I love downloadable games. Yeah, I said it. Gaming purists seethe at the idea of not running their calloused fingers over the smooth edges of a new disc, smelling the (likely toxic) aroma when the box is first opened or thumbing the pages of the manual like they would a prized jewel.
While I do love the intense feeling of joy that comes with tearing the plastic off a new case, there is something so devilishly sinful about casually downloading a new game simply because you want to. You don't have to get dressed, you don't have to go to the store and you don't have to turn over case after case trying to decide if you really want to drop upwards of $60 dollars or more on a game you might not enjoy. Enter Certain Affinity's Crimson Alliance, an XBLA action RPG and my new lazy weekend morning past time.
The game opens with a short cutscene in which the player learns that three travellers are moving towards a place called the Crimson Court. The player is next taken to a screen where they are able to choose their class. Unsurprisingly, the three travellers in the cutscene each represent a class in game. There is a wizard, a mercenary and an assassin, each with different strengths and attacks. The player can also hit Y for a short cutscene developing the backstory of the character associated with the class. The assassin, for example, left her assassiny clan to work solo when she was stopped by the mercenary. The merc had orders to bring her to the Crimson Court, which he managed to do by winning a bet involving strip darts. The wizard just seems kind of crazy.
While I wavered choosing between the wizard and the merc, I decided the assassin's humor was too much and chose her. I chose a name, a primary and a secondary color for her costume, and moved forwards.
The next step is likely why I enjoy this game so much. The player is then able to add more players to the game, up to four characters at a time. I grabbed my neighbour and my boyfriend and convinced them to play and it was a hit (though I do not recommend playing with all of the same class). If you choose to play online in a quick match, you can choose your play style (either role play, hack n' slash or completionist) in order to help you stave off that punchy feeling you get when a strange teammate has run ahead and died...for the third time in a row.
Once you've decided what you're playing as, who you're playing with and what you're playing on, you can finally begin playing.
No matter which class you choose the controls are basically the same: A is a dash/run move, X is your main attack, while Y and B are either stun moves, ranged moves or exceptionally strong moves depending on your class. RT blocks while LT lifts items for throwing or for moving them around. The player will also gain the ability to use disposable items including monster bait, an automatic turret, a throwing axe and a health regenerator. You can carry up to three of each, selecting which one you would like with the directional pad and pressing RB to use it in game.
Each class also has a three-tiered ultimate power. To unlock each tier the player must collect soul anchors throughout each level and the power must be charged by killing enemies. It's best used when you're completely surrounded, as you can rack up some serious points by doing multi-kills.
Each kill gives you points and the more kills you make without taking any damage, the higher your point multiplyer becomes. At the end of each level, your points are added to a time bonus (for completing the level quickly) and a bonus room bonus for finding all of the level's hidden secrets. This total will give you a score of bronze, silver or gold and can be ranked on the game's leadership boards on Xbox Live.
The aforementioned secret rooms vary in difficulty. Some are ridiculously obvious to find while others can only be opened after poking around for a good while. There are also class exclusive rooms that can only be opened by, shockingly enough, a specific class, as well as rooms that can only be opened after solving a puzzle. There are a couple of puzzles that recommend you use two players but they are possible to do by yourself, if you're quick enough. The rest, however, really do require some teamwork. The treasures inside these secret rooms can be weapons, coins, soul anchors or heart pieces. If you collect four heart pieces, you gain one extra heart on your health bar.
As you progress through the levels, you're able to stop at various caravans to purchase additional weapons and armour with the gold you've collected in the levels. Each weapon has pros or cons (raises your attack but lowers your stun or health bonus or ranged attack) and there are some that have additional magical properties, allowing you to possibly poison your enemy or set them on fire. Delicious.
For those players who don't want to wait to earn cash or simply need to have that new axe now, they can purchase 40 000 gold from Xbox Live for 80 Microsoft points. While some may disapprove of players "buying" their way forwards, we are talking about a limited set of weapons and armour, not a $100 investment on a level 40 warlock. It's a quick and easy way to equip a brand new character for battle when a new friend stops by and wants to help you tackle a big boss.
I played the game on a normal difficulty and found myself stumbling only a few times throughout. If I died it was simply because I was trying to make a heroic effort and not heal instead of just retreating and breaking open a heart jar. Every once in a while, however, I was completely blindsided by a truly difficult spot that would start me back at a checkpoint eight, nine, 14 times on one occasion. I found that it really depended on which class you chose and if you were playing with friends. When running about with even two people, it became ridiculously easy...until it was very, very suddenly not. I understand that the difficulty is supposed to ebb and flow to make the game more interesting but this left my friends and I looking at each other going "What the...?" as we all died. While it did rather shatter our communal egos, it did make us all want to try again.
I must say, I really enjoyed the soundtrack associated with the game. It was melodic and rather epic, and reminded me of something you would see in a battle scene in a war movie. I would definitely purchase it to listen separately.
The sound effects, on the other hand, made me want to wear earplugs. Once your character has lost enough hearts to be considered "critical," there is a loud gong sound every time you are hit afterwards. While this might not be too bad if it was only for one or two hits, it can go on for a seemingly endless amount of time if you're in a swarm and only gaining back a heart or two from fallen enemies. To add fat to the fire, once you're really critical your controller will throb like a heartbeat to remind you that you're about to die. Cheers to that.
On a more positive note, the graphics were a plus for me. The game is set in a fiery desert and definitely made me think of the classic children's movie Aladdin. The backgrounds and levels were detailed and bright, and while they might not be of the highest quality (no close ups here), it was still very pleasant to watch. The cutscenes were not your traditional animated movie, but rather comic book-esque stills that really gave the whole game that arcade feel.
The only issue is that, while the levels were nicely detailed, some of these details often got in the way. Half opened doors or the handles of an overturned wheelbarrow would force you to navigate your character around something they could easily step over or avoid. This is especially problematic when trying to dash away from enemies only to find you're trapped against a wall by a staircase railing and the only way out is through the mob. It didn't happen often enough to make me want to stop, but it was enough for it to be remarked on by other players.
Despite a bit of glitching, I think Crimson Alliance is a welcome addition in my household. Sure, it's not the prettiest girl in town, but she's charming, easy to get along with and still violent enough that your mother would not approve. What more could you want from a Sunday morning date? The game is available for purchase on September 7 via XBLA for 1200 Microsoft points (all three character classes) or just 800 Microsoft points (just one).