The Player

by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom & r & Rated Mature; Xbox 360 & r & 2 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & einhart is a slender half-vampire -- a twisting silhouette animated with an almost-instantaneous digital blur between one stance and another. He swooshes from his swords-back "ready to attack" pose to his blades-out "blood's flying" pose while his twin Mugenjin Swords trace two arcs through the air. Nearby, a dozen skeletons glide like plastic toys being slid across a floor, legs unmoving. The flowers at their feet, modeled only in two dimensions, turn to keep their flat sides towards the television screen, revolving like the facets of a kaleidoscope as Leinhart and the skeletons fight.

Like other videogames of the newest generation, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom is a third-person action game with the camera following or swinging around the main character, displaying hordes of enemies that have been poured into the game's environments. Whether the setting is a forest or a library, the navigable areas in Circle of Doom are usually composed of narrow corridors connecting wider areas where bigger monsters dwell. An ever-shifting maze, this prototypical dungeon-skein re-entangles itself into new configurations whenever a character re-enters the setting.

What makes the game a different experience for each player isn't the level design -- it's the accessories. Almost every time a monster dies, it leaves behind a shiny treasure, weapon or piece of armor. These artifacts have various powers, giving the game's six different characters the chance to gain unique abilities by picking up and using equipment. In conjunction with the characters' innate skills, their various swords and suits of armor begin to define fighting styles and distinctive combat combinations.

Leinhart, who is a weak fighter, is at a loss when faced with three hulking Blacksand Warriors -- troll-like brutes with manes of hair descending their backs. Three-broad they stand, the shoulder of one digitally merging into the shoulder of another. But a quick flick of one of Leinhart's throwing stars -- imbued with the power of "frost" -- freezes the first warrior where he stands, slowing them down long enough for Leinhart to transform into a flock of bats. He rips through the warriors like a swarm of mini-raptors, buffeting them with wings and fangs. Landing and taking vampire shape again, Leinhart turns and swings his blades behind him. The warriors fall, overlapping like a deck of cards being spread.

THE GOOD: Circle of Doom has a solid role-playing backbone. Like some of the most adventurous Final Fantasy titles, the characters are enhanced as much by the weapons and armor they possess as by any innate characteristics. This makes the seeking-out and creation of artifacts just as immersive a part of character development as the learning of a new magic spell.

THE BAD: By the Xbox 360's graphical standards, this game is crude. Not only are the textures of the surrounding world boring and blurry, but the character animation is rudimentary, moving between too few frames of animation too quickly. The camera following the characters stays too close to them, bumping through walls, stone cliffs and even monsters as I fight swarms of them packed into the game's narrow corridors.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom is a surprisingly robust role-playing game that loses most of its character to sloppy and monotonous design choices.