The team at Vanillaware may not be a household name, but anyone who has ever played one of their titles certainly remembers them. They have a way of combining old-school mechanics with lush, vibrant visuals that simply pop off of the screen. Their latest entry, Dragon’s Crown, is no exception in that realm. This action/RPG beat ‘em up style brawler is one part nostalgia-driven, and the other glorious 2D animation. The simple mechanics and deceptive depth create an experience that tugs at the 13-year old inside of me.
Dragon’s Crown is an arcade-style beat ‘em up similar to something like a Streets of Rage or the classic TMNT games. Moving left-to-right, players wipe out hordes of enemies and screen-filling bosses. Up to four players can join the fight, but online doesn’t open up until you clear the game on normal once. It is also worth noting that the Vita and PS3 versions are separate outside of cross-save. Playing with others on different machines is sadly not an option.
From the moment I took control of my first character (which happened to be the Elf) I fell in love with the game. Everything from the design to the fluid controls just clicked. This is a nod to games I grew up with, only with a ton more content. This style of game could easily be toppled in 1-3 hours in arcades, but each character in Dragon’s Crown hosts a unique play style, and each one will run 15-20 hours to complete just on normal. Multiply that by six characters and three unlockable difficulties (if you include the Labyrinth of Chaos) and you have a wealth of content.
Combat is the core of Dragon’s Crown. Attacks are executed with the face buttons, and as I mentioned each of the six classes have their own unique play style. For example the Dwarf delivers massive damage up close, while also serving as sort of a tank, while the Sorceress is fragile up close, but delivers powerful attacks from afar. Each character also has two sets of abilities to level up. Defeating foes earns XP and loot once the dungeon is finished, then at the Fighter’s Guild I could spend those points to unlock new attacks, or simply upgrade my health. Every character has a generic tree that contains health and damage unlocks, but they also have a specific tree that focuses on their abilities such as the Elf’s arrows and magic attacks.
Leveling up all six characters will take a massive amount of time. Level caps are at 35 for Normal, while Hard opens things up to 65. If maxing out is the goal, it will require a run through Inferno which opens up the cap to a whopping 99. Did I mention everything resets on each difficulty? Hammering through everything that Dragon’s Crown has to offer is a meaty chore, but one that comes with plenty of fun.
Powering through stages I came across piles of bones that could be used to resurrect characters to fill in the gaps of co-op partners. I could opt to resurrect or bury them, which gave me special items at random. Most of the time I kept a party of similar level comrades with me, trying to spread out the classes as much as possible. Another unique dynamic is the thief and the cursor. Dragon’s Crown is packed with loot and gold, and it uses an unconventional way to obtain it. A thief traveled with me everywhere I would go, and I could use the right analog stick highlight areas on the screen for him to open. This works for doors, chests and even hidden items that require scanning. On the Vita it actually works better because I could simply touch the screen where I wanted him to go; using the cursor on the PS3 definitely takes some adjusting.
When deciding which version to buy take a few things into account. This is not a cross-buy title, so most of us will only pick one or the other. The PS3 version is fluid across the board. The frame rate never rattles, and the controls are spot-on. The Vita version suffers some frame rate problems when the action gets hot and heavy, and it can be difficult to pick out your character in the commotion on a smaller screen. However, the Vita version is $10 cheaper, and using the touch screen as opposed to the right analog stick is a Godsend. If players are lucky enough to be able to afford both, the cross-save function works flawlessly, though cross-play would have been awesome for those without the extra controllers.
I couldn’t end this review without talking about the visuals. Dragon’s Crown is absolutely stunning on both machines. The Vita’s glorious OLED screen showcases the incredible art and animation, while the PS3 enhances it in full 1080p glory. Every character is crafted with immense care, and enemy variation is plentiful. Bosses are the highlight, with some taking up the entire screen during battle. The chaos that explodes during these battles is amazing, and something anyone would be drawn to. The audio is equally impressive. The narrator can get a bit repetitive when visiting areas in the town, but the voice work stands tall. The option for Japanese voices is there, and there will also be free day-one DLC to replace the narrator with one of the six characters, but grab it quick, it is only free for 30 days.
Dragon’s Crown is yet another stellar entry from developer Vanillaware. Their trademark 2D art style and gorgeous animations simply pop off the screen in true HD. The throwback game play also stands tall in a sea of monotony. Fans of the arcade beat ‘em ups of past would regret passing this one by. It is a simple, yet deceptively in-depth brawler that keeps you coming back for more; and thankfully it just keeps on giving.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Played through once between both systems. Primary play on PlayStation 3.