It’s somewhat telling that of the nine games Crimson Alliance developers Certain Affinity have worked on since the company was formed in 2006, seven have been first-person shooters; the action-upon-action mentality and even things such as cover placement feature heavily in their latest, despite its genre.

Although it will be categorised as an action-RPG, Crimson Alliance covets only half of such a tag, preferring to minimise stat-juggling in favour of good old-fashioned dungeon brawling. Reductionists will call it Gauntlet 360 or Diablo-lite; a sexed-up remake for a new generation – but they may struggle to be heard over the clatter of buttons being mashed and foes getting trampled. Certainly with its wizard, mercenary, and assassin classes, dungeon settings, and action-heavy gameplay, Alliance owes a bigger debt than most to those seminal titles. However, such comparisons should be favourable rather than scathing; this is a great wee title, if a little too shallow.

As far as combat is concerned, characters are distinguishable mainly by range. Each has the equivalent of a light attack, heavy attack, stun, block, and a handy dash move, all of which may be employed as regularly as the player wishes. Further offensive options are available in the form of consumable pickups and purchases: monster bait temporarily distracts lower-level enemies, throwing axes deal area effect damage, sentry turrets provide automated arrow-spewing backup, and that FPS staple the exploding barrel gets a starring role. Able to be shot (which ignites the fuse) or thrown for an instantaneous blast, these are great fun to use, although enemies and co-op partners alike seem fond of shooting them even as a player hefts them above their head, so some caution is advised.

A variation of the exploding barrel is found in later levels, where green urns may be shot or thrown to release a toxic gas.

Each character also has a unique ‘ultimate power’ which may be unleashed when the requisite number of enemies have been slaughtered using more traditional means. Each power reflects the skill set of the class: the Mercenary, for example, spins like a bladed dervish, whereas the Wizard summons lightning to cover the screen. Each power has three tiers which are unlocked by collecting hidden items strewn around the world. Other hidden items will boost maximum health, and of course, there is a truckload of gold to collect (although no trucks to drive, sadly).

The final consumable is a health totem which, once planted, will replenish the health of anyone in the immediate vicinity and even restore a downed player to something resembling health should their co-op partners not be able to take the time to resurrect them personally. In a neat touch, health urns share their life-giving force among all players onscreen, and will also give a downed character enough strength to become mobile once again. This is particularly handy when all manner of ghouls are chasing the remaining heroes in circles around the downed player’s corpse – often there simply isn’t time to resuscitate your buddies without becoming a corpse yourself.

Should all players expire, life begins anew at the last checkpoint, which is often far enough back to prompt a blame game or dead arm exchange for those in co-op mode, and so I beseech thee: don’t give in to hate fellow gamers, numb limbs are inefficient fireball conjurers. Between play sessions only the current level is saved rather than the checkpoint, so pushing through to the next dot on the map before switching off the console is a good move.

Up to four may play either locally or over Xbox Live, sharing the same screen and all being confused by the sheer number of missiles flying this way and that. Even with two players the action can get cluttered, so needless to say the Holy Grail is a playthrough using four fireball-spamming wizards. As is usually the case with these games, the best combo is a mix of short and long range: a Mercenary/Wizard is best for two and the Assassin is probably most effective for solo play, although it should be mentioned that the wizard is a powerful standalone option and far from being a support class as he is in many games of this ilk.

Certain Affinity have gone for elite enemies sprinkled throughout levels rather than one-off bosses, but even then, enemy variety is a little lacking. All encounters are scripted too, and so will be identical every playthrough. There is a larger reason for this, however: Crimson Alliance eschews experience points in favour of a scoring system, and the larger a player’s score, the more gold they earn at level’s end – gold which allows them to purchase more powerful weapons and items to beef up their stats.

Score is determined by damage dealt and taken, but also by the number of secret areas discovered as well as the time taken to clear a level, so there is an inherent tension there. What’s more, scores can be boosted dramatically by multipliers which accumulate the longer players go without sustaining any damage. A multiplier of up to 16 is attainable in later levels, although it drops precipitously with every hit taken.

Certainly it is possible to power through levels taking damage, but possibly the smarter route is one of finesse, where a high score is the goal. The game’s difficulty is definitely geared toward the latter, and even those new to ARPGs will probably want to kick things up a notch after a few levels. For complete sadists, a ‘ridonkulous’ setting is available, and all you need to know about that is the title.

Extra gold and glory may be earned at challenge maps, which again are unlocked by finding hidden items. These small arenas take some planning to conquer, but what initially seems impossible quickly becomes assailable through solid tactics and the generous use of consumables. One thing Crimson Alliance does well is force players to team up and combine their powers; solo play in co-op mode will see the party swiftly cut short, but tight teamwork is well rewarded.

Two mildly controversial payment systems exist in and around Crimson Alliance. The first regards the way the game is purchased – like many arcade titles the trial version is free but limited and filled with upgrade ads, and from there you may pay either 800 Microsoft Points per character or 1200 for all three. The problem here is that the game is listed as a ‘freemium’ title when really it’s just the same old trial and full game deal, something Certain Affinity have blamed Microsoft’s Marketplace regulations for. Either way, no big deal.

The second system will set off louder warning bells in many gamer’s minds; at any of the game’s nine merchants, a player may exchange real world money (via Microsoft Points) for in-world gold. It’s doubtful that a microtransaction scheme is something too many console gamers wish to see within their games, but the model has been proven to work on other platforms (albeit usually within free-to-play titles) so it’s no surprise to see a variation of it implemented here.

The good news is that it’s wholly unnecessary to spend extra bucks to boost a character’s combat prowess, and in fact may be a bad option even for those who play using diamond-encrusted controllers whilst sitting on a throne made from paper-maché Rutherfords. The fact of the matter is that practically everything the game merchants peddle is horrifically overpriced and generally less powerful than what may be found lying about in the game’s levels proper.

A game perhaps lacking in substance but not combat heft, Crimson Alliance offers a fun five hours of single player or excellent five hours of co-op goodness. The graphical style is very Diablo, and the sound is passable, although some variations on the Mercenary’s grunting and the damage bell wouldn’t go amiss. Our advice is spend the full 1200 up front and enjoy varied play with each of the characters.

Just don’t expect a lot more than some slick fantasy-style arcade brawling and it’ll be money well spent.