Atlus is best known for RPG games. They have developed and published games since the NES era, but the Persona series is what really put them on the map. Anytime they get out of that RPG comfort zone, players and critics take notice. Sometimes the game is a big surprise, as was the case with Catherine and Rock of Ages, both released earlier this year. Other times, it's a big disappointment. Such is the case with The Cursed Crusade, a hack-and-slash game that fails to stir up any excitement.
You play as Denz de Bayle and Esteban Noviembre, two mercenaries who are cursed to hell once death defeats them. De Bayle joins the Fourth Crusade to find his father, who had left on the Third Crusade. Along the way, they discover that there's a way to break their curse. It is up to the duo to find out how before another cursed crusader keeps the secret to himself.
The basic principles of a hack-and-slash game are all present in The Cursed Crusade. Players can unleash combos on enemies, parry attacks and block. In some cases, they can even use environmental objects, such as barrels, to stun the enemy and get in some free hits. Finishing levels and completing bonus objectives give you points, which can be spent on powering up one of five traits — armor, health, strength, etc. — and the ability to learn new combos.
There are a few things that change up the basic combat a bit. You can pick up a variety of weapons along the way, such as lances, maces and shields. Some can even be combined, so wielding both a sword and mace is plausible, and combos for all weapons and weapon combinations can be learned once the weapon is picked up for the first time. Also, all weapons are fragile and break after excessive combat, so it's normal to search out and swap weapons during combat.
The gameplay revolves around your warriors' curse. Either through specific points in the story or the press of a button, both de Bayle and Noviembre can enter a cursed mode, which amplifies their powers. They can set their surroundings ablaze and unleash fireballs, but they can also find and break parts of the environment to access other locations. They can also defeat wandering spirits, freeing them in the process, and purify unholy crucifixes with their fire. A meter that is filled through enemy kills is drained first; unless the duo escapes the state, the health meter begins to drain as well.
There are a myriad of things wrong with the gameplay in The Cursed Crusade. The combat system always has you locking on to an enemy, and it stays locked on regardless of whether another person is closer to you. The lock-on issue persists when throwing fireballs and when you're in the middle of a combo, causing you to hit air once the enemy dodges your attack. The use of environmental objects is a nice touch, but it's impossible to take advantage of it unless you happen to spam the A button when the game decides that you should pick up the object. Though there are a plethora of combos to buy, none of it matters since just about every enemy can be defeated with the same three-hit combo mixed in with a stun move to ensure they don't get the upper hand. Every weapon feels the same in swing rate and damage, so the only reason to pick up every weapon would be to see the different finishing moves.
Weapon durability is another problem. Every weapon feels fragile to the point where you can't make it through the shortest level without replacing your blade at least twice. The forced variety isn't so bad until you realize that it's difficult to pick up weapons. It's never easy to find a weapon that belonged to a recently downed enemy, especially when some disappear the minute they're dropped. Even if you do find the weapon in question, you never see an animation to indicate that the replacement took place. All you can rely on is the prompt that appears when standing over the weapon. While it ultimately works out, the process could've been handled better.
The game pace also feels broken. The combat tutorial takes place after you've faced off against a medium-scale battle and first boss fight, making the tutorial feel pointless. Most levels don't give you the chance to explore since the game transports you to the next area via a cut scene once the last enemy has been defeated. Cut scenes seem to be the biggest culprit in destroying the game flow. The Cursed Crusade has more than its fair share of cut scenes, even dedicating whole levels to them. It wouldn't feel too bothersome if the story was ere excellent, but the tale is average at best. There are no plot twists, and the characters are so one-dimensional that any surprises are easily solved. Worst of all, the scenes repeat. You can expect to hear about how de Bayle expects his father to right the family wrongs, Noviembre repaying debts to him, and the constant decay of the crusaders. The cut scenes love to hammer home these points until the end credits roll.
Your partner AI performs rather poorly most of the time. At first, it seems like he could be a competent fighter. However, facing off against anything more powerful than a simple blue soul shows that he can stun enemies, but you'll need to initiate a finishing blow. When fighting multiple people, your companion rarely gives you a hand with an enemy, and you'll likely find him lost or stuck behind a wall unless it's time to hit a switch or move to the next area. It is also difficult to find him when you need to perform the tag maneuver that replenishes your health bar, causing you to suffer an unnecessary death when playing on the higher difficulty levels.
Multiplayer solves the issue of the spotty companion AI, though finding someone to play along isn't an easy task. Although The Cursed Crusade has been released in Europe for two weeks, you can't find a soul to partner with for online play. During offline play, you can have the screen split horizontally or vertically, which is a nice option that few games employ. The title suffers from the same flaws as single-player gameplay, but the difficulty doesn't get amplified, and the same amount of enemies appear on-screen as before, so no real effort was expended in improving co-op play.
Graphically, the game exemplifies the term "mixed bag." The character models aren't too bad, though their colors make it hard to tell which one is friend or foe. The environments also look fine, especially when they switch over to the curse-induced red hues and fire. From here, everything else goes downhill. The physics applied to some objects is laughable. A large wooden door may take supernatural fire to destroy, but its large fragments can be tossed aside like paper when you walk near them. Animations look decent but are marred by the constant clipping of objects and, in some cases, objects failing to connect.
Cut scenes are either exaggerated or simply don't exist. It doesn't get any better during combat, especially for finishing moves. You'll see the blade puncture the body, but it doesn't feel like any effort was made to create or at least mask a puncture wound. Some simply have the weapon strike the wrong place, such as a two-sword finisher that kills the opponent through constant leg stabs. There are other examples of the poor graphics, but that should be convincing enough.
The sound carries the same traits as the graphics. A majority of the voices are good, though you can tell that there wasn't much of a budget to hire more actors. The boss fight in Croatia utilizes the same voice actor for both the boss and de Bayle. The lines are also pretty bad, and it gets tiresome all too quickly. Everyone constantly whines about the curse, and Noviembre has a need to throw in some Spanish to re-emphasize that he is from Spain. This unneeded emphasis is highlighted by the fact that everyone else comes in with perfect English and American accents despite hailing from locations like France, Italy and Constantinople. The score is fine, with some well-orchestrated music that makes the affair feel epic. The moonlight escape from the castle provides a good example, as it feels more country than medieval. The sound effects are fine when they decide to play.
At best, The Cursed Crusade is mediocre. The plot is bland, but the cut scenes try to shove the story down your throat at every opportunity, causing an adverse reaction. The gameplay feels shallow despite its attempts at depth, and the AI on both sides displays no intelligence at all. Though there are a few instances of quality on display, the graphics display far too many bugs, and the sound is just as bad. Coupled with the fact that Atlus chose to release a game when almost every big game is set to come out on a weekly basis, and one has to believe that both the publisher and developer set this out to die instead of trying to spend some time to make this even a little bit better. Unless you have to play every game out on the market, there isn't much of a reason to seek out this game.
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