Having only previously played Muramasa: The Demon Blade out of all of Vanillaware's work, it's safe to say I'm not as familiar with the developer's work history as I'd like to be. Having done a little bit of research about the company's previous efforts on PS2, DS, and PSP, as well as the effort of Dragon's Crown, it's safe to say I think it's time I remedy that. Not only do they consistently put out beautiful, engrossing games that blend RPG elements with other genres, but I'm beginning to think that we're looking at pieces of one collective work rather than the seperate-but-similar approach we've all been duped into believing. I submit that the collective works of Vanillaware's history are not, as we've come to be told, unique works, but a series of sequels and prequels set in the same world.
I mostly joke, but given the graphical similarities between Dragon's Crown and previous efforts such as Muramasa: the Demon Blade, Odin Sphere, and various others, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that each and every one of these titles takes place in the same world, with the same history, but in different eras and regions. After all, the only real difference was that Dragon's Crown was western European fantasy and Muramasa was Japanese fantasy; east meets west, as it were. Hell, both games even use the same font! Next up, we need to see them do a superhero game set in modern Manhattan. I'd buy that, but I digress. Regardless of the similarities in aesthetics, I'm not complaining; quality is quality, and Dragon's Crown is just as pretty as, if not prettier than, any of Vanillaware's previous titles. I'm not sure if what we have here is cleverly disguised, high quality sprites or polygons with some of the best paint jobs I've ever seen, given the depth and 3D effects that are seen; either way, Dragon's Crown is, as expected from Vanillaware, an absolute marvel to gawk at. I really don't think I need to extol the virtues of the graphics: just take a look at the enclosed screenshots. I'll let them do all the talking.
The story is simple, told by an omniscient narrator who acts as both a guide and storyteller. Every bit of the plot, save a few sentences of dialogue, is recited by the narrator as though you were in a particularly engaging Dungeons and Dragons campaign and he was the dungeon master guiding your way. He tells you what you see and what you feel, and fills in the blanks. Much of what he says is a combination of exposition and gentle nudges in the right direction, so if you're lost, don't worry, the narrator tells you where to go and what to do every time you come out of a shop! Helpful, yes, but it eventually gets annoying once you've been told the same piece of advice a dozen times or more since you're busy doing side quests rather than the main story. The plot is about as simple as you'd expect from a game entitled “Dragon's Crown”: legends say that there is a crown that can control dragons, and the royalties of Hydeland are all scrambling over one another to gain control of said crown, using you (the player) as a pawn. There's clearly more to it than that, but that's all I will say since I don't want to spoil anything.
You play as one of six character classes that follow typical European fantasy tropes. You have your musclebound, armored fighter; a nimble elf ranger; a cloaked magician; beefy amazon; powerful dwarf; and inexplicably busty female mage, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and equipment sets. The introduction and tutorial introduce you to yourself and your rogue pal Rannie, a human who follows you around and takes care of all the chests and doors on your adventures in exchange for some of the coin. Unlike Muramasa, Dragon's Crown is more akin to a retro-styled beat-em-up arcade game that looks and plays mostly side to side, but allows you to move to the foreground and background, giving it a bit more depth. This works, but movement is slow and clunky, and aiming at an enemy that is floating but more in the foreground than you can be a real pain; anyone who's ever played a side-scrolling beat-em-up understands this. Luckily, there are buttons to go faster and ways to attack in all directions, so overcoming these obstacles is a matter of persistence and practice. Once you've learned how to move, attack, defend, use magic and items, and instruct Rannie on how to support your loot addiction, you're taken to the Dragon's Haven Inn, which functions as your character and information hub. Hydeland town is pretty basic, but has all you'll need to start your adventure, including an item shop, an adventurer's guild, and a church where you can pray for blessings or resurrect other adventurers from the bones they leave behind in the dungeons.
This town functions as your hub world, and the game does a pretty good job filling you in on what each location does. The early story has you going from place to place in town to search for characters to better acquaint yourself. Sadly, it's all quite rudimentary. The map shows a sprawling, bustling fantasy capital with intricate street layouts and designs, but all we see is a straight line from left to right with doors that you can pass through that take you to menu screens that depict the various shops and locations. This is kind of disappointing in how confined it makes the world seem, but it does its job. Unfortunately, that same mentality carries on in each and every dungeon and enchanted keep you visit. While there are secret rooms and eventually alternate routes, it's all very linear. Flat, straight paths from left to right with a few doors to secret areas, and that's pretty much it until you get to fight the end boss of the level, which is always a treat.
As an aside, there are also little scuff marks in the background, called Runes. I spent a good portion of the early game trying to trace these rune markings using the Vita's touch screen, but later found that you only needed to tap them, mixing and matching different runes to create different effects. One rune set, when combined, awoke a golem; another summoned a magic carpet; most, however, just give you buffs or bonuses like added defense, improved bare-fisted attacks, or healing. Selecting these runes is a lot simpler on the PS Vita, where you can use the touch screen. On the PS3 version, you have to use the right analog stick to move a cursor over the screen to hit them, and in the heat of a battle when you need the 'undead purge' rune spell, you can't waste time screwing around.
I find that Dragon's Crown is more about the boss fights than it is about the level spent working one's way up to said boss. In stark contrast to the simple, straightforward levels with little room for deviation or exploration, the bosses require forethought, concentration, and wits to best. Spells fly all over the place, some enemies charge from side to side, others will summon indestructible genies to fight you if the enemy finds the lamp before you do, and there are some bosses that will, if you're not fast enough, duplicate themselves, thus making the fight twice as difficult. I'm not afraid to admit that the main gameplay is rather bland, but the bosses are a whole other ordeal, and really spice things up. Not only does Dragon's Crown practically rely on its boss fights to keep you coming back, but there are a lot of them: almost twenty unique bosses, in fact!
