Review: Crimson Alliance (Xbox Live Arcade)

Crimson Alliance
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Certain Affinity
Genre: Action/RPG
Release Date: 09/07/2011

The Xbox 360 has been no stranger to action RPG/dungeon crawler games lately. Just this year alone, we have gotten Dungeon Siege III, Torchlight, and Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale just to name a few. They vary wildly in quality, but if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that now is an excellent time to be a fan of the genre. And just when you thought the market has hit the saturation point, along comes Crimson Alliance just as the fall release onslaught is about to begin. Does Certain Affinity’s latest in hack and slash gameplay manage to stand out from the pack, or will it be quickly forgotten amongst the wave of other releases?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes

Before you even begin the game, you are treated to an opening cutscene that sheds some light on this tale’s backstory. It tells of an empire that existed long ago, known as Byzan who was ruled by princess Asturi once her father, the king, passed away. She became adept in the dark arts after forcing the castle wizard to teach them to her and began consuming the souls of her subjects. Eventually she became known as the Soul Siren. Several centuries have passed since the age of her rule, and the Soul Siren has long been gone. However, a cult of worshippers have formed that are bent on bringing her back from the dead. That’s where you come in.

You have three characters that you have the option of beginning the game with, and you can view all of their backstories prior to choosing each one. Gnox, the mercenary, has a history of surviving tragedy despite what befalls his fellow comrades. As a result, no group will allow him to associate with them due to being perceived as bad luck and instead works alone. His latest assignment has him seeking out Moonshade the assassin, who loses to him in a game of strip darts (yes, you heard that right) and reluctantly joins him to meet with the Crimson Empire. Along the way, they encounter Direwolf the wizard, who has a bout of amnesia and insists that they travel together to the former Byzan empire. The area is in ruins, but there are a few that still dwell there that come under attack upon your arrival. Only after Direwolf promises a hefty reward do the other two characters decide to get involved and with that, the adventure begins.

While not the most groundbreaking or original premise ever utilized in a game of this type, it does promise an epic adventure. The extensive backstory cutscenes that introduce each character also hold promise, allowing you to think that the game will shed some more light on their personalities as well. Unfortunately, Crimson Alliance fails to deliver on both of those promises, instead following a very predictable and linear direction and never really adding anything to the characters that you don’t already know. In fact, it leaves you with many questions left unanswered which could’ve easily been wrapped up by the epilogue. Considering that the game seems to be aiming more towards the pick-up-and-play-with-friends flavor, I doubt most people will care. It’s still a bit disappointing, though, when you consider what could have been, even with such a simple and cliché setup.

Story/Modes Rating: Mediocre

Graphics

The visuals in Crimson Alliance rest somewhere in between dark and somewhat cartoony and exaggerated. It’s not as gritty as say, Diablo, but at the same time never as vibrant as what you would find in Bastion or even Torchlight. While you can’t completely customize your character, you can at least alter their color scheme if you want (which is good, since in a four player game as least two people will be the same class). Your appearance will also change slightly depending on the things you have currently equipped. The textures look impressive, and every area you journey to has a welcome amount of detail. That said, there are really only three main “themes” in the game in terms of the terrain you’ll be traversing. You’ll have your cavernous mine type areas, your city type areas, and some castle ruin areas with some slight deviations between them. So despite having many different stages at your disposal, it’ll often feel like you’re playing extensions of the same three.

The game’s engine runs pretty smoothly for the most part, but there have been times both in and out of combat that the frame rate stutters and everything begins to slow down. This has happened during moments where I wasn’t even doing anything save for moving around. Perhaps there were some textures or some background doodads that took awhile to load? In either case, these were rare occurrences and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the game.

Cutscenes are done via still frames and narration that are often zoomed in or zoomed out on in order to create a dramatic effect. I did notice that often times the character artwork in a number of scenes was exactly the same, just with a different background behind it. The art is well done though, so it’s a minor detail, but quickly noticeable. You won’t be seeing too many of these scenes anyway, despite how many they throw at you before you even begin to play. The majority of the game will be back to back stages, with the occasional few scenes dropped in between them or prior to a boss battle.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

Sounds

The soundtrack in Crimson Alliance is quite subtle. So subtle, in fact, that I questioned myself if there even was music in the game until I went back and checked. While not memorable in any way, it provides atmosphere during those few moments when you’re not slaying enemies or smashing crates. And what few moments those are.

There is a little voicework present, primarily during the few cutscenes you’ll encounter in the game. The character of Direwolf in particular does a pretty bang up job, but isn’t surprising when you consider that the voice actor, Michael McConnohie, is no stranger to video game roles. The other characters do an okay job, if a bit cheesy in their delivery. They generally don’t have much to say though, so you won’t hear them long enough to grow annoyed by them. Round that out with some grunts, groans, and death cries and you have fairly solid audio package overall.

