|System: Xbox 360|
|Dev: Certain Affinity|
|Pub: Microsoft Studios|
|Release: September 7, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Sean Engemann
Considered a brand new baby fresh out of the dungeon crawler womb, Crimson Alliance was announced just this past May. However, this fledgling title was up and running when E3 rolled around, strutting its stuff with higher profile downloadable titles like Bastion. Considered one of the sleeper successes of the expo, heads have stayed turned its way with word that it would be launching on September 7th.
Surprisingly, the retail version of Crimson Alliance is a complete package, not looking rushed or having corners cut. Depending on your style of play, this game may or may not suit you; it has a simple design, a compact set of gear, and controls easy enough for anyone to pick up. Despite the unpretentious offering, there are many layers to be discovered and a solid incentive for replayability. Yet not every element works in tandem, with a few loopholes begging to be exploited, causing the game to suffer from a lack of fluidity.
The game's story is thrust upon you from the get-go, telling a tale of a once thriving port city called Byzan, Harbor to the World. The princess Asturi was propelled into power after the death of her father, where she soon learned the definition of the phrase, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Wreaking her dominance upon the citizens, sapping the magical power of her advisor, and disintegrating any who displeased her, Asturi became the Soul Siren, with an army of cultists at her beck and call.
Now, many years later, a trio of characters brought together by happenstance have entered the city. Some are looking for profit, and one is looking for retribution. Along with the main plot, the back story of each character—a mercenary, an assassin, and a wizard—is presented before beginning the adventure, but surprisingly little is told afterwards. Considering the scripted blend of sarcasm and seriousness between the characters, it would have been nice to see a more rotund tale. But after diving into the action, you'll find the storyline easily forgettable.
Any fans of the Gauntlet series will find the gameplay of Crimson Alliance easily recognizable—each level a simple maze from point A to point B, with increasing quantities and difficulties of enemy to dispatch along the way. The more explorative gamer will discover short deviations from the path, leading to secret areas containing gold and sometimes treasure chests or collectables.
You'll follow your character from an aerial perspective, traversing down countless rectangular hallways and square rooms, which, although nicely detailed with the city's ruin apparent, are quite sterile from an animation perspective. Sure, you can obliterate crates and barrels to expose the few pieces of gold within, but aside from some rather poor torch and wall sconce flameworks, the backgrounds are foundationally sound; a clear contradiction to the surrounding devastation.
Each character is tailored to a different combat style, with the mercenary diving into every melee opportunity but lacking ranged attacks. The wizard is best at keeping enemies at a distance with spells, and the assassin uses a mix of ranged and melee, making her a more all-around choice. Yet, although each class has an exclusive skill set, they all perform generally the same. Each comes packed with a quick attack, a stunning attack, the ability to dash (or teleport, in the wizards case), and block capabilities, making your initial character choice more about personal preference than anything else. Granted, the wizard has a tougher time at the start than the mercenary, but by the end they all balance out fairly equally. Even their defenses are virtually identical, with the frail and ill-armored wizard incurring the same amount of damage as the beefy fighter, the only adjustment being an extra health heart for the mercenary at the outset.
Whether found in treasure chests or purchased from merchants between levels, each character has three gear slots: one weapon, one armor, and one supplement (shield, parrying dagger, or familiar) can be equipped. Each item will augment one or more of your attack skills, and sometimes improve health and yield special properties, such as fire, electricity, and the chance to sap enemy health. Although the dungeon crawler and MMORPG communities would surely bite their thumbs at the limited customization options, the upside is that each augmented skill is instantly apparent when striking down your next opponent. Plus, the minimal time required to equip your new gear means you can get right back into the action.
There are also some useful items to hunt for while making your way through each level. Collecting four pieces of a heart will increase your health by one. (Think Legend of Zelda, only much easier to find.) Also, obtaining a certain amount of Soul Anchors will unlock your Ultimate Power, a charged attack which can easily turn an ambush into a field of dead enemies. The assassin slows time, the wizard performs a lighting storm, and the mercenary becomes a bladed whirlwind, cutting down all in his path. You'll also occasionally come across Challenge Maps, which open up extra levels designed to test your combat skill, with rewards equal to the difficulty level.
Each board is also dotted with a couple simple puzzles, some which specifically require more than one character to solve. This becomes one of the few incentives to tackle Crimson Alliance with friends, as you cannot uncover every nook of each level unless you do so. Combat also becomes increasingly easier, as certain class skills compliment others. For example, the wizard can freeze an enemy solid, allowing the mercenary to smash it into a million frozen pieces. There are secret locations only accessible to certain classes, so if you're going solo, you'll be disappointedly passing these goodies by.