Dragon’s Crown – Review

dragons-crown-1369416766410_1280x720It comes off as no surprise that Vanillaware’s president George Kamitani held nothing back on his creativity for this title, since it is the first high definition game that the company has ever produced. Controversies over the design? They exist, of course. But I can safely say that they are up to every player’s interpretation.

Ready for some button mashing?

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Title: Dragon’s Crown

Developer: Vanillaware

Publisher: ATLUS

Genre: Brawler (1 Player)

Available on: PS3 – PS Vita (Retail and PSN)

Price: $50 (PS3) – $40 (PS Vita) (No Cross buy)

Release date:

NA: Aug 6, 2013

EU: Jun 28, 2013

JP: Q3/Q4, 2013

Image Quality:

1080p

Sound Quality:

Dolby Digital

Here, you can be whatever you want. Pick up one of the six available classes and make history as you slowly unfold a fairly simple plot that involves warring kingdoms, macabre rituals to resurrect an evil ancient power and the eponymous crown, said to be able of controlling giant fire-breathing lizards. Despite the character specific endings and their diverse gameplay styles, everything is the same for everybody including their dialogues and decisions.

Don’t expect depth in this narrative, though. Everything is shown to you from a mere mercenary’s perspective, told by a great narrator whose role is similar to a Game Master from the classic Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games. There are almost no direct interactions between characters: the narrator describes the situations / objects / people you come across and even impersonates the NPCs’ voices to add depth to your experience. The only exceptions are the town’s shopkeepers.

After a short tutorial, you are prompted to visit the city’s establishments one-by-one as required by the story. To break up the sequence of events, a new dungeon opens and you must go down there and defeat the boss to continue your adventure. Sometimes the game seems to just come up with excuses to make you visit these places, but at least they are all different from each other (except a few “rooms” being used again in two other dungeons).

Along the road, you will find many references to a miryad of popular works. There is this guy named Arn… er, Roland that really looks like Conan the Barbarian, a stage with a flying carpet section that is very similar to the 16-bit Aladdin games, a boss based on a ferocious monster from Monty Python and many other tidbits of popular icons. All of this is just icing on a cake that is based on many monsters and places from Greek Mythology and the Dungeons and Dragons lore.

After completing your tour of 9 stages around the exquisite kingdom of Hydeland, you are granted the task of revisiting every location again to kill fearsome beasts that lie in newly-opened B-paths. Once you overcome this challenging endeavor, the final boss awaits you. Unfortunately, the attention that was dedicated to this title’s numerous backdrops couldn’t be afforded in this last step, which doesn’t have a build-up. The battle is challenging and has great ambience, but some might ask “that’s it?” during the credits.

Gameplay

Of course, this is something that you should only worry about after you’ve got familiarized with all the content that lies within. First of all: you are dealing with a brawler that closely resembles D&D Chronicles of Mystara (which is another game that Kamitani worked on, enemy designs and animations seem quite similar) with slight hints of Golden Axe (you can ride on some monsters), Final Fight, TMNT Turtles in Time and similar works. It has four player co-op for both local and online, also with a small PVP mode. No voice chat, by the way.

The Fighter is the easiest character to play thanks to his many basic skills of pure strenght and improvements for the shield. He can easily take the damage for everybody. The Dwarf comes next with his defensive buff and powerful / hilarious throwing skill. The Amazon is weaker in defense, but her mobility and strenght often surpass these two when she is on Berserk status. The Sorceress and the Wizard share similarities in their arsenal of spells, but she is more inclined on the defensive side while he has more aggressive measures. The Elf is the hardest character to start, but she can be deadly once her skills start to flourish. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (28)Curious mechanics affect both halves of the cast. The melee-type ones (Fighter, Dwarf, Amazon) can drop their weapons by using some skills or when knocked away by an enemy’s attack. This leaves them vulnerable for some time, with diminished attack and no means to defend themselves. In harder difficulties, monsters will often try to do this to you and this may cost precious lives until you find adequate armor to avert this situation.

The spellcasters and the Elf don’t have this problem, but they have consumable resources. Sorc/Wiz must charge their magic each time they launch a salvo of spells and their most powerful skills are permanently consumable until you return to town. The Elf’s arrows must be recovered from your enemies and by smashing crates. Of course, these resources become more scarce as the going gets tough and you must improvise with divekicks and slides.

