Doom and more doom.
Here’s an equation: the circumference of Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom is equal to a nightmare times a generic spin-off, squared. Now, I’ve vowed never to write down another formula after solving heaps of problem sets in engineering school, but when the highest aspiration of this hack-'n'-slash is to have you walk up to a monster and hack-‘n'-slash it, you start thinking about formulas. Lacking innovation and execution on nearly all elements of design, Circle of Doom is as rudimentary as elementary addition without having to carry the one.
[image1]That the game works and can be played with friends over Xbox Live, sans local multiplayer, is just about the only compliment worth giving, though it’s like rewarding a student for showing up in class and not sleeping. As the human knight, demonic lord, elven archer, or whatever melee character fits in a Lord of the Rings flimflam, you move from one extremely linear environment to another extremely linear environment, defeating group after group of Monster Manual baddies. You acquire loot, level up, learn abilities, defeat the boss, and move on to the next region filled with more linear environments and enemies that wield sharp sticks.
Sure, this doesn’t sound that different from an offshoot of Diablo or Baldur’s Gate, but Circle of Doom almost tries its best to meet only the basic requirements of a monster-basher without thinking over any of its design choices. The game hardly offers any explanation for why you’re running around in a post-apocalyptic fantasy of epic proportions, unless you consider a lot of scrolling text and cryptic dialogue intriguing. Supposedly, it takes place after the Dark Dimension replaces the Age of Light and revolves around the concept of how dreams and the realm of the dead impact reality. Unfortunately, it’s an interesting premise that is left as an afterthought, especially given that you’re almost immediately thrust into combat.
Diving straight into the action usually works for the better, but there’s not much to admire. On the battlefield, you are strangled by a restricted number of options: attack, use an ability, or err… move. Even if you have a shield and can attack with a shield thrust, you can’t defend, which wouldn’t be an issue if enemies couldn’t defend against your attacks… which they can. Large grunts also have an impenetrable shield that activates erratically, so you’re never sure if your attacks will hit or not. Worse, you are staggered for about a second every time you’re hit, which frequently leads to spurts that showcase how defenseless you are against arrows and pokes.
You also have a poor selection of attacks, which range between using a melee weapon or a ranged weapon, as well as a limited set of abilities that are actually useful. Each weapon type has but one fixed chain of attacks, so expect to mash the same button, repeating the same sequence, until you’re the only moving object left on the screen.
[image2]New abilities, which can only be learned two at a time, require you to lop the head off a list of specific number of specific monsters. It’s a long-winded quest of hide-and-seek that usually isn’t worth it, considering many abilities are as useless as Clap. No, I’m not kidding. I thought it would amount to something like a thunderclap, but instead it gives Kendal, the holy knight of holy knights, the extraordinary ability to stand, hit his palms together, and make a sound. It’s funny for a while until, ha-ha!, you realize you could have spent four hours learning an ability that could have been funny and valuable.
In fact, tedium abounds. In an effort to relate to the story, quests and abilities you wish to learn can only be gained by entering the dream world, which you do by sleeping in the safe haven next to an Idol. But even the added load times it takes to flip between dimensions are superseded by not being able to return instantly to areas of a region. Put simply, you can instantly transfer from world 2-1 to world 4-1 and 5-1, but not from 2-1 to 2-3 or 2-4. If an enemy you need to kill or a part of a quest resides in world 2-4, you need to start over from 2-1 and hack your way there. Again. Suffice it to say, Circle of Doom lives up its name.
Much of the monotony could have been alleviated with just a bit of fine-tuning. Enemies always come in packs and wait at specific places in maps, which though randomly generated, are pieced from the same tile set. Apart from creepy crawlies that scuffle in and out of the boundaries of the map (that's fair...), each group of baddies always consists of a circling swarm of grunts and larger grunts, and usually some annoying shamans or archers who fire away at a distance. Ripping them into meat mulch, though, is fairly easy despite your inability to block. Potions drop often enough that you don’t have to worry about health, and your stamina regenerates so quickly that you can attack constantly.
Presentation also suffers from stilted voice-acting, run-of-the-mill sound effects, a soundtrack that is more boring than that of Dynasty Warriors, and redundant environments. While each region has a stylized look, whether it is a thick forest, a dusty canyon, or opulent hallways lined with ornate pottery, the difference between each area in a region is usually just a difference in lighting. Oh, look, those are the same trees I saw in sunlight, the same trees I saw at dusk, and the same trees I want to burn down for a change of scenery.
[image3]On the other hand, Circle of Doom does try to spruce up the interest. More powerful, magic-imbued weapons and armor can be crafted through a barebones system of item synthesis, though most of what you need can simply be found. Buying, selling, and storing your spoils can all be done by approaching the Idols of Greed, Love, or Death, who all offer different items for purchase. Which Idol appears is randomized, however, complicating the simple process of buying something specific. Why not just have all the three Idols there instead of having to march about twenty paces away and return on the chance that the Idol has changed?
Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom follows a straight-forward formula, but somehow, it can’t even get that right. Most of the time, it just makes the gameplay too easy, too basic, or too difficult by design. Something is off, something that you can tell just by reading some of the Messages from the Dark Dimension and proverb-filled Fortune Cookies that are dropped by dead enemies: “You are locked in a sterile white room. The pain is unbearable. The tools are at hand. What is your next move?” Hmm…. probably opening the door and walking away from the pain.