Crimson Alliance is a very solid, very enjoyable dungeon crawler, one that could have easily passed as a full retail release just a few short years ago. However, before I could truly enjoy Crimson Alliance, there were two issues that I had to come to terms with.
The first of these was the stale, unimaginative visuals, the kind that have accompanied just about every top down dungeon crawler on XBLA to date. The game isn’t ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but the bland design, cliché characters and been there, done that locations are all extremely forgettable.
The other issue was with the pricing. Crimson Alliance isn’t overly expensive; it’s just that the whole experience feels a little, I don’t know….sneaky. While the initial 800 MS Points is just about bang on, it’s the fact that you have to pay another 400 MS Points if you want to unlock all three characters that feels a tad on the crafty side. You see, like Pinball FX, you can download the game for free but are required to pay for content to actually play it. You do get a trial character but that essentially turns the game into a demo. You can purchase a full single character for 800 MS Points, thus unlocking the game, but if you want the whole thing, you’re going to have to cough up the whole 1200. While this system made sense in the case of Pinball FX – in that you could pay exclusively for the boards you wanted use – here it feels tacked on and altogether more cynical. This of course isn’t helped by the get rich quick option thrown in you face every few levels: 40,000 gold pieces for 80 MS Points? On your bike.
Both of these initial issues tarnished my first impressions of Crimson Alliance and certainly put the game on the back foot, but the fact of the matter is, Crimson Alliance is still a pretty good game, one that tiptoes on the edge of greatness when experienced with friends.
On your own, Crimson Alliance is an enjoyable and tightly constructed dungeon crawler that can certainly dish up a solid challenge thanks to the mob mentality of many of the enemies – drop your guard for just a moment and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed. The constant promise of more cash and more loot is as driving a force as it has ever been and while the numerous co-op focused challenges and puzzles certainly highlight how strongly the developers leaned towards co-op play in their design, this is still a worthwhile proposition for those planning on going solo.
If you want to get the best out of the game though, you’re going to have to get some friends around or get online, as this is a game that benefits greatly from the company of others. With a team of four, Crimson Alliance becomes a much more tactically interesting proposition. The core mechanics are simple enough but they reveal themselves to be surprisingly flexible and deceptively strategic when experienced as part of a group.
Whether you decide to take the role of the long range Mage, the brutal, melee oriented Mercenary or the quick and nimble Assassin, their role within a group feels far more defined than the basic controls would initially suggest. By hiding your Mage behind your Mercenary while your Assassin makes hit and run attacks, cutting through large groups of enemies will prove a far easier prospect for a varied and well trained team than it will for a group of four mercenaries all hacking away aimlessly at the marauding hordes. It’s not exactly Diablo III, but there is more than enough depth here to make well planned co-op play an appealing prospect.
Adding to the tactical depth is the game’s multiplier bonus. Forever ticking away at the top of the screen, this builds up as you take down enemies. Problem is, a whole combo level is dropped each time you or any of your team are struck by an enemy. Subsequently, getting a gold ranking at the end of any level is going to take some very serious team work. It only takes one member of the team (usually the bloody Assassin) to go charging in head first to absolutely decimate your team combo, so good communication and a solid game plan will be paramount for those aiming for top marks. It’s a system that can be easily ignored for those looking for a more casual experience but one that is pleasingly addictive if submitted to.
Of course, the biggest draw of this system will be the gold that comes with it. Rather than a levelling system, Crimson Alliance puts its faith in gold. On top of the usual loot drops, the gold rewarded for skilled play or for searching out the hidden areas scattered around each level will allow you to upgrade your character with stronger weapons and armour.
This is all linked to a very simple but extremely intuitive upgrade menu that makes the use of items, special moves and the upgrading of weaponry and armoury a very slick and trouble free exercise.
Crimson Alliance’s smart implementation of its core gameplay rises what could have been another forgettable dungeon crawler above the chaff and into the realms of must own. Sure, the visuals are unimaginative and the pricing is a bit suspect, but get over those and you are left with a surprisingly deep, pleasingly physical experience, one that is enjoyable on your own but an absolute riot when played with friends.
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