As someone who has been impatiently anticipating the arrival of Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown for some years now, it is my great pleasure to tell you that the gameplay has exceeded my highest expectations.
Unfortunately, much like Icarus, Dragon’s Crown flies a little too close to the sun; where it begins to collapse under the weight of its own ambition.
Now let me clarify; the game is an incredibly fun, well crafted experience. A harken back to the old school arcade beat ‘em ups; Dragon’s Crown offers a surprisingly robust combat system, in a genre defined by its simplicity. Leave it to Vanillaware to reinvent the wheel, as it were.
With a skill point system that unlocks new moves and useable abilities, you can drastically change how your character plays. Spending points on Blizzard allows you to equip a spell book with charges that, when activated, showers the entire screen in hail and snow.
Alternatively, some skill points drastically change how abilities works. For example, as the Elf, if you charge up a power shot with your bow, and fire it up, an arrow will arc down.
With the right skill points, you can charge and fire multiple arrows at the same time, effectively showering a larger area with arrows. Though, consequently, this will expend more arrows from your quiver; a valuable resource.
Combine that with the skill that makes your arrows deal area of effect damage upon reaching their impact point, and the skill that coats your arrow with fire, and you now have a valuable method of clearing out areas that are simply too condensed with enemies.
While the combat system is truly engaging and enjoyable, the real genius behind the gameplay are the RPG elements. While adventuring, the game displays and takes score of everything you do.
Killing X enemies produces Y score, and so on. This encourages the party to pick up every coin, kill every enemy, and explore every nook and cranny of a stage. Uncovering a secret room with a hidden chest can result in a lot of bonus score, gold and loot.
Most stages have unique bonus points that require you to do certain acts to drastically improve your score.
Saving kidnapped village girls from being bitten by voluptuous vampires will net you a healthy bonus score; not dying during the process will increase it even more so.
In addition to that, picking up quests at the Adventurer’s Guild allows you to spice up your adventuring, while also earning you bonus skill points to spend. Yum.
At the end of stage, you’ll get experience based on your score and a list of unappraised loot. While the specific stats aren’t displayed, you’ll be able to check out the item level, loot rank score, and if the item is enchanted or not.
If you decide to gamble on an item that looks potentially good, you can spend a bit of gold to find out what specific stats are on the item. If you sell an item you appraise, it’s usually at a loss of gold, so it can sometimes be a smart move to just hit the, “vendor all” button.
Dragon’s Crown has been one of the few games with loot where it kept the same tempo all the way through.
Despite having to burn a lot of gold on appraising, the game always knew to give me at least one upgrade or sidegrade, prioritizing the stats and items I needed to continue progressing through the game, without ever feeling like I lagged behind the content.
Eventually, though, you’ll get to a point in the game where you can choose to “cash in” on your experience and loot after you beat a stage, or continue adventuring while increasing your end score bonuses (such as experience gained, amount of loot gained, and quality of said loot).
The option to push your adventure ever onward despite diminishing supplies and durability with the promise of exponential loot is a fundamentally simple gameplay addition. But the complexity and replayability it provides within the framework of Dragon’s Crown, adds a layer of depth and strategy that simply defies the expectations one has of this genre.
You could engulf the entire screen in meteors, effectively incinerating all the minions that the stage boss just summoned, but what about the next boss? Or the one after that?
You also have access to bags, which can only be accessed at specific points in a stage. This creates a dichotomy of deciding how difficult you want to make the game.
If you’re going to face a boss you have an easy time with, it’s probably a smart move to equip one of your bags that has your hand-me-down gear from several levels ago. That way you can preserve the durability of your best gear, until you need it for a harder boss/stage.
Eventually, though, something breaks first; that itching desire to see all the loot and experience you’ve accumulated with your mega-big bonus, or the durability on all of your items.
Once that happens, you’re back off to town, where you appraise loot, sell junk, repair items, stock up on potions, spells, trinkets and quests. Oh, and you can pray, too.
Praying is cool, because you can pay gold to further increase bonuses to score, gold and loot gain.
You can only activate one prayer at a time, and after you return from your adventures, you lose the prayer. This creates a dynamic where you really want to maximize the gold spent on praying, by going on very long adventures, where you break just about all your gear in the process, while accumulating massive bonuses to rewards. This entire process is incredibly addictive and fun, while adding layers of strategy to the game itself.
While Dragon’s Crown is a blast to play, it’s also a beautiful, visual spectacle of awe inspiring HD 2-D hand drawn art. In an era dominated by CGI movies and video games, it’s refreshing to see a developer like Vanillaware, who predominantly deals in developing games with meticulous, hand drawn assets.
If you find yourself fawning over the visuals in games like Vanillaware’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade, or Arc System Works’ BlazBlue, then Dragon’s Crown will hit a sweet spot no other game can even begin to satisfy.
There is a small cost to the visual ecstasy. At times, the screen can get a bit… cluttered. All it takes is a Wizard setting the screen ablaze, while the Amazon is doing Axetacular flips around the battlefield, and a Dwarf is tossin’ Orcs at Goblins like a bowling ball at pins.
