Dragon’s Crown (PS3) Review
Ben Sheene / Jul 31st, 2013 No Comments
The beat ’em up is one of those types of genres that many older gamers have fond memories of. Button mashing a simple combination of punches and kicks in Double Dragon might be a stand out for many. While the genre was over-saturated with licensed titles during the 16-bit era (think of all the Batman, X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games), they never stopped being a stupid fun time. As consoles became more complex, so did the traditional 2D side-scrolling nature of beat ’em ups. Hack ‘n slash titles like Devil May Cry or God of War seemed like a natural transition. All in all, many beloved genres and experiences – though retaining some of their roots – have grown into completely different beasts as time and technology have passed. From time to time, developers (often small) are able to craft a game that takes players back to the past while still feeling fresh. Dragon’s Crown is one of those games. Though many will be ensnared by its beauty, its blend of classic genres will amass fans both new and old.
Dragon’s Crown uses a traditional fantasy setting for its world and story. Players take on the role of an adventurer in the world of Hydeland, a land under turmoil at the threat of a treasure known as the “Dragon’s Crown”. An evil group hopes to use the crown to control a mythical and destructive dragon. Along the way the player will meet a small cast of characters who offer up a few more bits of story. Anyone who has read or seen The Lord of the Rings or other similar pieces of popular fantasy will feel right at home with Dragon’s Crown.
For the most part, the game is extremely straightforward in its storytelling. Player characters are given a bare bones history while NPC dialogue and story are delivered by an omniscient narrator. Executing many tropes of the genre, there is a serviceable amount of political intrigue, war, mysterious spells and end-of-the-world fare. While it won’t change the way stories are told in gaming, it doesn’t set out to do so. Seeing your hero to the end of a long journey is like turning the final page of a good book.
It makes sense that George Kamitani, art director and lead of Vanillaware conceived of Dragon’s Crown more than a decade ago as an attempt to advance and evolve the beat ’em up genre. Dragon’s Crown is a title rooted in old game traditions with modern day action RPG touches. At the beginning players are able to select one of six characters along with a light bit of customization. From there, a brief tutorial lays out the basics of combat and town exploration. The six playable classes are the Fighter, Sorceress, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf and Amazon. Before selection, a brief description of their capabilities along with suggested player level (average to experienced) is given.
Spending only passing moments with the various classes gives the illusion that they are mostly similar. The magical tendencies of the Sorceress and Wizard will certainly cause one to think they are the traditional support/glass cannon classes. The burly frames of the Dwarf and Fighter give the impression they are slow and powerful. These impressions will only stick for an hour, if that. After the swift introductory period, the six classes give way to a moderately complex fighting system.
To be clear, button mashing is a plausible course of action when dealing with the numerous foes of Dragon’s Crown. That being said, it is the least exciting way to complete missions. While combat doesn’t focus on the long button inputs and combos of traditional fighters like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, it does have a good sense of timing and which attacks are best suited for certain situations. It’s quickest comparison would be Super Smash Bros., a fellow “brawler” type game. Using the square button for normal attacks and the circle button for specials, players will combine those with directional movements. Up and square results in an upward attack, down and square a slide and so forth. As experience is gained and new attacks are unlocked, the move set is further expanded upon. Over the course of a few hours, the player begins to understand how to asses all situations and best use the move set of their character. Watching the Dwarf power slam a couple orcs into the ground, the Elf shooting a deadly arrow through a trail of drooling undead or the Wizard setting a group of wood golems on fire never gets old. Because a score is kept at the top of the screen throughout the game, players always have an idea of what nets them more points and what leads to the best results. The end of the level also provides various multipliers based on things like items used, times defeated or even food eaten. The higher the score, the more experience earned.
