Genre: Fantasy, Action-RPG, Beat-‘em-up
Release Date: August 6th, 2013
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PS Vita (Played on PS3)
The tale of Vanillaware’s latest work is a rocky one to say the least. Creative Director George Kamitani had the idea for this love letter to classic beat-’em-ups and role-playing games as far back as the Sega Dreamcast days. However, its production didn’t start until around the completion of 2009’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Publishing plans fell through with UTV Ignition and the game was without a publisher until ATLUS came along and breathed life into it once again. Two years passed since its announcement, gaining both love and hate along the way. Now that it’s finally here, just how good is it?
If you love yourself some side-scrolling brawlers, RPGs, and games that revolve around couch or online co-op rather than tacking it on, you probably should be on your way to pick this game up right now.
Yes, Dragon’s Crown is that good.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk story first. To be honest, it’s pretty minimalistic. In the vast world of Hydeland lies an ancient treasure called the Dragon’s Crown, said to contain the power to control all dragons. With many characters longing for the Crown, it’s up to you to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Doing this task will pit you against orcs, living fungi, wyverns, and countless other beasts and adversaries across Hydeland as you carry out your duties for the good of the kingdom.
Before venturing forth, you can choose from six different classes: the hardened brawler Amazon, skillful swordsman Fighter, tactical spellbinder Sorceress, dark destructive Wizard, grappling demolition expert Dwarf, and the agile archer Elf. All are available for you to create and customize. As expected, all classes play much differently from one another, having exclusive skills and strengths that encourage multiple play styles. Each of them feel unique, though others may require a little more skill to fully master. Rest assured, one class is not more powerful than another.
While you’re choosing the name of your character, one of four color palettes, the option for the Japanese or English voice over, and quotes for a certain online feature to be mentioned later, you may notice a couple of things. This game bears an absolutely gorgeous visual style, reminiscent of Vanillaware’s previous works. Many times I stopped moving my character just to admire the backgrounds and the attention to detail given to every screen. When a 2D game looks this good, it’s not hard to tell that nothing but passion was poured into the animation and art direction it boasts. The same can be said about the musical score, giving a variety of thrilling and mesmerizing tracks fitting the beautiful world of Hydeland perfectly. When the narrator isn’t covering your story in a traditional Dungeons & Dragon’s fashion, the atmosphere of Dragon’s Crown is nothing short of magical.
That said, no game is remembered for its good looks and music alone. Gameplay is key, and this one delivers.
Kamitani himself listed a few key inspirations for Dragon’s Crown, and it shows. Taking notes from classics such as Wizardry, Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, and Golden Axe, it manages to blend multiple genres without favoring one over the other. Your time away from the action will be spent in town where you can visit the Temple to seek blessings to help you in battle, the Magic Item Shop to get your equipment repaired as well as helpful potions, Lucain’s Tower to buy rings and magical Runes, the Adventurers Guild to accept side-quests and obtain new skills, and the Castle which is more or less a primary location for the plot to progress. When not in town, you will journey to the many locations in Hydeland where the real action takes place.
Once your destination is selected via a beautiful revolving map, the game will shift to a good ol’ fashioned beat-’em-up. Enemies will block your path and clearing them out will allow you progress forward. The fighting is nothing deep but not a complete button-masher either. In any situation, it’s necessary to use your character’s perks to your advantage, both for advanced tactics and just to exploit the flashy combat the game offers. However, taking a crack at goblins and saber-tooth cats isn’t all you’ll be doing out there. Within each stage are treasure chests and doors which your trusty thief partner Rannie can unlock for you. Doors lead to rooms with extra treasures, puzzles, and challenges for you to discover, and ultimately results in a higher score by your mission’s end. There’s not too much exploration involved, but it’s nice to have variety within the brawler structure so nothing feels stenciled. After clearing each level, you will have a showdown with the stage’s boss before collecting your spoils for that adventure.
Like any solid RPG, each outing in Hydeland will gain you experience, and leveling up will boost your stats as well as gain you access to more items and armor you find along the way. You will also be able to acquire new skills via the Adventurers Guild, both exclusive to your character and common amongst all classes. This distinguishes the six classes even further, extending their individual movesets and abilities. Aside from playing any stage straight for the experience needed to build a stronger character, the Guild offers side-quests for you to take on which will gain you some extra XP along with unlockable concept art for your viewing pleasure. Some of them even highlight the more fun elements of the gameplay, like slaying 10 monsters while mounted on a saber-tooth or dragonlisk.
On top of all of this, Dragon’s Crown also offers some interesting features as well. The biggest one is the ability to resurrect the bones of other characters who have died during battle. It’s a really clever addition to the already fresh take on the beat-’em-up gameplay, allowing you to have NPC allies tag along. Their AI is a bit clunky at times, but it beats playing single-player with just Rannie following you around. This feature encourages you to gather the right party members to help achieve victory, depending on your goals during the game. You will definitely be choosing them carefully once you’ve hit a crucial part in the story where network play will become available. Every stage will add more routes to the initial ones, and the later levels get much more challenging.
As much as the game excels, its experience is slightly hindered by a few design choices. Throughout the game, you’ll be able to find extra bits of treasure in the background of the stages by moving your cursor over to it with the right analog stick and “clicking” it. This mechanic also applies to Rannie, where you have to click doors and chests in order for him to open them. It’s kind of awkward to do these small functions this way and could have been more convenient to use the triangle button near a door or chest to command him to open them. Rune magic spells tend to be tedious because of this, as if the many Rune combinations to remember weren’t already a chore to keep track of. It seems like this control scheme was done for the Vita version to complement the use of touch control and was left in the PS3 version with no changes made.
Next is the matter of online play. For one reason or another, network play is unlocked about midway through the game. If you were hoping on hooking up with your PSN friends from the start, you’re out of luck. This also means the bones you pick up before online is available will be randomized, but will eventually be switched out for bones of other players. This was most likely intended to make matchmaking more balanced and to make sure all players were strong enough to venture with each other (or against each other in the PvP arena). Still, it takes quite some time before those options are available to you. Another minor complaint would be that the screen tends to get a little cluttered when a lot of activity is happening. It may be a bit hard to keep track of yourself among all the chaos, even with a color-coded arrow hovering over your head.
So how does this tribute to the old days hold up in this modern age?
Simply put, Dragon’s Crown just may be Vanillaware’s best work yet. It’s a title that offers what a lot of games today are missing. It’s filled to the brim with passion for all it’s paying homage to, while striving to be its own distinct experience. After a while, the few issues of the game aren’t much of a bother as the beautiful art direction, engrossing soundtrack, and incredibly fun combat outweigh them easily. It’s a game that encourages teamwork with others and tactical thinking when alone. Many memorable moments are sprawled throughout the game and nothing about it feels forced or tacked on. Every moment spent in Hydeland is always a worthwhile one.
When it comes right down to it, Dragon’s Crown is hands down one of the most fun experiences you’ll have this year.