Like most of the finer things in life, videogames are best shared with friends. There's plenty of fun to be had teaming up with mates for cooperative shenanigans, but at first glance, The Cursed Crusade from French studio Kylotonn Entertainment appears to be an incredibly serious proposition. After the Pope launches a third Crusade, the heroic yet haunted Denz De Bayle must team up with an untrustworthy thief to avenge his dead father and reclaim his family honour, surrounded by carnage and bloodshed in a foreign land. You'd be forgiven for expecting it to be a depressing historical documentary draped in 'war is hell' metaphors.
At its heart, however, The Cursed Crusade is an action-packed buddy movie. Creative Director Yann Tambellini compares the dynamic between lead characters Denz and Esteban to Bad Boys II: two very different heroes who constantly give each other a hard time whilst always looking out for their partners' best interests. From what I experienced in the demo levels, some genuinely funny dialogue rubs shoulders with full-on racial stereotyping (no, really, Kylotonn aren't pulling any clichéd punches when it comes to the outrageously Spanish mercenary), and it will be interesting to whether this overused gambit pays off.
In gameplay terms, though, this cooperative focus essentially seems to boil down to two players - or one player and a surprisingly capable AI - being required to open the same door, push the same battering ram, boost each other up ledges and engage in a huge amount of freestyle tag-team murder. Forget open-world exploration, because I'll be surprised if there's anyone left in Constantinople once the last head hits the floor. Or the well. Or the sizzling brazier.
Throughout the thirty five levels (which will run you about ten hours, according to our earlier interview), you'll rampage through Europe and Constantinople; waging constant battle against leagues of mercenaries, heathens and even some supernatural foes. The Cursed Crusade is all about hardcore, brutal, epic action that utilises an enormous number of weapons. Swords, maces, shields, axes and spears (of both one and two-handed varieties) can be chopped and changed at will, resulting in a combat system that can fluidly adapt to any situation.
Although you can button mash for some easy wins, the mechanics reward a little forethought when it comes to planning combos and tactics. Each of the sixteen different techniques handle very differently, use over 400 different combos and permit the use of a hundred different gory fatalities. Victory Points gleaned from stringing together huge combos can be spent on ramping these skills up, meaning that making sure each blow connects and each block pays off will ultimately create stronger characters. The environment can be used in battle to some extent, and even though the developers themselves had problems successfully factoring barrel throws, bottomless wells and braziers into their combos, the effects are absolutely devastating and extremely satisfying. Responsive controls and a handy block function make the slaughtering as efficient as possible.
Armoured foes add an extra dimension to the brawling. Weapons such as maces and hammers are exceptional at separating a soldier from the individual components making up his plate mail, whilst swords and axes are much more competent at cleaving through exposed flesh. Working out how best to weaken and defeat powerful opponents (ganging up is usually an option) will play a huge role in the combat, and a rather fun one at that.
Oh, and there's also a crossbow that can be used much like any third person shooter firearm. If you somehow end up tiring of the near-infinite combinations of melee weapons, that is.
The Curse functions much like a berserk mode and alternate vision mode rolled into one. A simple button tap transforms the world into a nightmarish hellscape, with enemies represented by their glowing souls encased in a prison of bone and muscle. While triggered, Denz and Esteban will deal increased damage, can access special abiltities (such as burning goes from the inside out) and see hidden secret stashes. To balance this potentially overpowered feature, using the curse depletes a power gauge that eventually causes the player to take massive when emptied. Killing enemies is the key... and there's never a shortage of nameless fools to skewer.
There are a few evident problems with the eleventh hour preview build. The strict linearity of the level design isn't really an issue as it forces both players to cooperate in well-balanced situations, but most of the cooperative challenges seem to hinge around one simple mechanic. Say it with me. Quick Time Events. These obtrusive button prompts crop up on a sixty second basis (sometimes twice a minute during pitched battle), forming the foundation for battering down a portcullis, winning a feat of strength or initiating a particularly nasty fatality. In an annoying twist the QTE icon is both sizeable, opaque and central; effectively obscuring the very action that it's supposed to be making more immersive! Not to mention that the overtly similar sequences are also incredibly repetitive.
With any luck, though, a little genuine personality will help to set The Cursed Crusade apart from the crowd. We're not quite sure whether Denz and Esteban will develop into likeable characters or thoroughly detestable idiots, but the gameplay itself is packed with interesting little nods to the games of yesteryear. Kylotonn are up-front about using classic co-op brawlers like Golden Axe for inspiration, and the action occasionally becomes 2.5D from time to time in an homage to the classics. We love it, and we hope that a few more self-aware moments will disarm some of the more po-faced posturing.
The Cursed Crusade is set to release on September 16th here in the UK - and we'll have a full review nearer the time. Not long now until the carnage begins... both in virtual Constantinople and on store shelves ahead of the holiday season.