Squint and Crossbow Crusade could be a 16-bit Castlevania. The main character might use a crossbow rather than a whip, but they are still a lone wolf in a relentlessly grim realm (there’s no subtlety here: it’s called the Dead World), with zombies, bats and demons out for your blood. There are bosses that up the challenge, and 2D platforming to be done in a pixel environment.
But in the spirit of alliteration, Crossbow Crusade is a bit of a Crap Castlevania. Even when compared with similar games from thirty years ago, it is, at best, competent and forgettable, and at worst, broken and lacklustre.
Things start on the competent and forgettable side. You are chucked unceremoniously into the Dead Kingdom without a sense of who you’re fighting or who you are, and your one definable character trait is that you can work a crossbow. Then you’re working left-to-right through levels that have single paths and no map needed. There’s no strategy or exploration at all.
You can fire up, left and right, as well as jump and roll. To give Crossbow Crusade credit, you can also fire arrows into wood, bodies and a few other spongy bits to create temporary platforms, which is admittedly unusual. Regardless, it’s not a varied or impressive arsenal, and the only way it changes up is with purchasable upgrades to your arrows, allowing you to fire more at once.
Until roughly the halfway point it works okay. The enemies are just varied enough, with high-firing ones that require you to crouch, low-firing ones that require you to jump, and bats that need you to fire up or anticipate from higher ledges. The controls are spongy and slow, with a hint of latency, but the challenge is pitched to be welcoming enough that it’s not a massive problem. There are checkpoints in the form of coffins (you also burst into bats at the end of each level, so we can only guess that the Crossbow Crusader is a vampire), which make the levels achievable.
The first couple of bosses, the Gardener and Witch, have a bit of challenge to them – particularly the Witch, who has three varieties of projectile that are presumably random, but have the habit of exploding in the exact way that will hit you. And defeating them triggers Crossbow Crusade’s greatest idea: the boss’s spirit will guide you through a post-boss vehicle level, where you float downwards in ghost-balloons, or stampede forward in ghost-wagons. They’re ridiculously short-lived and easy, but they break things up.
By the halfway point, you might wonder where the Crap Castlevania comes in, but it happens reasonably suddenly. It’s about when the repeated enemies become fatiguing. Crossbow Crusade is reluctant to phase out any of its enemies, so you’re seeing the same monsters that you encountered on level one. We were done with the bats, spitting zombies, and the weird zombies that seem to chuck apples at you.
The biggest surprise is the bosses, who just stop bothering. It’s hard to tell if bosses like ‘King’ are bugged or sketched in crayon: they’re lazily designed, and they just stand there and chuck missiles at you. They might roll a bit, perhaps, but they are trivial to defeat and a huge step down from the first bosses. You wonder if the developers thought no one would make it that far.
And it’s by the second half that the controls really grate. Perhaps it’s the very slight additional difficulty (and it is very slight) but the latency on the controls and – in particular – a weird control quirk become more noticeable. When you aim up or crouch, you are momentarily paralysed, and it takes a beat or two to start moving again. But you often accidentally crouch or aim upwards, which makes you paralysed when you least want to be. It’s more than an infuriation: it’s rage-inducing. The battle with the Witch – Crossbow Crusade’s peak moment of difficulty – can feel impossible when you’re wrestling with this handicap.
When the levels are linear, xeroxed from each other and littered with the same enemies, Crossbow Crusade can often feel like it’s not worth the trouble. Sure, there are only fifteen levels here, and each level isn’t particularly long, but the combo of pain and boredom make it a slog. Its two-to-three hours will feel a hell of a lot longer than that. Don’t let the cheap price of £4.19 and the easy 1000G tempt you.
We’re blessed with high quality platformers on the Xbox with a new one tending to arrive every few weeks (Astalon: Tears of the Earth is the latest, and we couldn’t recommend it more). When that’s the case, there’s no chance that we’d give Crossbow Crusade anything but two thumbs down. Just wait a few more weeks and something more worthy of your time and patience will come along.
You can buy Crossbow Crusade for £4.19 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S