The First Templar

Not-quite-broken sword.

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.

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