Beat ‘em ups have never been a favorite genre of mine. We’ve all played our fair share of TMNT, Streets of Rage, and the like, but none have had any true staying power. They were time-wasters that got boring quick, especially when played alone. But Dragon’s Crown has a certain allure to it, immediately drawing you in, seducing you with detailed, highly-stylized visuals and the appearance of fast-paced, deep combat.
Dragon’s Crown does not disappoint.
To say this game is stunning is no simple hyperbole. All the artwork, from the characters to the environments, are all 2D sprites, but you’ll be forgiven if you thought otherwise. While the music doesn’t quite match the splendor of the hand-drawn medieval locales, it feels appropriate for this setting. The story, “told” by a narrator, is thinner than a Victoria’s Secret model before dinner and is only meant to guide you from one objective to the next, giving you a slight nudge in the right direction. The story is essentially a footnote, as the gameplay is (and should be) the primary focus.
Starting the game will present you with a roundtable seated by all six of the game’s playable characters. You can choose between the Fighter, Elf, Amazon, Sorceress, Dwarf, or Wizard, each character playing distinctly from the next. Vanillaware was kind enough to let you know which characters were meant for more expert players, but you’re free to choose who you want.
Combat is accessible, but deep. The core mechanic of “hit these bad guys” is there, providing a satisfying time for even the most inexperienced players. Digging deeper offers an intricate level of control and specialization that becomes more apparent the further you go. As you level up or complete quests, you’ll receive skill points to spend between character specific upgrades and common skills. I chose to play through as an Amazon (though I did dabble with the other characters a bit), and selected skills that best fit my aggressive and reckless playstyle.
Dragon’s Crown plays like a brawler, meant to be played at a high pace and preferably with other players. Local co-op with up to four players is available from the start, but online co-op is unlocked once you reach a certain segment of the story. This is a bit of a downer, but the decision does make sense. You have to walk before you can run. If you’re not playing with other human players, you can enlist assistance from some fairly competent AI partners. While exploring, you find piles of bones in the levels that can be taken back to the Priest and revived, bringing a new potential AI onto your team. You can select which AIs to bring with you from those you have revived or you can just play levels and they will sometimes drop-in while you progress.
The drop-in drop-out aspect was actually one of the best features of Dragon’s Crown. Too many times you might simply forget to select AI partners and realize your mistake once you’ve started a dungeon, then a teammate pops in to help and everything is alright again. Once online play is unlocked, human players can do the same (assuming you allow it; it can be turned off). Playing with other players was seamless and there was hardly any lag (the lag could be attributed to playing with Japanese gamers) and minimal slowdown to the action on-screen.
And there is certainly a lot of action on-screen. During particularly hectic battles, it becomes very easy to lose track of yourself amongst a sea of destruction. Some spells have a tendency to cover the majority of the screen that’s already packed full with up to four players and multiple enemies.
Loot also plays a fundamental role and can be found in both treasure chests and small glimmers that can be clicked. Selecting glimmers or other items on-screen is done using the right stick and it’s a clumsy, inelegant solution to the Vita version, which uses the touchscreen. It doesn’t have much effect on the actual gameplay aside from being a bit annoying, but using magic runes that provide buffs is performed using the same method and those are harder to pull off in the heat of battle.
There are nine stages to battle your way through initially. Upon completing them, you will unlock an alternate path called a “B-route”, essentially doubling the playable areas to 18 and keeping the experience fresh. Each route has its own boss, ranging from an oversized harpy to an enormous, powerful chimera. Playing alone can get a bit repetitive, but Dragon’s Crown is immensely fun when online and the boss fights are among the most memorable in recent years.
There is so much content packed into Dragon’s Crown, Atlus estimates it’ll take about 120 hours to consume it all. They underestimated. After beating it on Normal, you unlock Hard mode and increase your level cap. Beat Hard mode, and now Inferno mode is available, allowing you to max out at level 99. Add in random loot collecting, the aforementioned quests, and six unique playable characters, and Dragon’s Crown will keep you busy for a while.
Vanillaware has delivered just about everything a person could want in a side-scrolling beat ‘em up and then some. They’ve essentially taken JRPG trappings and melded them into a pot with Diablo-style loot and Golden Axe to create a game that all fans of any of these genres should play. Minor issues aside, Dragon’s Crown was able to drill down to the essentials of what makes a game fun and if you’re not careful, hours could be lost while you’re memorized by its beauty. Just don’t stare at the boobs.
Author’s Note: Since I do not own a Vita, I was unable to test that version of the game. While Dragon’s Crown does have cross-save, it does not feature cross-buy or cross-play, so if you only intend on buying one, choose wisely. The levels are designed in a way that’s great in short spurts for on-the-go play, but since there’s no cross-play, you may have to get comfortable with AI companions in the long run. You’ll get the benefit of the touchscreen for runes and loot, rather than the awkward right stick solution. There are certain trade-offs, but I’d say either version makes for a good choice.
Available on Playstation 3 (reviewed), Playstation Vita
Buy: Purchase Dragon’s Crown from Amazon
Full disclosure: Code was provided by the publisher for review. I spent 18 hours with this game, beating it on Normal and trying out all characters.