Version tested: Xbox 360
Wait. Don't skip straight to the end. I'll save you the effort. It's a 6/10. But that's OK, because The First Templar is the good kind of 6/10, the sort of zero-expectation, low-budget game that approaches the score from below, creeping upwards the longer you play, rather than tumbling down to that level in a mangled mess of dashed hopes and overcooked hype.
As surprisingly fun as the hack-and-slash gameplay is, it still has a critical glass ceiling thanks to production values that could generously be described as "eccentric" and less favourably as "wonky". This is a game laden with so many weird, goofy or just plain confusing design decisions that its well-meaning attempt to craft a dark medieval conspiracy is constantly undermined by laughs of incredulity. For many, that will be part of the charm.
You play as Celian d'Arestide, a Templar Knight on a quest for nothing less than the Holy Grail. Along the way, you're joined alternately by Roland, a sour-faced knight who is supposedly your senior yet behaves like a stroppy teenager and takes all his orders from you, and Marie d'Ibelin, a heretical noblewoman raised as a Christian in the Middle East.
All characters are sculpted and animated with that almost-there look that makes the game seem ten years older than it is. Faces are rigid, eyes are blank and dead, while mouths flap mechanically up and down like an animatronic singing fish. Every character gesticulates wildly during conversations, like marionettes being controlled by a puppeteer suffering from a terrible seizure. The voice acting is either devoid of all emotion or so over-the-top that Brian Blessed could have popped into the recording booth and suggested they tone it down a bit.
The narrative makes very little sense, not least because there's no logical reason why these three ideologically opposed characters would join together. Marie veers from anachronistic smartarse quips to fawning submissiveness at random. The conspiracy is so convoluted, and takes in so many monolithic institutions, that it makes The Da Vinci Code look like a nuanced and well-balanced history textbook.
And throughout, there's a wonderfully bizarre, uneven tone that leaves you unsure as to where the next unexpected laugh will come from. Maybe it'll be an immortal line of dialogue like "That owl sounds... strange" or a secondary objective with the description "Help the crazy man find his SHINY THING". The First Templar never scales the giddy WTF heights of Deadly Premonition, but sits at the bottom end of the same curve.
But the game's secret weapon is that there's actually a decent hack-and-slash brawler hiding beneath all this distracting cheese. Not a great one, but certainly a vast improvement on the likes of Thor, to pick a recent example of how badly this genre can be executed.
The fundamentals are as you'd expect, with a standard attack that builds into a combo the more times you hit people with it. Additional attacks - a shield bash here, a charged sweep there - are added to your repertoire and triggered by building up zeal, the game's power currency.
All abilities can, of course, be enhanced and augmented by cashing in XP points earned during each fight. Each of the three characters has his or her own unique fighting style and sprawling skill tree made up of dozens of unlockables, ranging from extra health to new attack options.
What matters in a game like this is the flow of the combat, and that's where The First Templar is strongest. There's a rudimentary block, parry and counter system in place and the controls are nicely pitched to allow you to really make the most of it. Breaking out of a combo to block an incoming attack is fast and intuitive, and combat - the meat of the game - is a simple yet effective pleasure because of this responsiveness.
The fighting system is shown off to its best during occasional duels, where you fight a key enemy one-on-one. These really do feel like swashbuckling swordfights, where patience and timing are more useful than button-mashing.
Beyond the clang and clash of steel on shield, the game offers just enough to prevent boredom seeping in. Every level contains numerous optional objectives, as well as a set number of hidden chests. Well, not that hidden, since they show up on your radar, but getting to them often requires a small amount of navigation and brainwork. These are more than just busywork padding, as the chests also offer bonus chunks of XP, cosmetic costume pieces or extra status buffs that endure for the remainder of the level.
Every now and then, the game even takes a break from the sword-slicing and dips a tentative toe into Tomb Raider's waters - although as none of the characters can run or jump, it's easier to appreciate the effort rather than the execution. Navigating lever-activated doors and bridges, awkwardly shuffling past spinning blades and jets of flame, it's here that Bulgarian developer Haemimont Games comes closest to overreaching. It's also where the game's simple but efficient drop-in online co-op play is most evident, as you collaborate to open pathways for each other rather than simply carving up enemies side by side.
Come the end, like me, you may find that you've enjoyed this oddball little offering more than you thought you would. The ending drags on for a few stages too long, and you'll exhaust the potential of the skill tree way before this point, but the lingering feeling is one of pleasant surprise and time well spent. It's a lot like Obsidian's Alpha Protocol in that respect, a game that somehow works despite itself, sneakily winning you over with likeable ambition and solid core concepts.
It helps that The First Templar's endearingly off-kilter presentation keeps expectations low, and even at its best it's still only pretty good at what it does. But being surprised by a game that succeeds on modest terms is often more satisfying than grudgingly accepting a hyped blockbuster that fails to deliver, so while the final "not bad" score might be the same, the actual experience couldn't be more different.
6 / 10