US: 7 Sep 2011
If I could tell you a story cobbled together from fantasy hack ‘n slash cliches, it might sound remarkably like Certain Affinity’s Crimson Alliance. Released this past September, the Xbox Live Arcade dungeon crawler features four-player coop and more than enough undead creatures to bash, stab, and ignite over the course of a few afternoons. You have, of course, done this all before. Alliance delivers so many genre platitudes that it begins to feel like a poorly delivered joke. While mechanically sound, the tedium that you must sift through to enjoy the experience can turn even the most ardent fantasy fan off the genre.
Our story begins in a mystical land where a bewitching seductress with vague motivations uses her sexual powers to seduce a wizard and become some sort of necrotic magical fascist. Years later, the bearded wizard with only vague recollections of his past seeks revenge with a smarmy female rogue and a gruff and muscular mercenary who charmingly refers to the old man as “caster.” The motley crew travels the devastated land, exploring dungeons and ruined castles and slaying the hundreds of nasty critters that they find inside.
You can play any of the three heroes, each of whom ostensibly offer a different play experience. The wizard, naturally, fires flaming projectiles from afar while the beefy melee fighter stays up close. Play each of the three classes for more than a few minutes though, and you will quickly realize that they all play essentially the same: attack, stun, attack, dash out. The rogue and the wizard in particular seem archetypal variants on the same character. Freezing and shattering hordes of enemies as the wizard can be satisfying, especially during difficult scenarios full of traps and items that mix-up routine combat, but these moments are fleeting.
Of course, what would a dungeon crawler be without hidden treasure? In addition to freely available collections of gold coins and loot boxes, each class can open secret entrances to find rewards often catered to their class. Thus, completionists will want to take at least two friends with them on their adventure. Unfortunately, having more players join a battle may just remind you of the monotony of each character’s abilities. With four players, at least two will be the same character, and all of them will behave in the same basic fashion. Also, when joining matches with heavily powered players, the screen is suddenly awash with rainbow spasms of magic abilities that obscure enemies and are more likely to arouse seizures than excitement.
Alliance’s item system is one of its only redeeming qualities and interestingly one of its only unique design elements in an otherwise vapid collection of tropes. Characters do not level traditionally but improve their powers solely through the equipment that they wear and that they wield. Some purchasable merchandise comes with interesting magical effects. One of the wizard’s orbs, for example, can change enemies into potentially explosive boxes. Others attack enemies on their own or reward kills with health. Players can also find consumable items on the battlefield, from throwing axes that ignite groups of enemies in flames to shanks of meat that attract monsters for a short period of time, just long enough to toss a flaming explosive barrel at their huddle. Offensive turrets and health pools also add a splash of variety to an otherwise monotone combat experience.
For those hungry for a simple hack ‘n slash with a cheesy fantasy aesthetic, Crimson Alliance might actually work. Set aside the banal story, the horrendous voice acting, and the unsinpired art design, and you have a few buttons that you can press repeatedly to watch gnolls and wretches explode. The dull tropes that Alliance relies upon are, after all, familiar enough to feel comfortable. However, an inspired ode to the fantasy dungeoneer you will not find. This is a story best left untold.