UK REVIEW--One thing should already be clear about The Crusades: They were extremely unpleasant. A Christian military campaign quickly turned sour, with knights becoming little more than mercenaries as they rampaged around and sacked cities across the Holy Land. In short, it was a time of strife and bloodshed. And, if The Cursed Crusade is to be believed, it was a time when ludicrous supernatural curses occurred, weapons broke after a few hits, and soldiers repeatedly got stuck on walls. Almost everything about the game is broken in some way, and between the ill-conceived mechanics and glitches, one could almost believe that the game itself is cursed.
The Cursed Crusade tells the tale of a pair of crusaders: Denz de Bayle and Esteban Noviembre. They're on a quest to break the curse that haunts them. Pursued by Death and in the employ of the evil Boniface, they must reunite a bunch of holy relics and save their souls from eternal damnation. At least, that seems to be what the plot is trying to convey. The game is full of exposition, with cutscene after cutscene breaking up the action, but the plot never really goes anywhere. There are no twists and no major developments until the very end; thus there is little to warrant the two hours of cutscenes within the game.
Denz and Esteban might have made for a likeable duo, if the script were any good or if the cutscenes were well directed. Scenes cut out in the middle of dialogue while screen tearing plagues the cinematics. Denz and Esteban are well acted, but the writing itself makes the chemistry feel forced. There are attempts at humor in the second half of the game, but the jokes also fall flat. During one scene, which tries to ape the "This is SPARTA!" line from the movie 300, Denz's character model simply failed to load, making it farcical for all the wrong reasons.
Weapons are collected as you go, and there are a large number of combinations. Denz and Esteban can use swords, axes, maces, spears, and shields, which can be mixed and matched. Two-handed weapons provide heavy attack power, a weapon used with a shield provides good defense, and dual-wielding provides some nippy attacks that are low on damage but high on speed. Enemies have different armor levels, and you can guard break, dodge, parry, and riposte. There are also a series of finishing moves that can be unlocked for each weapon combination by spending victory points. Victory points are earned for completing levels, as well as completing optional objectives in each level, such as purifying a number of souls, cleansing a crucifix, or finding hidden coffers.
Initially, the combat seems quite deep, but it quickly falls apart. For starters, weapons break and have to be maintained. This isn't inherently bad, but a number of issues make this highly problematic. Swords break far too frequently, often after just a couple kills, which leads to a frantic sprint as you look for the prompt that tells you you're standing on another weapon. They're often difficult to see, and if enemies are following, then you have no hope of actually spotting a weapon on the ground. To make matters worse, there's no indication that you've actually picked up a weapon, and sometimes, the blade simply disappears. Even more awkwardly, the characters slip and slide around due to input lag, and accurately standing on the weapon you're trying to recover is tricky in the heat of battle.
This is a shame because each weapon has a different weight, and they all appear to be historically accurate. Occasionally, you may find yourself in a fight where there are no weapons to replace your broken one, so you have to fight with a hilt or a stick until you can find another. This means that you can do almost no damage to your opponent, which causes a severe and unwelcome difficulty spike in the later stages of the game. What's more, every fight is very similar, save for the number of enemies present. Even boss fights recycle ideas, with one particular boss fight repeated three times through the game with only minor variants to the formula. Combos are largely useless because of the unresponsive controls, so mashing the light attack button and countering occasionally is by far the best way to get through everything. Toward the end of the game, a different type of enemy is introduced, but you still never do anything more than hack away at an armored foe. The regular fights are made worse by the awful enemy AI. Combatants frequently get stuck in scenery, causing you to run around and look for a soldier stuck behind a tree before you can proceed.
It's not all about fighting soldiers with swords, though. You sometimes find a crossbow or a longbow. These are useful for taking out archers, who mostly send misfired arrows your way while you lock on to them and kill them in one shot. Sometimes, you can use the bow to take out non-ranged enemies, but it's usually too cumbersome and time consuming to actually pull off. Then there's the ballista, which has a visual aiming arc with no correlation to where the projectile actually goes, save for the direction it's pointing. It's also unclear what you're meant to be shooting at because the targets are almost out of camera shot.
The camera pans around your character, but sometimes, it switches to a fixed perspective. This often causes Denz to run in the wrong direction before the game catches up, and it sometimes means you are obscured by a castle wall as you try to fight. There's an option to turn the fixed camera off, but it certainly doesn't turn the fixed camera angles off. Likewise, there's a manual lock-on option that seemingly does nothing, with the characters automatically locking on to enemies regardless of whether you set it to "yes" or "no." There's also a bizarre menu glitch that occasionally causes the sound levels to default to zero upon booting the game. Then there are the glitches that cause your characters to get stuck in the scenery, forcing an entire mission restart, which is especially infuriating when you have to repeat boring sections of gameplay.
Being cursed, Denz and Esteban also have the ability to shift into Hell. This makes enemies slightly weaker and also allows you to use certain powers of the curse: healing, throwing fireballs, shooting fireballs, and stamping on the ground to produce fireballs. Much like everything else in The Cursed Crusade, the fireballs are a bit useless and mostly exist to let you break parts of the environment to proceed. In Hell, you can also see hidden exits, which is the game's excuse to make you run around a large area for a while until you happen upon a slightly glowing bit of wall. None of this is fun; neither is trying to use the healing power in single-player. Most of the time, it simply doesn't work, with Denz swinging his sword impotently. What you really want him to do is engage in the weird dance/fist bump combo that he and Esteban do to recover their health. It's a little easier in co-op because the other player can remove their character from the action to a safe distance, but only a cruel friend would ask someone to endure this with him or her.
The co-op mode is playable online or in split-screen, but it adds nothing to the game other than having someone to sympathize with you as you scramble for weapons; get stuck in scenery; or stare at a church pew that is floating, in pieces, in midair. There are occasional switches or levers that require two people, and some finishing moves can be performed cooperatively, but it's not the kind of game that is vastly improved with another player. The only benefit is that you can guarantee your partner will actually attack enemies, which isn't always true when he's controlled by the AI.
The Cursed Crusade isn't a good-looking game, with some dreadful clipping issues, muddy textures, and a noticeable lack of anti-aliasing. There's even an area where the heroes navigate a lengthy maze of empty rooms because they refuse to step off of a foot-high ledge. To add further insult, just as Denz and Esteban are heading to what seems like the final confrontation, the game simply ends in the middle of a cutscene in an awful attempt at a cliffhanger.
The Cursed Crusade struggles in all areas. The combat is sluggish and awkward, the exploration is unrewarding because of the invisible walls that block off areas or refuse to let you return to previous sections, and the story is nonsense. Given that a far better cooperative hack-and-slash Templar game, The First Templar, was released earlier this year, The Cursed Crusade hasn't got much to offer. In the US, this is a budget game, but in the UK, it's a full-priced release. Even at a lower price point, though, this is one curse that is not worth breaking.