Gameplay can be fun, as long as you don't pick the fighter class. Naturally, most people (myself included) will pick up a game like this and choose the character class that is the most balanced, or the one that the game decides is for beginners, which is the fighter class. I'm ashamed to admit that I played as the fighter, an armored brute that requires next to no skill to play as and is quite frankly really boring. Early on, I just ran up to the enemy and smacked them around until they died; since I had so much health and defense, they rarely brought me down at all and I was just breezing through, and I didn't die once until the final boss. Later on, when I had acquired a team of more versatile fighters, I more often than not found myself just running to roughly where I thought the enemy was and mashing square until things died and little coins popped out. Due to the spell effects dancing around the screen, more often than not blocking my view of myself and inexplicably causing intense bouts of framerate slowdown, I could hardly ever see myself, so implementing the game's finer points like dodging and item usage was generally just a waste of time, little more than a distraction in a hectic world that demands your attention.
The optimal solution for mass genocide of my enemies literally did consist of rushing headlong into a fight and mashing the square button until everything died; at least it was until I chose another character. When I started playing as the ranged characters, Dragon's Crown got far more interesting. The elf, for example, uses a combination of melee and ranged attacks, and looks great while doing so, a ballet of blades and arrow tips flying around the screen. The mage, on the other hand, uses a lot of spells and incantations to boost his abilities and kill things, sometimes using direction attacks, sometimes using area of affect attacks, and occasionally using screen-wide mass attacks. The difference in gameplay styles from the more brutish dwarf and fighter compared to the mages and elf are so great that it is like playing a whole other game, but your mileage may vary, due to how much you have to go through on your own.
So, if you want to get the best out of Dragon's Crown, you should get together with a team of friends and play that way. Sadly, you don't even get the option to play with friends online until a major portion of the game's plot has concluded. I really don't want to get into spoiler territory, but the online multiplayer doesn't unlock until after a point where your normal portal to the various levels breaks and you have to resort to using the stables to ride horses to your location, costing money every time you depart. This happens about three quarters of the way through the campaign, and you've presumably already played a major portion of the levels and a decent chunk of the side quests. This is smart, in that it forces you to go through a six hour training period to ensure you're not a noob online, but is extremely cumbersome for those looking to just jump in with a second or third character. Not long after that, Dragon's Crown throws a curve ball at you, and the problem is, Dragon's Crown is one of those games where – Wait, this is kind of a major spoiler, so I put up a spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph. Anyway, Dragon's Crown is one of those games where the plot has concluded and you're going to fight the final boss when, oops, we forgot to tell you that now is when you have to backtrack through every stage to get a set of artifacts to open the final gate. Remember how I mentioned backtracking and alternate routes? Well, that happens right at the end. Once you return to the levels to get the artifacts, you have to chose a B-route that results in different bosses and stages, with much more powerful, dangerous enemies.
As such, that's where the game really gets what little depth it has. Once you've unlocked all the levels and gotten through all but the last bits of the story and freed yourself to play online, that's when most of the side missions for the Adventurer's Guild open up, and there's just as much content waiting there as there is in the campaign – maybe even more. But this is where I must say, either play with friends, or play alone. The AI teammates that you can recruit via resurrection are competent fighters, but they're pretty much useless in every other way. You'd figure that allies gifted with the benefits of being programmed by the game itself would know enough to not run headlong into a trap or hazard, but nope. One level had a room slowly filling up with fire, and my AI teammates didn't have the forethought to not walk right into a wall of fire. The same thing happened with sharpened, pointy-stick barricades or spike traps. I'm not asking for precognition, but some common sense would go a long way. It also doesn't help that, if they die enough due to this nonsense, they can die permanently, forcing you to replace them by finding the bones of other adventurers.
I want to recommend Dragon's Crown, as it is a great way to kill time with friends, the levels are nice and short and easy to digest (and if you're the long-winded adventurer type, playing multiple stages in a row without returning to camp rewards you with increasingly generous prizes), and the graphics are absolutely gorgeous, but when it all comes down to it, Dragon's Crown just feels shallow. It doesn't matter how deep it feels due to the item management and RPG elements, the gameplay itself is straightforward and the story is pretty barebones. On the plus side, if you get the PS3 version, it comes with Sony's custom patented cross play and cross save features, so you can save your data to the cloud and continue on the Vita or vice versa at will. That said, Dragon's Crown makes me think that it would make an excellent 15-20 dollar download on PSN. As a full retail game, it just feels lacking, even though it is reasonably good for what it is. Even after the backtracking, the entire ordeal lasts about a dozen hours, twice that if you plan on doing all the side quests, but that still feels pretty short for an RPG. Long for a beat-em-up, but borderline anemic for an RPG. It can be fun with friends but on your own it's either a real bore or needlessly frustrating, depending on what character class you choose. There's a lot of potential, and there's a menu icon for DLC, so here's hoping they add some levels or character classes to spice things up a bit.
This review of Dragon's Crown was a based on a digital copy provided by the publisher that gave access to both the Vita and PlayStation 3 versions of the game.
update: It's been brought to the writer's attention that this title is cross save but not cross play. We aplogize for any confusion this may have caused.