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

Control/Gameplay

The entirety of the game is viewed from an angled overhead perspective that is zoomed out to accommodate all of the chaos that takes place onscreen. If you’ve ever played Gauntlet Legends, you should have a fairly good idea of what you’re in for. You and up to three of your friends choose from one of the three characters and have to find the goal in each stage. Each character has their own arsenal of attacks. The mercenary uses a sword and shield and can utilize multiple strikes and a shield bash ability, which can penetrate your enemies’ defenses. The assassin dual wields daggers that she can throw, and also has an attack that can stun multiple enemies momentarily. The wizard has ranged fireball attacks, although the range is very limited. He can also freeze opponents or activate an electric shield that will repel attackers.

All of these attacks are mapped to the face buttons along with a dash move that anyone can use (except for the wizard who teleports instead). You can also block attacks with the right trigger or pick up and throw items such as exploding barrels with the left trigger. Left bumper is reserved for an ultimate attack which is unlocked (and subsequently upgraded) once you’ve collected enough items called Soul Anchors. In addition, you can pick up expendable items that are then mapped to the right bumper, such as throwing axes or healing totems to recharge your health. The developers were aiming for a very pick up and play experience, and to that end, they’ve succeeded.

Unlike titles such as the aforementioned Gauntlet Legends or even something like Diablo, character improvement is very limited. You don’t level up in the traditional sense, though finding Soul Anchors will make your ultimate attack stronger and the Zelda-like heart containers will increase your total health once you find four. You can also improve your health and individual attacks based on the weapons and armor you equip, which can either be purchased at vendors or found in secret areas in the levels you traverse. There aren’t any skill trees to further customize your class, nor are there loot drops in the traditional sense. Enemies only drop money or health, so genre veterans might be a tad disappointed.

Stages will progress in a linear fashion, generally only offering one path to take with the occasional hidden area disguised by the scenery. Enemies are merely fodder for acquiring gold, though sometimes you have to defeat all of them in an area in order to unlock the door to the next. Much like Gauntlet, there are sometimes nests that continuously spawn an endless swath of enemies that must be dealt with before you can clear the opposition out. You’ll be dealing with many of the same opponents throughout your adventure, though new ones are introduced at a reasonable pace. There are even a few mini-boss battles scattered throughout.

In addition to the main stages, you can unlock challenge stages that pit you against several waves of enemies. These stages are completely optional, but success will net you a huge mountain of gold and are generally a lot of fun to participate in. Each stage also offers a leaderboard so you can see how well you did compared to your friends.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable

Replayability

While a single playthrough of the game is fairly short, usually lasting approximately five hours, each character plays differently enough to merit multiple playthroughs. If you only purchased one character and don’t have that as an option, there are multiple difficulty settings to choose from if you’re looking for more of a challenge. In addition, each stage awards you with a rating upon completion based on how well you fared in combat, how many secret areas you found, and how long it took you to complete the level. Depending on the amount of points you earn, you could be given a bronze, silver, or gold rating and higher ratings will net you some extra cash. You’ll also be placed on a leaderboard to track your progress against that of your friends or others that have picked up the game.

If you like exploration and collectibles, there are a ton of hidden areas in each stage (some of them hidden very well) and each contains either a valuable item or a mountain of cash. Seeing as how I couldn’t find a way to sell items in this game, completionists should enjoy trying to uncover everything this game has to offer, such as finding every item or locating every secret area. There’s also the achievements that come standard with every Xbox Live Arcade game, and some of them are quite tricky.

Replayability Rating: Good

Balance

Usually games with a multiplayer component bank on the fact that you’ll be playing with your friends and scale the difficulty up accordingly. I played through the entirety of the game by myself, and the normal difficulty didn’t pose much of a threat to me (though the final battle gets really hectic for one person to tackle themselves). However, there are a few optional areas that you can encounter that require more than one person be present due to the nature of the puzzles you are given.

Death in the game will only result in reverting back to your last checkpoint, and the game is pretty generous in supplying them. You can change the difficulty at any time while on the map screen though, so if things are too easy/hard for you it is possible to adjust in the midst of your playthrough.

Balance Rating: Good

Originality

Remember that short list at the beginning of this review of all the games that came out this year of the action RPG genre? Yeah, you’re looking at more of the same. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long the title can provide some things that those games don’t. And Crimson Alliance manages to provide some very basic things that those other titles are surprisingly without.

