Crimson Alliance review: Born-again gauntlet

In gastronomical terms, Crimson Alliance is Nutella on toast to fans of the abandoned top-down action genre. It's inspiring in its toast-like simplicity. It shares Nutella's life-affirming sweetness and palatable smoothness. It's a decent mix -- but then, somebody puts a heaping helping of peanut butter on the toast. Okay, it still sounds good, if not a little messy, except -- is that marshmallow fluff? Yikes, alright, I guess we're making s'mores toast now. Wait, are you adding raspberry jam? That doesn't even make sense!

This is Crimson Alliance: A peanut butter and s'mores sandwich with raspberry jam.
%Gallery-129401% Crimson Alliance is a throwback to games like Gauntlet, the focus being to get a group of friends together who can hack and slash their way through groups of evil dungeon-lurkers. Players can adopt either mindful or mindless strategies. The mindful groups will seek out the secret areas, while the mindless can kill everything in sight without worrying about navigating confusing skill trees. All upgrades are handled by equipping purchased or discovered armor and weapons using the easily accessible menu that's bound to the back button.

The pre-made dungeons (they aren't randomly generated like in Diablo or Torchlight) are well-designed, making dungeon maps a convenience and not a necessity. It's almost always clear which path adventurers are supposed to take, which, perhaps counter-intuitively, makes hidden areas equally obvious. These bonus rooms will provide gold that will be evenly distributed among the team, and items that won't be -- something that could lead to tension if not playing with friends.

Crimson Alliance's classes are represented by a well-traveled trinity of archetypes: The melee-focused mercenary, the ranged-attacking mage, and the deft-footed assassin ... the raspberry jam class. The latter of these three is great when playing solo (which kind of defeats the purpose of the game), but in a group she just gets in the way. Her dash ability confuses what's going on for the other players, making her too-easily hit in combat by a stray exploding barrel. She just doesn't pair effectively with either of the other classes.

However, the mercenary and mage work brilliantly together, much like peanut butter and chocolate. The most effective alliance I played was made up of two mages and a mercenary. The mages would freeze the enemies, then the mercenary would use his shield bash to smash the monsters. It's an effective combo strategy; so effective, in fact, you'll wish for more clear power combinations like that in the game.

The game's story is the stuff of fantasy cliche, presented in cut scenes with over-the-top, disjointed voice acting and concept art using a Ken Burns effect. The game's antagonist is supposed to be a demon called the Soul Siren, but it becomes quite clear that the game's score multiplier is the true threat to the Alliance accomplishing its goals.

The ever-present multiplier hovers in the top corner of the screen, where it constantly taunts the players tending to its upkeep. At the end of every level, your multiplied combat score is added to exploration and time bonuses to determine which rank you earned on that stage. Most of your score comes from that incrementally built multiplier, which is frustrating for one reason: If anyone on your team gets hit once -- just once -- it knocks the multiplier back one full level.

Countless times we attempted to build up that multiplier bonus, entered a large, enemy-infested room and took a couple rogue hits (especially with the assassin is in the party), killing our momentum. The only way I found to guarantee a gold medal for the group, was to have the mercenary stand in front of the mages with his shield up, have the mages spam a freezing ice spell, and then smash our frozen foes.

It's almost certainly not the way the game was meant to be played, only a quick and dirty way around a system that wasn't designed for pickup-and-play fun. It became a point of group frustration at the end of each level to see that bronze or silver medal, simply because we didn't plod through the level, analyzing each encounter to avoid a couple hits. It also doesn't help that the characters offer up negative reinforcement (gestures of genuine disappointment) if you don't grab the gold.

It's possible to go back later and replay the levels with better equipment, and at a higher difficulty for more points, but it's an artificial way to increase the replay value on the six hour game.

If you're looking to have an enjoyable arcade experience with friends, you won't be disappointed with Crimson Alliance, especially since it supports any combination of online and couch co-op. The basics of the classic genre it's trying to evoke are there. The flaws in the combat design and how the characters combine their powers is only apparent, ironically enough, because of the newer mechanic of the game's combat multiplier: It actually helped highlight how not to play the game.

Crimson Alliance could be a delicious piece of peanut butter and s'mores toast with raspberry jam, it's just that the proportions are distracting on this first attempt. Basic genre expectations are fulfilled, delivering an approachable, action-RPG dungeon crawl -- but with a bit more careful measurement, Certain Affinity could have made this good game great.

This review is based on the final version of Crimson Alliance provided by Microsoft. Crimson Alliance is available for $10 and $15 on XBLA starting September 7.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.