To develop your character, the game has a system that is based on your score. Each time you go to a dungeon, it counts points from enemies killed and items you find. Once the boss is dead, you gain a percentage of this score as Experience Points to level-up and improve your stats. Money is also found by collecting items and selling loot, which is gained from many chests that lie along the way. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (32)But to get treasure, you depend on a sneaky rogue that follows you around everywhere you go. To make him open locked doors and chests, you must use a mouse-like interface with the right analog stick (PS3) or touchscreen (Vita) to point out where you want him to go. On PS3, this can feel wonky at times and is definitely a nuisance in Online co-op, since you must keep people waiting while you correct your pointer. I wonder if it was a rushed solution, as it really feels appropriate for the portable console’s screen.

There are also magic runes that you can activate with this pointer on many of the dungeons’ walls to reveal more treasure or temporary buffs, but they are unintuitive because of their unfamiliar designs and the lack of a way to display their proper combinations in dungeons. You can only check out what they do in town, so you might end up wasting time with several fruitless combinations or simply ignoring them altogether in the long run.

Along with level-up purposes, score also affects the gameplay in a manner similar to arcade games: achieve a certain amount of score and you will “Extend” by acquiring another life point. Life points function as the regular lives in brawlers, in which you respawn after some seconds with an all-round stun for all enemies on-screen. Once your Life Points are gone, you can “Continue” by spending in-game money, which raises exponentially as you keep dying over and over. Of course, this value resets once you are back to town.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5obfVhE_Ucg

By leveling up, you will acquire skill points that will grant you many other forms of approach against your enemies. There are two categories: The class specific, which contain special moves or spells depending on your character and Common, a list of abilities that all classes have such as more health or larger capacity of items to use in dungeons.

The equipment you will acquire has characteristics similar to Diablo / Torchlight: they must be appraised in shops before they can be used, level requirements to be equipped, durability that affects the effectiveness of your weapons / armor and magical properties like “more 10% damage to undead monsters” or “Strenght +15″. Broken weapons are not lost forever, they can always be fixed.

Monsters and newly-acquired equipment are always scaled upwards to adapt to your level as you progress. Initially, you will start underleveled for some dungeons and may even need to repeat them sometimes for better equipment and more EXP. Once you’re past the level threshold in the many stages / B-paths, the enemies will always feel strong enough to pose a decent challenge. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (36)

Graphics

First of all, let’s tackle the easiest aspect: the scenery. This is a gorgeous game, made by combining various backdrops filled with details and depth on both foreground and background along what you are actually stepping onto. Even the smaller gems you gather from enemies and the cavities on cave walls have details that deserve to be admired in its 1080p resolution. On the PS Vita, it surprisingly handles better because of its OLED screen.

Another remarkable trait that Vanillaware usually has is to create fantastic food. If you decide to go through three or more dungeons without stopping at town, you will be shown a screen filled with many ingredients in a fun cooking minigame. Along with some common ingredients like potatoes and carrots, you can make delicious meals with parts of the bosses you defeated. Yeah, you can fry that ugly heart… thing and it suddenly becomes a gorgeous beef that will significantly increase your life and strenght. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (29)The same can be said for Monsters and characters, which don’t follow a standard pattern. While there are people like the Dwarf, Amazon and the Sorceress with huge body parts purposefully made with proportions that comply with Kamitani’s artstyle, many other characters have simple designs. These exaggerated designs are usually reserved for full-screen characters that show up in the stages’ checkpoints (where you can choose between A-roads and B-roads) and the town’s shops. Of course, monsters have a greater freedom of design because they are, well, monsters. People won’t get up in arms with this stuff.

What should be a case of praiseworthy art done without any limits to creativity ended up being the target of various kinds of harsh (and blind) criticism due to some misinformation being spread. It is important to note that a substantial amount of recurring content can be sensitive to some people, so it would be best to approach this with an open mind. Most, if not all of it, might fall under your own interpretation of what is sexually suggestive and what should be a natural consequence within the game’s context. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course, but when we approach something ambiguous like this, the content must be exposed in its entirety lest someone makes assumptions based on half-truths.

My take on this won’t be covered in this review, so please visit the link below. I’ve decided to do that because the amount of content is just too much for this post.

In regards to the controversy surrounding Dragon’s Crown

Audio

Hitoshi Sakimoto and his company Basiscape enrich the game’s environments with a soundtrack that hides some few instances of grandeur among many pieces of ambience. Among these tracks, you will be able to find many hints of his previous work to Vanillaware’s title Odin Sphere. If you look hard enough, a trace of Vagrant Story might show up in the B-path of Ghost Ship Cove.

As far as sound effects go, they contribute a lot to the environment. Many stages have effects like birds singing, echoes in caves and lava raging under your feet. The narrator’s voice is as every bit enthusiastic as you might expect from a spirited storyteller, but he might get on your nerves if you become stuck in a part of the game and need to go back to previous dungeons for quest or EXP. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (34)He will pester you with the same dialogue every time you exit a building in town and will only shut up once the objective has been completed. This becomes specially hard to endure in harder difficulties, since he only spells the same instructions of defeating the final boss over and over until you’re done with Infernal mode. You CAN turn him off in the options menu while in town, but you will lose every other interesting sentence in the many dungeons / events you come across.

