- Editor's Rating
- Beautifully detailed looks
- Engrossing fantasy atmosphere
- Very enjoyable with pals
- Can feel formulaic at points
- Combat can get overwhelmingly chaotic
- Occasionally cheap boss fights
Quick TakeDragon's Crown is a gorgeous and earnest romp through a classic kind of game. It's richly detailed, fun with friends and well worth a spot in your PS3 or PS Vita library.
Dragon’s Crown is a love letter. It’s an obviously passionate work created by composers that have deeply obsessed over their inspirations. It’s a game of simple pleasures, some of them blatant, some of them subtle. It can get repetitive, tedious and, at its worst points, embarrassing. But it’s an affectionate tribute, and an enjoyable trip back to a time when most games didn’t have the Hollywood aspirations that so many do today.
This is the kind of title that will appeal most to people who think games have only gotten worse over the past twenty years. It’s a melding of 2D beat-em-up and Western RPG that is noticeably inspired by the famous Dungeons & Dragons brawlers that used to populate arcades in the mid 90s. If you’ve played those, you know the core of what to expect here. You’re an adventuring hero, and you’re going to stop the evildoers, slay the evil dragon and save the kingdom.
Along the way you’ll inevitably delve into speak of how the sorceress compares to the wizard, or how this one dungeon is perfect for doing that one quest, or how that level 43 warhammer is more useful than that newly found bow or poleaxe. That’s the only way to talk about a game like this. There are no million-dollar cutscenes, no overt focus on realism, and no worshipping of explosive setpieces. And that’s the point. It’s all so gloriously corny and earnest.
Yet Dragon’s Crown is by no means cheaply made, and that’s first evident through its art style. That classic D&D RPG aesthetic is dripping all over this game, and it’s done so through a world and set of characters that look like they were hand drawn right out of a high fantasy novel. Settle into the kingdom of Hydeland and you’ll find taverns, caverns, knights, guilds, rogues, orcs, fairies, wizards, castles and just about every other olden RPG trope you can think of.
Dragon’s Crown is too beholden to its inspirations to be considered original, but it knows that, and it decides instead to fine tune that setup and make it as gorgeous as possible. And it is gorgeous. It’s decidedly cartoonish, but every panel you side scroll across and every character you meet are like paintings in and of themselves. They’re riddled with details that not only look pleasant but subtly build up a sort of mythos around Hydeland’s denizens, home kingdom and dungeons.
Make your way to the entrance of a deserted ancient temple and you’ll see the bones of a fallen species with its mouth agape. Circle around a Babel-esque mage’s tower and you’ll notice the dark clouds that curse it overhead. Converse with the barbarian warrior Roland and note the legions of orcs he’s slain behind him, and the hulking muscles on his chest that form the faint face of a bull. This is a very literate game, and little details and winking references like that are everywhere. Dragon’s Crown is fast-paced in action, but it’s worth it to stop and appreciate all the care Vanillaware has poured into their baby. It feels like a product borne out of love.
This is the rare modern game that actually dares to leave some aspects up to your imagination. The story, setting and characters are generic on paper, but they’re presented in a way that brings you right back around the D&D board.
There are no voice actors here, for instance. Instead, every word and peculiarity is presented to you by a narrator with an English-tinged accent, one who speaks as if he was reading your journey right out of a storybook. When you talk to the local wizard, or princess, or anyone, they’re shown as semi-still paintings, which isn’t lazy design so much as it is an outlet for you to consider the visual intricacies of each character.
You can sense the tired wisdom emanating through the pipe of the old wizard Lucain as his wrinkled hands lightly grasp his wooden cane and his bushy grey brows furrow when he looks you over. You can tell that the thief Rannie, your lockpicking NPC companion, has swindled many a man by the half smirk on his face and the way he gently flicks the gold coin in his hand. It goes on, capably letting you fill in any blanks as you continue your quest.
You, meanwhile, can fight through the dungeons of Dragon’s Crown with up to three friends, first only locally but eventually through near-seamless online play. You get a choice of six different characters. Again, they’re all molded out of classic templates, but their looks and play styles are detailed enough to make playing with each one an impressively diversified experience.
