Once upon a time side-scrolling beat ’em ups were all the rage, dominating consoles and arcades…and yes, once upon a time the mysterious places of revelry and debauchery called “arcades” still existed in the magical lands of the west. That time is long gone, but that ancestral lore isn’t dead and forgotten as some may believe, as the valiant artisans of the guild of Vanillaware brought it back to new life with Dragon’s Crown.
Did they manage to cast the difficult resurrection incantation correctly, or maybe the spell went horribly wrong?
This time around I’m going to work my way into this review in a slightly different way than usual: I’ll just cut the chase and tell you the game’s flaws right from the beginning, because yes, it does have flaws and they’re not exactly small.
First of all Vanillaware decided to lock a lot of content behind progression. And I’m not talking about small stuff, but entire defining features that would have made the game way better right from the outset instead of having to play for hours in order to unlock them.
There’s no real doubt on the fact that one of the most fun ways to play a side-scrolling game is with friends, or at least with other human players. Too bad that Dragon’s Crown locks away that option behind the completion of the first nine dungeons that you’ll probably have to beat at least twice if you want to do the optional quests as well. The PvP Arena? Gotta clear the game first. Want a harder level of difficulty? Yeah, no go until the game decides you’re ready.
I understand that the developer may have wanted to implement this kind of solution to reward progression, but it can be massively annoying when you just want to go online and play with some actual people, and you can’t.
Did I mention completing dungeons multiple times? Yes, I think I did. That’s the second sizable flaw the game comes packed with. If you want to complete the optional quests you’ll have to do the same dungeons multiple times. Each dungeon has an A-route and a B-route (of course you won’t unlock the B-route until later in the game), but many quests require specific routes, so you will end up repeating the same content, and monsters in the same route are always placed in the same positions, often feeling quite repetitive.
This is made worse by the fact that some bosses are really hard if you get there underleveled (especially at the higher difficulty levels), so guess what? You’ll most likely have to repeat the same dungeons even more in order to grind your way up further.
Ok, I got the flaws out of the way. Still with me? Good…Because now I’m going to gush.
Dragon’s Crown is simply the most gorgeous 2D game I ever played since the era of NES and of the Spectrum 48k, which means when I started playing video games at the early age of six. Hands down, no question asked, Vanillaware’s title beats ’em all into the ground. I could easily say that it’s the most beautiful game I ever played period, but it’s difficult to make a direct comparison between 2D and 3D games, so I’ll just say that I could easily spend time just watching someone else play and that alone would make me quite happy. As a matter of fact, it’d let me feast my eyes on the details that I would normally miss in the heat of the action.
I already mentioned arcades: remember the age of wonder when video games were young and we were kids, and we just stood there watching other people play because those games just looked so awesome (for the time)? Dragon’s Crown brings that sensation back to life.
The sprites are big, detailed and beautifully animated, without a single hint of pixelation. Backdrops are, if possible, even better. They’re so colorful and artistically put together that the whole scene just looks like a lovely illustration that you’d like to frame and hang to your wall. The masterful use of different planes to simulate movement and perspective makes them even more appealing.
Add to that the awesome designs of the NPCs you meet, and the treasure art you can unlock by completing optional quests, and you simply get a game that can be considered, beyond any reasonable doubt, a work of art.
Some internet pundits criticized the art direction of Dragon’s Crown, because it’s quite on the sexy side, with exaggerated hips and breasts and some skin in sight. Well, I’m sorry my dear pundits, but the visual feast goes much beyond those superficial themes and George Kamitani’s art direction can only be defined as masterful, both in its sheer beauty shown even in the smallest and apparently marginal elements and in its coherence within itself. Generous breasts and backsides are simply an added bonus for those that are interested in that kind of titillation. Nothing more, nothing less.
You don’t really need to believe me, though. You can believe your own eyes by checking the gallery below. 265 screenshots should be enough to decide by yourself if I’m right or wrong, and mind you, those come from the PS Vita version. The PS3 version looks even better (but unfortunately it doesn’t allow saving screenshots).
Oh, and before I leave you with the screenshots, did I mention that the soundtrack is great and the English voice acting is (for once) definitely enjoyable? Dual audio would have been welcome, but this time around I can definitely listen to the English voices without cringing.
