Do you remember a little game called Gauntlet Legends? Did you always hope they'd make more than a mindless button-masher, where different skills, various weapons, and special attacks are the driving force behind the game's fun factor? Have you been lucky enough to catch wind of Crimson Alliance, Certain Affinity's (you see what they did there?) first standalone title in three years? Where different skills, various weapons, and special attacks ARE the driving force behind the game's fun factor? No? Do you wish the questions would just fu**ing stop already? Good. 'Cause I'm gonna tell you 'bout the goodness that is CA, regardless of its shortcomings.
One is instantly noticeable in the shoddy narrative, though story isn't exactly a selling point for Crimson Alliance. Servicable enough, the plot revolves around three companions, Direwolf the wizard, the warrior Gnox, and Moonshade the assassin, as they traverse Byzan to explore the current state of their destructed world caused by an omnipotent witch. Though relatively compelling, the plot unfolds itself through a series of generic, sporadic still-framed cutscenes that are voiced over by the three unlikely companions (the "odd ménage a trois?"). A surprising downfall, given the rest of the game looks fantastic. Whether it's the character or level design, everything holds a beautifully detailed fantasy style, and exhibits quite a high level of polish.
Narratively speaking, the voice work is the most polished, which isn't saying much. The narrative reminds me of a very thin, unappealing comic book that happens to be on tape, but instead of wondering why you bought such an odd piece of "literature" and hating yourself for it, you get to play the hell out of a pretty fun game.
At its core CA is a streamlined hack and slash dungeon crawler, featuring three distinct playable characters with specific weapons and skills. What it lacks in innovation it makes up for in gameplay that is equal parts accessible and addicting. Each character's abilities and play style vary enough to warrant individual playthroughs. Although the mage's spells freeze enemies and Gnox's shield can help clear some room, the assassin Moonshade is definitely queen-cheese. Her combination of melee, ranged, and speedy abilities, not to mention her time altering special attack, makes it an easy going for single and multiplayer alike. Gnox, Moonshade, and Direwolf may fall into their respective, atypical roles of warrior, mage, and assassin/thief, but their execution is nearly flawless and fits the semi-loot driven adventure perfectly.
While skill-trees are noticeably absent, the skills are still present, and are one of the main factors that drive combat forward. Each class is given three abilities that have specific uses and effects, and progressively become more powerful as you find or buy more advanced weaponry. Skills, including health, can be increased twenty times, altering both speed and strength of the skill. Skills vary quite a bit between classes, warranting that 1200 MP to receive all three of Crimson Alliance's playable characters, rather than the 800 MP for just one of 'em. Even if you begin to feel boredom and repetition breathing down your neck, CA throws class-specific special attacks your way that provide a fresh spin.
Using any special will benefit your cooperative buddies, but beware: combining at least two, and god-forbid three special attacks will cause some major game altering slowdown. It’s so terrible that you’ll have to actively space out special attacks to avoid the severe drop in framerate. Another problem arises during multiplayer, as all characters are required to be on screen at the same time, meaning you can’t really branch off and explore a level on your own. While it’s not a deal breaker, it becomes annoyingly frustrating finding a game suitable to your play-type, whether it be roleplaying, completionist, or score attack, never quite works the way it should, and throws you into the first game it can find.
An important feature to take note of, combat is scored at the end of each level, with high scores achieved by boosting the battle multiplier (by not getting hit) to receive either bronze, silver, gold, or platinum medals. This system, unfortunately, can be aggressively worked in a negative manner, making the already artificial game lengthener relatively pointless.
In its continued effort in battling the mundane, Crimson Alliance’s fully integrated four-person multiplayer, both local and online, provides a shining example for all within the genre to strive for. As fun as hacking and slashing your way through Byzan by your lonesome is, having three friends with your make that much better. It’s almost necessary to have at least the other two classes join you, as each character has specific doors only they can unlock, and to be honest, the game is just too damn easy on normal.
Yet with the addition of some friends, and pumping up the difficulty to at least hard, if not immortal, an awesomely challenging adventure awaits. Much of this supple challenge (at least, on harder difficulties) is due to the refreshing variety of enemies you slaughter. Though not terribly original, Crimson Alliance’s enemies spout many different attacks and never feel repetitive, and more than makes up for sticking to the archetypal goblins, zombies, and skeletons.
Essentially, Crimson Alliance is a far, far superior version of the Gauntlet concept. Many of the basic mechanics of one of the most famous hack & slash series are kept intact, yet are greatly improved upon to gives us a much more satisfying experience. Featuring vast array of weapons, a solid skill set, class specific special attacks, and some stellar tunes and visuals to boot, it's is a steal at 800 points, even for only one character. Combined with the six hour campaign that is fully cooperative on both the couch and Xbox Live, it’s hard to go wrong with Crimson Alliance, regardless of the flaws that permeate it.