Version tested: PlayStation 3
The Cursed Crusade is a lot like Metal Gear Solid. Not in any meaningful gameplay sense, unless Solid Snake has taken to slowly swiping away at mindless enemies in a lacklustre hack and slash style, but it does love cutscenes. It loves them so much that it can't let ten minutes of gameplay go by without another one.
If Cursed Crusade wins any award, it should be Most Long-Winded Game of 2011. It opens with a lengthy cutscene, which leads into another cutscene which then leads into another. Finally, you get to start mashing the attack buttons and kill a handful of enemies. Then you get another cutscene. Skip a cutscene and the game just takes you to the start of the next cutscene. And so it goes on, tiny croutons of gameplay adrift in a sticky broth of heavy-handed exposition and endless peripheral chatter.
And, again, this wouldn't be so bad if Cursed Crusade had a gripping story, compelling characters and satisfying gameplay. It doesn't.
The story is a hodgepodge of thin medieval cliches, with an unwelcome side order of ludicrous supernatural guff. Our hero, Denz de Bayle, is cursed, you see. This means that he's able to transform into a sort of 12th century French oni demon, which fills the world with flames, gives him cool horns and... well, that's about it.
"If Cursed Crusade wins any award, it should be Most Long-Winded Game of 2011."
He supposedly hits harder and is more resilient when in his cursed form, but mostly you'll use these powers for more mundane matters like finding weak spots in walls and healing. In one of the game's only clever ideas, allowing your cursed power gauge to run dry results in health damage, although you'd have to be spectacularly bad at the game for that to happen.
Denz is joined on his generic quest by Esteban Noviembre, a wise-cracking Spaniard so formulaic that he might as well be called Paella los Sombrero. Together they chug through combat scenarios that never vary from the reliable old standby of having a bunch of dudes run towards you and then take it in turns swinging their swords in your direction.
The game is playable with two players, of course, which means that occasionally both characters will have to stand next to a scenery item - a wagon, a crank, a door - and press X at the same time to move it. This is pretty much the extent of the game's co-operative requirements.
It's all about the combat, really, since between cutscenes that's virtually all there is to do. Cursed Crusade has the beginnings of a decent fighting system, with a complex web of different abilities depending on which weapons you're holding. A sword and shield combo offers different attacks to a spear and shield. Dual-wielding two swords opens up moves that are different to those available with a sword and mace.
There's potential there, but it's squandered by the fact that none of it really matters. Hammering away on one button gets the job done nine times out of ten, usually ending in a finishing move animation that can last up to seven seconds. At every turn, this is a game you watch more than you play.
Control is sticky, with combos defeated by noticeable input lag. Attempting the lengthier button sequences is barely worth the effort, so most of the fighting system ends up surplus to requirements. Swords pass through enemies, attacks fail to connect, and blocks don't always work. Most of the depth (and I use the word in its loosest possible sense) comes from pressing the shoulder buttons to counter and parry attacks, depending on what colour your enemy glows. Hit it in time, and you'll leave them open to your button-mashing assault.
You also have a crossbow, which you'll sometimes have to whip out to deal with archers. These guys pop up at windows and on balconies with all the realism of targets at a funfair shooting range, and the game slips briefly - and awkwardly - into a ham-fisted pastiche of Gears of War while you slowly fire invisible arrows at them until they fall down.
These core combat problems are compounded by a horrible lurching camera and an ill-constructed gameworld that's full of scenery snags and baffling physics; bump into a table and it can float off into the air like a helium balloon. Enemies can frequently be found standing around in corners or trying to walk through walls.
Even basic button prompts are inconsistent, so you can spend a lot of time trying to find the way ahead, only to discover it was right under your nose the whole time, waiting for you to stand in exactly the right spot.
The killer blow comes from the fact that The First Templar already did the Crusades co-op melee combat thing back in May, and did a far better job of it. Even with its cheap production values, the combat in First Templar was at least fun and varied, and kept things motoring along in a pleasing budget game style. Cursed Crusade, in contrast, feels thick and gluey, bogs itself down in interminable cutscenes and generally allows its low budget roots to tangle up the gameplay itself.
It's a real pity, as we desperately need more mid-range games. As the industry becomes increasingly fractured, with mega-budget blockbusters on one side and perky low-priced indies on the other, it's the middle ground that suffers. The decent time-wasters that fill in the months between the must-have classics are the ones that get squeezed out of the picture.
But Cursed Crusade isn't a decent time-waster, it's just a waste of time. Too clumsy to satisfy any action gaming urge, and too wrapped up in its own turgid mythology to realise it's getting things so badly wrong, releasing it right before the onslaught of massive winter releases is a decision more audacious than any design choices in the game itself.
4 / 10