Of course all the beauty of the world isn’t worth much without solid gameplay, and Dragon’s Crown passes the test with flying colors.
The heart and soul of the game is of course battle gameplay. Vanillaware could have simply brought back the features of old side-scrollers, but they went above and beyond the call of duty: they added a wide variety of attack and defense moves to each character, making the title feel almost like a fighting game in some ways (and you’ll notice that even more in the action packed PvP arena unlocked after clearing the main story).
Add to that the fact that each character plays in a radically different way compared to the others, and very solid replayability is ensured. Earlier I mentioned a quite annoying amount of repetition and this may seem to contradict that statement, but characters are so diverse (even if you consider those with similar specializations, like the sorceress and the wizard) that they create a paradox: replaying the story with a different character feels less repetitive than replaying the same dungeon with the same character. I know, it’s hard to believe without trying it, but that’s how it is.
Bosses are the real gem of this game. Not only are they simply beautiful to see, but most of them come packed with masterfully planned and interesting mechanics that make almost every encounter challenging. Some will summon clones of themselves unless you can stop them from appearing, another will try to kill a group of maidens you’re trying to protect, some fights will have multiple stages and some will force you to use siege engines…. If you consider the fact that every dungeon has a B-route and that the bosses for that option will differ radically from the A-routes, the variety of challenges is wide enough to keep you on your toes for a long while.
Vanillaware didn’t even stop at innovating the combat gameplay of the side-scroller genre. They also added a very sizable RPG element on top of it, expanding rather extensively on what was offered by older games like Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons series.
Character progression and building gets very near to rivaling full fledged JRPGs, and a large variety of loot feels rewarding and allows players to further customize their characters down to the finest statistics. Unfortunately the visual variety of the available weapons and shields isn’t as wide as I would have liked, but that’s a very small flaw compared to the ones I mentioned at the beginning of the review. Add to that a rather engaging and interesting story, and JRPG enthusiasts will feel right at home just as much as side-scroller fans.
The lovely hub town, the ability to resurrect and recruit dead adventurers you’ll find in your dungeon crawling and being able to convert them into faithful AI-driven companions contributes to making the game’s world feel alive, differentiating from many side-scrollers that simply feel like a sequence of fights.
This game is already extremely enjoyable in single player, but becomes even better in local and online multiplayer. You can opt to join up with friends or complete strangers and brave the depths together. That’s when things really get exhilarating, and the less predictable human companions balance out in large part the required repetition of content.
If someone dies in a dungeon and doesn’t continue, you’ll even be able to carry home his bones and resurrect him as an AI companion, stats and equipment included. You can collect all your friends like armored (or scantly clad) fantasy Pokémon.
Adventuring online is made even more exciting by the possibility of braving multiple dungeons in a row. The more you stick with a group, the more your bonuses will be multiplied after each boss, encouraging camaraderie and discouraging the usual online dropouts. Even loss of connection is handled perfectly: you won’t just drop out of the game, losing all your progression, but your companions will simply be taken over by the AI allowing you to complete the dungeon.
The whole package is completed nicely by lovely little details like the rune magic system that will allow you to combine runes inscribed in the walls with those in your possession to trigger a large variety of beneficial effects, additional treasures to squint for and grab thanks to the Vita’s touch screen (while PS3 players have a slightly more awkward system based on the right analog stick), the enjoyable cooking minigame between dungeons, or the wide range of smart-bomb like consumables. Everything combined shows the amount of love and care that went into designing every single element of this game.
Ultimately this isn’t a perfect game due to the two flaws I mentioned at the outset of this review but the positives are so overwhelming that it’s easy to forget the negatives while you’re playing. It’s a beautiful, lovely and engaging title that is extremely easy to recommend to every side-scroller and JRPG fan, but even those that aren’t familiar with those two genres will probably find something to like–whether it’s the amazing art, the solid replayability or the exhilarating multiplayer.
Dragon’s Crown is beyond any reasonable doubt Vanillaware’s masterpiece and a game that will surely become a classic. The revival of the side-scrolling genre has been successfully achieved and every self-respecting gamer should consider being part of it. The experience is worth its price tag, and then some.