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Kingdom Under Fire is a strange breed. The original games on the Xbox were a healthy mix of real-time strategy and sword-and-shield brawling, but apparently that involved too much thinking. Blue Side effectively removed all that pesky thought-requiring strategy and left us with Circle of Doom — a fairly straightforward hack-and-slash RPG with just enough emo to make you want to put on some eyeliner.

If you’re new to the Kingdom Under Fire series, well, it really doesn’t matter. Circle of Doom is more of a spin-off series in and of itself. There have been three previous Kingdom Under Fire games, and much like Grand Theft Auto or Street Fighter, none of them were part two. The actual Kingdom Under Fire sequel is scheduled to be released sometime in 2009.

The storyline of Circle of Doom, however, does involve some of the characters from the previous games. Chronologically, it takes place after the events of The Crusaders, and begins with the main characters being transported to the Dark Dimension.

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Oh yes, there will be blood.

Basically, there’s a Lord of Light and a Lord of Darkness. They made an agreement that they would take turns ruling the earth for 1,000 years each. It came time for the Lord of Darkness to take over, but the Lord of Light got all pissy and said no. He didn’t like his beautiful world being ruined by the Lord of Darkness, so he just plain refused to let the Lord of Darkness take his turn.

Obviously, the Lord of Darkness was slightly furious, so he called upon his Dark Legion and tried to forcibly remove the Lord of Light from the world. People didn’t like that, so they fought back, and eventually beat the Darkness back to his dimension. Coincidentally, all the heroes that helped destroy the demons also got sucked into the Dark Dimension. Oh no!

So you now have your choice between five playable characters (and one unlockable character) and begin your adventure at this point. Different storylines reveal different plot elements and help to explain what the hell is supposed to be going on. I don’t know how much of this information people would consider to be spoiler territory, so I’ll refrain from mentioning any specifics.

Suffice to say, all of the characters follow the same path. There are essentially six regions, including a forest and the obligatory ice and fire levels, and everyone travels them the same way. The only story elements happen while you are sleeping, so you have to engage the story yourself if you are interested in it. Otherwise, you could play though the whole game up to the end boss and not even know what your motivation is.

The evil characters are especially confusing. Why would they want to to destroy the Lord of Darkness when they themselves are evil? These questions will only be answered if you choose to play out the story, and even then, you still might not understand what’s going on.

So you look through your character choices and pick what suits you best. My first choice was Regnier, a burly hunk of man-muscle with a masked face and horns, and my brother chose Leinhart, a fast-moving vampire ninja thing. We played through the entire game cooperatively over Xbox Live, a feature I greatly appreciate. In fact, Circle of Doom supports up to 4 players over Xbox Live, so that certainly adds some replay value right there.

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You then awaken in the Forest of Embracing and run through a quick (and skippable) tutorial before running into your first group of baddies. I take a few minutes to get used to the controls, walk around and look at the scenery, etc. The graphics are actually quite nice, better than I expected. The art design seems like it was ripped straight from the pages of Heavy Metal magazine.

You get two weapon buttons: A and X. Each character has their own set of tools to smite bitches, which can be assigned to either button. You could have, for example, a sword and shield, a hammer and a crossbow, two hammers, or even two shields (if you wanted a challenge or were just completely retarded).

I personally went with the great sword and a hand cannon. Equipping a two-handed weapon, thankfully, does not take the place of two one-handed weapons like it does in some (most) other games. The first thing I noticed was that my combo attacks tore up the ground around where we were fighting. I got curious and started shooting rocks with my cannon, and to my surprise, they actually deformed.

The environmental destruction is limited, of course, but it’s pretty awesome to check out the battlefield after a huge rumble and see craters in the earth. It is not, however, a universal occurrence. My brother’s pussy little weakling of a character does not smash walls like mine does unless he gets a weapon with a specific enhancement that allows him to do so.

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Regnier’s Explosion ability craters the ground quite nicely.

