With their rich history, iconic status and association with bloody violence, it's surprising that more videogames haven't been made about the Knights Templar, at least outside of the Assassin's Creed series. Perhaps it's because a violent videogame based on them would be intrinsically linked to the Catholic Church, and the limited choice of opposing forces would lead to a rather politically incorrect game when viewed with modern eyes.
Whatever the reason, few games revolve around the Church's hired killers, and so it always catches my eye when I see one. The Cursed Crusade is one such game, aiming to take a dark and twisted view of Christ's most famous military order.
It also reminds me of another good reason why many games aren't themed around Templars: they don't tend to be very good.
The Cursed Crusade (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
The Cursed Crusade tells the tale of Templar-turned-mercenary Denz de Bayle, who lost his family's lands after his father went missing in Jerusalem. Taking various military contracts to work his way closer to the Holy Land, he finds himself thrown together with a Spanish thief by the name of Esteban Noviembre. Both men carry a dark genetic legacy called the Curse, which grants them amazing power at the cost of having to forever run from Death and face an eternity burning in Hell. So, a bit of a double-edged sword.
In a third-person action game with a co-op focus, both Denz and Esteban work together to fight soldiers and knights on their quest for redemption. Most of the game is centered purely on combat, as our heroes face hordes of enemies across a series of linear maps, and there's a relatively deep fighting system at play that makes use of various weapon types that can be mixed and matched to create unique fighting styles.
There is a number of different weapon types with unique properties, such as maces that easily destroy armor or swords that are better against unprotected flesh. Weapons can be dual-wielded and different combinations can create new attacks. You can have two axes, an axe and a mace, a sword or a mace, or opt for a deadly two-handed weapon or shield. Finding a balance and constantly picking up new weapons to replace broken ones is the key to victory, and Denz's skill with each weapon can be enhanced using Victory Points at the end of every level, unlocking new combo moves.
Melee is not a fast-paced affair in The Cursed Crusade, based as it is around blocking and countering more than hacking and slashing. Enemy attacks are clearly telegraphed, and all the player has to do is hit the block button to parry an incoming blow. Most of Denz's combos can be broken to parry at any time, and the whole system seems to have taken several noticeable cues from Batman: Arkham Asylum. However, Batman's quickness and flexibility made it quite fun, whereas the tepid pace of Cursed Crusade makes everything rather boring. Not to mention, weapons degrade at a ridiculously fast pace, devolving the game into a constant collect-a-thon.
That said, there's some measure of satisfaction to be had with the brutality of the combat. Weapons hit armor and flesh with pleasant thuds and slices, while weakened enemies are executed with an array of vicious finishing moves. The fact that limbs aren't sliced off, however, makes these executions slightly unconvincing. Only heads can come off, and the rest of the enemy's body shows very little damage -- not exactly believable when you see legs getting supposedly cut right through, only to remain intact. Opponents can also be burned near fires and kicked into wells when in the right position, although this position seems to rely on luck.
Denz and Esteban have Curse Meters that fill during combat and allow them to enter a Cursed state. The entire environment transforms into a Hellish alternative reality and the heroes take on demonic forms. Their attacks grow faster with higher damage dealt and they can also use special purifying flame spells to destroy their enemies quickly. However, if they stay in the Curse for too long, their life will begin to rapidly drain.
Combat is broken up by a few clunky shooting gallery sections and occasional siege battles where players need to keep ducking behind a shield to avoid volleys of arrows. Once again, these sections have potential, but are so agonizingly slow and clumsy that they just get weary. The same goes for the forced co-op moments, which amount to little more than watching the same tired animations of Denz and Esteban helping each other open big gates. This is one of those games that seems to offer co-op simply for co-op's sake, as it impacts the game very little. Fortunately, the game works well enough in single-player, with an AI-controlled Esteban able to hold his own in battle. Don't expect him to kill much, however, as he mostly likes to pick a single enemy to pretend to fight with.
All told, The Cursed Crusade is a rather dull little game with very little to ignite interest in even the most dedicated action fans. However, the game goes from mediocre to dismal once we take into account the fact that it is woefully sloppy on a technical level. This is one of the most glitchy, broken games to be released in a good while, full of hideous screen tearing, clipping and buggy animations ... and that's just for starters.
Every time the game's main menu comes up, it resets all volume controls to zero, meaning one has to manually turn up the in-game volume for voices, sound effects and music every time the game starts. In cutscenes, Denz will sometimes disappear entirely from the action and remain invisible for the entire segment. Co-op animations sometimes have one character refusing to move, and many of these actions need players to press the confirmation button up to five times before they'll work. Parried enemies regularly freeze in place and cannot be touched. Dropped weapons sometimes disappear from the game before they can be collected, and targeting during siege missions sometimes locks up, requiring the whole chapter to be restarted. And oh yes, there are no checkpoints in the game.
The Cursed Crusade is a mess, ostensibly. It looks ugly and glitches only grow more frequent as the game continues. It's one of those titles that appear rotten to the very core, by which I mean that it would take more than a few patches to fix the deep-rooted defects. The game seems fundamentally damaged and while many of the glitches are aesthetic in nature, the bland game lying underneath makes this visual disaster even less pleasant to deal with.
The sad thing is, this malformed entity doesn't look like a game that was rushed; it looks like a game in which the studio did its level best and, possibly due to budget or talent, couldn't do any better. With a decently written script and even some solid voice actors, it's clear that developer Kylotonn actually did care about what it was cobbling together. Unfortunately, simply caring isn't good enough, and The Cursed Crusade isn't a good game in the least.
A lethargic combat experience marred further by grotesque bugs, The Cursed Crusade is a game that truly does feel cursed, like no amount of hard work would put it right. It's a shame, because the developers clearly tried hard and the narrative occasionally provides a glimmer of hope, but ultimately this is a game that needed to be scrapped and started again from scratch because there was no saving it. With more money and experience, because The Cursed Crusade could have been good, but this mass of developmental debris cannot stand up to even a forgiving gamer's scrutiny.
THE VERDICT - The Cursed Crusade
Reviewed by Jim Sterling