Genre: Action (Beat 'Em Up) / Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
Japanese developer Vanillaware is known for making visually striking games, and their latest release, Dragon’s Crown, an action-RPG in the style of a side-scrolling brawler, is no exception. As a hulking fighter, canny wizard, elven ranger, amazon warrior, dwarven bruiser, or sorceress of dark magic, players will navigate trap-filled towers, battle feral beasts and slimy ghouls, amass piles of coin and jewel-laden loot, and fight alongside a band of allies in a beautiful, action-packed adventure in search of the titular Dragon’s Crown.
(A quick note: the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions are nearly identical, so this review covers both, with system-specific info saved until the end.)
Fans of side-scrolling brawlers haven’t been this well served in years. Earlier this summer, gamers saw the release of Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, a collection of two beat ‘em ups (Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara) that had long been relegated to dusty arcades and the import market, and now, Atlus releases one of the few new entries to come out in recent memory. However, Capcom wasn’t the company responsible for reigniting interest in the long-dormant genre. That distinction belongs to Sega, who released Treasure’s classic hybrid role-playing game and side-scrawling brawler, Guardian Heroes, over Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network in late 2011. The former Sega Saturn exclusive served to remind gamers that the genre had not only moved beyond its heyday of the 16-bit era but that it was capable of much more.
Vanillaware set out to demonstrate just what the genre still has to offer with Dragon’s Crown. Their attempt isn’t a surprise given the studio’s history of creating 2D action games with lush visuals, such as Odin Sphere and Muramasa. But it’s more than that. Gamers who have played Chronicles of Mystara will notice the similarities straight off the bat: both titles feature a class-based system where characters level as they progress, stores with purchasable items, multiple paths to choose from, equippable limited-use secondary weapons (knives, crossbows, torches), an array of special and defensive moves, and the ability to battle alongside up to three AI or player partners in local and online multiplayer. That is because, in many ways, Dragon’s Crown is as much a spiritual successor to the Dungeons & Dragon series as it is to Vanillaware’s own titles. As to why this is, the link can be found in George Kamitani, studio co-founder, designer of Dragon’s Crown, and a member of the Tower of Doom development team.
Familiarity with past brawlers isn’t necessary, though, especially with Dragon’s Crown‘s eye towards increased fluidity. Unlike the other titles, the move list is modest and the actions are easy to pull off. This improves the experience greatly for newcomers by making the game easier to jump in and play, but there is a downside, which is that it diminishes its longevity. Whereas Guardian Heroes and the Dungeons & Dragons titles featured semi-circular movements, an emphasis on reaction timing, and combos, Dragon’s Crown goes for a leaner approach that features simple, flashy moves that are unleashed with minimal input. Evading is as simple as tapping a button, sliding doesn’t require any motions on the direction pad, and combos are the result of stringing together moves by tapping the same button. Enemies can be launched or slammed on the ground by selecting a direction while attacking, and further walloped with more tapping. This is a far cry from the Street Fighter-style system adopted by the others.
After spending a few minutes with a multiplayer brawler, it’s easy to see why Vanillaware would try to find a happier medium. The frantic pace and chaos that quickly ensues as fireballs, tornadoes, bodies, and arrows begin to fly causes many players to fall back on the tried-and-true method of button-mashing rather than fussing with more input-intensive attacks. This might make things more manageable on the player’s end but doing so means that the full breadth of the combat system is intentionally eschewed in favor of expediency. The changes made in Dragon’s Crown addresses this fairly well, sweetening the loss of an expansive combat system ripe with discovery with more manageable action. Even with these changes, and the PS Vita’s bouts of slowdown (used by some bullet-hell shooters to manage hectic action), combat can become so frenzied that it can be very difficult to figure out what’s going on. At those moments, when the befuddlement gives way to frustration, it’s that very simplicity that keeps the game from going completely off the rails.
Dragon’s Crown isn’t just an upgraded Tower of Doom, though, but a genuine old-fashioned adventure with a unique charm and some great ideas. A whimsical narrator closely follows the gameplay, reminding players of what their next step should be—too often at times—and adding some renaissance-festival-style flair to cutscenes. Players travel to a variety of locations, from caverns to forests, by way of a stable and a portal from a main town that serves as the game’s hub. The town offers an inn to save and recruit allies, a temple to pray for blessings and resurrect or bury the recovered bones of deceased adventurers, a shop to repair and purchase items, a mage’s tower to acquire special accessories and runes, an adventure’s guild to take on new quests and assign skill points to common and class-specific abilities, and a castle that is key to plot progression. A helpful shortcut key is also available that allows players to zip along to any location as needed without having to run through town.
As standard as the setup sounds, there are some interesting differences. One of the most noteworthy is that the ability to resurrect dead warriors, whether they’re AI- or player-controlled characters. The bones of computer characters will resurrect those near the same level as the player, but bones of actual players can resurrect characters of a much higher level. There are some checks to this: only a set number of allies can be on hand at any time, with those no longer needed easily dismissible at the inn, and the cost of keeping a higher-level character makes them too expensive to rely too heavily upon.