Ah, right — enhancements. Weapons, armor, and jewelry all have enhancement slots where you can add little extra, well, enhancements. These run anywhere from protecting you against fire to dealing more damage with each successful hit. The enhancements available to each piece of equipment are limited by the equipment type. For example, most of Regnier’s weapons can’t use Bloodlust, but his gauntlet-type weapons can.

Status and elemental abilities can be used as either offense or defense. Putting Lightning on a piece of jewelry will increase your chances of blocking a Lightning attack, but putting it on a weapon will give you a chance of inflicting additional Lightning damage on an enemy.

The process of getting these enhancements on your equipment involves Synthesizing, which is a whole convoluted game in and of itself. There is no definite result to combining any two pieces of equipment, other than most times, you will get the same thing you started with.

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The Excavation enhancement increases environmental destruction. Shooting Regnier’s cannon close to the ground leaves a trail of annihilated earth.

For example: Start with a sword, try to synthesize a ring with it, and your end result will still be a sword, only different. It really is a process of trial and error, and it keeps you questing for more random junk to sell for the money needed to synthesize, or for the actual synthesis materials themselves.

Synthesizing items that have the same enhancement on them will combine and raise the enhancement level, up to a maximum of 25. Raising these levels is pretty much the only way you stand a chance or Hard and Extreme. There is no block button, so the only way you can avoid a hit is to have a high defensive level of Bash, Slash, or Thrust, not to mention the elemental attacks (like getting frozen) and status effects (like Fear, which makes you unable to attack).

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As you find better armor, the dudes get increasingly more bad-ass…

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…while the only female character, Celine, gets progressively more naked.

If it seems like I just spent way too long talking about synthesizing, then maybe you won’t like this game. In the 30 hours it took for me and my brother to run through the game on Normal, we spent probably 1 to 2 hours synthesizing stuff. Once we unlocked Hard, that time skyrocketed.

It took another 20 hours to run through the game on Hard. We didn’t have to do any of the story crap, so that decreased our time right there. Of those 20 hours, however, I would honestly estimate that we spent about 5 of those hours synthesizing our equipment. Believe it or not, Hard is actually hard. You really are better off investing some serious time and pretty much all of your money in synthesis.

The good thing about synthesizing is that it can only be done at an Idol. Every level is basically comprised of a set number of tiles, which are randomly put together to make the map. One tile in each level has an Idol. These locations are where you do all of your buying and selling, synthesizing, and the only place you can sleep and enter your dream world.

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The Idol of Death

This is great in multiplayer because it’s basically a rest stop where people can do all the things they need to do. If someone is standing there synthesizing stuff, I can browse through what the Idol is selling, synthesize my own stuff, or enter the dream world while I wait (which you may do a lot of — I wasted a ton of my brother’s time at the Idol when he was eager to just go kill some stuff).

Everyone’s dream world is different, but they all have one similarity: a person to talk to. The main character of the dream world usually just stands there and talks to you, gives you your quests, and also teaches you new abilities if you ask politely. Abilities are usually spells, but there are other things like Dash and Leap.

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This is not a cutscene — the character resolution in the dream world seems to be slightly higher than the real world.

Generally, you need to kill a certain number of specific enemies to learn an ability. Once learned, you can assign them to the B button and Right Trigger. Abilities for the most part are not very powerful, but there are a few that come in handy (like Heal), or that kill weak enemies fairly quickly and efficiently (Chain Lightning). I’ve found that spamming Explosion with Regnier is a good boss-killer.

Abilities can be charged up and made more powerful by holding the button, which also consumes your stamina. Your stamina, or SP, is basically your mana or magic, but it also decreases when you use a weapon. Weapons have an SP usage and an SP regeneration statistic, which just adds one more layer of complexity to your equipment. Yet another reason you’ll be spending time synthesizing all your shit over and over.

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Spending a lot of SP to cast Heal provides some very impressive results.

