Long gone are the days of the original Dungeons & Dragons, long gone are the arcade antics of Gauntlet, but verily they are not forgotten! Crimson Alliance brings us back to the old days of having only a fighter, a wizard and a rogue (well, an assassin, but close enough!), an isometric camera, and four buddies ripping up baddies. However, Certain Affinity knows what assumptions come with that isometric camera and that fantasy theme and strives to take the gameplay above and beyond the genre’s conventions. In our interview with Mike McCarthy, game designer for Crimson Alliance, he called their game “The thinking man’s pick-up-and-play hack ‘n’ slash”—and we would most definitely agree.

Crimson Alliance is very heavy on the action and very focused on providing a balanced experience for all three characters. Better still, gameplay doesn’t require much setup time so players can get straight to the action. A wizard, fighter and assassin will be playable in the full game, but the Comic Con demo only had the wizard and fighter; we chose the wizard to test how well he would do solo. As it turned out, the wizard felt incredibly capable: very offensive and full of awesome multitasking greatness rather than simply a robed supporter.

The wizard comes equipped with a spam-able fireball spell, an ice attack that emanates from the player and freezes baddies, a lightning attack that affects a close area around him, and a quick but short blink or teleport to get into and out of the fray. To accompany the basic moveset, there are also items that players can pick up including potions, monster bait, throwing axes, and a deployable automatic crossbow turret. Last but not least is the ever-powerful ultimate attack, which for the wizard calls down lightning to zap all around him. Players can also pick up items with left trigger and throw them with any face button, or block incoming attacks with the right trigger. The control scheme is intuitive, straightforward, and works well despite making use of every button on the controller.

Unlike some other dungeon crawlers or hack & slash games, a big draw to Crimson Alliance is its 100% scripted encounters and level design. Many from Certain Affinity come from an FPS background and it shows in Crimson Alliance. Several of the encounters we experienced brought us into full tactics mode—looking for cover and chokepoints, while planning out the order in which we would use various moves. In one encounter, we used monster bait to drag enemies to an area, then attacked an ever-popular explosive barrel near it with a fireball.

At first we were worried that we had attacked it too soon, but we soon found out that hitting it with fire actually lights a fuse, allowing enemies to congregate on the bait before enjoying their red-barrel flambé delight. Many setups involving bait, cover, the wizard’s freeze mechanic, and the ability to toss barrels and other objects would occur throughout our playthrough and were each very fun but demanded thought as well. The variety of enemies forces players to deal with varying threats differently—rather than spamming one move into infinity. For instance, elite enemies (a replacement for “boss” enemies that players would never see again) are only frozen by the wizard’s ice spell for half a second unlike smaller enemies.

Also a staple of hack n’ slash games are collectibles and secrets, which Crimson Alliance has in spades. Throughout the levels are heart containers (collect four to get a permanent health bonus à la Legend of Zelda), ultimate unlocks that add additional gauge for your ultimate attack to charge with, as well as all sorts of gold and chests that all result in more loot. The inventory management in Crimson Alliance also keeps in line with the “get to the action” mentality. The inventory screen can be brought up with a press of the back button and all equipment is listed under its category. Hover over an item to see how it affects the power of your X, Y, and B attacks, your health, and how it compares to the equipment you’re already wearing (both via a gauge and numbers). While it may seem like nothing, the size of the font and images are nice and big so minimal time is spent sifting and sorting.

One concern about the fact that every aspect of the game is scripted and planned out is replayability. Certain Affinity hopes to have that covered. Score is a big deal in Crimson Alliance, and a major part of that is combat multiplier. The concept is simple, kill enemies, increase your multiplier; take a hit, lose a level of multiplier. The layouts of each encounter facilitate multiple approaches, as well as varying combination of cooperative characters, so coming back to beaten levels can be different every time. On top of combat score are two other things which add to your end-level score: secret areas and time. Each level has secret areas to find with bonuses for score and loot for doing so.

Beyond just getting score for your personal fulfillment, Crimson Alliance (like many XBLA titles) takes great advantage of leaderboards. For every level you complete, the leaderboards records a score, medal, and individual scores for combat, secret areas and time. Being able to see each player’s individual scoring process really contributes to the replayability because you’ll never feel lost as to how someone scored high and you can see which characters they brought into the level and how they fared. Along with that over each level is your friends’ leaderboards encouraging you to replay levels as you’re scrolling about the map.

The Assassin, the only character not yet featured or demonstrated, will be sort of a mix between the range-oriented wizard and the melee-oriented fighter. She’ll have an ability allowing her to stun enemies and complete finishing moves, as well as skills that allow her to mix it up between range and melee focus. Look forward to coverage of this character from PAX coming up shortly.

Crimson Alliance drops September 7, 2011 and may support some form of flexible pricing or will be gifted to players who purchase every game in the Summer of Arcade.