For years there has been a growing fear that the mid-range games are losing not only their ability to compete, but just to break even. Triple A blockbusters maintain a chokehold on the market by virtue of their advertising budgets, and indie games are seeing a renaissance through Steam and mobile platforms, along with the willingness of their vocal fanbase to spread word of mouth.
Mid-range games command neither of these qualities. Being the middle child, they must bring their A games just to stand out. With that in mind it’s baffling that a game with such a promising premise and a rich historic setting, The Cursed Crusade, can fail to deliver in so many ways.
Developer: Kylotonn Publisher: Atlus ESRB Rating: M Released: October 11th [EU], October 25th [NA] Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC Version Reviewed: PS3
The Cursed Crusade is set in a part of history rarely explored in video games, the fourth crusade. The first in a long line of disappointments is the way in which Kylotonn utilizes this setting. Instead of using the game to explore the history of the crusades, the religious tension, its role in the schism, its impact on the Catholic church, and questions of morality in regards to faith, they use this unique period of time as a generic backdrop for their own disconnected story. Why set the game during the fourth crusade if you aren’t going to explore the conflict in any meaningful way? It’s like traveling to Italy just to eat McDonald’s.
While the church and Jerusalem are sparsely name checked, they play no major role in the story. The game could have been set anywhere and the plot would remain virtually unchanged.
To make matters worse, it isn’t even a compelling story, or a well written one. Our hero, Denz de Bayle, is void of personality. He has goals, but that’s the extent of his humanity. His goal is to join the crusades where he hopes to be reunited with his father in Jerusalem. Along the way he partners with Esteban Noviembre who’s only tangible personality trait, if you can even call it that, is that he sounds like a glaring Hispanic stereotype.
The two men share a trait embedded in their bloodlines, the titular curse, which just serves as a gameplay mechanic that turns the world to flames and exposes hidden elements in the environment. Whenever the game feels the need to throw a boss at you, he too will be cursed and remark in surprise that others carry this trait.
I would tell you more about the curse, but the games impenetrable plot makes that too challenging a task. The story is a convoluted mess. It’s full of plot holes, and things are constantly happening for seemingly no reason.
Early on in the game you find out that Death has been sent by God to hunt you. It’s well established that you stand no chance against him, and he will simply kill you any time he comes near. He states that he is omnipresent, and the game cuts quickly back and forth between Denz and Esteban, separated, being chased by Death. The editing makes it difficult to follow, but it doesn’t seem to be hyperbolic that Death is everywhere at once. However, you find reprieve inside a church where Death cannot tread and no reason for this is given. If Death is omnipresent and far more powerful than you, why doesn’t he just kill you whenever you muster up the bravado to leave your sanctuary?
Also, the game is set in Europe, the game even uses the European analogues to American slang (arse instead of ass), so why is the game brimming with American accents?
Nitpicking aside, the script could have been decent with a lot of revision. Kylotonn could have benefitted from subscribing to the less is more philosophy. It’s ambitious, I’ll give it that, but that’s no excuse for being a winding labyrinth full of inconsistency, poor storytelling, and plot holes.
Speaking of the storytelling, this is a game which is head over heels in love with cutscenes. Cutscenes which aren’t just one brief affair, or one long at that. They are multiple cutscenes stitched together like some sort of patchwork horror of poor direction and decrepit writing which must be skipped one by one should you fail a gameplay section.
Suffering from horrendous pacing, shallow combat, and heaped with bugs, the gameplay is as terminally ill as the story.
You will spend your brief recourse from the game’s lengthy cutscenes using your cursed form to perform mundane tasks like finding hidden holes in walls, while fighting through a nauseating number of hordes of the exact same enemy over and over as if the ineffectual mook factory is closing down and they’re clearing out their warehouses.
This quantity of generic enemies wouldn’t be enjoyable to fight through in a game with good combat, let alone the combat Cursed Crusade. I may have called Arkham City’s brawling sections shallow and mashy, but it was also a far more interesting visual spectacle, at least slightly deep due its enemy variety, broken up far more effectively with more gripping gameplay sections, and far less saturated with combat overall.
One main problem is that the game seems to want to be as gritty and visceral as God of War, but it has none of the flow or satisfaction of that game. It merely comes off as cumbersome. The weight of the strikes isn’t properly conveyed through the sound cues and the visuals, and weapons will often clip through enemies or fail to visually connect all together.
The targeting is equally awful. You lock on to a target at random, and the game does a poor job of allowing you to switch off of that target. It’s almost as if Denz is the needle of a compass and the enemies take turns being magnetic.
With little variety between enemy types, and the game rarely giving you anything to do but fight, you’d think the mechanics would at least be somewhat amusing, but the game even fails to deliver on this front. Never before have I mashed the same two buttons so frequently and so indifferently. There is a rather sprawling upgrade tree, and a weapon system which encourages you to constantly comb the battlefield for new weapons, but none of that changes the fact that you’ll spend the entire game furiously tapping two attack buttons with complete disregard to the banal combo system.
A main feature of the game is it’s co-op mode. In this case, that means that once in a while you and your friend will stumble upon an obstacle which requires both players to come together and tap a button.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, Cursed Crusade comes with a wide variety of sometimes hilarious, but mostly crippling bugs. The screen tears like a piece of tissue paper and characters will glitch through walls. I experienced multiple freezes, saw my partner float in mid air on his side as if he was relaxing on an invisible sofa, had an NPC get stuck in front of a ballista I was supposed to be moving, and fused with the floor twice, all which required me to start the mission over.
Playing this game for too long is like being in a mental illness simulator. I would sit down for another joyless slog and come out hours later bereft of any knowledge of what had transpired over the past several hours like I had just emerged from a dissociative fugue. The tedium, glitches, and flaws are bearable for a while, even amusing at times, and it’s not an appalling game visually, but the novelty wears off fast and the game turns into a miserable crawl through 40 missions and your only reward for completing it is a deep sense of confusion and carpal tunnel syndrome if you’re unlucky.
I’d love nothing more than to call this game good, even mediocre would be better than what I got, but nothing beyond the premise endeared The Cursed Crusade to me. Not the poorly constructed characters, not the tangled mess of a story, not the exposition heavy storytelling, and certainly not the mind numbing, RSI inducing gameplay.
If Kylotonn survives to make another game, I desperately hope they correct their many missteps here. It wouldn’t be hard to turn this into an average game, and it could even be superb with enough care and the right talent behind the project.
I want to root for the underdog, but that’s not nearly a good enough reason to overlook such a badly crippled product. Avoid The Cursed Crusade, but keep an eye out for Kylotonn’s next game. It can’t hurt to hope.
1.5 / 10