It costs money to resurrect characters not only in the temple, but also in the battlefield. Resurrecting in a temple is reasonably priced, given that bringing back someone from the dead seems to be a service worth a few coins, and bones can always be buried in the hopes of scoring an item or two if money is short. Having to bring a character back during combat, however, can be prohibitively pricey. Each character has a set number of life points, and after those have been expended, they can be brought back with coin. Loot is all over the place, but maintaining a heavy purse is very difficult given the number of actions that require money. Except for their basic grade, the stats of items attained in the wild are unknown until the item is appraised, and that costs money. Items can be sold without being appraised, but the appraisal fee is often much higher than the sell price and that might also mean missing out on a better weapon with some great enhancements. Money is also needed to repair items, as well as to use the stables to reach specific areas. The latter cost increases the more the stables are used, and they will increase because the main gate out of town becomes unstable at a point and sends players to random areas. That character 10 levels above the best resurrected AI character seems great, until they die and the cost to resurrect them requires nearly everything that’s been scavenged up to that point.
The game can be difficult at times, but it isn’t brutal, at least not with some good support characters. This is largely because of how well the campaign is paced. All of the locations are played through once before their second paths become available, and going back through them again doesn’t feel like a chore; the alternative routes offer new areas, and runes, which become accessible after completing several story-specific quests, offer all sorts of bonuses to perceptive wanderers. Rune marks are etched in objects all over the various levels, and by selecting them with the right analog stick and left shoulder button (on both PS3 and Vita), they can be used in conjunction with purchased runes to do anything from produce chests of secondary weapons, bestow protective buffs, and reveal treasure chests. Going back through older areas also offers opportunities to spot any missed side paths to explore, which provide even more ways to gain experience and loot. These rooms and hallways are locked away behind doors that can be picked open, as with treasure chests, by pointing them out to a tagalong thief, Ronnie. There’s also a fairy that helpfully points out spots of interest, such as weak walls and doorways.
Playing alongside others also adds a new dimension to adventuring. As with so much else, though, online multiplayer is only available after several hours of play. The upside to this is that everyone should be on the same page in regards to mechanics and level layout, as well as have enough skills under their belt to pull their weight. Not only does joining others offer the chance to come across the remains of a high-level character, but they are also far less likely to trigger traps and run about like a bull in a china shop. As adept as the AI is in combat, it can be hair-pullingly stupid when exploring. If there is an obvious pressure plate or holes in the ground, they will not only walk over it once, triggering a hail of arrows or a wall of spikes, but multiple times. There are also moments when all characters will need to stand on plates to access treasure, and that’s just not going to happen with the AI. Given the price of characters and the need to be careful with money, seeing them walk back and forth over the same trap is just downright disheartening.
There is a way to earn larger amounts of precious coin, and that’s by testing the party’s mettle in extended excursions. After an area’s boss has been defeated, players are given the opportunity to return back to town, in order to repair gear, allocate skill points, turn in quests, etc. or to continue. Opting to continue will result in receiving a bonus in one of several categories, such as an increase in treasure to the chance of scoring better loot. These rewards get better and more numerous the longer the player stays in the wild, offering enticing incentives to continue on a journey that could quickly turn deadly if the randomly chosen area turns out to be too difficult. After a day’s work, the party will sit down to a campfire surrounded by meats, vegetables, fruits, and grains. It’s here that players will be able to replenish health and add strength and stat boosts by cooking and serving food. When going out solo, it’s very hectic to feed all four characters: the analog stick is used to select an item, place it into a pot, and then remove it to place it onto a bowl after it’s been stirred or flipped. Having to rush through an otherwise relaxing evening providing everyone with as much as possible, since each food offers its own perks, is made up by the fact that the meals provide the much-needed boosts to get beleaguered parties through the next leg of their journey and back home. It is incredibly satisfying to push the limits of a party’s endurance by going on one more outing and making it back with a sliver of health to spare, and it gets even better once the experience starts to be tallied, points are gained, and the loot is sifted through.
As gorgeous and enjoyable as Dragon’s Crown is, it won’t be for everyone. The lush visuals are quite the sight, but they won’t be sights that everyone will be comfortable seeing. Some will find the highly stylized art off-putting, namely Vanillaware’s take on the human anatomy. Both men and women have massive chests and stances that throw proper posture out the window, and some women have thighs so monstrous that they could be housing Dionysus. The environment and structures look great, but whenever it comes to humanoids, it’s as if Boris Vallejo no longer cared about the laws of gravity and quadrupled the size of every bulge, everywhere. Characters don’t simply mount the saber tooth tigers or dragonlisk but suggestively straddle them, chests poking out, or let their skirt ride high. The skewed sense of proportion is so ridiculous that I was mostly stuck between bemused and amused, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind, especially around younger players.
As mentioned earlier, the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita versions are nearly identical. Both use the same scheme to select runes and doors and chests for the thief to unlock with the right analog stick and left shoulder button, and all of the combat mechanics work the same. The main difference is that the glimmering lights that indicate hidden treasure throughout the various locations, as well as any items to interact with, can also be selected by tapping on them with the PS Vita version. The PlayStation 3 version does hold up better during combat, having far fewer bouts of slowdown. For gamers who buy both, the game does feature cross-save support (but not cross-play), with players capable of uploading their saves for downloading on the other system through the same PSN account. Everyone gets a great brawler, regardless of which version is bought.
Dragon’s Crown is another feather in Vanillaware’s crowded cap. The class-based system works well, offering a wide variety of skills that provide sufficiently different experiences for each character to warrant spending time leveling up several at a time. The online component and ability to venture out for extended periods add a great sense of camaraderie and excitement as players push their party to the limits. The game doesn’t have quite the same breadth or depth as Guardian Heroes, with fewer moves and far fewer branching paths, but it nonetheless makes an excellent entry for the genre and a grand time with fellow adventurers.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)