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Review: Dragon's Crown

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You are having an adventure!

Fittingly for a game clearly patterned after classical fantasy role-playing games, Dragon's Crown has walked a long, eventful road towards release. Beginning life as a Dreamcast game and after being punted between multiple publishers and incarnations over the last decade, Vanillaware has finally managed to bring its baby to term on the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, ready to be played - and judged.

After all this time and effort, has Vanillaware's quest succeeded? Or did Dragon's Crown fail its saving throw?

The short, role-playing-themed answer for that query is "No". The slightly longer, still RPG-themed answer, is "In fact, it rolled a critical hit." 

Dragon's Crown (PlayStation 3 [tested], PlayStation Vita [reviewed])
Developer: Vanillaware / Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Released: August 6, 2013
MSRP: $49.99 (PlayStation 3) / $39.99 (PlayStation Vita)

From the moment a new game starts in Dragon's Crown, players are surrounded in the game's Dungeons & Dragons-inspired trappings. Each of the six character classes conforms to some fantasy stalwart: the Fighter, Amazon, Dwarf, Elf, Wizard and Sorceress. Even the game's relatively thin story carries the air of a pen-and-paper campaign, as a prim Dungeon Master-like voice narrates your every action in the second-person.

The events of the narrative are similarly archetypal. You and your party (AI companions at first, then actual humans a little while later) hack, slash, burn and pierce your way through orc-held fortresses, magical labyrinths, ancient ruins, and pirate coves. You'll recover royal trinkets, get involved in some palace intrigue, and meet a little fairy that can point out secret treasure (don't worry, Navi-haters, she's quiet). 

The story and world-building actually end up being the game's weakest components, come across as a mild disappointment, compared to the studio's other work. Odin Sphere constructed a complex, multifaceted story that, when unraveled, played like a fantastic, apocalyptic fantasy-fiction take on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. GrimGrimoire delivered a strange, magical-academy-themed time travel yarn, and Muramasa: The Demon Blade wallowed happily in exoticism, soaked in visual and thematic reference to Japanese folk myth. On paper, Dragon's Crown seems unremarkable and generic.

The difference, of course, is in presentation. And what a presentation it is! Vanillaware and lead artist George Kamitani's lush, two-dimensional aesthetic wipes away virtually all the generic fantasy taste, rendering the world and characters of Hydeland in striking, unforgettable style. Characters and environs alike are drawn in vivid color and intricate detail, looking absolutely gorgeous whether you're playing on a massive living room TV (via the PS3 version) or on the Vita's small OLED screen.

Of all Vanillaware games released thus far it's Dragon's Crown that seems to get to the heart of the studio's aesthetic. Kamitani's art gives the impression of a classic Boris Vallejo pinup, beamed through the prism of anime styling. Vallejo's art was often described as "hyper-real". Dragon's Crown takes that and pushes it forward into the realm of the surreal. There's nary a character or monster in the game that isn't some primal exaggeration of classic fantasy tropes.

Yes, the Sorceress' and Amazon's designs have come under fire recently for their prominent emphasis of boobs and butts, but it's worth pointing out that practically no one in the game is safe from that brush. The Dwarf is a squat boulder of a person, half everyone's height and wider than he is tall. The Fighter is built like a refrigerator, with a head so small it would probably fit in a refrigerator's egg tray. A street beggar isn't just filthy, but also has a skin texture and posture more akin to a piece of driftwood than a person. Strangely enough, only the Wizard and Elf look "normal" compared to everyone else. Ultimately, in Dragon's Crown's case it's a question of style and art direction rather than craven exploitation. Your mileage may vary, and for some, the depictions of characters in the game will ensure a short journey indeed.

But is it fun? True, Vanillaware's games have usually looked better than they've played, but I'm glad to report that Dragon's Crown nails the brawler formula like never before.

Each of the six classes, despite having common basic controls, plays vastly differently, with a unique rhythm and tempo to each character and player's style. The Fighter excels at defense and melee, using shielding and aerial juggling to hold the line and set up high-flying combos with companions. By comparison, the Dwarf is best used to grab and throw enemies off the walls, and the Amazon by never stopping the combo to activate her damage-boosting berserker mode. The Elf can fire poison and elemental arrows, but is forced to ration her limited ammunition and scavenge from defeated enemies. The Wizard and Sorceress both play similarly on the base level, but differ mainly in spell selection, with the Wizard specializing in offensive spells and the Sorceress having potent support and crowd-control spells.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg, since the game's diverse skill system allows for a variety of "builds" and setups to be tested, with an endless stream of loot and equipment to further strengthen your characters and tweak their play style.

The game's structure also encourages wide experimentation. Each stage can be completed twice, with unlockable "B-Side" imposing special requirements and new threats. Difficulty settings are tied to level caps, practically demanding that players who want to get to the top run through the stages repeatedly, though the benefits in cash, loot, and joyous violence makes up for the repetition. Smart encounter design, epic bosses, and intriguing level gimmicks also keep things fresh for the veteran player. At the upper tiers of skill, Dragon's Crown evolves into an almost roguelike-esque endurance run, with you and your party seeing how many consecutive dungeon runs they can string together before retreating to town, each run separated by an gorgeous, and hilariously frantic cooking minigame.

Nothing beats playing with friends, though, and like the best arcade brawlers, Dragon's Crown supports up to four people playing simultaneously. The PS3 version has local play, and the Vita can run ad hoc connections for shared-room gaming. Both can do online matchmaking, but sadly cross-play isn't supported (though players can move their save data and characters from version to version).

Unfortunately for frugal players, the game doesn't support cross-buy either, forcing a Dragon's Crown customer to choose between the couch and the commute when thinking of which platform to buy.

For my money, Dragon's Crown feels most at home on the PS Vita. Despite having a slightly lower framerate, the game's controls seem built to incorporate the front touch screen. Using the touch screen, players can order their trusty Rogue friend to unlock doors and chests. They can also gather up loot by poking at it on the touch screen. On the PS3 the cursor needs to be moved using the right analog stick, which feels awkward. Short mission structure and simplistic core mechanics also feel just right for mobile play.

The game isn't without fault, either (besides the potentially problematic aesthetic). It can become easy to lose track of your character in all the pretty mayhem, and precision classes like the Elf (and certain builds of Sorceress/Wizard) can have difficulty lining up their shots. It also takes a fairly long while to unlock online play (between four and six hours roughly), though on the other hand that ensures you and anyone you meet will have a baseline level of familiarity with the systems, something that'll be essential when tackling the higher difficulties and more complex encounters. The most chaotic encounters can produce some slowdown on the Vita version, but it's nothing game-breaking.

Despite these fumbles, Dragon's Crown is an expertly-crafted brawler that adds depth, nuance, and freshness to an aging formula, and presenting it in a sublime homage to its genre ancestors as well as classic cliches of sword-and-sorcery role-playing.

Hail to the king, adventurers!

9 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)


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Dragon's Crown reviewed by Josh Tolentino

9

SUPERB

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.
How we score:  The Japanator reviews guide

 
 
 

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Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoManaging Editor   gamer profile

Josh is Japanator's Managing Editor, and contributes to Destructoid as well, as the network's premier apologist for both Harem Anime and Star Trek: Voyager For high school reasons, he's called "u... more + disclosures


 



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