Euro Release Date: December 31, 2005
Germans do a lot of things well. They make great cars, their pharmaceutical science skates on the bleeding edge, and their engineering prowess is world renowned. When it comes to video games, on the other hand, the Father Land isn't really known for pioneering great advances. Indeed, only a few game developers even exist in Europe, and with the notable exception of corporate giant Ubisoft and its subsidiaries, most of those don't really put out games that one would casually refer to as "good." Nonetheless, when a game comes along like Knights of the Temple II, it weaves in one's mind a complex tapestry of possibility.
True to German form, the slick DVD-style box is without the pageantry often slathered on games to attract the eye. Instead, a stark white background provides contrast to a single elegantly drawn plate-encapsulated knight who is either raising his blood-drenched blade from the corpse of a Saracen heretic or stabbing himself in the face. It's kind of hard to tell. Either way, everything about the game's container is sexy and indicates that the adventure within must surely drip with liquid awesome.
There is, somewhere in the depth of my memory, an old maxim about judging books by their covers. I guess you aren't supposed to do it. I'm sure there's a reason behind it, but I can't put my finger on it right now. In any case, KotT II charges out of the gate with a strong, succinct story exposition. Unfortunately, the momentum of that rush almost immediately carries the game into the 12-foot-high concrete wall of mediocrity. It breaks down like this: High Templar Paul de Rauque has been having visions recently. These visions, scary monster-infested deals, have made Paul aware of something along the lines of a blood-slick, demon-spewing rend in the natural order between Hell and Earth. Now, it's common knowledge that the Knights Templar derive their fame from their heroic efforts to slam shut such portals, so putting the proverbial two and two together, our steel-suited Christian soldier marches off to do his Heavenly duty.
In an attempt to gather the three objects necessary to re-seal the Hell-gate, Paul has a choice of three distinct locations to which to travel. On one island, he finds an entire Roman city sequestered behind six-foot-high walls as a mysterious disease ravages the population. On another, he finds a gorgeously detailed Arabic city, and on yet another he finds those same Arabs laying siege to a gated pirate stronghold. In each case, the cities are crisply textured with striking ambience and beautiful design. The Roman city especially benefits from a wonderfully thick atmosphere, with crying infants punctuating the splash of filth as chamber pots are emptied onto the street, almost on Paul's head. The bodies of those who have succumbed to the inexplicable illness are dragged from the boarded-up buildings and tossed onto corpse-laden carts.
Besides the obviously lovingly created environments, the graphics are admittedly a bit dated. While the geography and architecture are nice and crisp, the character models are somewhat flat and are sinfully overused. This all-too-frequently employed shortcut deals a crippling blow to the sense of immersion created by the terrain. It simply doesn't matter how pretty the Saracen palace is if every other person you meet is a carbon copy of one platonic form of "Scimitar-wielding townsperson."
The gameplay of KotT II suffers a similar dichotomous array of super okay and abysmally bad. While the action is certainly ever-plentiful, it is also painfully routine at times. Combat is fast-paced and challenging but quickly degenerates into a button-mashing mess. A hack here is compounded with a slash there, faux orange-tinted blood spatters the walls and floors, and the protagonist wades over to the next villain to be conquered. Even if the battles weren't so clumsily frenetic, the action would still be plagued with horrendous camera control. Often blocked by that lovely geography described earlier, the obtuse angles of the lens consistently blind you.
This is made even less fun by the fact that the rudimentary target-lock is completely unresponsive to your commands, so you are usually unable to even disengage your opponent and reposition for a better view. These aren't the only mechanics that are problematic, either. For instance, there is an interesting RPG-ish power and combo purchase system, but with the exception of the heal magic, none of it is really very useful. The total lack of any spectacular progression of power makes the experience system seem unwieldy and superfluous.
If that isn't enough, there are a series of potentially game-ending oversights in the course of the story. In one such occurrence, a pile of boulders crashes down behind Paul when he enters a cavern. While the developers had enough foresight to offer the player a way out of the cave, they were completely derelict in failing to include a way back in later. This means that once you leave, you can't come back. Ever. The problem, unfortunately, is that the quest is essential to progression of the plot. It happens again near the end of the main story. This one I can vouch for personally, because it spelled the end of my journey through the 13th century. After Paul had acquired the three necessary artifacts, he sets off for an island guarded by three fates. These creatures demand that he pay them 100 gold pieces for every creature that he has slain so far, or else they won't drop the mystic portcullis guarding the island's inner sanctum.
Here's the thing: In the course of the dialogue, the player is given the option of threatening the hags. If this tree is chosen, the women will attack Paul, and he will defend himself by, naturally, stabbing them repeatedly in the head. Once the crones are destroyed, however, the gate doesn't drop. Oddly enough, the rowboat shored on the beach beside you also doesn't allow you to board and leave the island. You are quite literally stuck, unless you choose to pound the all-too-commonly used quickload key. I'm sad to report that High Templar Paul de Rauque died right there on that beach. He did in my game, since I hadn't saved in about two hours, and I am sad to admit that I just couldn't force myself to replay that lost eternity.
Ultimately, Knights of the Temple II isn't a horrible game. It has some very good design elements, and the ambience of the areas is almost perfect. The combat is usually pretty fun, and the monsters are well imagined. Unfortunately, these positives are undone by the inundation of flaws. Endlessly recycled NPC models, horrid camera angles, and the failed lock-on system turn what could have been a really good action/RPG game into barely playable mess. Add to these problems the occasional need to load and backtrack, and you have a game that I cannot, in good faith, recommend to others.