Byzan was once a thriving and beautiful kingdom. Though, that isn’t the case anymore. Years of neglect and the emergence of a powerful evil goddess have combined to leave its people surviving amongst meagre conditions.
The Soul Siren as she is referred to, rules the land with an iron fist, using her devoted followers to perform any task which requires attention. Such is the backdrop for the hack n’ slash gameplay found in Crimson Alliance, the recent downloadable XBOX Live Arcade title from Certain Affinity and Microsoft Game Studios.
Assuming the role of one of three class-based characters (Direwolf the amnesiac wizard, Moonshade the female assassin and Gnox the tank-like mercenary), gamers must make their way through the neglected kingdom, taking out every oncoming attacker in sight. The objective is to reach the Soul Siren’s lair, where an end must be put to her devious ways, in order to prevent a powerful destructive force from being unleashed. Along the way, the powerful posse learn about themselves, each other and the strange world they’ve entered into. In fact, a lot of the plot centres around Direwolf himself, as he starts to remember things from his past.
The presented storyline is pretty much just generic role-playing game fare, which is fine. It does a good job of setting up the included action, but won’t win any awards due to being underdeveloped and far from intricate. While the amnesiac remembering his past premise adds some interest, there isn’t enough time devoted to any portion of the plot. That means that it’s hard to really become immersed in the created fiction and all of its turns. It’s a case where the plot is a means to an end, meaning that it’s there to push the role-playing hacking, lurking and sorcery along. That goal can be considered met.
Crimson Alliance utilizes standard top-down hack ‘n slash gameplay mechanics, delivering a four-player experience containing gameplay similar to what is found in games like Torchlight and Diablo. The questing party must battle its way through foes using swords, spells and evasive maneuvers. How it differs is in its lack of an in-depth inventory system, being devoid of potions, mana upgrades and the like. Instead, four hot-keyed items become available as the story progresses.
Health totems can be erected to replenish lost hearts (no hit points here,) projectile throwing axes can deal great amounts of damage and pieces of meat can lure monsters into a specific location. The strange one in the pack is the deployable turret, as its inclusion in a fantasy arsenal really doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. It’s helpful, so there’s no reason to complain.
It’s nice to have the option of selecting from a pool of three unique classes, all of which employ their own strategies, evade tactics and attack styles. The macho man warrior class is good for jumping into the fold, with a sword swinging over a held defensive shield stance. Others may wish to attack with elemental magic from a distant position, evading oncoming danger instead of rushing towards it.
Another camp might feel strongly about using an agile and evasive character, with the supplied assassin class slotting in nicely for that play style. All of them use the controller’s face buttons for their attacks, whether it’s a basic slash, a strong combat move or a block attempt. It’s an easy system to become accustomed with, utilizing characters who are unique enough to make successive playthroughs feel different. Not to mention the hidden class-exclusive areas.
The overall structure employed is quite a bit different from the mentioned titles, as an open-world hub is nowhere to be found. Instead, the development team at Certain Affinity decided to create a more linear title, which uses a landscape map with quest stage icons as its overlay. Due to this decision, exploration is at a minimum, only available in limited quantities during each stage. Levels have between four and eight different hidden areas, containing gold, health upgrades and mysterious artifacts. Sometimes there are puzzles, though they almost always require a party of two or more.
Three separate icons appear on the displayed piece of parchment during the experience. Included are your traditional quest stages (each lasting around 10-15 minutes,) the odd discoverable challenge map and merchants. The first one on that list really doesn’t need much description, being a jaunt from one end of a dungeon or environment to another, where questers must take out every oncoming baddie in sight to progress from checkpoint to checkpoint. Challenges are quite similar, throwing wave upon wave of foes at the party of heroes, while merchants are just what you’d expect.
In most hack n’ slash games, overloaded inventories are a necessary evil. Selling items to earn money to purchase better ones is a well-used staple. However, one big difference found within Crimson Alliance, is the fact that you can’t sell anything. This makes picking up gold of the essence, as many items (each class his its own available loot) get to insane prices. Gold can be purchased using Microsoft Points, but it’s not something I bothered with. Forty thousand coins can be bought for a eighty points, though I’d rather earn my progress instead of buying it in any video game.
