Crimson Alliance Review (Xbox360)

It took me 6 hours to finish Crimson Alliance. Then I played through it again and after that? I started again. Everything in my soul is screaming stop, and on paper I’d usually agree with my instincts. But here I am, still playing. Still hacking away at mindless clones, dashing around the levels as if my character’s on a special blend of speed and steroids. Something isn’t right. Quality over flashy substance right? It’s an Xbox Live Arcade title – it’s OK for it to be running on an outdated engine. All those tired excuses are irrelevant – I’m having fun with Crimson Alliance and I don’t care who knows it.

As with every co-op dungeon crawler, you pick your burly champion before delving deep into the fantasy blueprint. Odd creatures, mountains of randomised loot, the undead, busty women – it’s all here in Crimson Alliance. From a genre-bending perspective, it’s a game that’s as straight as a Roman road. Sure, it’s got the oriental slant offering some unique styling but at its heart, it’s a tired concept shackled to conventionality. Everything in it has been done before and to better effect, yet here I am churning through levels repeatedly.

Ice ice baby

Why you might ask? Loot for one. Like Titan Quest before it, Diablo years ago, Torchlight– the roll call of dungeon-based RPGs is testament to just how powerful collectable gear is as a game concept. The human urge to one-up yourself and your peers drives everything – its gaming ambition, the electronic equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses.

The desire to play in the hope of chancing upon new swords keeps thirteen million people playing World of Warcraft – why wouldn’t it work in other games? Crimson Alliance is no different than Blizzard’s powerhouse. Founded on a concept that chests are fun, its constant teasing of better equipment in stores just outside your price range, coupled with the unknowingness of in-level discovered gear, keeps you hooked from start to finish.

Hidden collectables, with the helpful level information screen reminding you how agonisingly close you are to completing a level, keeps you on the hunt. High scores (based on finding hidden areas, time taken and damage done) ensure you keep trying to better yourself. The more you play a level, the closer to the gold you get.

The game’s certainly enjoyable solo and its emphasis on speed ensures it never feels like a grind. Even at higher difficulties, a suitably upgraded character will slice through the enemies at ease. Getting the big points requires assistance in the form of co-op - four-player online or locally.

Lords of destruction

There are three characters to choose from (if you spend the full 1200 Microsoft Points on the game), and they’ve obviously been designed with cooperative play in mind. First is the assassin – she dashes around, stunning enemies and throwing weapons from range. When needs fit, up-close and personal dagger work makes light work of enemies.

From a ranged perspective, the wizard keeps opponents at distance with magical attacks. He’s best accompanied by the mercenary – a beast of a man who loves raw power. Yes, it’s been done before and while they lack depth, it’s worth remembering that a powerful story filled with lore isn’t what dungeon-crawling is about.

Rather you focus on the combat, and with moves complementing each other, multiple-player specific puzzles hiding the very best loot and score-multipliers keeping you working together, Crimson Alliance’s gameplay is particularly strong. Throw in the slow-motion uber mode (once you’ve gained enough power) to help you out of tricky boss moments, and it’s a game that can hold its own against others.

It’s bite-sized gaming at its best. On lower difficulties it can become too easy, but upping the difficulty to the wonderfully named RIDONKULOUS guarantees a challenge. Plot is explained via charming art – a fantasy PowerPoint presentation – and competent voice acting over the images. You get a sense of the world Crimson Alliance is based in, but not enough to take your mind off the action.

Its all gone a bit potty

Finally the visuals. In Crimson’s favour is an art style that’s fairly unique. Its creature design, even if the enemies are cut and paste, is strong and the sense of scale’s interesting. As you navigate its levels, they’re not flat – you can see future areas below and as you weave through the death and destruction, you get a sense of place. It doesn’t feel like a case of a straight lined A to B. If we’re being picky it’s not particularly dashing, but the graphical expectation of XBLA is always a step lower than retail games. Often you’ll be so focused on the action that you won’t notice enough to grumble.

With everyone focussed on October and November’s packed release calendar, Crimson Alliance is the perfect game to squeeze in before gaming gets busy again. It’s also a great title to return to when you’ve got fifteen minutes to kill, and kill you will.

Top Gaming Moment: Upgrading the assassin’s ranged attack and unleashing hell.