A Cursed Crusade indeed
Once in a while a game comes along that has great potential, but it's let down by a slew of flaws and irksome combat mechanic errors. Cursed Crusade is such a game, which has a solid premise and a deep combat system but falls flat in the execution of it's basic features.
You are Denz, a noble knight of the crusades, a templar no less. You have a mysterious and terrible curse that runs through your blood; you're searching for your father and trying to cheat death. There's a lot of story and the game has an almost Hideo Kojima level of exposition that throws extremely lengthy cut-scenes at you at every possible turn. There is the occasional camera issue that mars the overall storytelling experience, though it's not too much of a game breaker.
It's an action-adventure so expect hordes of enemies to slice and dice. There's a fairly robust combat system here most of the time, under the hood. But, and this is the big but...the combat system can also break down and suffers from control input lag every so often. This results in block failing to work, counters mistiming and marring the overall experience. This is a shame, since there's a massive collection of weapons and moves to unlock, with an experience point like system playing into both your move set, and the mastery of the curse, which is an integral part of the game.
There are weapons that take damage and will eventually break, leaving you with a busted sword or axe that won't do much against your foes. There are dual wielding options; axe and mace for instance, double swords, sword and mace. The list is quite large and there are a lot of moves to unlock for each weapon, which also unlock finishing moves too. You can use the environment to your advantage, causing damage with environmental objects such as flaming braziers. You can even kick people down wells: this is Sparta style.
The problem is that it's easy to get caught on some part of the scenery, trapped in part of the brazier for example and in some cases you need to restart from a checkpoint to fix it. Then you have the cooperative nature of the game, since you travel with your counterpart - Esteban, who wavers from being deadly efficient as a backup AI to downright troublesome in the way that Dom has been in the first two Gears of War games.
Then there's the curse itself, which can be triggered and drains the curse meter. As long as you're in the curse, you can see otherworldly beings, you can see things that appear only to your cursed form and you can find shortcuts and breakable walls. There's also a combat advantage to the curse, you dish out and take less damage. Remain in the curse for too long and it's going to be bad, very bad.
You have various counters and dodge moves, armour plays a big role in the game and often you have to destroy the layers of armour on a bad guy before you can introduce them to a world of pain. There's also a crossbow or bow that plays into the mix, with tricky aiming and firing controls, including a flawed cover system for certain sections.
There are also interaction events and quick-time button presses that are required to escape from stun-locks and certain special moves.
There's an element of coop to the single player game, with the characters able to grapple opponents and hold them whilst the other character finishes them off. This system however is tricky to get to grips with and often doesn't work quite right.
With a little more time and polish, combat could have felt suitably impressive, close to perhaps Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood or something of that ilk, but with the combat move input lag and other issues; it feels clunky and clay-like at best. It's certainly visceral though with both Denz and Esteban cutting heads and limbs off, stabbing people through the heart and so on.
Graphically, I've seen people complain that the game is bad. This is where I'm going to defend Cursed Crusade a little. It's not a triple-A title in terms of graphical presentation but it's not a complete mess either. There are some low res textures, there is some flicker now and then on the environments and the game occasionally suffers from the slightest bit of slowdown with a dipping frame-rate. For the most part of the game the graphics aren't too bad, the detail on the characters, their armour and the environments is pretty nice.
The curse effect is quite nice as well, with a Dante's Inferno (not the game) vibe running through the whole thing, mixed with a bit of Legend in terms of the demon designs. I was reminded of the game: Primal, in some respects. The flame effects do let the whole Hellspawn Curse design down though, and they could have been done a whole lot better.
The animations are not too bad in terms of combat, though sometimes the models don't connect when you're performing a finisher move and that does break the feel somewhat. They are a little lacking when it comes to the facial animation in the cut-scenes, with characters appearing a little stilted and the range of motion isn't quite there. The star of the show in terms of animations has to be the combat system, even though some of the moves don't often connect.
Some objects in the environment break, there's a sense of weight and feel to the weapons, especially the two-handed blades and they have a mass and impact in combat. When the whole thing works, it works well enough to convey the feel of battle nicely. You can be staggered, knocked over and sent flying by some of the enemies.
Enemy AI is woefully terrible when it comes to ranged combat, a little better when it comes to melee. They will gang up on you, sneaking around to deliver an unblockable blow from behind and so on. They'll work in packs with a heavier bad guy causing you grief as the quicker opponents harry you. Boss battles don't have the excitement that they deserve since the AI doesn't tend to work quite as well as it should.
Your partner AI varies from being a highly efficient death machine, to someone who needs to be bailed out of trouble at the drop of a hat. He's significantly better than some partner AI in games however, and he can actually grapple opponents easily compared to the player.
The sound in the game is pretty decent, there's a nice feel to the audio used for the combat system and the effect of metal against metal, or the various weapons hitting armour and flesh works quite nicely. The rest of it is the typical kind of sound effects you get in a game like this.
A suitably medieval soundtrack accompanies the game, it works well and there are no complaints in that regard at all.
At times the voice work seems a little stilted but it's better than most games of this type. There are a lot of cut-scenes in Cursed Crusade so there are a lot of lines for the actors to deliver. Denz is suitably noble and Esteban is pretty much stereotypical in his delivery, not so much the fault of the actor but comes down to pretty flat writing.
A picture can paint a thousand words, and Cursed Crusade uses far more than a thousand words through its long winded and detailed cut-scene exposition. For the most part these are pretty well written but there are a few moments that are perhaps a little stilted and cringe worthy.
Multiplayer: Cooperative Only
You can team up via split-screen and even across Xbox Live with a second player. Here one of you (not the host) takes on the role of Esteban in your battle for survival across the whole single player story. This is a welcome addition and the saving grace of the game, because Cursed Crusade works a lot better if you have a competent non-AI partner backing you up across the sprawling campaign. There wasn't any lag that we noticed in terms of online games and the split-screen aspect means that couch-coop is a possibility.
The curse of games like these is that they're not big-budget AAA titles and there are a lot of those, especially around this time of year. Had this been out at the start of last year or so on, it might have fared well enough - but as it is, it's a little too late for the Cursed Crusade to find much love from my peers, let alone a lot of gamers. Yet, for all its faults, there's a game here that someone may well enjoy and I recommend trying it if you're tired of the same old combat systems. You just have to know that it's a Flawed Crusade rather than a cursed one, but not horribly flawed.