Take Torchlight, for example. A game I almost picked up at one point until I realized it was missing one very simple thing: multiplayer. One of the main reasons I like games like this is to dungeon crawl with a buddy, and Crimson Alliance offers co-op for both online and offline, which is a rare treat these days. Then you have games like Dungeon Siege III that do offer multiplayer, but doesn’t allow for anyone aside from the host to retain any items or experience gained during the play session. Again, Crimson Alliance manages to provide this what I think to be a very fundamental feature.

Despite these offerings though, it’s still nothing new for the genre. And unfortunately, there’s little else that Crimson Alliance does that hasn’t been replicated elsewhere, aside from being a bit more user friendly.

Originality Rating: Poor

Addictiveness

While the gameplay at its core manages to closely mimic that of games such as Diablo, it seems to be missing a key element. In their attempts to “streamline” the game, it felt like the developers missed an opportunity to implement a more rewarding form of character progression in the game. I think having your different attacks augmented by your gear is a step in the right direction, but it just never really felt like my character was growing more powerful at all. Especially since if I switched all my gear back to what I started with, I’m essentially just as weak as I was at the beginning of the game. Even some of the later Gauntlet games had a level up system in place, so it was a shame to see how limited character growth is in Crimson Alliance.

Putting all of that aside though, I think it’s still an enjoyable experience that can be made better with a pack of friends helping you out. Just don’t expect a very memorable one.

Addictiveness Rating: Decent

Appeal Factor

Given its simplified nature, it would seem that Crimson Alliance seeks to appeal to newcomers of the action RPG genre, foregoing traditional character building features and instead focusing on the action itself. This has the opportunity to be beneficial, especially for local co-op, as spending a lot of time in menus figuring out gear can be an impediment to progress. The combat in this case isn’t deep enough for that though, and put me off a little bit. I was also a little bit baffled by their unusual payment system though, which may come across as confusing for the casual crowd (more on that later).

Veterans of such titles as Diablo or Dungeon Siege will likely not find much to hold their interest for long, given the short length of the game and the lack of customization or any sort of meaningful character growth. I can see why they went with this approach, but I feel as though could’ve offered more complexity to the game without alienating either the casual or hardcore crowd. As it stands now, only genre newbies need apply.

Appeal Rating: Mediocre

Miscellaneous

If you hadn’t noticed already from viewing the title on the Xbox Live marketplace, Crimson Alliance has an interesting if not slightly confusing pricing scheme. The main game itself is free to download, and you are offered a chance to try out any of the three characters. If you decide you like the game, you can then purchase a character for 800 Microsoft Points, or you can get all three for 1200 points. If you’re confident that you’ll only play through the game with a solitary character, it offers some flexibility in that you don’t have to pay full price for characters you aren’t going to use. On the flip side though, it also means that if you DO decide you want to play with all three or perhaps have some friends over that might want to use multiple characters, then it’ll end up costing 2400 points to purchase them individually. That’s about $30 and twice as much as you’d have paid if you had just gotten them all from the start. While I can appreciate being able to pay for just the content you want much like what was done with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, the end cost ends up being outrageous if you end up changing your mind down the road. All I can say is tread with caution and be very sure you won’t regret your decision if you decide on a solitary character.

One thing that really bothered me was the convenient placement of the golden treasure chests right in the middle of the vendor areas where you could purchase more gear. Many of the items are very expensive and you’ll likely never afford them on your first playthrough (at least, I didn’t). That is, unless you decide to approach the golden treasure chest and buy some gold from the Xbox Live marketplace. What a terrible approach to game balance. Broke and don’t want to grind for gold? Here, spend some REAL money and we’ll hook you up. Granted, you can get through the game without needing this as a crutch, but this sets a really scary precedent for future games. This micro transaction model might work for Zynga games and some free to play MMO’s like Maple Story, but this is a game that was already paid for. Why should anyone be given the opportunity to cut corners because they’re rich? I hope this doesn’t become a common practice among upcoming titles.

Miscellaneous Rating: Bad

The Scores
Story/Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Above Average
Sounds: Enjoyable
Controls/Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Bad

Final Score: Decent Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Crimson Alliance has a very solid core with its responsive controls, four player co-op for both online and offline, and some satisfying hack and slash combat. Unfortunately, in their attempts to streamline the experience in order to appeal to a more mainstream crowd, Certain Affinity has managed to trim away some key elements that makes games like this so much fun. Character customization is limited to your color scheme and the gear you have equipped, otherwise every avatar of the same class is built pretty much the same way. Some form of skill trees and an expanded loot table would’ve gone a long way to making this the next must have Xbox Live Arcade title, but as it stands now, the only thing setting it apart is its unusual approach to pricing. There is some fun to be had with Crimson Alliance, especially if you have some friends by your side, but nowhere near as much as what could have been.

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