After finishing the game with a character, you can buy its voice in the magic shop to replace the narrator. I only tried this with the Fighter, but it is great to see a different kind of narration. Sadly, the dialogue is still the same. Only the intonation is different, but you might surprise yourself in moments where the narrating voice must interpret other NPCs. Also, you can’t have a japanese narration. Sorry.

If you want, you can change your character’s voice to english or japanese and modify this setting anytime on the character selection screen. English voices are fine, but some characters might tire your ears out: the Fighter (with excessive Kratos-like grunts), the Amazon (war cries when some skills are used, death) and the Elf (preparing for charged attacks and death shouts). Japanese voices are great, but the Elf also has some annoying squeals. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (33)Multiplayer

It might be on your interests to know that this game has NO pause function, even while offline. To make yourself safe from danger, you must get rid of all monsters in a room during dungeons. You also can’t access your full inventory outside of town: the only way to swap equipment is to leave each extra piece in your portable bag, which only has two free spaces for items along with the necessary space for your weapons / armor.

You can set the number of players to accompany you, from solo up to 4. These can be your friends on the couch, random people on the internet or bones found on dungeons that can be resurrected and then commanded by artificial intelligence. While online, you can also get bones from players you’ve encountered to resurrect and get AI versions of them, with all their bells and whistles.

While local co-op is open from the beginning, the online co-op is only open once you complete the A-paths of all nine stages. This seems to be a requirement for you to know more about the game by yourself and not keep depending on others with superior stats and knowledge. The PVP is unlocked later: you must finish the game first. This mode only gives you money as reward, but maybe you will learn to improvise more with your character in the dire situations that only human players can create. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (37)Extras

Many unlockables await you after the Normal difficulty mode is over. For starters, you  start on the B-roads quest again in Hard mode as a New Game Plus. Everything is carried over and the game acts as if nothing happened, but now all dungeons have new level thresholds and your capped level 35 is raised to 65. One new optional dungeon opens up, with powerful unique equipment and a not-so-new superboss. After some exhaustive grinding and more quests, you defeat the villain again and open Infernal mode, with the bar set even higher and your level limit finally set to 99.

To make your grinding sessions easier, there are a hefty number of quests in the guild. These will make you hunt for specific monsters or items, sometimes even asking you to kill a boss in a solo run. Each quest rewards you with skill points, some EXP and an exclusive artwork. There is a gallery in the game’s main menu in which these art pieces lie, each telling more of the game’s lore, character / monster backgrounds and more info regarding the quests you complete. These are works from guest artists, so you can expect many different artstyles to discover and enjoy. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (39)Once you are in a superior difficulty setting, you can go back to previous modes by praying at the church, free of charge. Your character’s stats will be scaled back to whatever the level limit was in the corresponding difficulty, but it will still feel easier than usual thanks to your skills.

And finally, the question: what’s next once you are finally maxed out? Well, you don’t. The optional dungeon I mentioned earlier goes beyond the overpowered superboss, with enemies that surpass your limited 99 level. It mixes monsters, traps, backgrounds, objects and even the soundtrack as you head down its seemingly infinite floors, sometimes even presenting slightly weakened bosses as regular enemies along the road. To survive against these deadly creatures, the game will reward your effort with special improvements to your skills.

These, of course, only keep being interesting within the confines of this deadly labyrinth and on PVP, as the game’s regular dungeons will become jelly under your mighty abilities. Dragon's Crown Screenshots (35)Conclusion

There’s no reason not to try this game if you are a fan of beat ‘em up games. We’ve got many titles on PSN like Double Dragon Neon, The Simpsons arcade game and X-Men Welcome-To-Die Edition, but this one stands out for its longevity thanks to its RPG wrappings. If you are on doubt on the artstyle, please do keep an eye on Youtube for some gameplay videos. This is a decision that falls down to your own personal preferences.

8/10
Overall game progress

22 hours as the Fighter (solo) for my first playthrough, completing every quest possible until the final boss. From then on, my ingame clock slowly climbed up to 75~80 hours as I arduously reached level 99 and completed everything there was to do up to the secret boss in the extra dungeon on Infernal difficulty mode. Once it was finally over (as far as new content goes), all other characters got their campaigns on Normal finished with the help of AI and sometimes a friend or two in Online. 118 hours in total.

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About the author /


Anderson is a graduated journalist that doesn't really know what to do with his life, but he loves videogames so maybe that's a start. Send him your flowers and flames: anderson@geimaku.com