Three Heroes, One Tale
Certain Affinity, who have had their hands full creating maps for quite a number of shooters like Black Ops and Halo Reach, have given Xbox gamers a game in a slightly different vein: that of the isometric action-RPG. Crimson Alliance is a downloadable title on Xbox Live, and should bridge the gap in similar isometric titles nicely while Diablo III still hasn’t received a definitive release date.
Crimson Alliance lets you choose from three characters, the three RPG standards: the mountain of mercenary muscle, Gnox; the sleek assassin, Moonshade; and the grizzled wizard, Direwolf, who also doubles as the game’s narrator. The three don’t seem to be terribly familiar with each other at the game’s outset, having been gathered together to travel to the city-state of Byzan to put an end to the reign of the terrible and cruel Soul Siren.
Each character has its own unique attack styles – the mercenary prefers close-quarters combat over the wizard’s mid-range repertoire, while the assassin mixes the two styles with time-bending speed. Even though each character has an equivalent attack for the three different offensive categories – a direct attack, a ranged or heavy attack, and a stunner -, as well as a slide that lets them cover the distance to a distant enemy quickly, they do play differently, and players will have to take care to select the one best suited to their play style. One character’s campaign can be purchased for 800 MS points ($10), or gamers can purchase access to all three characters for 1200 MS points ($15).
The gameplay itself is smooth, easy to pick up, and the action gets incredibly frantic the more you delve into it. At all times, combat stays simple enough to learn, yet will take you the entire game to truly master. Characters do not level up as we typically know it, and their abilities do not change. Apart from their three attacks and one dash functions, each character is able to block incoming attacks with the press of a button. Chests strewn throughout the levels also contain the very latest in fantasy martial warfare technologies, such as deployable turrets, healing totems, and throwing axes. Picking these up will give you an extra weapon to use at the push of a button. Each combatant also has an Ultimate Power, that must be charged up by defeating enemies and can be deployed until its meter runs out of energy, at which point it must be recharged again.
Apart from their basic attacks, the three characters can only improve in their statistics by finding or buying and equipping new weapons and armor. Each level contains a secret area accessible only to each particular class. Inside, a chest awaits granting a new piece of equipment for the intrepid fighter to use. Each piece of equipment will either raise or lower one of four stats (the three attacks, plus a bonus health stat), and may grant an additional status effect if equipped. Equipment can also be bought between levels at special vendors which are unlocked on the world map as the campaign continues.
There is also a multiplayer component to the game. Multiplayer does not have any special maps or settings, rather letting players work together to best the challenges in any of the campaign missions or challenge maps together. Enemies in multiplayer are scaled accordingly more difficult; however, it is possible to revive downed party members in multiplayer by running to their bodies and holding a specific button until they rejoin the living. The story levels also encourage co-op gameplay, as some hidden areas contain switch or lever puzzles requiring two players to successfully solve and obtain the offered reward.
Pretty But Deadly
The game looks gorgeous, especially considering its price of admission! Levels are expansive and sprawling, typically taking anywhere between 20-40 minutes to complete. Along the way, there is plenty of visual eye candy to admire. Your travels will take you through the city slums, the mines, and the royal palaces, and each level displays careful attention to detail with plenty of extra touches strewn throughout the stages. The city’s mines, for example, contain scaffolds of dig crews and unearthed pieces of architecture and statues laid bare; the royal palaces, on the other hand, are decked out in rolling carpets and contain rooms with ceremonial altars and idols, banquet tables set with china, and desks littered with scrolls and other writings. Your HUD does not unnecessarily obscure the screen; the developers chose to display only the most necessary information (health, gold, Ultimate Power meter and secondary weapon), and the color palette used throughout the game is extremely rich; lush warm lighting on cool surfaces makes up a bulk of the gameplay experience.
After the opening levels, combat quickly gets quite intense. Many areas and rooms will throw wave after wave of increasingly difficult opponents at your intrepid hero, and only a masterful command over your attacks, quick reflexes, as well as a judicious use of the game’s environmental hazards – explosive barrels, urns of poison, trigger switches for flame or spike traps – can ensure survival. In fact, the game’s final boss battle was so frantic and full of enemies and projectiles, it almost reminded me of a bullet-hell shooter. Thankfully, the game utilizes plenty of strategically placed checkpoints throughout each level, ensuring you never have to replay too much of a level should you fall in battle.
There are a total of 14 main plot levels, plus numerous unlockable challenge maps. Each stage can be replayed at your leisure with any of the characters, each of whom levels independently of the others, requiring full playthroughs with each to max out all three. In addition to the challenge maps hidden within levels, other upgrades such as health power-ups, Soul Anchors (which upgrade your Ultimate Power, as well as provide background information on the plot) all provide some replay value. An additional incentive comes in the form of medals earned for your performance in each level: upon completing a stage, you earn points based on your combat prowess, the number of secrets found, and the time taken to complete the level; and awarded a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum medal for your trouble. Best of all, you can compare your individual scores with those of your friends on the map screen.
Crimson Alliance hits all the sweet spots, and provides an entertaining, smooth, and fun experience from beginning to end. It isn’t a terribly long game, but hidden areas, collectable upgrades, and three different character classes add some replay value, especially when playing with a group of up to four in multiplayer. The game looks and sounds great; the minimal plot is delivered through voice-acting and hand-drawn still frame artwork. The only trouble I ran into were occasional collision issues, when my character would get stuck in the middle of a doorway or open gate, requiring me to dash through the invisible barrier. But a visually very appealing presentation and attractive price make the game a must-buy for any action-RPG fan. In fact, the trio of heroes becomes so likable that we should all hope for a sequel in the form of a much grander adventure for Direwolf, Moonshade, and Gnox to embark upon, and soon!