There’s the dwarf, a compact rock of a man who bludgeons and throws his way through enemies with brute force. There’s the elf, a nimble huntswoman cloaked in a green tunic who fires off volleys of arrows from afar. And the fighter, a chunk of broad-shouldered armor who provides a mix of strong offense and capable defense. The amazon is a tattooed, muscular woman who bashes baddies with a giant axe. The sorceress and wizard are glass cannons in flowing robes with flowing hair who are good for party support and massive, screen-enveloping strikes.
Before we go any further, let’s say hello to the elephant in the room. Dragon’s Crown, like past Vanillaware games, has stirred up a bit of a controversy due to the design of some of its women characters. One look at the sorceress or amazon is all you need to understand why.
Ultimately, those characters don’t look out of place within this cartoony world (or rather, they didn’t to this reviewer), but there are a few uncomfortable moments of mostly unnecessary sexualization. For example, one dungeon has you come across a half-naked woman (or “spirit”) lightly chained down to a bed by that particular area’s villains. It’s beautifully drawn, with the same level of detail as the rest of the game, but it’s fleeting, out of nowhere, and it carries some wearisome imagery along with it.
A couple of characters are quickly presented with no apparent reason other than to titillate–wait until you see the mermaid–while others are trapped in the tired tropes of needing to be rescued and the like. This wasn’t constant, and it didn’t ruin the entire game for us. But it might for some, and that needs to be respected. Different people will have different opinions. Dragon’s Crown is far from smut, but sometimes it can get…weird, so tread carefully if that’s a dealbreaker.
Playing Dragon’s Crown isn’t quite as remarkable as looking at it, but it’s fun, which further recalls the old school RPG brawlers it reveres. You travel with up to three companions, either through traditional co-op or with largely capable AI companions whose bones you pick up within dungeons and revive in Hydeland’s church. You have a life bar and your assortment of equipped weapons, armor, magic abilities and potions. Then you go forth.
In dungeons, you move forward, womping everything in your path, collecting treasures and venturing into side rooms along the way. There are giant, arcade-style signs that say “IN” or “GO” and point you in the right direction. Then you get to the boss fight. When it’s defeated, you return to the tavern in town, sort through your findings, re-equip yourself accordingly, level up your skills, accept new quests, and head out for your next adventure. And then the procedure starts all over again. It isn’t hard to comprehend.
Combat is surprisingly deep for what it is. It’s only based around a few buttons–regular attack, special attack, dodges, and movement with the left stick–but it makes the most out of them with a quasi-fighting game setup. If you’re good, you can juggle enemies in the air and knock out satisfying combos, especially with a party of friends. It varies by which characters you choose, so you’ll be mashing buttons with a dwarf, carefully picking your shots with a sorceress, and mixing it up with a fighter.
There are issues. Enemies are only there to be knocked over, and they rely on overwhelming numbers more than wits. Boss fights are varied and memorable spectacles–you will not look at rabbits the same way after this–but they occasionally lead to frustration and cheap tactics. And too often it all becomes impossibly chaotic; the camera is zoomed in just a tad too much by default, and the sheer amount of beings, explosions, magic blasts, and flashing hit points that can end up on screen at once is absurd.
It’s a silly sight to see, sure, but there’ll be times when you frantically slam buttons just to find your character in the midst of it all. Considering the level of detail put into each environment and character here, it’s a strange dichotomy to see everything go to a messy hell in action.
Dragon’s Crown is launching simultaneously for PS3 and Vita (with cross saving, but no cross buy or cross play), so none of the nine dungeons ever take longer than 20 minutes to complete. This is fine for on-the-go play, but it can make the rigid procedure of the whole thing a little wearisome.
There are unnecessary complications with treasure collecting–you have to buy each one before you can even see it–you’ll be getting new weapons and items after each and every dungeon trip, and in general you’ll feel like you’re spending more time in menus than you should. It’s all easy to navigate, and that timeless thrill of finally finding the S-level weapon you’ve been waiting for never gets old. But spending ten minutes preparing for your dungeon escapades is a drag when you know you’ll be going through the same procedure all over again twenty minutes later.
Still, it’s hard to screw this kind of system up, and Dragon’s Crown’s stylish and straightforward bad guy bashing can’t help but be charming. Like any good old arcade title, it’s meant to be a communal experience, so it naturally becomes better when you share its world, characters and combat absurdities with others. But even if you don’t, Dragon’s Crown is a sincere romp through different days. It’s an old game for a new age, and that’s just fine.
Release Date: Aug. 6, 2013
MSRP: $49.99 (PS3), $39.99 (Vita)