, Encablossa (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) was defeated by the combined efforts of Kendal, Regnier, and Duane, three of the key players in KOF: The Crusaders, leaving them trapped in Encablossa’s dimension alongside Leinhart (key player in The Crusaders and Heroes), Celine (no idea) and Curian (former king who’s been missing for quite a while). Each of the heroes trapped in Encablossa’s dimension has their own motivations and reasons to escape, yadda yadda. For what the storyline is, it is rather serviceable and does its job quite nicely; the main characters are fleshed out quite well through the telling of their tales (save for Curian, who has no storyline to speak of), and you come to appreciate their motivations/desires/whatever as you partake in their story. And, more importantly, the storylines the characters follow more often than not resolve themselves in a manner that is both satisfactory and appropriate (if not happy, as only about two of the characters have endings that can be considered anything approaching happy). This is fine.

What is not so fine is that the story is generally inaccessible on two fronts: first, it expects you to have played pretty much ALL of the KUF games prior to this one (or, at least, The Crusaders and, I’m inferring, the original PC title) if you want to have a full understand of just what the hell is going on, and second, the story is generally difficult to access in the first place. The former is a problem because the game isn’t very friendly about explaining all of the various events that took place prior to this game, but it’s more than comfortable referencing them at various points; thus, you’ll be in a position where Kendal will be meeting Walter (his old, dear friend), and the game will establish a connection between the two without really explaining WHAT THAT CONNECTION IS. Now, in fairness, if you play through Curian’s storyline, you’re allowed access to a journal that does some work towards fleshing things out, but the fact that you have to UNLOCK Curian to get this perspective on things? This leaves you in a position equivalent to having to watch a French action film with no subtitles; you can muddle through it and get a rough idea of what’s going on, but that’s about it. The latter is a problem because you, in effect, have to go FIND the story if you want to experience it. Now, okay, fine, if you want to avoid the story entirely and just play the game, that’s wonderful, for certain. But if you want to experience the story, the game will more often than not leave you in the rather awkward position of having to figure out oblique clues to get to where you have to go next, or spending an hour or two hunting for rare items to advance the plot (save for Duane, whose story only involves fencing with another man for about A MILLION YEARS, but this isn’t exactly an improvement). This is cumbersome, and since it is done in service of the plot, it affects the plot as a result.

This is the beginning of a trend for KUF: COD, which will become apparent later: the game as a whole is essentially designed in a specific way that caters more to those willing to invest a lot of hours into it, as opposed to someone who’s looking to just brain monsters and collect items. That’s an equally valid way to play the game, mind you, but just be mindful of this thing as we go on.

The presentation in KUF: COD is one thing that is universally solid across the board. The graphics are clean, colorful and vibrant, and the various special effects of spells and such look quite nice. The various character and monster designs are, perhaps, a bit stereotypical at times, but Kingdom Under Fire veterans will be pleased to see that characters like Kendal and Regnier look as they always have, and while the monsters aren’t exactly ground-breaking, the boss monster designs more than make up for that. Character models are all quite impressive and animate fluidly, and the monsters and bosses are all very well rendered and appropriately horrific. The game mostly trades up “super high-quality texture rendering” for “having plenty of enemies on screen at once”, so while KUF:COD isn’t the best looking game on the 360, it does look quite good. The only significant visual issues one could highlight are clipping (which isn’t a huge problem, but does exist and is noticeable) and slowdown (which is something of a problem and is noticeable enough to be annoying), which detract from the experience a bit. The aural presentation, on the other hand, is a definite winner; the music is all appropriately fantasy-esque and is composed and used very well, the voice-acting is quite nice and all of the various actors/actresses are well cast for their roles, and the various sound effects and monster/player noises all sound great in context.

The gameplay, however, is something of a polarizing experience in comparison; while one can easily appreciate the effort put into the visual and aural design, the gameplay is either going to turn you on or put you off within the first couple of hours spent playing the game. The core controls are simple to grasp; the left stick moves, the right stick turns, two buttons are devoted to attacking (one for each weapon you equip to your character), two buttons are devoted to using spells, two buttons are devoted to hot-keyed items from your inventory, so on and so on. It’s fairly easy to simply jump in and play the game just by running about and smacking the crap out of everything you see, and that’s a perfectly workable way of doing things, but there’s a great deal more that can be done with the game beyond that, which, in essence, is part of the problem: KUF: COD is not a simple, easy to work with user-friendly experience.

Your characters have three core statistics that can be advanced on a per-level basis: Health, which measures how much damage you can take before you expire; SP, which is a weird Stamina/Magic measurement that basically dictates how much energy you can dump into spells and how long you can attack; and Luck, which governs random item drops and synthesis success. Each character has different costs assigned for leveling up those statistics, and as you gain a level, your character will be given a certain amount of points to dump into them. Equipment also directly and indirectly has effects on those statistics; Armor, instead of providing defense against damage, increases your character’s Health, and anything you equip can impact your character’s SP regeneration (either by regenerating or consuming a certain amount per second). Of the three, SP is essentially the most important, for without sufficient amounts your spells will be weak, and you won’t be able to attack with your weapon for long.

