The First Templar is not a triple-A game, and it holds no grand illusions otherwise. If you were to find yourself playing The First Templar, aside from an absolutely gorgeous title screen, you’d hold no grand illusions that you were playing a triple-A game either. Every second you’re playing it you’re reminded, whether by the goofy animations, dull voice acting, or the excruciatingly average graphics, that it’s a title that just never had the chance that other, better games get when they have more money thrown at them. However, that doesn’t mean The First Templar is a bad game; you just need to understand that it can’t compete with the big-budget titles of the world, and was probably never meant to.
Developed by Bulgaria’s largest game developer, Haemimont Games, The First Templar follows the exploits of Templars Celian d’Arestide, Roland (who is so badass, he doesn’t even get a last name), and accused heretic and witch Marie d’Ibelin as they chase the Holy Grail across Europe and the Middle East. Along the way they fight a lot of dudes and uncover a few shocking secrets that explain the game’s odd title in more detail.
Overall this story of the Holy Grail and men who seek to find and/or protect it is acceptable in the way it’s told through cut-scenes and in-game dialogue, however it lacks a certain spark. I’m sure the aforementioned dull voice acting didn’t help. Things of note happen, and there are twists and turns aplenty, but by the end of the game I was just anxious to get past all the talking so I could get back to carving up more knights, archers, French soldiers, Hashishin, Muslim Crusaders, mercenaries, inquisitors, dogs, and the occasional troll-human hybrid (apparently the Dominican Inquisition was sitting on some major genetic discoveries that they didn’t tell anyone about and only used to make monsters - par for the course in stories like this one). The story mode is also relatively meaty clocking in at around 10-12 hours, and really, it felt longer to me. Maybe that is because the individual levels never felt repetitive. One level might find Celian and his partner saving Acre from invading forces via trebuchet, while another has you slogging through a swamp, running through a burning forest, or creeping around a French town at night stealthily snapping enemies’ necks, desperate to avoid capture by the local forces. Don’t get me wrong, they’re standard medieval action game settings, but they look nice and each has an individual atmosphere that keeps the various levels from running together. Also present in each level is much in the way of chests filled with level specific ability upgrades and collectible weapons and outfits (Marie and Celian can eventually gain access to four outfits and weapon sets, while Roland only gets two). Side quests and bonus objectives show up as well. Usually these side quests are simple fetch quests popular with RPGs and even net you experience points to spend on upgrades, however these side-distractions are not necessary. Many are completed during normal play. Others often require the following of branching tracks that you can follow at specific times. These tracking section were some of my favorite.
Gameplay-wise, The First Templar is solid, yet unspectacular just like the story. Combat boils down to hack-and-slash standards such as light and heavy attacks, combos, grabs, a block/parry, and an evasive roll. Like I said before, there is an extensive upgrade tree for each character that you can spend XP on which is gained by defeating enemies and completing tasks; this is used to unlock new moves and more powerful versions of old ones. There are a few other combat twists thrown in as well. Characters can grab an enemy and hold them for their partner to execute, and each one gets a “concentration” ability that refills their health or zeal. Zeal is what fuels most of the combos and other really damaging attacks. Without zeal you’re forced to use basic attacks until it’s refilled. Landing attacks, taking damage, or any number of other conditions can also fill up zeal orbs and each special attack uses a certain amount. Celian can bash heads with his shield, or charge through groups of baddies, knocking them aside and damaging them, while Marie can throw daggers and do a push-back attack with a result that I never really noticed during gameplay and barely used when I controlled Marie. You see, you can freely switch back and forth between Celian and either Roland or Marie (depending on who Celian is traveling with). I honestly never saw a reason to do this unless one character got knocked out, then I would switch briefly to revive my fallen character by simply standing near them and hitting B if I had enough zeal, and just fighting on as Marie or Roland if I didn’t. This two-player set up lends itself well to the game’s real hook - drop-in / drop-out co-op. At any moment during the campaign another player can take over the second character by simply hitting start on their controller. However, they can’t earn achievements or save their progress. That’s a bit of a problem. Another problem with the couch co-op is that, instead of a normal split-screen we’re all used to, the entire bottom quarter of the screen becomes devoted to displaying each player’s health and zeal status, relegating the visible play area to a window that’s criminally small for both players. This obviously isn’t a problem for online co-op. If that’s more your speed, simply set your online status to public and people can join your game at any point, or you can join theirs.
Aside from one player grabbing another and holding them for execution, the other main use of the game’s co-op is puzzle solving, and boy is there a lot of it. Luckily none of it is that hard. Usually the puzzles involve strategic lever pulling that requires the coordination of both players to complete, or if you’re by yourself, a set of simple commands accessed via the d-pad allows one player to coordinate these lever puzzles with ease. There are also quite a few Prince of Persia-style traps to avoid. Those sections could have been handled a bit better because the controls are a bit loose. Also, the camera can be a pain in the butt, but that’s typical for every third person action game save for a sublime few. Those two flaws made the trap sections harder than they needed to be, but not game-breaking (or controller breaking for that matter).
Graphically is where The First Templar really starts to show its flaws. Artistically, they look all right, but technically, they’re a bit of a mess with lots of enemy, item, and texture pop-in and out-dated facial models. However, I will say it never really hampers gameplay. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ridiculous hair many characters sport in The Last Templar. Many of the denizens you come across in your travels have hair that can only be described as “Lego-style,” while beards and mustaches looked plastic and glued onto a character’s face. After a while it gets funny.
What never gets funny, however, is the sound. The score, while nice, is muted to the point where you can’t hear it and the dialogue is badly mixed. Voices of characters front and center on the screen come from what sounds like a cave or another room. Without subtitles, it would be impossible to ever know what anyone is saying. Also, the sound effects can be odd. Many sword strikes sound like someone slamming a kitchen cabinet door. I find that really weird.
Overall, The First Templar is a decent game. The combat is fast and "button-mashy", and many engagements end with a cinematic flourish as Celian or Marie score a scripted finishing move that starts out pretty cool to watch and never really got old for me. The story, while a bit dry, is pretty coherent and twist-filled; while some of those twists are telegraphed for sure, a few caught me by surprise. It’s not going to win any awards, but I’ve seen worse. That sentiment really sums up the whole game for me. Perhaps in another world The First Templar could have gotten a proper big-studio treatment rather than just a big-for-Bulgaria-studio treatment and been a real sleeper that lots of people played and enjoyed; however, in this world, The First Templar is just a low-budget action game that can be fun, but is ultimately forgettable.