Action RPG games, the hack-and-slash variety are plentiful among most every platform. On the PC, you've got the traditional Diablo series, PlayStation has Untold Legends, the original Xbox had the impressive Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, and even the Game Boy has the Shining Soul. With the next-gen systems hitting their strides it is about time these games went next-gen as well. The Xbox 360's entry, Kingdom under Fire: Circle of Doom is a fine game for gamers who love battling hordes of monsters and leveling up your warriors to become unstoppable killing machines. For those looking for a title with a little more substance, an engaging storyline, or seamless and fluid action, then you may find yourself a bit disappointed.
A little back story would work wonders in giving gamers and idea of what kind of world they are stepping into when they boot up KuF. The bad news is, one isn't provided. In actuality, there is a prologue you can view from the title screen. For those that take the time, prepare to be mystified. The Lords of Light and Darkness alternate in ruling the world thus providing balance and harmony. However things begin to get a little shady when the Lord of Darkness uses its godly powers to turn the world's creatures against one another in a free-for-all battle royal where destruction and torture reign supreme. Seeing this as a problem, the Lord of Light chooses not to relinquish control of the world when its turn is up. The Lord of Darkness, insulted by this act of defiance, tries to take back control of the world on a more permanent basis. Therefore, the world is in turmoil and peace cannot be restored until the Lords of Light and Darkness remembers how to share. A cast of heroes emerges with the intention of righting all wrongs and slaying everything and anything that dare get in their way. So instead of the two Lords working out their problems like mature diviners of creation, a great battle must be waged where one side will reign over the other. For what its worth, this story is comparable to the one in Diablo 2. In other words, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Choosing your hero is fairly rudimentary. There's nothing unique here with your choice of knights, berserkers, archers, clerics, wizards and the like. They all look very cool but outside of being given fancy names and a bit of a background, it's really nothing more. Some characters have a bit more story to tell than others, but regardless of whom you pick; your goal remains the same.
The biggest lure (as well as pitfall) of KuF may lie in its simplicity. Your characters have three types of attacks, melee, long ranged, and magical. You have two attack buttons at your disposal when pressed repeatedly leads to a string of attacks that can be used to wipe out a whole field of monsters. You also get two buttons for magical attacks/skills and two buttons to use items such as health and stamina potions; easily the most useful items you will come across in the game. The control scheme is easy to adjust to regardless of what class your warrior may be. Since the game doesn't offer much beyond hacking and slashing, you won't have to worry needlessly about intermediate or advanced controls later on.
The bulk of your time playing KuF will be spent dueling with the baddies. One moment you'll be in an open plane watching the scenery around you motion with activity, the background music is serene, the only sounds you'll hear is the movement of your own foot steps. Then from off in the distance you see an enemy, the music changes from tranquil to something more resembling of impending doom. That enemy will seldom be alone, he'll have alongside him dozens of his compatriots and they are hell bent on making you extinct. So starts one of the many massacres you will experience with your character being responsible for the bloodshed more often than not. In the early goings of your adventure, the enemies will not put up much of a struggle. They'll poke, slash, and hurl things at you from all angles. Even if your health is moderate to low, you're almost guaranteed to have picked up some health potions left behind by the disappearing corpses. Once one battle ends, everything reverts back to the way it was, sooner than later you'll encounter your next wave of enemies and repeat the process.
These epic battles are fun at first, especially when you realize the AI is not very strategic. As long as they have the numbers they will fight aggressively. Melee fighters from up close and long range fighters in turn can hit you from obscene distances. When you are ready to take out those pesky cowards, you'll see they won't put up much of a fight, or even make any attempt to get away. They will just add to your kill counter. Boss battles on the other hand are actually engaging and require a bit more skill. Usually you will have to alternate between melee and long range attacks, and some bosses are more susceptible to certain elementals. Therefore, you may plow through the grunts of the game but will be in for a rude awakening if you don't have an assortment of different weapons/skills in your arsenal.