Some gamers may find Crimson Alliance‘s linear approach to be a deterrent. At first, I found it to be a bit of one, but it grew on me. Although I wish there was some more exploration and perhaps the use of an open world, the absence of those elements should not be a black and white deterrent.
There’s still a good amount of dungeon-crawling, combat and fantasy to be found within, even though you’re not sent out on lengthy exploratory perusals. Instead of being a lengthy, open-world quest full of towns and hidden areas, this is more of a jump-in and out style of game. It’s playable in bite-sized portions and doesn’t require an immense amount of time or in-depth statistical knowledge to complete. You’re looking at around four hours of gameplay when it’s all said and done.
My time spent in the decaying world of Byzan was an enjoyable one. It was fun to jump into different missions at will, doing every challenge I could find (I only missed one!) Plus, the supplied leaderboard support allowed me to challenge friends’ high scores in certain stages where I’d been bested. Overall, this is a pretty solid questing title.
However, there is a but to be aired. Crimson Alliance is not anything revolutionary, nor does it stand out. It’s surely solid and polished, but won’t set any new records for being unique or creative. Almost all of its elements are tried and true genre staples, so keep that in mind when going in. Looking past those complaints, it’s easy to find enjoyment within its basic quest. There’s only the one main objective, without any side quests to be found (unfortunately.)
Though I played through the game alone, I took the time to explore each class afterwards, using online co-operative lobbies. What I found was a solid multiplayer mechanic which adds some good teamwork into a dungeon-crawling affair. It ran well with four players, presenting some new areas to explore via previously unlocked multiplayer puzzle sections. The only complaint I can draw up from this mode would be that it gets a bit too chaotic at times, meaning that it can be easy to lose track of your controlled character amidst all of the on-screen effects. That’s a small gripe, however.
Visually, Crimson Alliance looks pretty good. It’s pretty shiny, with some nice detail and good animations. Enemies present themselves in varied looks, sizes and types, always offering a different challenge and design element. Heroes and villains alike present some interesting looking attacks, effects and decay animations.
However, this is another case of the game being tried and true, as it never really steps outside of a genre-inspired comfort zone, failing to deliver anything memorable in the looks department. This is especially true with regards to the utilized cutscenes, which are basic motion comics. I found their use to be a bit of a missed opportunity, because it restricted the use of emotion within the characters’ potential facial expressions and general designs.
It’s necessary to mention that a lot of the environments used were quite repetitive and uninspired. Of course, that isn’t a huge detraction in a game like this. An issue which does actually hamper the experience from a visual standpoint is frame rate slowdown. There were several times where the game started to stutter a bit, due to an influx of enemies on-screen at one time.
Other times, it would do so because of elemental or environmental effects. An example of the latter issue pertains to a waterfall feature in one of the later dungeon environments. Its running water and individual animation(s) slowed the game down a noticeable amount. Never did any of this make the game anywhere close to unplayable, though it was an obvious annoyance.
Certain Affinity did a solid job with the presented auditory elements found within this arching quest. Though the employed elements aren’t revolutionary, they sound quite good. Decent voice acting full of Tolkien-esque tones is complemented by some boisterous sound effects and admirable attack noises. A sweeping score rounds out the package, fitting the mood quite well, while ramping up when things get chaotic. The world of Byzan was quite immersive, seemingly alive and interesting because of all of those factors.
Overall, Crimson Alliance is a solid virtual co-operative fantasy affair. Though it doesn’t present an earth shaking amount of creativity, its tried and true formula works well using a short-burst structure. For the most part, I was quite impressed with the effort put into this game, although there are some issues which detract from the experience. Generally speaking, it’s a pretty good game, which is worth checking out for diehard genre fans. Those expecting the next revolutionary title won’t find that here, but they will be entertained by a decent, magical quest.
This review is based on a copy of the game, which we received for review purposes.