A game that is more than the sum of its parts, assuming you have a couch and a friend.
The First TemplarPublisher: Kalypso
Platforms: XBox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
Developer: Haemimont Games
Release date: 2011-05-10
Gaming as a social activity is without a doubt one of the finest ways that I can choose to spend my time. I have a friend who exists, it seems, almost solely to sit in the basement and play cooperative games with (and watch the odd episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, of course). So it is no surprise that I am almost constantly on the prowl for enjoyable cooperative games that (and this is the important thing) still allow for the concept of sitting on the couch next to the person you're playing with. This is really the only reason that I own Gears of War -- I'm not too interested in the mechanics, but I can play it as a split-screen cooperative campaign and that is all that matters. Imagine my delight, then, when I saw that The First Templar promised cooperative play.
Now I'd already been interested in The First Templar because it seemed like an interesting setting (there are not enough games that explore the Crusades, and one of the curious moments of the game was revisiting Acre, which I hadn't seen since Assassin's Creed -- although now I have a fear that it will become the Hoth of games about the Crusades) and the promise of hack-and-slash gameplay with some RPG elements had grabbed my interest. This is the part where I mention that I have only played the game cooperatively, barring a brief run through the first level in single-player mode before I realized how I much I disliked the game without another person to play it with.
You play as Celian D'Arestide or Marie D'Ibelin, a Templar and a noblewoman who are on a quest to find the Holy Grail. At least, that's what the ultimate goal is -- Celian has apparently been looking for the Grail for a long time, and upon the discovery of a promising lead, he and his comrade in arms Roland set off to chase the lead down.
Roland is basically always grumpy.
Marie, by contrast, almost always has an eyebrow raised.
This quickly leads to a lot of finding out that (surprise!) the Catholic Church is corrupt and the Muslims are kind of scary and savage and blah blah blah -- there's not really a lot of creativity apparent in the dialog or the storyline. It's serviceable, like an old pickup truck -- it gets the player through each level, but the game is not about to win any accolades for its narrative brilliance. Fortunately, it doesn't need to. The combat is satisfying. There are combos you can execute and upgrade through gaining experience, which is enjoyable and (barring a little twitchiness when it comes to pressing buttons simultaneously) satisfying in the way that most modern hack-and-slash titles are satisfying. There are little bits of lore that you can discover as you make your way through the game, as well as new outfits for your characters, if that sort of collectable stuff is interesting to you.
Visually the game doesn't look bad, but it doesn't look that great either. This was a game that feels like it was made on a small budget or one for which all the budget went towards something that was very definitely not character animations in cutscenes. These oddities range from the mildly odd to the downright hilarious (as a drinking game, take a drink every time Roland smacks a fist into his hand in a menacing manner and make sure that you have an ambulance ready to cart you off after a few hours). The environments suffer from being bland (Acre has none of the character that it was endowed with in Assassin's Creed for example) with only a few notable exceptions.
One of the exceptions is this gorgeous hall.
The game also has a few unfortunate puzzle sections that involve getting through areas with traps and whatnot that feel like poor imitations of Prince of Persia, except instead of platforming you just have to time your movements to avoid the swinging guillotine blades and floor spikes and the million other things which are apparently the only way to protect your valuables in the 13th century.
The worst part of the game is probably its mini-map, which is not even a proper mini-map, looking more like a radar. There are different colored dots to denote your objective, secondary objectives, health, and your partner. The problem is that your partner is green and objectives are yellow (and some other stuff is white), and everything all gets lost and confused. As aresult, f you are separated from your companion, you will have a hard time finding them, especially because you are not able to see any sort of terrain on the map -- just colored dots on a black background. I should also mention that during local co-op sessions this map is bizarrely given a massive chunk of screen room rather than the simpler solution of just putting the map in the corner of each player's screen, which is frankly one of the most ludicrous design decisions that I've ever seen.
And yet I can't help but love this game because it works well enough that sitting on the couch with your friend is enjoyable. Even as my friend and I shouted at the screen whenever a level seemed to suffer a particularly ridiculous design decision or wonder aloud what a trial of Faith has to do with floor spikes or try to figure out just why everyone sounds like they are in a tunnel -- even out of doors -- I'm still enjoyed myself. The game is greater than the sum of its parts, well worth playing if you have someone to play it with. And while you can play online, I can't help but recommend that you get someone to come to your house or go to someone's house to play because really that's the only way that some games are any fun.