The newly crowned king of beat 'em ups
Dragon's Crown has had an ... interesting development cycle over the past few years, to say the least. After controversy sparked due to the art style Vanillaware has been employing for over a decade now, many people began to wonder if there was actually a game under the distinct, polarizing art style.
But you won't find any controversy here. At long last, Dragon's Crown is finally out, and we can judge it on its own merits -- as a videogame.
And it's fantastic.
Dragon's Crown (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita [tested])
Dragon's Crown is a beat 'em up through and through. While there is a story, it's fairly minimal, as the focus is mainly on hacking, slashing, beautiful locales, and some of the best boss fights in recent memory. Through a medieval veneer, Vanillaware weaves a world that looks familiar, yet feels clearly unique. Rather than fully voiced dialog from a myriad of supporting cast members, the tale is told through a single narrator (like a D&D Dungeon Master).
You'll embark on your journey as one of six classes -- the Fighter, the Amazon, the Dwarf, the Sorceress, the Wizard, or the Elf. Each of these classes predictably utilizes a variety of ranged and melee attacks, and they operate generally how one thinks they should -- at first. The nuances of combat don't just end at "ranged" or "melee" -- far from it, in fact. Dragon's Crown has a very technical combat system that features juggling, combos, aerial raves, air dashing, rolling, canceling, and more.
In fact, every single class has a defining characteristic that no other class shares. For example, the fighter can block, making him perfect for the front line. The Dwarf can throw enemies, increasing his utility. The Elf can use ranged attacks without a cost to mana with her arrows, but she only has a limited amount, and must pick them back up or find more to replenish her supply.
On top of this, Dragon's Crown also features RPG style level progression, with a fully customizable set of skill trees, drawing from one pool of class specific upgrades, and another "common" tree that's the same for everyone. Using their own unique trees, the Wizard can learn to call upon wooden golems, the Fighter can pick up the ability to call upon an area of effect aegis to protect and buff party members, and so on.
While most beat 'em ups are content to provide four or five different skins as "characters," Dragon's Crown embraces entirely different design philosophies for each class -- encouraging you to try out each and every one. There are 20 character slots per file, and three save file slots (60 total characters on one machine), so you'll have plenty of opportunities to experiment with different builds -- in fact, the game encourages it.
Visually, George Kamitani and the team at Vanillaware have done it again. From the absolutely stunning level select menu to the most insignificant of enemies, it's clear that a painstakingly amount of detail was a core tenet of the philosophy behind Dragon's Crown. All nine levels feel distinctly different from one another, as do the enemies that fill them.
Although nine areas may not seem like a lot, after completing each initial level (and progressing to a certain point in the story), you'll unlock each stage's "B-side," which allows you to venture on another path, splitting the level into two. There's also a myriad of secret areas that feature randomized loot, traps, and enemies, so it never feels like you're playing the exact same level over and over.
To help further alleviate the repetitive nature of the beat 'em up genre in general, Dragon's Crown features enemy/difficulty scaling. But unlike most games that fumble scaling, Vanillaware does it right, because enemies only scale up, not down. In Dragon's Crown, there are still going to be levels where you need to train before you can best them -- so you still get a sense of accomplishment for completing difficult stages.
But because the game also scales up, it makes going back to previous levels fun, and not a "going through the motions" chore. As a result, going back to old stages doesn't feel like a true "grind" like other beat 'em ups, and you'll still have to actively attempt to best the game's bosses with tactical play. Add this to the fact that you can choose either the A or the B-side at will, and you'll have no problem using the "random level" embark option, which grants you extra gold and/or experience bonuses if you let the game pick a series of stages for you.
There are tons of homages to old beat 'em ups, some of which are extremely evident to old school fans. Right off the bat, many of you may recognize some direct calls to Golden Axe, including the sack-holding thief who tries to steal your treasure, and the ability to ride creatures. As a huge fan of King of Dragons (my personal favorite beat 'em up), I noticed a few direct homages -- I'm talking specifically about the diversity of the boss fights, that employ some brilliant design choices to help cement the encounters into the pantheon of the genre.
I don't want to ruin most of the game's encounters (I avoided providing any screenshots of them here), but nearly all of them employ some kind of unique mechanic that lets each boss make its own memorable mark on the game. For example, one fight features a mass brawl with a gang of pirates, with a magic lamp thrown into the fray. Whoever rubs the lamp can summon a genie, who can cast powerful screen-filling spells against the other side -- so it's up to you to not only defend the lamp, but stop the enemy pirates from grabbing it themselves.
After a certain number of spells, or after slashing it away from an enemy, the lamp will bounce all over the battlefield, leading you to frantically defending yourself while hunting for the lamp. Because of the aforementioned scaling system, this fight is always fun, even if you go back and do it multiple times. It's a testament to the solid design of the game, and it avoids falling into a "one and done" trap, making the encounter memorable countless times. This is just one example of a fun boss fight, and the game has over 18 of them.
Dragon's Crown could have ended the experience with just one playthrough, but after besting every single stage, you'll have the opportunity to play two more levels of difficulty. The main "Normal" quest goes through level 35, Hard Mode goes through 65, and Inferno ends at the level cap of 99. You can change the difficulty at will, and Vanillaware actually provides a story based justification for the additional difficulty levels, even if it's very minor.
If you still aren't satisfied, there's a randomly generated end-game dungeon called the Labyrinth of Chaos (which does a nice job of mixing things up, with great rewards) and a PVP arena that allows for up to four players to duke it out. While I was hesitant to spend time in PVP at first, I was pleased to find out that you not only earn gold for participating, but you can also place bots in the arena in lieu of waiting to find other players. The concept of playing approximately the first five to six hours to unlock online play may be grating to some, but the game is only just beginning at that point -- there's so much content here it's insane.
While there is local co-op for up to four players on the PS3, sadly, there is no cross-buy or cross-play feature between the PS3 and the PlayStation Vita. There is cross-save functionality thankfully, so if you have both versions, you can transfer data between the two quite seamlessly -- I was able to do it in seconds without issues. As a side note, although this review is for the PS3 version, I did get a chance to extensively test the Vita version, and found few issues other than the occasional slowdown and generally lower framerate. Alternatively, the controls work magnificently on the Vita (offering up some brilliant touch screen mechanics), and the visuals, as usual, look incredible on the OLED screen.
Dragon's Crown is quite literally a crowning achievement in the beat 'em up genre. Utilizing some of the best design concepts of the past 20 years, Vanillaware succeeds in creating a captivating world that you just can't help but experience over and over. While it may not win over the hardiest of brawler haters, if you've even had an inkling of joy hacking and slashing at any time in your gaming career, you should probably be playing Dragon's Crown.
THE VERDICT - Dragon's Crown
Reviewed by Chris Carter