I love Vanillaware. I have played and hugely enjoyed Odin's Sphere and Muramasa and was massively excited when I discovered news about Dragon's Crown. The game had been in development for an age and I was sure that given all that time to tweak the mechanics and the reputation of Vanillaware for producing impressive games with solid gameplay that this title would be a winner. I am saddened to say that I found the game greatly lacking - the first time I have felt let down by George Kamitani and his team.
Let's start with the positives. The game looks amazing, as all Vanillaware games do. Every frame has been painstakingly hand-painted and every sprite is animated perfectly and looks gorgeous. You will encounter a great swathe of fantasy-themed baddies from huge dragons, krakens, skeletons, dinosaurs and many more; all of them look great. The locales are varied and many, from pirate coves to magician's towers to crumbling ruins.
There have been a number of issues raised with the way the females are portrayed in this game (hugely out of proportion breasts and often in suggestive poses) leading to the designers being labelled as sexist and misogynistic. I have never been a fan of games or other media depicting women with obscenely large boobs (see Dead or Alive as another example of this - they even have an option in there to adjust the feminine jiggles, if you can believe that). I find it both unnecessary and juvenile, but the criticism of the art in this game is unwarranted - many of the character artists involved in creating this title are female and, for better or worse, this over-the-top style is often employed in Japanese culture (and this game is distinctively Japanese). This won't be the first or the last game to portray women characters in such a fashion and I don't feel that the sexism debate should be used to judge a game's merits or lack thereof.
People are also citing the price tag as a deterrent for purchasing the game. This is ludicrous also. The game is massive. There are a selection of six character types all with their own strengths and weaknesses allowing for a total of six playthroughs overall. Each playthrough consists of nine stages each with branching paths amounting to, in essence, eighteen levels in total. There are also fifty mini-quests available from the Adventurer's Guild. This accounts for a huge amount of game time for your money - to play through every difficulty with each character will give you in excess of 60 to 70 hours of gameplay. Not to be sniffed at, no? That can be extended even further should you wish to earn all of the trophies on offer and best the randomly generated Chaos Labyrinth upon completing the game.
Unfortunately, for me, the gameplay does not stand up as well as the game's visuals. You will move from left to right in the vein of many of the old-school side-scrollers of yore, fighting enemies and collecting loot. There are three characters who specialise in melee and three who specialise in long-range attacks but regardless of the class you choose you will spend most of your time in-game mashing the square button which is the regular attack button. The square button can be combined with the directional buttons to activate special attacks such as grabs, parries and slides but they are often difficult to use effectively due to how busy the screen gets - more on this later. You also have a powerful special attack that can be utilised with the circle button which unarms your character momentarily and weakens your attacks as you are forced to fight weaponless. I love games such as Streets of Rage and Golden Axe which employ more basic but similar mechanics to Dragon's Crown and still play them regularly. I didn't enjoy this modern offering half as much as these classics - for some reason Dragon's Crown wore thin on me very quickly and I found the combat repetitive and a bit of a chore, if I'm being honest.
Touchscreen controls are utilised in game to loot chests, cast spells and knock collectables from the scenery. This can be frustrating as you have to remove your hand from the face buttons during the heat of battle during some areas in order to use runes that cast beneficial spells that assist your party. Often if you are getting battered (which will happen regularly) you can tap carvings in the wall and combine them with runestones in your possession to damage enemies and cast protective barriers around your characters. However, the runes that appear are tiny and often you will need to tap them more than once to activate them. While you are focusing on this your character will be savagely beaten by your opponents. Often you'll die as a result. Chests can be unlocked with a tap of the screen and you gain rewards and items as a result which can be appraised and either sold for cash or equipped to strengthen your characters at the end of each stage. Fans of Borderlands will love this loot-and-appraise approach but it might not be for everyone.
The multiplayer element of the game, which is advertised as one of the main features on the game box, is locked until halfway through the game. I have no idea why this is the case. As you wait for the feature to unlock, you can collect the bones of dead characters and have the computer control them once you resurrect them at the temple in town. Sounds great, but unfortunately these computer controlled comrades are worse than useless. They will cast spells at random, stand still for no discernible reason and take a beating and die very, very often. You can resurrect them, but each time you do so costs you more and more gold. Their ineptitude will empty your wallet in an instant. When the multiplayer option becomes available, don't expect a plethora of human characters to pop into your game. I have played the game for over twenty hours now and have had very few human partners join my game despite having the connection setting set to worldwide. A recent update has enabled PS3 and PS Vita players to play alongside each other via either platform; hopefully this will improve the number of drop-in players.
At the far end of the town you find yourself in after clearing each stage you use a portal to select the next stage you want to attempt to conquer. Halfway through the game you lose the ability to choose which level you want to play next unless you pay money at the stables to rent a horse. This might not sound like a big deal but if you failed miserably at a stage and are returned to town after spending all your gold bringing the computer controlled characters back to life you may be forced to sell important items or weapons in order to select the area you wish to go to next. If you can't afford a horse, the game picks the level you challenge next totally at random. This might not happen often but when it does it can become annoying - especially when you have only one talisman to collect from a specific stage. This is a design choice, like the locking of the multiplayer, that had me scratching my head. The random level choice would have been a welcome option if it was assigned to a button during the level select screen, but having it thrust on you with no choice in the matter seems strange, to me at least.
In order to progress through the game without pulling your hair out you will be required to grind your levels and improve your equipment by replaying stages over and over. Without doing so you will find your character underpowered and they will be punished mercilessly when you eventually unlock the secondary path of each stage. More often than not you'll get through the stage easily enough, then come to a hugely overpowered boss who will crush you and wipe the floor with your remains. I love a challenge and enjoy difficult games; what I dislike is when a game forces you to boost levels in order to find yourself on even a level pegging with some of the enemies on offer. This might be one of the main reasons I grew disillusioned with the game.
The worst failing of the game, on the Vita at least, is the horrible overcrowding on the screen. There are four allies including your own character on the screen at once, one looter who comes on-screen to collect treasures, a fairy who points things out to you, a multitude of enemies, chests and breakables, and items exploding from the background and dead baddies. This can render your screen an unintelligible blur of action. There will be a dozen times on each and every stage where you won't be able to see your own character through the tangle. This will lead to unavoidable death on a regular basis, especially when facing bosses, as the markers that show where their projectile attacks will land are hidden by secondary characters and enemies assisting the boss. In addition, on the occasions when other humans do join your game, they may be controlling the exact same character as you which only adds to the confusion.
As a massive fan of old-school side-scrollers and Vanillaware I was certain I would love this game. I hate to admit that I am less than impressed with Dragon's Crown overall. It looks great, has a huge amount of replayability but its many frustrations and repetitive nature somewhat killed the game for me. If you love your side-scrolling brawlers by all means give it a go. I'm sure many people will love the game, just for me it feels like there is something missing, that it lacks the character of similar games from the SNES and Mega Drive era.