Is this your Final Fight?
Hand crafted in JapanAt its heart, Dragon’s Crown is a back-to-basics side-scrolling brawler that hides its more subtle RPG and action mechanics with arcade accessibility and spectacle from the very beginning. It neatly conjures the soul of Vanillaware's previous titles Odin Sphere and Muramasa, wrapping Final Fight-inspired combat in a similarly gorgeous - but wholly divisive - hand-drawn Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic. The ‘painting come to life’ discussion has never been more apt, with striking colours and multiple parallax layers sliding to mesmerising effect around detailed hand-drawn characters that slice and dice assorted beasties with a stab of the square button.
For better or worse, Dragon's Crown's fate is intertwined with that artistic depiction of its pastel-coloured fantasy world; a land populated by gigantic mammaries, ridiculous costumes, rippling biceps and a huge bestiary of enemies that consistently surprises throughout its lengthy tale of royalty, treachery and dark spirits. Its unique visual identity is strong enough to stop people in their tracks, and the commitment to art direction and crisp technical proficiency in both PlayStation 3 & Vita output can’t be faulted. There is however, ample room to hoist the red flag over some rather dubious design choices. To see what I mean, check out the images below:
You’ll probably know from that quick glance as to whether you’re likely to ever play Dragon’s Crown. I mean there’s Fantasy and then there’s fantasy, and it’s difficult to tell whether Vanillaware’s designers intended to create a pastiche of cheesy genre tropes or whether they simply amplified and objectified the aspects they liked most. Playable characters and featured NPCs are all uncomfortably strange, juxtaposed against superbly atmospheric level design and a stage selection diorama that's among the most exquisitely rendered I can recall.
It's undeniably cheesy and sleazy stuff though, and made all the worse for the ridiculous body proportions and incredibly sexist female character depictions. Yes the males are tarred with the same 80s teenage fantasy brush, but it's in the bouncing and jiggling animation and showgirl poses that Dragon's Crown reveals its true motives, and it's just plain embarrassing at times.
Don't stare, just playIf you're prepared to look past those problems or you simply couldn't give two hoots, the act of actually playing Dragon's Crown is a more successful endeavor.
The initial choice of characters varies from tank-like warriors to ranged specialists and the aforementioned hyper-sexualised sorceress, with Vanilla doing a good job of presenting their various combat styles with accompanying difficulty ratings for newcomers. Characters are then assigned a save slot and become persistent across whichever game you choose to play (online co-op opens up around 5-6 hours in), leveling up independently and unlocking new combat skills and discovering equipment as they progress. The rhythm is very much that of a Torchlight or a Diablo. Quests taking place in their own contained dungeons with copious quantities of loot to be found and hidden passages to explore, while the town serves as a primary hub for between-mission selling, upgrading, equipping and interacting with characters to shift the convoluted story forwards.
It's a lengthy campaign too. Each of the themed stages is designed to be played through at least twice for various questline objectives, and Dragon's Crown delivers a tactile and intuitive brand of action during the dungeon-running. Combat is ridiculously simple with just a single button for your primary attack, block, charge and combo, bolstered by a jump, strong attack, potions, spells and various trinkets that conjure elemental attacks, shields and other special items. It's easily accessible but can be customised enough to put your own spin on proceedings, while the range of character specialties allows party members to diversify from tank-like damage dealing to distanced precision and everything in-between.
When used in combination, a well-oiled party is a sight to behold. Each of the protagonists has a spectacular repertoire of combat moves and spells that look stunning in motion, filling the screen with vibrant bursts of colour and chaotic special effects that grow in potency as dungeons are conquered and powerful equipment obtained. Enemies provide a degree of tactile feedback and are generally varied in their attack pattern and abilities, while each different stage brings new environmental tricks and traps that demand attention throughout.
The only real issue with the combat - and it's one that's certainly worthy of note - is that it's nigh-on impossible to keep track of your own character during larger battles. Health bars, combat visuals and damage numbers mush together to form an absolutely riotous display of colour and motion, but it's rare that you feel completely in control during those big sequences with lots of enemies on-screen - it's simply impossible to see where you are. That confusion isn't frequent enough to completely ruin Dragon's Crown, but it is noticable enough to detract from the experience, and another consequence of committing so fully to such an intricately detailed art style with huge numbers of characters on screen at once.
- Incredibly detailed and colourful
- Simple, addictive combat
- Loot-based RPG systems
- Four-player co-op
- Juvenile character art
- Screen far too busy at times
- Online play takes 4-6 hours to unlock
Dragon's Crown PlayStation 3 ReviewDragon's Crown is a throwback to the early days of arcade brawlers, and it's mostly successful in dragging that co-op arcade formula kicking and screaming into the modern world. Without the loot, leveling and RPG mechanics it'd be light on content and more suited to a smaller downloadable scope, but Vanillaware fleshes out its gameplay offering in all the right areas - making Dragon's Crown more akin to Torchlight than Final Fight. It's an addictive brand of dungeon-running whether you're playing solo or with a group of friends, and there's a surprisingly robust set of quests to uncover as you progress.
It's all tempered by that juvenile fantasy art style however, and - for me at least - the endless focus on jiggling boobs and buttocks turned out to be more off-putting than motivating. Much of the unlockable concept art showcases the dungeons of Hydeland free from the cliche of the buxom sorceress and bikini-clad amazonian warrior, and there's some genuinely interesting and inspired work to be found in the background; just make sure to look beyond the wet dream in the fore.
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