Diablo 2 was one of those games I spent so much time on as a youth, that it’ll forever be burned into me. That’s also partly why I rarely play RPGs anymore. As we get older, who has the time? But that format and style of play has kept players enchanted to this day. Now picture the guys who make DLC map packs creating an Xbox Live Arcade RPG with the same basic design.
Welcome to Crimson Alliance.
Crimson Alliance (800 MS Points, 1200 for access to all three characters) looks and feels just like many top-down RPGs while maintaining the simplicity so desired by console players. Featuring three characters (assassin, mercenary and wizard), players journey through a city long since left for dead and embark on an accidental mission while on their way to earn some moolah from some local royalty. With 18 total levels to play through, the short 4-hour campaign isn’t the kind to just leave alone after one playthrough. No, you’ll be begging for more.
Developer Certain Affinity, known best for their work on major franchises like Halo, Call of Duty and Left 4 Dead, made sure that players wouldn’t be satisfied with a single go through the game. That’s why they’ve included three characters that are vastly different from one another, and a cooperative play style that allows for a fun single-player experience, but is clearly made for three people to embark on the true quest. Every level has areas only certain characters can unlock and puzzles that require at least two players.
The real trick behind Crimson Alliance’s multiplayer is that it isn’t required…up to a point. For the first half of the game, an individual can solve simple two-player problems alone with a little creativity, and combat never requires more than one badass, but at some point midway through the campaign a team becomes a requirement for fully unlocking levels. Like the developer is telling players “ok, you’re smart…now get some friends and have even more fun. This clever method doesn’t force players to find others to play with, it gently nudges them towards the idea to make the game more easily accessible.
Even with a throwaway plot, Crimson Alliance is all about massive skirmishes, taking down evil hordes, and collecting as much loot as possible to find better weapons, armor, and equipment. These three staples of the game support character attacks and health points, and any receivable can be found either in one of the game’s three major storefronts or hidden somewhere in a chest in the game. Items are collectable, but can’t be sold, so everything you purchase has to be hard earned.
In this way the game is very similar to Castle Crashers, except with grown-up art and with significantly less content. There aren’t nearly as many levels or weapons, nor is it as complex with alternate worlds for difficulty. However, this action-RPG is a grind in the greatest sense. It wasn’t until I saw my self-inflicted deadline looming that I realized I was playing the same levels again just to get that really expensive armor and weapon.
At first I was very critical of the game’s pricing scheme. 800 Microsoft points ($10) for the game with one character, and an additional 400 points to unlock two others. Why the hell wouldn’t I want access to all three characters? The answer is simple: starting a new character is starting from scratch, and while some players are completionists, others just want to have a good time until the next game comes along. For the latter, there’s a lower price. This pricing doesn’t punish the hardcore gamer, it opens the entry point for more casual or unsure players.
Suffice it to say, after playing through the game as the wizard, I wasn’t interested in starting over as the mercenary or assassin. Each character has something unique, but specialty only matters when playing with friends. I’ve already invested so much time into my wizard that I won’t be using my assassin or mercenary for online play, nor do I have any real incentive to. Except – and this is where Certain Affinity screwed the pooch – if I want to earn all of the achievements. Achievement whores, you’re going to have to pay to get the full 200 achievement points (or, as someone from Certain Affinity [presumably but accurately] pointed out, players can just play through the trial level for free with all three characters to earn all achievements).
My bigger concern is the difficulty, or lack thereof. There are five difficulty settings – easy, normal, hard, immortal, and RIDONKULOUS – and after playing through the game on normal, I was able to switch to ridonkulous without a hitch. Enemies don’t get smarter or faster. They just inflict more damage. What would have previously cost half a heart could now cost three, and multiple hits at once can end the game obnoxiously fast. Worse yet, replaying levels on harder difficulties doesn’t unlock new items better suited for the harder level. All upping the difficulty does is earn more points and make enemies harder. It doesn’t actually make the game more difficult.
There’s nothing inherently new about Crimson Alliance. Instead, it’s a delicious blend of different action RPGs, fresh for Xbox 360 owners to sink their teeth into. The 800 point starting price feels a bit steep (making the 1200 point full purchase even harder to stomach), especially considering the lack of difficulty and leveling, there’s little incentive to want to play more, to want to explore levels more than once. It’s fun while it lasts, and fun again when playing with a friend or two, but eventually the grind is done and we have time well wasted.