It's probably a good thing that 3DO's Crusaders of Might and Magic is so short. In its 10 to 12 hours of gameplay, you get a glimpse of its basically good intention: to enrich the third-person action genre with some role-playing game conventions such as evolving character stats, spell casting, and questing. However, if the game were any longer, you'd start getting really tired of its numerous shortcomings and even more frustrated that its good ingredients are only half-baked.
While it's set in the interesting Might and Magic fantasy world, Crusaders can't actually bring itself to tell much of a story. The hero Drake is supposed to have witnessed the death of his family and town at the hands of the evil lord Necros and his Legion of the Fallen. But as is too often the case in such games, you're left to read about these preambles in the accompanying manual rather than actually seeing (or maybe even feeling) their impact in the game itself. The Drake you do get to play delivers an occasional wisecrack but develops very little as a character.
The game starts as Drake feels himself drawn to a flying city and its leader Celestia, who signs him up as a crusader and sends him off on a series of several predictable miniquests through equally familiar environments. Drake traverses a dark forest, an elven mine, an ice world, and eventually a stone stronghold as he rescues royalty and recovers lost artifacts, all of which leads up to his final, predictable meeting with Necros himself. Although the designers have filled some of the areas with the usual RPG cast of townspeople, unfortunately they have little to say and little bearing on the game itself.
The gameplay engine is more promising than the story. While it isn't especially detailed or complex, Crusaders does accomplish what many other third-person games don't, and that's to achieve a smooth sense of movement. Drake has an engaging, fluid stride. That's a good thing, because the paths to and through the five major environments are extraordinarily, inexplicably long. You will spend tedious stretches of game time just sprinting between areas. Speed potions and level-ups quicken the pace a bit, but still leave you with plenty of time to wonder what the designers were thinking when constructing the game's endless paths.
When you finally get into combat, the engine performs well enough. Like Lara Croft, Drake climbs, jumps, and does evasive flips, though not as gracefully as Lara does. Until Drake acquires a bow later in the game, his arsenal includes axes, swords, and various bludgeons, all of which he wields adroitly. Running overhead swings, lateral slices, and even crouching lunges are possible with the right key combination. Drake's menagerie of enemies, mainly undead skeletons, ogres, and diverse yeti, are not especially smart, but some of them use their shields very effectively, as should you if you hope to survive. The combat does start piling on noticeably midway through the game, which usually forces the hero to fall back and devise a spell-casting strategy.At its best, the combat engine allows for some fun swashbuckling as you spear your way up and down stairwells or dispose of a line of foes with leaping overhead chops, but the magic system actually gives the game some tactical depth. Ten spells, such as healing, fireballs, freezing, and lightning, all have three levels of power. Both the visual and actual effects of the spells are quite good. For instance, a spectral ally spell casts a protective shield that holds off enemies while you fall back and fire away. Snap freeze and glacial prison spells encase foes in nicely detailed ice blocks while you chop away. Of course, mana fuels these powers, and it recharges itself during Drake's long-distance runs. The only problem with the magic system is its cumbersome interface, which, as with Drake's weapons, requires you to cycle through a growing arsenal before settling on the right one. Doing so can be frustrating or even deadly in the heat of battle. There also seemed to be some bugs in the combat system, which caused the game to crash occasionally.
Brevity and the basic competence of the combat engine keep Crusaders on the borderline of fun. Role-playing game fans, especially followers of the Might and Magic series, will throw up their hands in dismay at Crusaders' failure to make much of anything out of the plot and character. Finding half a dozen objects and people and then going to fight the boss is all that passes for a story arc in the game. There are no surprises, no substantial character growth or interaction, and no nuance to any of the quests. Occasional bits of dialogue even satirize the role-playing game format a bit. "It's always something," Drake quips when he discovers that rescuing a dwarf prince isn't enough to satisfy one early quest. You'll wish the designers had employed some of that self-awareness in other parts of the game. The loneliness of the long-distance runner sets in as Drake must perform marathons just to reach the few goods shops and trade in what he scavenges from fallen foes. Character attributes like speed, intelligence, and spell resistance are in the game, but it's unclear whether specific actions boost them as you proceed or all stats just increase predictably whenever Drake levels up.
In addition, the graphics engine is only decent. The blurry textures and exposed seams wouldn't be so bad if some attempt had been made to lend the environments a little atmosphere. Instead they look like blocky B-movie sets. And aside from the spell casting, nothing interesting ever happens visually.
Essentially, you'll spend much of your time in Crusaders of Magic and Magic just watching Drake wiggle down boring paths as you contemplate all the ways in which the game should have been better. A smidgen of plot and character development, a pinch of real puzzles or surprising encounters - anything of the sort could have spiced the mix to a more tolerable blend. But Crusaders seems to fall into a growing category of game, which is basically inoffensive and even competent at times but offers no compelling reason to keep playing. Crusaders fails to execute its good premise in such obvious ways that it'll leave you frustrated and wondering at exactly what point a fine idea becomes mired in blandness.