The entire thing looks like a painstakingly crafted painting that gives the player a sense of satisfaction that only the likes of Michael Angelo knew of. At the same time, though; it can be a bit difficult to, you know, dodge that incoming powerful attack, or perfectly aim your bow at, well… anything.
Believe me, though. It’s well worth the cost, when you see a hand drawn Dragon slowly rise from its slumber, and engulf an entire treasure filled room in flames. Breathtaking.
While the story in Dragon’s Crown is by no means a literary masterpiece, its shortcomings are carried by a narrator with a hefty sized thesaurus by his side. If anything, you’ll be more likely to stick with the story, just to hear his silky smooth voice compose a majestic description of the events that are befalling your hero.
If, however, you are in no mood for storytelling, you can always just skip the cutscenes, and stick to just hearing the narrator comment on an event or two, while adventuring.
While the English speaking narrator is fantastic, the “heroes” aren’t. Luckily, you can individually select the playable characters voice actors; swapping between Japanese and English, depending on which you fancy most.
The music and sound effects are surprisingly satisfying. Hitoshi Sakimoto, the composer for Dragon’s Crown, has created an uplifting and heroic atmosphere with his soundtrack. It fits perfectly with the crunchy, and profound sound effects that accentuate every blow you deal to those who stand before you.
Truthfully, I can go on and on in an almost manic state, zealously describing every ounce of this game that I love. Unfortunately, we’d be here forever and it wouldn’t really matter.
See, Dragon’s Crown, for all the good it does, fails pretty miserable at what is arguably the most important aspect of this genre: Multiplayer.
If you grew up in arcades playing Golden Axe, like I did, you’ll know that the best part of the genre is playing with people. Whether it be with longtime friends, or a stranger, the beat ‘em up genre is always at its best when you’re on an adventure with others.
Pulling off a crazy, mid-air combo that ends with you knocking a helpless Orc into the ground, followed by a downward aerial strike, is substantially cooler when you leave the rest of the party with their jaws on the floor, as they watch you juggle your opponents with finesse and ease.
This is made all the more apparent, when you actually do have friends over to play co-op with, which can be done at any point in the game. Oddly enough, online multiplayer restricts you to only being able to play with people, once you’re level 17 (which takes about 3 hours to obtain). This includes anyone on your friends list. Oh, and there’s no voice support.
I can’t think of a better game for chatting with strangers and friends, than Dragon’s Crown. In a relatively easy to play game, there is absolutely no frustration to be had with others, which would result in 0 verbal antagonization from strangers.
Combine that with the fact that there are a lot of “secrets” in the game, and it actually becomes frustrating to not be able to talk with people.
Missing out on some of the best loot in the game, because someone doesn’t know about a secret rune combination, or how to access a hidden room; will result in you losing out on a lot of loot, by playing online.
This would easily be remedied by being able to say on voice chat, “Hey, wait up, there’s a secret room located here; don’t exit the room.” The new players would learn a new secret, which they can share with others, and all of a sudden the entire community benefits.
While I fully believe lack of voice support is Dragon Crown’s biggest flaw, what bothers me the most, really is the arbitrary restriction on when you can play with friends online. The game would feel so much better, if you could start the game from level 1, with a pre-planned group set up, that optimizes loot dynamics.
That was always my favorite thing to do in games like Diablo, and it just feels like a lost opportunity that occurs for seemingly no reason at all.
I do have hope, though. Already Vanillaware has updated Dragon’s Crown with an incredible patch that has greatly increased the quality of life of the game, focusing primarily on multiplayer. I believe this game has the potential for legendary status, and might just get there…
Indeed, Dragon’s Crown does exactly what it set out to do; redefine the side scrolling beat ‘em up genre. It does it with style, class and bravado. Unfortunately, though, Vanillaware neglected to properly support the most essential ingredient for the genre; the community.
Even after 80 hours played, I still have the same reaction every time I boot up Dragon’s Crown, “I love this game.”
The art style is distinct, meticulous and simply marvelous. It was clearly crafted with a level of dedication and love, that’s simply endearing. The only problem being that, when the battles really start to get going, the game can become a bit difficult to navigate.
With the English narrator, and your heroes set to Japanese voice actors, the game sounds silky smooth. Combine that with great sound effects and a soundtrack that perfectly compliments the atmosphere, and you have a recipe for awesomeness.
The story, while being intriguing and well written, simply doesn’t deliver on an emotional level. Indeed, it serves completely as a means to draw you into the atmosphere of the game, and support the gameplay. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see, for a change.
I’ve got over 80 hours into this game, and I have no intentions of quitting anytime soon. While you can overcome the strange multiplayer issues with local co-op, or patient friends with skype; it ultimately feels like it keeps Dragon’s Crown from being what should have been a legendary title.
If you treat Dragon’s Crown primarily as a single player action RPG with outstanding gameplay, you’ll find yourself enamored by its intoxicating atmosphere and addictive nature. Just, you know… don’t expect an enthralling tale of emotional turmoil.