The First Templar is a very stable piece of software. If that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it’s because it is. The First Templar is a veritable paragon of adequate design. Sadly, it is also a damning case study in how competence can fail to offset a lack of creative vision.
Even among hack and slash titles, The First Templar's combat is rote and repetitive. Players will spend most of their time mindlessly mashing two attack buttons, slaughtering waves of faceless enemies. Though the game features a sort of pseudo-combo system, it doesn't really offer any kind of compelling reward besides a hit counter that usually hangs out in the single-digit range.
Holding down the primary attack button releases a charged attack that's theoretically devastating, but it really only serves one purpose: smashing the otherwise-invincible shields of enemies. Throw a few more useless abilities into the pot, like grabs and spin moves, and the result is a beige, soporific draught that's as unremarkable as it is anesthetising.
Haemimont Games seems to have focused The First Templar on co-op in the hope that it would ameliorate the tiresome hack-and-slash concept. Throughout the 10 to 12 hour adventure, two players can choose from a small band of warriors: Celian, the strong-willed and stoic main character; Roland, his hot-headed and zealous brother-in-arms; and Marie, a knife-wielding noble whose presence is inexplicable and mostly without purpose until about two thirds of the way through the game.
Players only have access to two of the three at any given time, but each fighter has a distinct talent tree intended to add some variety to the monotonous combat. Unfortunately, the differences are largely superficial. For instance, most enemies take three to nine hits regardless of whether the player is striking with Celian's short sword and shield, Roland's bastard sword, or Marie's daggers.
The story fares little better. As one might expect from the title, it's based loosely around the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Haemimont Games makes much ado about its fiction, but sadly, the conspiracy-focused story is less Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and more Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
Much like the gameplay, it has the feeling of too little content spread too thin: long periods of time elapse during which it is unclear why you are wandering aimlessly through a scary forest or a lush forest or a burning forest or a swampy forest. The few interesting set pieces occur between bouts of filler that seem interminable.
One area where The First Templar doesn't skimp is with its extra modes and goodies. Each level features a variety of side missions, treasure chests, and story tidbits to discover, and Haemimont makes the intelligent decision to let the player access each level piecemeal upon its completion. The chapter list smartly displays the total number of each type of objective, as well as how many the player has already completed. These enumerated lists are sure to drive both completion-obsessed and money-conscious gamers back into the story mode.
The First Templar also includes a surprisingly engaging horde mode called “The Arena.” Unlike similar features in other titles, The Arena actually contains its own free-standing plot. The basic idea is that a mysterious man, known only as The Byzantine, has kidnapped Celian, Roland, and Marie. Each day he forces two of them to fight waves of enemies in a gladiator-style battle. In between each round, you find out more about The Byzantine and his arena from other woebegone captives in his slave pits. He also gloats before each match, revealing more and more about his motivations.
Oddly enough, it's almost more engaging than the main plot. Instead of ambling at a slow, tortoise-like pace, The Arena feels like someone took the time to actually script a narrative. It lays out a clear mystery, gives its villain decent motivations, and proceeds at a brisk pace. The smart player will supplement the main quest with a couple of Arena bouts here and there, rather than waiting to complete the story mode.
Haemimont Games developed the tremendous Tropico 3, and it's vexing to watch such a talented group of people put forth such a ho-hum offering. But to be fair, a hack-and-slash adventure is well outside the company's wheelhouse; in the past, the studio has stuck mostly with strategy-focused experiences. If nothing else, The First Templar is an interesting look at what happens when an established developer moves beyond its comfort zone. Unsurprisingly, the results are mixed: a few glimmering moments of innovation diluted by hours of decade-old design.