Those victories are made even better when loot comes into play. Throughout each stage the player can use the right stick and left shoulder button to point at and click a treasure chest or door and the thief following them will unlock it. Treasures are given a rank from E to S based on their quality. S ranked equipment or other high quality items not only have good base stats but grant some nice bonuses as well. Weapons can have bonus poison or fire damage, can hurt certain enemy types more and even grant class specific advantages. Armor types which can be interchangeable with other classes have varying resistances or provide other stat boosts. While not as complex as something like Diablo 3, it will have players searching for the best builds. But before equipment can be identified or even used, it must be appraised. Players can either sell the item outright or risk appraising it for a fee. Though it might be a gamble appraising an item that doesn’t seem quite as valuable, there is always the chance it could have the one special stat that puts it over the edge.
While the combat in Dragon’s Crown is straightforward yet deceptively complex, it doesn’t always prevent the game from hitting some large difficulty spikes. Several moments will come around where the player can feel overwhelmed with a few waves of enemies or a particularly dastardly boss fight. Some of it can be alleviated with grinding and completing the various side quests. But unlike many old school games where no more lives meant game over, Dragon’s Crown is forgiving with a large array of healing items, AI and online partners and just a bit of reduced experience points.
Graphics & Sound
This console generation has, without a doubt, provided a visual feast for any sort of gamer. Mass Effect gave us a universe to explore while Red Dead Redemption sent us to the Old West. Uncharted 2’s Tibet transformed snow while Journey did the same for sand. Despite more powerful hardware just on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine what can trump Dragon’s Crown in terms of artistry. In a world of polygons, this hand-drawn look might seem out of place. Yet when watching the distinct animations of each character and noting the attention to detail in every movement, it’s hard not to be blown away.
From the massive bosses and inventive creatures inhabiting Hydeland to the levels themselves, everything looks like it was ripped from one of the best fantasy picture books ever drawn. Any screenshot from the game could be printed out and bound into something that would fit comfortably on a bookshelf. Even if there were only a couple unique levels and a handful of different enemies, Dragon’s Crown would stand apart. But because there are only a few enemy reskins (in a genre that lends itself to many) and each level is packed with different backdrops and scenery, the visuals pop even more. Kamitani’s vision is stamped all over the game and the creativity of his team seems boundless. It’s even more of a delight that the game plays as fluidly as it looks. Only rarely will an intense fight with multiple characters onscreen slow down; even rarer are moments where textures in the environment look less than stellar.
When it comes to the game’s audio, Vanillaware went for the minimalistic approach. One narrator is used for all speaking parts large and small. Coming across as a sort of “books on tape” reading, his distinguished voice will occasionally change when doing the voice of a particularly silly or distinct character. It can be a little repetitive especially when considering the same bit of story dialog is repeated after exiting every shop. The game’s score is very appropriate considering the setting. It never diverges into a strange or out of place instrumentation.
For an experience like this, multiplayer is a natural extension of gameplay. Playing Dragon’s Crown with partners either locally or online is a blast of nostalgia to the days of plugging in two controllers to a console and playing with a friend only a few feet from the television. Multiplayer is more cooperative than competitive as the different skills of each class blend together. Seeing how others play is also a good learning experience for those who only know the ropes of a couple classes. Sometimes playing with others helps alleviate some of the difficulty spikes but the game does account for more players by adding more enemies. For those who prefer AI over human controlled counterparts, piles of bones found throughout stages can be resurrected for a fee and fight alongside the player. AI companions aren’t exactly the smartest but can help with the pressure of heavy fights. A player versus player arena is also present to feed that competitive edge that many have. It’s a great way to test builds and hone skills.
On a purely visual level, it’s hard not to recommend Dragon’s Crown. This is a purely beautiful game with an uncompromising visual style that will demand the attention of anyone that sees it. Those who feel that it’s simply a treat for the eyes will miss out on a game that serves not only as a love letter to beat ’em ups but an evolution of the genre. Hydleland might not provide a wildly inventive spin on the fantasy game but the level and character design make up for it in spades. The loot system and unlockable difficultly levels massively extend the life of the game. Dragon’s Crown is the kind of incredible, refined experience one should expect this late into the PlayStation 3’s life cycle.
tags: atlus , Dragon's Crown , ps3 , review , Vanillaware