Review: Dragon's Crown is a repetitive work of art
After getting flak for its over-the top character design, and therefore making headlines around numerous video game websites, I think it's safe to say that a majority of gamers know of Dragon's Crown. And even those that don't recognize the game by its title, just calling it "the game featuring the large-breasted witch" usually sparks their memory. But after spending the past week and a half with it, I can safely say it's much more than that. Dragon's Crown marks a high point in side-scrolling beat 'em ups, with enough depth and gameplay variety to justify some of its shortcomings.
Dragon's Crown can best be described as higher-budget retail version of the recently re-released arcade game, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara. There is a plot, sure. It involves the titular Dragon's Crown, searching for it, and making sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. The narrator is there every step of the way, letting you know what's going on and where you need to go, arguably sometimes to a fault.
Combat is kept relatively simple, akin to Vanillaware's Muramasa Rebirth, where your attack button is also responsible for blocking, as well as executing upward and downward thrusts with the help of a direction button. It's quite surprising, given how simple the control scheme is, that every character controls radically differently. The Fighter quickly slashes with his sword but has little range, whereas the Amazon's two-handed weapon gives her better reach, and her attack power and speed build up over time. Not to mention their attack animations give them each a personality of their own.
Each character also has specific moves and traits related to their class. The Fighter, Amazon and Dwarf will smash their weapon into the ground, hitting enemies around them, while the Witch and Wizard will cast various Ice and Fire spells respectively, depending on which direction is pressed. The Elf, on the other hand, uses her special attack to utilize her main weapon, the bow, making her arguably one of the harder classes to play as.
Leveling up your character will come with Skill points that you can spend in a class-specific tree or a common one. Class trees will let you strengthen each character's uniques attacks, as well as learn some new and useful ones, while the Common tree is used to raise health, reduce cooldown of items, increase item slots, and more.
Following you around, every step of the way is the Rogue, Rannie. Using his thieving skills, he'll be able to open any locked chest and door, as well as pick up any leftover treasure not picked up by anyone else. He's a useful fella, though his integration is a bit strange. You see, no chests can be opened by any player, instead, Rannie must be ordered to open each one with a tap on the Vita screen, or with a cursor using the right analog stick. This mechanic is a little out of place here, especially given the fast-paced nature of combat. Pausing each time in order to give Rannie an order puts a screeching halt in the action, but it doesn't ruin an otherwise enjoyable dungeon romp.
Each and every chest will have a random letter grade associated with it, which will result in varying rarity in gear. E-graded gear will be rather plain, while any letter grade above that will come with some added attributes. What's better, all the gear is instanced to you, meaning even if you play with other players, none of the found loot is shared, and is instead unique to each player. Even better than that, all loot you find is always matched to your level or slightly higher, which means everything you find and appraise, you can immediately use to upgrade or hold on to it a bit until you reach the required level.
Dragon's Crown is primarily built on not letting you play by yourself. Despite its fantastic online mode, which I'll get to later, you'll always be accompanied by various NPCs. As you run through dungeons, you'll pick up bone remains. These can then be used to resurrect fallen warriors. Much like loot, you'll be going through companions relatively quick, as they don't level up with you. Even if you don't opt to take any of these NPCs along into a dungeon with you, they'll randomly join in at various parts of each run.
The game also supports local and online co-op play, with any combination of those two working. If you have a friend over and want to play with two others online, you can do that. You do, however, have to put in a good number of hours before you unlock online play (beat the initial 9 stages one time around), but once you do, the game definitely gets even more fun. Don't have any friends that play Dragon's Crown? No problem, just connect online and other players will hop into your game as you're mowing down enemies. It's rather seamless and doesn't get in the way of your gameplay, since you're not required to go through any menus to set up lobbies. Just play, and they will come.
When you're not dungeon raiding, you'll be spending your time in the town, which is home to various facilities like the Temple, which lets you resurrect NPCs and pray for various boons; Magic shop, which allows you to buy, sell and appraise items; and an Adventurers Guild, which lets you partake in various secondary quests, such as slaying a certain number of beasts, collecting certain items, etc. It provides more reason to revisit past stages that you already beaten, just to get that extra Gold and Experience.
Where Dragon's Crown starts to get repetitive is after you beat the game's nine stages the first time around. Sure, it opens up alternate paths, essentially doubling the amount of stages available. Except to actually succeed in those, you have to be a certain level. That means you'll be grinding out the original nine levels over and over again until you get enough experience to level up so you can take on the boss of the alternate path. Despite this, the game is smart about it by letting you chain stages together for boosted rewards, such as more gold or a higher score (which converts to EXP). For those that despise grinding, you'll certainly be quite put off by this design.
Both the PS3 and Vita versions come with certain drawbacks. The Vita port tends to suffer from some slowdown when things get a bit hectic on screen. Never to the point of it becoming unplayable, but it's certainly quite noticeable. The PS3 version is definitely the best looking, especially displayed in full 1080p, with little to no slowdown whatsoever, but you lose out on the touch controls, which are actually really handy on the Vita. Since a bulk of the game relies on activating chests, doors, runes and hidden objects by simply touching them, using the right analog stick instead is rather annoying, not to mention it breaks up the action even more. Both versions handle online fantastically and I didn't experience any lag whatsoever on the PS3 or the Vita. The game doesn't support Cross-Buy or Cross-Play, though you can upload your save file to the cloud from either version and continue on in the other.
There is no denying that Dragon's Crown is a gorgeous game. Odin Sphere and Muramasa were gorgeous games back in the day, but DC pushes that graphical fidelity to new heights. Every character and enemy is meticulously detailed, down to their idle animations. It's something that needs to be seen in motion, since screenshots don't really do the game any justice. And Sorceress lovers, wait for that running animation; it's a doozy.
Despite its rather repetitive nature, Dragon's Crown is an absolute blast, especially if you play with friends or venture online. Calling the game eye candy would certainly be an understatement, as this is Vanillaware's best looking title to date. If you don't mind the grind and enjoy classic beat 'em ups with some heavy RPG elements, Dragon's Crown deserves your attention.
[Primary review platform: PS Vita, but played on PS3 as well]