The Cursed Crusade seemed, on the surface, to have a lot going for it ahead of its release. Screenshots looked nice, the altered historical setting seemed interesting, and combat appeared to have variety due to the abundance of weapons and customization. Topping it all off, the game featured two player co-op, in both local and online flavors. Indeed, it sounded promising upon first glance, but the game falls far short of these expectations upon even the briefest scrutiny.
First, let's consider the graphics. The main characters, an odd pairing of a noble knight named Denz and a mercenary Spaniard called Esteban, have great models, and since they can carry around a veritable arsenal of weapons with them, they look imposing most of the time. But as soon as the pair begins to move around, you notice poor animations, filled with jerky movements. A noticable level of repetition of the combat animations sticks out like a sore thumb. Finishing moves, which are obviously meant to be visceral and awe-inspiring, fail to impress due to their buggy implementation. Swords might poke in an opponent in one direction, and poke out from another, unleashing a red fog that only loosely resembles blood. From a graphical standpoint, there is a hint of potential but the finished product looks as if it was completed in a hurry and with a low budget, which I am certain was the case.
The stiff animations and rough graphics are most noticable in The Cursed Crusade's cut scenes. It's obvious that the developers intended to feature these lengthy cut scenes, as there are so many of them. Each level has between two and four scenes in between, in which the generally confusing and often ponderous story is presented. The voice actors do a passable job, though Esteban's accent and mannerisms are woefully stereotypical, but there just isn't much for them to work with in the first place. You will be quite thankful that the cut-scenes are skippable, as after a certain point, the story becomes so loosely strung together that you can safely ignore it.
Ahead of the game's release, much attention was given to the dark, hellish parallel world of the protagonists' curse. At first, it is indeed cool to enter the blazing, ember-filled realm to proceed to beat down your enemies. But you cannot stay in the curse for long, and many of your opponents, including almost every boss, are also cursed, which takes away from your unique nature. There are a few flashes of solid design choices, like walls that can only be broken in the cursed world, but these minor touches are repeated far too much. I was expecting puzzles like those of the second Metroid Prime game, where your actions in one world impact the other, but sadly, this was not the case. It's a shame, as this could have been a sorely-needed highlight for the game.
Considering that The Cursed Crusade is a hack-and-slash brawler, a good clean combat system is of the upmost importance. Unfortunately, the characters' jerky motions and awkward animations make fighting quite difficult. Controls feel sluggish and muddy, not sharp and responsive like a good melee fighting system should be. Denz and Esteban are able to use a huge range of weapons, from swords and maces to axes and spears, in various combinations. But all weapons play almost exactly the same, differing only visually. Stabbing someone with a spear thrust should not feel the same as bashing them across the helmet with a mace strike, but they play out in much the same way. Having such a variety of armaments available means very little when the only differences between them are purely cosmetic.
In contrast to the variety of weapons (such as it is), the environments themselves are incredibly bland and uninteresting. The three main choices are "castle in the day", "castle at night", and "Hell". You could play the levels themselves in any random order, and probably not even notice the difference. Objects in the environment are repeated ad nauseum; you see the same wagons, scaffolds, wells, boxes, and lamps in every single level of The Cursed Crusade. Compunding these problems is the fact that the burning textures and smoke and heat effects in the cursed realm obscure the action on the screen to its detriment. These levels are among the plainest and most repetitive of any game I've ever played.
As Denz and Esteban progress through the game, they earn victory points. Clearing a level gives a modest base amount, but more are awarded for finding secret areas or opening all the coffers scattered throughout the environments. Victory points can be spent to customize the heroes in two areas: mastery of the various weapon combinations, and attributes like Strength or Constitution. In theory, weapon mastery should give you an edge when using your buffed-up weapon stances. In practice, however, I was unable to discern any real benefit to using my mastered weapons, other than the requisite achievement. Similarly, attributes seem to have little effect. There may indeed be some behind the scenes benefit. Even so, the buffs are hardly noticable in gameplay, which adds a level of apathy to the already bland experience: why bother?
If there is something that The Cursed Crusade does mostly right, it would have to be the co-op. Two player co-op is supported throughout the entire campaign. There is no drop in/drop out, but you can load any chapter for a second player to join in either local or online play. Both players recieve achievements, which is always nice. One particularly cool feature of the local co-op is the choice between horizontal and vertical split screen. That's something you don't see very often, and is certainly worthy of praise. There are some "push the button together" sections here and there, and there is a revival mechanic, but that's pretty much the extent of the cooperative elements, apart from some boss fights where one player keeps the big baddie occupied and the other clears out the minions.
I really wanted to like The Cursed Crusade. It certainly showed promise ahead of its release, but there are many little problems here and there that detract from the experience. The game is clunky, messy, and doesn't fit together very well at all. I don't exactly hate it, nor do I particularly enjoy it. In fact, I don't have strong feelings about it one way or the other. It's a budget title, and it shows. The Cursed Crusade's co-op is the single bright point, but even that is merely average. That, in sum, is the issue: the game is extraordinarily ordinary.