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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Demo Impressions: The Cursed Crusade

Last week, a demo for The Cursed Crusade popped up on various online networks across North America. I figured, because I might not get a chance to review the actual title, I’d put together a few thoughts about the demo for you all to muddle over. But before we get to that, let me explain something:
I’m a sucker for co-op games, especially what I like to call “couch co-op games”, games that support local cooperative play. There’s something about sitting down with a friend, pulling up a co-op game and wasting away the whole day playing through the game. With one friend in particular, I’ve played through a number of games in a single sitting, including (but not limited to) stuff like both Army of Two games, Resident Evil 5, Terminator: Salvation, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge and the entire Gears of War series; no matter how good the game is, it’s always better with a friend.

So when I first heard about The Cursed Crusade, it piqued my interest. For one, as a game designed around cooperative play, it immediately joined the ranks of a shrinking minority of games that I hold very near and dear. For two, the setting for The Cursed Crusade is the Crusades, a period of time I consider rife with untapped potential. Based solely on those two points, The Cursed Crusade jumped very high on my list of anticipated titles – and the fact that it was to be offered at a cheaper price point than most retail games ($40US as opposed to the industry standard $60US) certainly didn’t do much to dissuade me.

Because of that, I jumped at the chance to try to demo. I actually played through it a few times, trying to look critically at each facet included in an attempt to gauge whether the game is worth getting. Now that the full game is almost upon us – at least in North America – I figured it might be a decent time to share some thoughts about the demo. So here’s what I’ve come up with:

The Story

The demo allows you to play the game either single-player or cooperative (though only local co-op is supported); whichever you choose, the person designated as Player One will be playing as Denz de Bayle, the dude on the cover and the character the story seems to be based around. 

You don’t actually get much backstory from the demo, but the site states that de Bayle’s father was a Templar in the Third Crusade (which occurred late in the 12th Century) who disappeared and that Denz has decided to join the recently ordered Fourth Crusade in an attempt to discover what became of his father. In contrast, Player Two will play Esteban Noviembre, a Spanish mercenary out to do little more than earn himself some coin. It seems fairly obvious that de Bayle is the main character of the story. 

Of course, then you get the “Cursed” part…

In an act of revisionist history, Kylotonn Games tells us that all men who became Templars were cursed to a life of eternal damnation. Not only that, but their entire family line is cursed as well. As such, de Bayle carries the Templar curse with him throughout the game, having to battle against both the curse and the heathens looking to oppose the Crusade. Of course, “battling the curse” actually means “turning into a demon-looking fellow, taking control of the demonic power and becoming a stronger, faster warrior”. 

Yeah, that made total sense to me too. Still, the Curse adds another much-needed element to a game that is a bit lacking in gameplay.

The Gameplay

As I mentioned above, the gameplay in The Cursed Crusade is pretty light; perhaps that’s not surprising for a game based around melee combat but, even then, the game leaves a lot to be desired. Combat is merely a matter of mashing buttons; the Square button controls horizontal attacks and the Triangle button controls vertical attacks, but neither seems to have much noticeable difference in damage or speed. The Circle button is responsible for stuns, which is a welcome addition, but is actually largely unnecessary.

Combat doesn't look nearly this epic...
Because of the different types of attacks, I kept feeling like there should be a combo tree, or at least some way of combining the different types of attacks into a sequence of attacks. Instead, The Cursed Crusade subscribes to the Devil May Cry combo system, where you have a counter in the top right corner keeping track of how many hits you land without being stopped. I find that sort of combat tracking rather stale when compared to more Western games such as God of War, but to each their own, I suppose. 

The Cursed Crusade does boast a rather in-depth system of fighting techniques; at any given time, a character can carry a two-handed weapon, two one-handed weapons, a shield and a crossbow, and can use combinations thereof during combat. Each different technique comes with different (suitably violent) finishing moves and obvious visual changes in combat stances. It is very evident that Kylotonn Games spent quite a bit of time coding and animating all the different techniques and for that I offer a tip of my hat. That being said, without any obvious differences between each different technique, choosing between using a spear and shield or a two-handed sword is entirely a matter of personal preference. (I actually found myself switching between techniques just to see what the finishing moves looked like which, while entertaining, seems like a poorer reason as opposed to gaining a tactical advantage.)


The Cursed Crusade demo offers little else in the manner of gameplay; the different weapon techniques are varied but have no noticeable differences, the hit-counter combo system smacks less of a medieval action game and more of a Japanese-styled action game and the interactive items seem little more than the standard stuff for co-op games.

... unless you're in Curse Mode.
And then there’s the Curse. You don’t see it much in the demo, only catching a glimpse of the visual design of “Curse Mode” at the very end, and seeing none of the gameplay changes supposed to come with it. The site states that entering “Curse Mode” will increase your strength and speed but will also attract the phantom of Death to drag you to the afterlife, so you must use it sparingly. It certainly sounds like an interesting addition, though I imagine it plays out very similarly to the various “Fury Modes” in so many action games of late.

Everything Else

And then there’s the graphics. Now, don’t get me wrong; The Cursed Crusade certainly looks pretty on paper; the environmental art in particular is absolutely gorgeous. But most of the character design and the animations are fairly hit-and-miss. Denz de Bayle looks splendid enough in combat, going through the motions in his Templar garb and battle armour, but Esteban Noviembre’s face is horribly proportioned and some of the other characters seem a bit lacklustre. Add to this that some of the animations (especially those in the cutscenes) seem quite poor and misjudged and the demo seems fairly mediocre.

Of course, the brief glimpse of Curse Mode you get at the end of the demo looks absolutely stunning. So maybe there's some payoff to be had yet.

The voice acting in the demo is… I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. If hard-pressed to pick a term to describe it, I might pick “offensive”, but that might be a bit too charitable. I mean, it’s not like I was expecting voice acting on par with the Uncharted games but with writing like “They rain arrows on us like a pissing cow” and “Why do we even we risk our arses”, delivered so horribly as to actually offend my fairly charitable senses, it’s hard to sit through the starting cutscene.

And then there’s the lines delivered by the Spaniard. This might be nitpicking but I’m pretty sure “hombre” isn’t a period-accurate term the Spanish used. Admittedly, I don’t know how the Spanish spoke in the early 1200’s but it even sound questionable to my girlfriend, someone who fully admits she doesn’t know much about history.

The level design isn’t particularly good, either, mainly consisting of small arena-type areas where waves of enemies are thrown at you before you can continue. That being said, there are a few areas where the camera becomes a fixed point as to create a more dramatic angle and, though the controls can sometimes become a bit finicky in these areas, I did appreciate the vistas they offered.

In Summary

It certainly looks pretty enough...
The Cursed Crusade doesn’t look like it’s going to win any awards; it does some things right while doing many others wrong. The sad thing is that, because this is a demo as opposed to a beta release, it’s largely too late to try and fix things (except in large after-the-fact patches, Bethesda-style) but that’s not to say that there’s not things to admire in the package offered. Of course, The First Templar was released not too long ago and, from what I’ve heard, that game seemed to do a much better job of this sort of game.

I’d certainly wait and read reviews of the full release before making any judgments but, as is, I’m not expecting too much. The game was actually recently released in Europe to largely unfavourable reviews, which doesn’t bode well, but you never know; perhaps the North American audience is a bit less picky. It’s about time we had some mid-range titles to round out the market and at $40, The Cursed Crusade looks to fill that spot. 

Here’s hoping it can actually deliver.

- Nick J
Demo Impressions: The Cursed Crusade
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