In viewing the gameplay of Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown from afar, one assumes it’s a straightforward albeit attractive side-scrolling brawler. We’ve seen plenty of gameplay footage and it’s reminiscent of old-school beat-‘em-ups of the past. If you’re old enough, you remember the days of Golden Axe and Dungeons & Dragons in the arcades, and you probably think you know what to expect. But you’ll soon find that Dragon’s Crown is a fantastic blend of action and role-playing, and it’s even prettier than you anticipated.
In an industry that strives to reach new levels of realism and authenticity with each passing day, it’s refreshing to see a return to beautiful 2D artistry. Just about everything you see in this game is meticulously and painstakingly designed. The animation is excellent and the special effects are gorgeous. It’s true that the character designs have received plenty of attention, and the Amazon and Sorceress are heavily exaggerated to the point of absurdity. But that is consistent throughout the visual presentation, as everything – including the male character models – is just way over-the-top. Everyone should appreciate this artistic effort.
The audio is another highlight, as we receive a competent and engaging narrator, who treats the script as one would a fairytale story. It works out perfectly because in truth, the game feels like a fairytale in every sense of the word. The soundtrack is pleasant without being especially impressive, as it’s missing a few harder-hitting tracks that give an edge to intense encounters. But that only allows the great special effects to shine. Every physical strike and magical spell is plenty satisfying, and the enthusiastic cries and grunts of the characters aren’t overdone. It all gels together very well; the sound balancing is almost as special as the graphical display.
As I said above, you might be fooled into thinking Dragon’s Crown is simply a side-to-side brawler, akin to Double Dragon or Streets of Rage . However, this content-laden adventure offers a lot more than a standard side-scrolling arcade experience. At the core beats the heart of a robust RPG, complete with levels, character statistics and progression, unlocked and purchased skills, tons of equipment (and even the necessity to keep that equipment in good condition), and ally recruitment. Not to mention the side quests, engaging storyline, and branching dungeons that add even more flavor.
Each character has a distinct play style, which means that even after completing the adventure, you might want to go through again as a different character. The game will tell you how challenging each fighter is to use; for instance, characters that are for “everyone” or for “normal players” are relatively simple. On the other hand, the magic-users (the Wizard and the Sorceress) are only recommended for expert-level players. The good news is that with a little practice, just about anyone can use all available characters. You also get a chance to see multiple fighters in action, as you can hit the battlefield with up to for party members.
Those allies can be controlled by friends sitting in the room with you, or you can let the AI help you out. It’s interesting to note that you can recruit partners online, but that feature must be unlocked; you actually have to play for about five hours before you can grab friends online. Still, I would recommend playing with someone by your side. This game is just begging to be enjoyed and appreciated via local multiplayer action, because I believe such action is best experienced with a friend or two. Like I said, you may remember playing those addictive side-scrollers in the arcades; weren’t they always more fun with a buddy?
Hopefully, you and your friends are RPG fans, too. Each character increases in level, has a host of stats that dictates his or her performance, and there’s even a central town hub. You can visit places like the tavern, where you can recruit warriors to fill out your party, and the Adventurer’s Guild to purchase skills and pick up extra quests. You can fast-travel to each location on your mini-map, so you can expedite the process. After finishing a quest, you might want to resurrect fallen warriors (the bones you pick up turn into allies in this fashion), repair your equipment, purchase and sell items and equipment, and check out the available abilities.
In short, in between missions, you’ll participate in rejuvenation and preparation steps that are familiar to any RPG veteran. You wouldn’t think this would fit a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up format but amazingly, it really does. You can revisit areas you’ve conquered to gain more valuable experience and pick up more treasure, and in a lot of ways, it starts to feel like dungeon-crawlers such as Diablo . It’s all about advancing your characters and locating rare treasure, all of which must be appraised after finding it on the battlefield. Here’s hoping the cost of appraisal doesn’t exceed the value of the item…!
The control is spot-on, and you can access extra items and spells with the directional pad. This is a little slower and takes some getting used to, but short of pausing the game (which wouldn’t fit the structure), I can’t think of a better way to add that necessary depth. There are a few shortcomings, though: Visibility can be an issue, as your characters can blend into each other and the enemies. You might lose track of your fighter quite a bit during an encounter with an oversized boss, for instance. Admittedly, that gets quite frustrating. Also, the AI isn’t very good, especially at lower levels. During the first few hours, you’ll have to deal with some pretty lame allies.
One could also argue that the story isn’t all that great, and I suppose the character designs could offend the easily offended. But the tongue-in-cheek nature of this fantasy environment outweighs all, and the beautiful artistry is such a huge bonus. As for the story, I’m not sure why some are complaining. It’s certainly better than most any game I’ve played that utilizes this type of gameplay. It can’t be compared to top-notch RPG narratives but this is a blend, remember? And the focus is squarely on the gameplay, which is diverse, responsive, and always, always fun.
Dragon’s Crown is an extremely well-constructed blend of old-school action elements and role-playing depth. It looks great, the gameplay is rewarding for the hardcore and accessible to newcomers, the control is rock solid, and the amount of content is worthy of the $50 price tag in my eyes. You can also pick it up for the Vita for $40, if you’re so inclined. The story isn’t exactly intricate (but it is charming) and visibility can be an issue, but other than that, the drawbacks are few and far between. It’s great fun by yourself or with friends and it never stops being entertaining. How many games can you really say that about?
The Good: Beautiful artistry, detail and animations. Great sound and a fitting narrator. Solid, responsive control. Mix of role-playing and action is perfectly managed. Accessible for the novice, yet satisfying to the veteran. Lots of content and replay appeal.
The Bad: The story isn’t all that amazing. Visibility during hectic battles can be a problem. Disappointing AI (but only at first).
The Ugly: “'Ugly' and Dragon’s Crown are like oil and water.”