When we beat the game, my brother and I were both in the upper 40s in level. The guys at the very beginning of the game on Hard are in their 60s. The max character level for a player is 120, and Extreme-level bad guys start at level 123. The boss at the end of the game on Extreme is level 223!

Overall, it took me 58 hours and some change to run Regnier through Normal and Hard mode, level up to 120 in Extreme, and then warp to the last region and beat the final boss. If I only wanted to do the storylines of each of the characters after that, it would be at the very least 20 hours per character, for a total of around 160 hours of gameplay. I’ve already played through Normal with Celine and Kendal, each one taking about 30 hours, and I still have the other 3 characters to go.. Not a bad bang for the buck, eh?

I had a nice time playing through Circle of Doom. I never got overly frustrated at the game or the cheapness of the baddies (which is rare). There are some moments where the framerate drops well below acceptable, especially on the last stage. There is a ton of detail there and a lot going on, but that really is no excuse.

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The last level is dark and fairly disturbing.

My only major gripe is with the character Duane. What a crack-brained hunk of turd that guy is. On the character select screen we see an old fat dude with crazy eyebrows, an eyepatch, and that his weapons include Gatling guns. Sweet! No, unfortunately not sweet. The character feels to me like the people a Blue Side really hate the English and this is their way of expressing those feelings.

Duane is just a moron. His dash attack ends with him actually falling on his face, his melee attacks are about as useful as FEMA, and his story quests consist of dueling with some other loser in a “Who’s the Lamest Character?” contest. Basically, you attack or defend, high or low, and the winner is determined by almost complete randomness.

Each round starts with either the other guy saying something, in which case you defend, or you get to say something and attack. Sometimes you try to fake him out by saying something like you’re going to smack him in the nuts, but then you hit him in the face. Other times you can talk about pie, or how the dewy glow of a forest sunrise makes your inner gayness smile. Ultimately, what you say doesn’t really matter — the computer decides who wins, and even when it’s Duane, in every sense it will never be you.

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The dumbest mini-game you will ever play.

Duane’s ultimate goal is to impress some chick from his past that is probably dead or old (is there a difference?) in real life. By comparison, Regnier was once immortal and basically talks with some old guy about how much ass he kicks; Leinhart is trying to mutate so that he can take back his land and bang some hot vampire chick; Celine is trying to find a cure for her lover and whores herself out for information… Okay, she doesn’t really, but still…

The point is that all of the characters have a decent storyline that involves murdering lots of stuff. They have some real, world-saving objectives, while Duane, on the other hand, calls his girlfriend fat and has fencing competitions. Maybe he is supposed to be the comic relief, but with the other options available, nobody wants to play as Jar-Jar Binks.

One more thing I should touch on is the voice acting. Many people have said that it’s just plain bad. I disagree. The voice acting is very good, actually. The characters are all very cold and emotionless — it’s a stylized thing. Leinhart’s accent is kinda bad, and Duane is overall horrible anyways so who the fuck cares what he sounds like.

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Duane — looks like he should be awesome, but he instead wins the award for Lamest Character Ever.

Regnier, on the other hand, is actually voiced by John Di Maggio, the pipes behind Marcus Fenix from Gears of War. I was actually quite surprised as you wouldn’t initially recognize the voice as being him. I watched the credits after a few hours of playing and saw his name, and then was like “Huh… I guess that is him.” His voice acting is as emotionally void as everyone else’s, and in no way is it “bad”. Some people just don’t understand what style and perspective are.

Overall, if you enjoy hack-and-slash games, you will enjoy Circle of Doom. If you’re not sure what hack-and-slash is all about, then go rent Dynasty Warriors or Diablo II. Circle of Doom is a healthy mix of those two games — actually, it feels sort of like an MMORPG on a much smaller scale, like Phantasy Star. If you aren’t a fan of these types of games, however, Circle of Doom probably isn’t going to change your mind.

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What does this score mean? Check out our review scoring breakdown.

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