I was a huge fan of Streets of Rage, Golden Axe and other classic side scrolling beat em ups from the 16 bit era, but always felt that the genre had much more to offer. The Behemoth’s 2008 hit Castle Crashers went some way to towards this by adding RPG elements such as leveling up and four player co-op and provided more depth and replay value. Although Castle Crashers was a fantastic game by all accounts, the art style did not appeal to me so I probably didn’t give it a fair shake. Cue Vanillaware, who following successes with their other side scrolling efforts such as Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, have in Dragon’s Crown created a beautiful, finely balanced RPG brawler which is quite unlike anything I have played before.
The design of the characters, with their bulging muscles and skimpy outfits is well documented and has caused no end of polarising controversy over the run up to the game’s release. Personally, although initially jarring, I found that the over-exaggerated bodies of the characters were something I quickly got over as the game sucked me in with its addictive gameplay and evocative and beautiful locales. I do however think the guys at Vanillaware really did themselves a disservice by making it so hyper-sexualised and it’s a shame that so much of the limelight was taken up by this fixation which shifted focus away from what is on merit, a stellar game.
Odd body proportions aside, the fantasy art style is truly beautiful to behold and looks almost like an oil painted comic book come to life. I found this exceptional artwork, combined with the rousing score and the only occasionally hammy narration to be hugely immersive and it all makes for a really well realised world.
Upon starting the adventure, you choose one of six characters, (Fighter, Dwarf, Amazon, Wizard, Elf or Sorceress) each with their own strengths and weaknesses. From the brutish melee attacks of the Fighter, Dwarf and Amazon to the spellcasting of the Sorceress and the Wizard, the gameplay is greatly altered depending on your character of choice and their varied play styles with the differences in each class significant enough to warrant multiple play throughs. For my first time through the game, I opted for the agile Elf who’s strength lies in ranged attacks and who’s bow seemed to work a treat against bosses. As you level up, you will be able to customise your character with new skills including health upgrades, character specific abilities and magic, all of which provides an enjoyable level of character variation and refinement. The town serves as a hub and is a simple but effective way of navigating upgrades and various locations such as the magic shop, item shop, adventurers guild and stables.
During combat, you will generally have an entourage of three other characters to help you out which can be either AI or co-op partners with online play opening up upon completion of the nine levels for the first time. New AI partners can be collected in the form of piles of bones found in the field and can be brought back to life at the church back in town. This means you will always have someone to fight alongside you and help deal with and proliferate the frenetic chaos that generally ensues on-screen. The combat itself is fast and satisfying with a variety of magic, projectile and melee moves depending on your class. At times it can become just a matter of spamming the attack button, but it’s made all the more interesting by a variety of special weapons you find along your way.
The story, as you might expect, is mostly hokum and revolves around the legendary Dragon’s Crown which is a magical artefact we learn must be recovered from the forces of evil thus saving the world or some other such cliché. This is achieved by collecting a series of talismans from each of the nine levels which range from enchanted forests and underground labyrinths to ghost ships and castles. Although the story served its purpose, I did feel it was a little too drawn out, especially during the first hour or so when I just wanted to get into the action. The cutscenes are skipable though, which is good, as you will be replaying each of the levels a number of times before you see the credits roll. This is due to the robust levelling and loot systems that provide the game with its depth and longevity. Your progression will be significantly hampered if your character is not levelled up and if you try to take on one of the many epic bosses, they will kick your butt if you are not suitably prepared. Fortunately the beautifully drawn backgrounds and the sheer variety of the locations are always a treat for the eyes and are made more interesting by the use of branching pathways, side quests, hidden rooms, special weapons, traps and puzzles which also help with the replayability. Collection of treasure is helped by the AI controlled Rani who is at your beck and call to unlock chests and doors by way of a cursor on the right stick. The more treasure you collect, the higher your treasure rank and the more powerful and rare the loot you will obtain in return.
Although combat can be a little chaotic at times, I didn’t notice any technical issues with the game and the experience was polished throughout. It took me about 18 hours to finish and Vanillaware have provided plenty of incentive to do it all again with a completely different character or on higher difficulty. I really enjoyed my time with the game and look forward to picking it up on Vita to transfer my save across and do it all again on the go. (Albeit a shame it’s only Cross Save and not Cross Buy).
Right now there’s nothing else quite like Dragons Crown; so if you don’t mind the grind and can see beyond the slow story, you will find a beautiful, deep and rewarding game that is testament to the power of having a vision and sticking with it.
What I liked: Beautiful art style and rewarding combat.
What I’d Fix: Shorter cut scenes please, and a more engrossing story.
Wise word: Try chaining a series of quests together in online mode without returning to town. This will significantly increase experience, bonuses and treasure and speed up your leveling.