If you go down to the woods today, you’d better make sure you’re well armed…
With a ring of fire and a rawk soundtrack intro that even Nickleback would be embarrassed to pin their name to, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom could be mistaken for a very western “RPG-lite” title.
For someone who’s steadfastly tried to avoid recent RPG games like the plague (aside from a quick dalliance with some of the sci-fi stuff, and a rove through the rambling lands of Oblivion) I came to the game with no foreknowledge, no preconceptions and no idea what was in store. That’s not to say that I don’t know my stuff. I know exactly what I look for in an RPG. Intensively fine-grained character customisation and development, a gripping reason to carry on through the game no matter how long it takes, and the sort of inventory management and simplicity of levelling up that doesn’t involve wading through tons and tons of stats just to get the right balance. KUF unfortunately only scores on one of those points but let’s not cut to the chase quite yet.
Strike one against KUF is the fact that you have to choose a pre-set character from a selection. Step forward Kendal, Regnier, Celine, Curian, Leinhart and…er Duane. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses as you’d expect but with the vast amount of customisation of characters in everything from RPGs to Golf games, it felt a little bit disappointing to just choose one of the typically clichéd characters on offer.
I chose Celine, mainly because she’s fast, agile and has a nicer butt than Duane. If you know you’re going to be following a character around in third person view for some hours, you’re better off picking someone that’s easy on the eye – at least that’s my philosophy.
As you’d expect from an Elven Princess, Celine’s pretty good with low level combat and has a goodly dose of magical ability too. She may not immediately be able to cut a swathe through rampaging hordes of Lizard Men but she can more than hold her own, and can call on her abilities if mere brute strength won’t cut it.
And so to KUF’s way of balancing character abilities. Each character starts off with an allocated Hit Point amount, Skill point count, Luck balance, Recovery ability and Experience points. Naturally, as you progress through the game more can be gathered each time you level up (which doesn’t happen automatically, you have to choose where to allocate your points to each time – slightly irritating if, like me, you’re lazy and just want the game to handle the micromanagement of your character).
Each point total has an effect on what you can do, everything from what weapons you can wield and what armour you can wear (and there are a wide variety of weapon types even from early on in the game), to what extra abilities you can have and what magic you can call on.
KUF instantly feels biased towards combat. In fact if you were expecting any complex quests, you may find you have to wade through a metric ton of enemies before you even get a whiff at any substance or anything meaty quest-wise to get your teeth into.
With Celine, I quickly found that having a heavy hitting ranged weapon to soften up enemies first, before wading in with my secondary melee weapon the best tactic. Auto-assigning hit point and stamina point regeneration (in the form of potions) to your shoulder bumper buttons is also worth doing straight away as you’ll need to keep topping those up when you’re scrapping with some of the bigger enemies.
The actual combat itself is unremarkable but one thing I did take an instant liking to was KUF’s excellent way of handling ranged weapon fighting. You can loose off a volley of arrows, Legolas style in quick succession or you can quickly hit the right trigger and use a first-person target mode for more accurate shot placement. In some cases, selecting the right ranged weapon is essential for bopping some of the game’s bigger baddies. On that side of things, be prepared for some beautifully rendered enemies particularly when you get to the end of a sector and fight the end-of-level guardians which are quite spectacular. In fact most of the in-game graphics are pleasing, not breathtaking by anyone’s standards but they do the job well. There IS a heck of a lot of V-Synch tear but when isn’t there these days…
For all the positives though, it does feel a lot like the Ninety Nine Nights / Dynasty Warriors style of fighting – endless button mashing until you start to learn and unlock some of the better abilities like frost fire and dispersal.
Thankfully when visiting the dream world (when you send your character to sleep near an Idol Sanctuary) you can speak to character who will help you unlock various quests – side missions that give KUF a lot more substance. If the majority of your game time was spent playing these, then the game might feel more worthy and satisfying but alas, quests seem tricky to attain and there’s a lot of fruitless gabbling in your sleep before you get a good one.
For every moment where you wish KUF had more in common with deeper and more satisfying RPG games, there was one touch of genius in the design of “Synthesis” – the ability to visit one of the various idol sanctuaries (inhabited by idols such as love, greed, death etc) and synthesis weapons and items together to make something more powerful. For instance, take a hunter’s dagger, synthesise it with a steel ring and see what happens. This also works for abilities so you can mix your magic with your inventory too in order to produce a weapon that can have a catastrophic damaging effect on your enemies.
Synthesis isn’t free though, there’s a cost in gold to you and this is taken whether your synthesis attempt is successful or not, so it’s best to play around as much as possible with this element of the game because it can prove very rewarding.
One more thing worth mentioning about weapons – if you find your inventory daunting, when allocating a weapon to a slot you can hit the X button to have your inventory allot the most powerful weapon type in your arsenal to that slot. This is an essential tool for lazy questers like myself, so make good use of it. This also works for armour and ability items too.
Lastly to one of KUF’s more interesting game modes, co-operative play. It’s possible to play through the entire quest mode and main game with the aid of a friend. Rather than just one of you tackling the baddies, you can team up and cut a swathe through the hordes in no time at all. There is the added caveat that you will both be scrapping for the same spoils of war though so make sure you pick someone who isn’t going to pocket all the gold and replenishing potions leaving you with the scraps. Playing alongside a random online type (as very few people on my friends list have even heard of the game let alone having a copy) proved a bit fruitless but when you can link up with three other players who play as a team, it can add quite a bit of satisfaction to the game.