After clearing a few screens worth of enemies, the battles gets seriously mundane and predictable. If that isn't disappointing enough, a screen full of enemies tends to slow the game down significantly. Sometimes you will battle with dozens of weaker monsters whose sole purpose appears to be to just populate the screen. These little buggers are annoying for two reasons, one because they often appear out of nowhere in large numbers and two, they can become infused in the background making them impossible to kill.
This is KuF in a nutshell. There are other things to do but even these side quests often relate to the slaughtering of hundreds of foes. The areas are mostly linear with the occasional twist and turn which often amounts to nothing more than a dead end, and another screen filling battle.
When you near the end of an area you will encounter a sanctuary under the watchful eye of one of three idols; Love, Death, or Greed. Thankfully you do not have to fight them. Instead they offer a number of services such as buying some of your spare goods and selling an assortment of weapons, armor and items. Two of the more unique options that are provided by the Idols are item synthesis and letting you sleep. Regardless of what you do at an Idol Sanctuary, your game will be saved.
The item synthesis process is unsurprisingly basic; you mix either a weapon or piece of armor with certain items and accessories and hope for something new and useful to come out of it. Although it's a nice feature to have, you'll usually be better off just shelling out the gold to buy from the Idols. The only upside to item synthesis is that your rare items can be synthesized even further and they often will give a pretty hefty return when you choose to sell them.
Sleeping on the other hand serves a more fascinating purpose. Your warrior enters a pseudo dream world where you can choose to interact with a strange cast of characters. The most notable one is a creepy, old (presumably wise) man. He provides cryptic messages retaining to your quest and the option to learn some skills. This latter process simply consists of having to kill X amount of enemies. Although you have the opportunity to attempt to learn some advanced skills early on, it will be largely irrelevant since the monsters you need to kill cannot be found until much later. The amount of skills you can learn is decent, and some of them are not only a visual treat but darn useful to boot.
Although KuF plays like the many of the hack and slash games on the market, it looks and sounds like something that is right at home on a next-gen system. There are some impressive visuals to behold. The amount of detail in the scenery is something that can be easily taken for granted, it is easy to overlook when you are waging war against a dozen enemies or so. The characters, whether they are your heroes or the monsters look fantastic. Another set of superb visual effects is the gore factor. Yes this game deserves its mature rating with the red ooze (or green, or black, or yellow depending on the enemy flowing from each swing of the weapon. However, it is not used excessively and serves as a good indicator as to when you have successfully connected with an attack or been dealt damage. For the squeamish gamer, the option to draw blood is actually kept off by default before you start.
From an audio standpoint, look no further than the title screen for a prelude into how awesome the music within the game can be. It's intense, chalk full of beats, and rifts and everything else you could possibly want from a soundtrack for a game that emphasizes beating the heck out of waves of diabolical monster scum. Circle of Doom uses a fairly common formula to create an appropriate atmosphere while playing. Have peaceful music going when there's nothing going on, and then kick it up a notch (like Emeril, bam!) when you are in the heat of battle.
A quick note on the dialogue of the voice work within the game, it's bad. Regardless of who you select, most of the time I couldn't be bothered to try and figure out what was going on. The dialogue is dull, often incoherent and is delivered as if the characters have been chewing on marbles. All is not hopeless though, some of the dialogue is so over the top, it is hysterical. Although I had no idea what he was talking about, and whoever voices the God of Greed deserves an Oscar for their performance, even if he's guilty of overacting.
Simple controls, linear gameplay, a basic (yet confusing storyline) equates to an experience that may please the casual hack and slash gamer. Playing online with up to three friends adds a nice dynamic but does little to change the actual gameplay. Some might find it even more challenging when you have multiple players fighting to stock up on health potions during the adventure. Despite the number of warriors you could choose from, the repetitive battle scheme and lack of variety will not make it worth your while to complete this game more than once. Ultimately Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom doesn't offer anything more than what it advertises; a hack and slash/action RPG adventure that you've likely played before, this time on a next-gen console.