For the handful of fans out there, here it is: An honest review that will send Loki's head spinning.
Now it's been roughly two years since the last Kingdom Under Fire game was released, 2005's RTS Heroes, and quite a few changes have been made to the game in that amount of time. Previous developer, Phantagram, has left the series to pursue other projects, like Ninety-Nine Nights and Blueside has taken that game as their model for Circle of Doom. All military units you controlled in the previous installments have disappeared and uglified into Fleshmen (who deliver equal portions of flab and creepy) and spitting cephalopods named Rippers, and you have been imbued with the superhuman power to stab your way through thirty men droves of these things over and over and over until your thumb cramps up. The controls are simple, and with most characters you can boil every encounter down to a two button extravaganza: X controls one weapon, A the other. Sure, there are a variety of spells to learn and plenty of them are humorous in how incredibly emo they are; weep at your mentally-deficient enemies and then finish them off by slashing yourself with a self-inflicted attack. Sadly, most of these spells give little payback as the game wears on and a good deal of them (flesh spear, cherub statue) take too long to cast to give you any sort of advantage during an enemy invasion. And while you might want to avoid using magic, you'd have a death wish if you do the same for items. Red and white potions are your friends because they restore your HP and SP (which is used to execute attacks), respectively, and with how much hacking and slashing is going on with both parties, you need to use these if you want to have a prayer of staying in the game.
Fortunately, you can also improve your HP and SP with each level gained, which given how rapidly you accrue experience, happens quite a bit. But unlike other action RPGs like Untold Legend or Baldur's Gate, there is little customization available to your character. Rather than controlling the speed of your warrior, the vitality or the accuracy (which, as you'll find with long-range weapons, is frustratingly low), all you can modify is the aforementioned HP, SP, and luck, which affects things like your item drop rate and synthesis success rate. The latter aspect works similarly Oblivion's alchemy: attach items and abilities to your current weapons to raise their stats. Once you discover exactly how to perform a beneficial synthesis, you might find yourself stopping by the various Idols more often, since synthesizing weapons and armor is relatively painless and highly useful to your mythical hero in the long run.
Beneath the synthesizing and the hordes of enemies, there is a story, though it is relatively weak in comparison to other aspects of the game. For example, I chose to follow Celine's journey and spent five hours of the game committing genocide before I realized that the spirit crystal I was supposed to find for my brain-dead lover was buried somewhere in the first section of the game. There is nothing really connecting one area to the next so that you'll find yourself running across a desert before taking refuge in a mansion that looks like its architectural design was stripped right out of Symphony of the Night; neither gives an explanation as to why your barging your way through its linear-cut path, but there you are and there are plenty of gnome-like sculptor enemies who inexplicably want your head served upon a platter ala John the Baptist.
Thankfully, my story had decent voice acting, which is more than can be said for some of the other characters (ahem, Mr. Vampire Prince himself, Leinhart). Outside of dreaming story events you will never hear another person's voice, so that you can expect most of the game will be spent hearing the grunting of enemies and a few well done musical pieces that drift through the background. Even more beautifully done is the artwork, and though its splendor will never match another recently released action RPG (Heavenly Sword), and although the palette of color is sometimes dominated by shades of brown, causing skeletons and archmages to blend into the background during the last level, the game still shines in the art department.
Circle of Doom allows you to play with a band of others online, and that very well may be the best way to go. The game gives a decent hack 'n slash experience, with little else: the story is shallow, the characters flat, and I have yet to provide an explanation as to why bosses like Loki want to kill you aside from the fact that you're more classically attractive than that Earthworm Jim metalmonger could ever hope to be. But they do, and they will look impressive while flying across the screen. So while this Kingdom Under Fire installment may lose fans with its drastically different style of gameplay, it still presents a decent romp through the forest, and with the recent dearth of new titles out on the market, maybe that's the best the fantasy RPG obsessed can hope for until February comes around. For those of you who aren't Ren Faire fans, perhaps the best course of action is to dust off your Call of Duty 4 until Q1 picks up.
- Pretty graphics are among some of the better released on the system, with a variety of backgrounds and enemies ripe for the killing. Story events, however, are presented a little stiffly, with little character movement and absolutely no expression in the face
- Sound effects and music are both presented well, with a variety of background noises to better show off the art design
- Game features a multiplayer mode that can make the title a more social, and ultimately a more fun experience overall
- A variety of enemies inhabit each level; however, the endless spawning of some arachnids can make wading through certain areas of the game frustrating
- With a variety of characters to choose from, the game's replay value is relatively high, lasting well over fifty hours if played through with each of the protagonists
- Drastic change in gameplay (from RTS to action RPG) may turn some fans away from the series
- Bland storyline and protagonists that will bore all but the most hardcore Kingdom Under Fire fan will appreciate, since characters from previous titles make an appearance; locations and bosses, however, are rarely explained
- Gameplay never rises above a mindless button mash with mindless enemies - if you seriously enjoy hack 'n slash titles, this flaw can easily be overlooked, but for everyone else, they might get bored before reaching the end of the game