Certain Affinity isn't pulling any punches with Crimson Alliance. A hack 'n slash action role playing game, it suffers no delusions of trying to compete with Diablo or Torchlight. Its aim is to skip all the dead weight that the genre has collected and carried over the last decade. Crimson Alliance's focus on pure gameplay was a noble mission, but it might have come at the cost of depth and long term enjoyment.
Telling a story takes all of three minutes of the entire campaign. A tough guy mercenary, hot girl assassin and old man wizard team together on a brief journey through dungeons, deserts, and castles to take down the Soul Siren. Honestly I'm not sure why Certain Affinity bothered with any narrative, though I suppose to still art that backs the story scenes is well drawn. In any case it's usually over before you notice.
Crimson Alliance does, however, usually look quite nice. The first few levels adhere to the dungeon stereotypes that practically every game in the genre exhibits. I was relieved when I got out of the literal dungeon and into an abandoned ship yard/desert series of levels. Another stock castle area followed, which made me wonder why in the world all hack 'n slash games have to hit the same marks in the art department. Crimson Alliance looked great when it was outside in the bright, colorful desert, and I'm not sure why the collection of dungeons, crypts, and empty castles needed to make the rounds.
Crimson Alliance accepts the mold of a class based action/role playing game by offering a mercenary, assassin, and a wizard. Each class has three moves bound to each button, along with a dash move, shield, and an ultimate power. You're led to believe that each class's respective moves have a different effect, but in terms of how enemies are affected, they're actually quite similar. The merc's shield bash creates a stun effect, as does the assassin’s stun attack and wizard's lightning storm. Similarly, the primary slash attack of the mercenary is nearly identical to the assassin's slice attack and the wizard's fireball. Minor variation is in play, the wizard is more adept at range combat while the mercenary is better suited toward melee, but the classes are a lot like the menu items at Taco Bell; objectively different, but ultimately composed of the same three ingredients.
Thankfully each class’s moves can be enhanced through weapons and armor. Either acquired in hidden, class-specific chests or purchased at the handful of stores on the way, you'll be upgrading your gear at regular intervals. The neat thing about the armor is it's not just a simple progression upward. As a mercenary, you may find a sword that's particularly adept at slashing foes, but does little in the way of health management or heavy attacks. Oddly, each piece of equipment, be it weapons or armor, has an effect on your overall stats; it's not uncommon to find armor that affects your ability to attack things, for example. Expensive equipment, often found for exorbitant prices at stores, also carries some additional effects like health regeneration, extra damage, or magic bonuses. There is more than enough equipment available; most of it being used to influence a particular "build" of your class.
Consumable items are also in play, though limited in terms of both variety and quantity. Usually found in chests, a healing totem, turret, throwable battle axe, and monster bait are all assigned to directions of the d-pad. They’re good in a pinch, but a better augment to combat are ultimate powers, a three tiered assortment of super moves bound to meter. Those can be enhanced by finding soul anchors hidden throughout each level, usually near or in the appropriately labeled “secret areas.”
The challenge progression is appropriate and the AI is reasonable. Easy weapon fodder skeletons give way to undead knights and archers through the Crimson Alliance's thirteen levels. Before long you'll start to notice the occasional sub-boss busting their way through rooms. Sub-bosses range from sorcerers that buff weaker enemies, to giant fat guys who explode like Boomers, to lightning-fast giant skeletons with huge swords. Sometimes levels conclude with difficult bosses, which layers additional challenges like making them rush into columns or taking out their buffers first. Derivative? You bet.
Crimson Alliance's design leans toward a cooperative experience, of which up to four people can take part. Playing it on the couch with a friend, I expected maybe some Magicka levels of cooperative play, where we could actually combine powers to decimate foes, but Crimson Alliance favored a far more simple design. As a mercenary and assassin, our basic strategy entailed my friend stunning the fodder with her assassin while I mindlessly bashed away with my mercenary’s slash, and when we separated she took out ranged foes with her knives while I did my heavy attack on the bigger enemies. Boilerplate is once again the name of the game, as Crimson Alliance doesn't seem to have an interest in doing much above the established minimum.
You could probably blast through the campaign in less than five hours, but there's no way you'd exhaust Crimson Alliance's content in that time. Each level is ripe with secret areas or smaller challenge maps to unlock. You're also scored at the end of each level; how well you managed your multiplier in combat, the number of secret areas found, and the time you took to do it all factor in to your end-score. It's also worth mentioning that I made it through the entire game on normal without being able to afford most anything at the store. I think I bought one sword and a set of armor, and once I realized everything else was going to be out of my price range (unless I wanted to grind) I just settled for the more plain items I pulled out of chests along the way. In this way, money serves as experience points; how much you earn directly corresponds to how much you're willing to grind.
Money is the area where Crimson Alliance does something new, at least in terms of the console space. Basically, in the absence of experience, money is experience, After a tutorial, the first thing I saw at the weapon store was the option to trade real American dollars for in-game currency. 80 Microsoft Points could be traded for 40,000 gold. When each level was only cranking out a couple thousand at best, a dollar of my real money for a couple hours worth of fake money seemed like an attractive proposition. The ethics of this are debatable. Did Certain Affinity inflate shop prices and neuter the gold payout for each level, hoping players would fork over real cash to make real progress? Or is the entire system reactionary, trying to emulate the Free-To-Play model that's making truckloads of cash in the PC space? It's up to you, but I never got to the point where I wanted to turn my money into fake money.
Crimson Alliance also is sold a bit differently than normal games. 800 Microsoft Points gets you the full game and access to the character class of your choosing. A full 1200 points buys the game and all three classes. The demo, thankfully, allows access to all three character classes. Personally I found the wizard the most enjoyable simply because ranged attacks allowed me to see what the hell was going on, but they're not all that different. It's also possible that you might have gotten Crimson Alliance for free, as it was the reward for purchasing all five of the Summer of Arcade titles.
And, in the end, that's what Crimson Alliance felt like, a reward or an experiment. Certain Affinity took few risks in constructing a bare bones, workman like hack 'n slash and left experimentation to its pricing structure. Whether that was their call or Microsoft's isn't likely to be known, but it's definitely rendered Crimson Alliance an afterthought, or something to play if you've completely exhausted Torchlight and need something else in the console space.