The various equipment pieces in the game also have other effects that dictate their usefulness, including increases to Health, Attack power (on weaponry), and special abilities of various types, which are either passive or active. Many of these abilities can be imbued into both weaponry and armor/accessories, though while some abilities will essentially remain the same (Extortion, for example, which increases enemy item drop rates), others change from offensive to defensive based on the item they are attached to (Lightning, for instance, has a chance to deal electric damage on a weapon, but on armor or a ring, it has a chance to block an equivalently typed attack). Based on the sort of equipment you want, you can acquire new items either by picking them up from the battlefield, or by buying or synthing new items with the Idols (the game equivalent of Shops/Rest Stops). Synthesizing, in most cases, is the way you will end up acquiring better equipment as you progress; by synthesizing items together you can potentially build weapons with higher levels of special effects on them, as well as upgrade their health or damage, SP regeneration, and so on. The synthesis system is complex and can be somewhat cumbersome at first (as you’ll usually only make garbage in the early goings of the game), but by improving your character’s luck and synthesizing better quality pieces of equipment you will eventually find yourself producing better goods as time goes on.

And this, in essence, sums up the biggest problem with KUF:COD… as time goes on, you will better come to understand how the game works, what the game expects of you, how to accomplish things, and what needs to be done to do which things at what point. By really spending time with the game you begin to REALLY understand how things work and what you can do to improve your character. Now, in fairness, the game does an awful lot to try and convince you to really sit down and work with it; log onto the leaderboards of the game and you will see players who have weapons that deal EXCESSIVE points of damage per swing and realize, “Hey, I could make one of those” to see what I mean. And aside from the six different characters with their different storylines and unique battles, weapons (five types per character) and play styles, you can also play with up to four players online for fun and profit, as well as go through three different difficulty levels, each with better equipment to loot and modify as you see fit. IF you can get into the game, you will find it to be a rewarding, interesting game experience with lots of room to work with and lots of things to do.

But if you can’t, it’s going to be another crappy hack and slash that you’re going to be annoyed with. And for most players, that will be their conclusion, because for all that KUF: COD does right, it does one thing criminally wrong: it is not accessible in the slightest.

The Synthesis system is a confusing pain in the ass until you “get” it, and if you don’t want to be arsed, you won’t like the game. Learning new spells and abilities involves killing tons of enemies, many of which you won’t see until second or third playthroughs of the game, and if you don’t particularly feel like playing the same sections of the game over two or three times, you won’t like the game. Completing the character story arcs is time consuming and frustrating in many cases, and if you can’t be bothered to hunt for an item that randomly spawns in a zone for two or three hours, you won’t like the game. Properly managing your SP so that you can actually attack more than three or four times in succession with powerful weapons takes some time and careful consideration, and if you don’t have the patience to do so, you won’t like the game.

And that’s not even taking into consideration the things the game simply does WRONG. Every time you are attacked, your character flinches. EVERY. TIME. There are special abilities that can mitigate this, but this doesn’t address the core problem that THIS IS STUPID on its face. If you are surrounded by enemies you will often spend ten, fifteen, twenty more seconds simply flinching OVER AND OVER until you can finally attack, which just becomes absurd after a while. Also, there are times where items become stuck on walls and thus become inaccessible to you; again, there is a special ability that mitigates this somewhat, but this does not rectify the fact that installing an ability to rectify a broken element of the gameplay DOES NOT SOLVE THE BROKEN GAMEPLAY ELEMENT. Especially when items are stuck in areas where I have a time limit to acquire everything (like, say, during the Keither boss fight). Oh, yes, and some of the spells in the game are, and this is putting it politely, virtually useless (the various statues, for instance), while others are obscenely, ridiculously overpowered (Flesh Spear, which with enough SP dumped into it can rip the life of a boss monster nearly in half with one casting). The core gameplay also essentially comes down to running about, braining everything in the zone, which is really going to turn off anyone who isn’t into that sort of repetition. Higher difficulty levels don’t make enemies more challenging, either… they simply make the enemies stronger and more readily capable of afflicting you with status effects at a moment’s notice. And in the end, you’ve played this game before in some iteration or another; while KUF: COD does a few neat things to differentiate itself from other hack and slash titles, it still treads a lot of the exact same ground in a way that, while enjoyable, is old enough to collect Social Security.

In honesty, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom is really only going to appeal to fans of the Kingdom Under Fire series or the sort of player who has a lot of patience; the sort of gamer who loves games like Kings Field and Monster Hunter will find a lot to love here. An in-depth crafting system, strong storytelling, interesting characters and some generally fun combat will keep those sorts of players glued to the game for a long, long time, and the satisfaction of beating the hardest difficulty setting and building a weapon that could rend the fabric of space and time will more than pay off their investment. The average player, though, may well find themselves put off by smatterings of technical issues and a gameplay experience that is not at all friendly to casual time investment. They will not want to spend hours and hours developing their weaponry or running through the same stages and boss battles over and over again to find better weaponry and armor and such, and they will not care about what the game has to offer simply because the instant gratification the game provides is spotty in a lot of respects. That’s not to say this is a bad game, but it honestly appeals to a certain type of gamer; if you are that sort of gamer, you will love KUF: COD immensely and will spend hours and hours ripping your way through the game over and over again, alone or with friends, but if you aren’t, you won’t find anything to hold your interest here.

The Scores:
Story: 6/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 9/10
Control/Gameplay: 5/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 4/10
Addictiveness: 6/10
Appeal: 3/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10

Overall Score: 6.1/10
Final Score: 6.0 (ABOVE AVERAGE).

Short Attention Span Summary
Kingdom Under Fire is definitively a niche title. A large amount of customization options and a ton of replay value across six different characters will keep gamers looking for an in-depth experience interested, but gameplay flaws, unintuitive elements and generally mindless gameplay will serve to keep everyone else away. What is here is not for everyone, but if you’re the sort of person who can overlook the flaws and enjoy the strengths contained herein, you’ll be glad to spend your time with this. A rental should be able to tell you if this is the game for you, but unless you’re certain, buying this might not be advisable. Caveat emptor.



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