Developer Certain Affinity specializes in first-person shooters. They helped Valve port the original Left 4 Dead to the Xbox 360. They also created maps for some of the big shooters, like a few of the Halo games and a few of the Call of Duty games not done by Infinity Ward. While their experience is mostly rooted in shooters, they did a strategy game called Age of Booty, which wasn't bad considering it was their genre debut. For their second fully developed title, they decided to aim for another new genre: the hack-and-slash RPG. Given away as part of this year's Summer of Arcade promotion, Crimson Alliance has a decent community behind it. For those who didn't opt for that promo, though, is it worth purchasing?
The plot isn't very original, but it is still good to go through. Centuries ago, there was a port town that thrived because it was essentially the heart of the world's commerce. Once the king died in battle, his daughter took over the throne. She had a cult of followers and began lusting for power to the point of devouring souls to fuel her lifespan. A motley crew of adventurers has come together to face her. The mercenary does so for the large reward. The assassin does so because she lost a bet to the mercenary. The wizard convinces the other two to come along to help him get revenge on the princess now known as the Soul Siren.
Like all games of this type, you start off by picking a class. The wizard is more of a long-range fighter since he relies mostly on spells to attack, and his melee skills are nonexistent. The mercenary is the expected tank of the group, with a high tolerance for damage and exceptional melee skills. Finally, the assassin is a mid-range character with decent melee and projectile attacks but great speed. It's as simple as you can get since there are no other traits to worry about, and none of them feel like they make the game too hard or too easy.
At its core, the gameplay can be comparable to the original arcade version of Gauntlet. You go through dungeon after dungeon, picking off the enemies in your way while going through checkpoints and eventually finding the exit. Along the way, you refill your health through heart jars and damage enemies by throwing either explosive or poison barrels at them. While you will face a multitude of enemies, you won't have to worry about an endless amount since there are no monster generators in the game's 19 levels.
Crimson Alliance also takes a few cues from Gauntlet Legends. Gold can be collected to buy things at shops. Items can be collected to boost health or other traits. There are also consumable items that can either aid in combat (throwing axes and turrets, for example) or act defensively (bait and healing towers). Every level contains its fair share of secret areas with more gold and items as well as destructible walls that hide all sorts of switches. In short, it's a hack-and-slash that rewards combat and exploration equally.
RPG elements are here but they are, at best, light. There's no character leveling for killing enemies and no personal XP system. There isn't even the ability to sell weapons despite the fact that you can buy things at a store. Instead, all of your leveling is done through items. Armor, shields, swords and other equipment add extra buffs to your attacks and are responsible for boosting defense, attack power and health. It makes loot interesting, but it doesn't make the game focus solely on item stats since combat rules. You can have the best sword in the game, but you still have an equal chance of dying when compared to the guy with the lesser equipment.
On the surface, the game doesn't seem like much, especially when there isn't much variety in the enemy designs. However, it picks up later when you realize that the enemies get tougher and smarter. Archers stop aiming for you and start aiming for barrels if you happen to be within their blast radius. Enemies follow you no matter how far away you are. Larger grunts stop letting you lead them into explosive items or traps while magicians suddenly become psychic as they shield their allies before you have a chance to attack. This level of cunning is shocking at first, but it ultimately leads to more exciting gameplay since you feel like you're up against something intelligent instead of something scripted.
There is one thing going against Crimson Alliance, and that's its length. Nineteen levels sounds like a lot, but when you sum it up, the game lasts about five hours. You can tack on an hour or two if you search for all of the secrets or earn money for the higher-priced items. It's not bad for a downloadable game, but since dungeons aren't randomly generated, it won't be long before you tire of playing the same levels multiple times.
While the game still plays well when going solo, it needs to be experienced with others. Even though there are only three classes to choose from, the game supports a total of four players both locally and online. Combat becomes even more exciting thanks to some tactics and combos that can be executed with different classes. For example, wizard can freeze enemies while others pound on them or mercenaries can act as defenders for those throwing projectiles or laying down turrets. Recognizing the value of multiple players, the designers put in various puzzles that can only be solved with multiple people present; levels feel a bit different than when you're going through them alone. For online players, the good news is that the game experiences little to no lag, so combat isn't affected. The other piece of good news is that with the exception of items, all gold is evenly distributed among party members regardless of who picked it up, preventing arguments when one person does all of the fighting and the other all of the looting.
There is one issue with multiplayer, and that's the lack of drop-in/drop-out co-op play. Whether offline or online, players can't join a level in progress, and they can't quit without taking everyone in the party out of the mission. Since some levels are quite lengthy, it is frustrating when players want in or out since it always involves quitting out of a mission, getting to the main party select menu, and restarting a mission.
It can't be a proper review of the game without mentioning the somewhat odd purchasing scheme for the title. For 1,200 Microsoft points, you get the game and access to all three character classes for single-player and online and offline multiplayer. This is great for those who want to play the game over and over again using all three character classes or if they want to make sure offline multiplayer always has three classes in play. If you want to only go with one class or are sure that everyone only wants to be the mercenary, you can choose to get the game with that class and only spend 800 Microsoft points. While this may be tempting if you tend to play almost all of your hack-and-slash games with only one class, you'll have to keep in mind that you still need all of the classes if you hope to unlock some of the secret areas in each map. Unless you plan to only play multiplayer online, buying the 1,200 point package ends up being more economically sound.
Another interesting scheme has to do with microtransactions. Your only form of currency in stores is gold, and while you earn a good amount during quests, you usually have to play several levels multiple times to get enough to buy the better swords or armor. For 80 Microsoft points, you could save yourself some time and get 40,000 gold pieces, giving you just enough to get all of the best items early and often. It's a completely optional thing to do, and it remains to be seen whether people will take advantage of it. It is an interesting way to keep the interest of players who normally despise grinding for good equipment.
At first, the graphics aren't much to write home about. The heroes and enemies are stylized, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. The animations are well done and fluid without exaggerating their movements. It's not until you look at the environments and lighting that you begin to appreciate the graphics. Each environment contains some depth, so you get a better sense of how big the environments are when you see building blocks crumble in the distance or enemies waiting several floors below you. Your character always has an aura of light around him or her, and while that is helpful in determining where you and your allies are on-screen, it also gives the game the chance to show some dynamic shadowing depending on the light source.
The sound is good overall, though it's unusual in places. The effects are booming, and even though there may be plenty going on at any moment, the effects don't give the impression of being overwhelmed by the action. The score plays the typical action fantasy tones, but every now and then, you hear an instrument that feels out of place. It isn't necessarily bad, but it does stand out. The voices are good, but the dialogue and delivery feel too modern. That aspect is quickly forgotten because the dialogue is pretty well written and capable of eliciting a chuckle or two.
Crimson Alliance is a simple but entertaining and deceptively addictive hack-and-slash title. It's very light on the RPG elements but makes up for it with a very satisfying combat system. There aren't too many enemy types in the game, but they get smarter as they try to fight with tactics instead of pure muscle. The character types are varied enough that you'll want to play them all, and multiplayer- specific puzzles make this a game you'll want to experience with your friends instead of solo. Those who already have the game because of the Summer of Arcade promotion are no doubt enjoying it, but for those who didn't, give Crimson Alliance a shot at scratching the hack-and-slash itch. Just be sure to know what kind of purchase you want to make beforehand.
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