Dragon's Crown ReviewOmar Elaasar
Dragon's Crown is a modern game with old school sensibilities. Rooted in mechanics that draw firmly on Capcom's arcade beat-em-up legacy, particularly the Dungeons and Dragons adaptations, which art director George Kamitani worked on, developer Vanillaware has created something that feels both modern and as archaic as the fantasy settings from which it draws inspiration.
Set in the fantasy land of Hydeland, Dragon's Crown draws heavily upon traditional Western style fantasy tropes and filters them through a distinctly Japanese lens. Characters rendered in a hyper-exaggerated style that draws upon both the painterly style of Frank Frazetta and the legacy of manga and anime. Male characters are mountains of muscle sporting ridiculously wide torsos and shoulders, many proportioned at seven heads wide (for reference, normal human beings are generally about three heads wide, and American superheroes five)! Female characters are top heavy in their own way, with the Sorceress notably sporting a ridiculously buxom figure and the Amazon showing off thighs that'd put even Chun-Li to shame.
Let's get this out of the way right now: while out of context these designs may feel objectifying and even sexist, for the most part they feel appropriate within the context and hyper exaggeration of the world of Dragon's Crown. However, during your travels you'll definitely come across female NPCs splayed out in a variety of absurd and sexualized poses. While I was okay with the character designs themselves, these scenes are inarguably objectifying and troublesome and do put a bit of a damper in the what is an otherwise beautifully rendered game.
In fact, the art and animation is likely to be the first thing that you notice (alongside the aforementioned ridiculous character proportions). Rendered entirely in a painterly and detailed art style, and animated in a style combining traditional key frame and Flash style techniques, every still of Dragon's Crown feels as if it was hand painted. This makes boss encounters and set pieces an absolute marvel, and never stops feeling novel and beautiful.
The combat itself is controlled by a paired down control scheme that varies according to character and context. Attacks are initiated by a the square button, with circle giving you access to special abilities, circle jumping, and triangle allowing you quick access to various items. Holding down the attack button while stationary will block or charge mana depending on your class, and attacks can be varied by performing them with a direction or from the air. Either right shoulder button will allow you to evade, and holding the attack button while moving performs a dash. While the control scheme initially feels restrictive and unnecessarily paired down, with time to adjust it starts to feel fluid. Unlike more modern combo centric beat-em-ups, Dragon's Crown is more about positioning and reading the enemy tells, and in that way it reveals a combat philosophy that shares elements with Monster Hunter as much as Guardian Heroes.
DC also incorporates elements of role-playing into the mix, and even a few adventure game style mechanics. A narrator tells the story of your journey, fleshing out scenes with flavor text that gives insight into the narrative action in a style reminiscent of visual novels. In addition to providing the voice over for these story segments, he also provides narration during combat scenes describing the character's journey and set pieces. It's a fantastic touch that harkens back to the roots of role-playing as a tabletop experience. It can get a bit weary after hearing the same lines a few times (particularly when being given your quest objective multiple times after exiting each location on the hub world), but it's solidly and powerfully acted and allows your imagination to fill in the gaps.
Characters will also level up, learn new skills, earn new weapons, and use various items to aid them in battle. While it's a familiar addition, it gives a tangible reason to go back to previous areas, since progress towards new skills can be a bit slow without doing sidequests, and new weapons cannot be bought. You can also direct a cursor around to navigate menus during downtime, or pick up small treasures or direct your AI thief companion to unlock doors and treasure chests (and later cast rune magic). While it works well enough for the latter, picking up treasure can become a bit of a chore, and after a couple hours I did it much less often. It feels more at home on the Vita, due to being able to use the touch screen, but it still feels like an unnecessary hassle which slows down the pacing.
DC's biggest problem however, is the amount of repetition necessary to complete the game. There are only a handful of areas to journey into, and while the game does provide branching paths and new set pieces as incentive to return to them, you'll be thrust into the same unchanging encounters and bosses for a good few hours after first exploring them. The game then suddenly forces you to choose between paying up some gold to return to the area you want to go to or jump into one randomly. While this is explained in game, and introduces a new element of risk into adventuring (a bit like you'd find in something like Monster Hunter) it feels entirely bizarre and restrictive. It should also be noted that you won't have access to online multiplayer until you reach this part of the journey (about four to eight hours in depending on how you play, local play is always unlocked).
The new segments do introduce new wrinkles and set pieces, and often add an additional level of environmental interaction that feels novel to the genre and helps DC break away from the crowd, as well as showing off more of it's gorgeous art and creature design. It also pushes up the challenge and almost demands that you cooperate with others. If you don't have anyone to play with, and don't want to play with randoms online, you can resurrect AI warriors by retrieving their bones from the game world and bringing them to a priest.
It should be noted that Dragon's Crown also allows you transfer saves between the PS3 and PSVita versions of the game. Simply upload it to the server and download it on the other device and you'll be set. It only takes a few minutes total, less depending on your connection. The game however, IS NOT Cross-Buy compatible, meaning you'll have to shell out extra for the other version. Differences between the two are largely minor. The Vita's screen makes the most of the gorgeous artwork, while the PS3 version gives you more screen space and couch play, and a slightly better frame rate when all out chaos ensues.
Overall, Dragon's Crown works beautifully as a game and a co-op experience. It's artwork and animation is of the highest caliber, and brings an evocative and unique style to the genre while it's gameplay satisfies the cravings of loot loving brawlers. Aside from complaints from the inherent repetitiveness of the game, and some trouble with the display of certain characters, Vanillaware has crafted something worthy of its ambition, and the legacy of which it draws upon.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
Omar Elaasar is an hobbyist artist, writer, and game developer, and is dedicated to playing obscure games in order to maintain his status as a most pretentious hipster.
About the Author: Omar Elaasar
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