Originally released back in 2013 for the PS3 and Vita, Dragon’s Crown is back and better than ever with Dragon’s Crown Pro for the PS4.
Good Old Medieval Fun
Dragon’s Crown is an old school side-scrolling beat ’em up with a fantasy theme to it. Those familiar with the acclaimed early Capcom beat ’em up Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom (or its sequel, Shadow Over Mystara) will find a number of similarities, which is hardly surprising as this game’s director, George Kamitani, originally worked on Tower of Doom. For those not familiar, you pick your character out of six different classes, each with their own skills and strengths, and journey through several fantasy levels using swords, spells, temporary powerful weapons, and consumable items.
In addition to all these, Dragon’s Crown adds an equipment system using random drops from treasure chests in each level, a rune system that allows you to select runes in the level’s background and combine them with runestones for powerful buffs and attacks, as well as a wide variety of secret rooms for accessing additional loot and sidequests that often task players with finding the aforementioned secret rooms, with little hints to teach how to find them.
The game begins with a fairly simple jaunt through the nine levels in order, heading back to town for new story between each level. Once that’s done with is when the actual core gameplay gets started. Without spoiling too much for a five year old game, at this point the player needs to go through all nine levels again, which now have a branching alternate path to a harder boss, all of whom must be defeated to stand a chance against the final boss. In addition, the player is likely going to need to grab some levels, so some grinding is in order before even tackling most of the new bosses.
At this point you’re re-treading old levels and grinding, and in most other games I would call this padding at the end of the game. In Dragon’s Crown however, this period is where the actual game takes place, now that the areas have been introduced to you.
In an arcade style mode of play, you venture to a starting dungeon and proceed directly from level to level, racking up bonuses to XP, gold, and loot rarity for each chained dungeon on top of an occasional cooking mini-game for more temporary buffs. Each time you choose to embark on another journey you’re given greater rewards, but at a cost: Your gear will eventually need repairs, your consumables will run out, or a savage boss fight will leave you low on extra lives. It becomes a game of seeing just how far you’re willing to push yourself before returning to the safety of town. As you improve not only in levels and gear, but also in understanding the levels, the monsters, and your own character, you’ll find yourself able to tackle more levels than before.
More than anything, Dragon’s Crown gets away with asking you to grind and replay old levels because it’s simply fun to play. It manages to capture that old school arcade feel of gameplay where you’re not playing just to see what’s next or to fill out completion, but because it’s enjoyable to just play.
Now, it wouldn’t be a classic beat ’em up without the option for multiplayer, and Dragon’s Crown does not disappoint here. There’s an online version which I was unfortunately unable to play as, being an early review copy, the servers weren’t quite up, but I did try out both local co-op and AI partners the game provides.
The AI partners are an interesting system. Essentially, during dungeons you will find the skeletal remains of adventurers who have perished. Taking them back to the temple in town will allow you to revive them and add them to your party. You can also just leave a slot available and any of your revived partners may jump in sometime during your adventure, if you’d rather leave who accompanies you up to chance.
The AI system as a whole is appreciated, as the game is balanced around having a full party of four. They are unfortunately not the brightest of the bunch, often walking into traps, and there are a number of secret rooms where them attacking the enemies may interfere with unlocking the door (such as one that requires you to use a temporary shield to reflect a magic projectile), but as far as helping you get through the level in one piece they’re perfectly serviceable. Their other unfortunate downside however is they’re inherently disposable; They don’t gain levels, new gear, or even restock their consumables and repair gear. Once they’re tapped, it’s time to tell them to retire. This isn’t too painful as the dungeons are full of unfortunate souls to retrieve, but just try not to get attached to any of them.
Local co-op on the other hand is a total blast. It’s satisfying to play together with a couple friends, figure out how you can best use your skills to support each other, and pull off strategies without a hitch. Friendly fire (with knockback but no damage) turned on in town lead to plenty of hilarity as our dwarf would throw us around (and usually get juggled by our fighter in retribution). Even the cooking mini-games became more enjoyable as we’d work together to prepare a feast for our heroes, or competitively fight over ingredients if the mood struck us.
That said, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows: The town was clearly made with a single player in mind, as all the shops only allow one player to interact with them at a time. Turning in quests and acquiring new ones required one player to enter the guild, do their thing, then leave, before the next player can go inside and conduct their business. There’s a minor loading screen between entering or leaving a shop, not too big on it’s own, but when you combine that with each player in the group for each facility that needs visiting, it can be a little annoying. Another minor issue is that the loot seems to be distributed to what player one’s class can equip, which is a nice anti-frustration feature when playing solo, but for co-op meant we rotated who was player one to keep the other two party members from being starved for gear.
Now on to both the best and worst part of the game, depending on your point of view – the aesthetics. First off, the music is full of impressive orchestral arrangements that do a fantastic job of setting the mood, whether it’s the gentle flutes of the city’s temple or the horns and drums of a pitched boss fight. As for the graphics, that is one area I feel Vanillaware excels at above all else, something I’ve come to expect from them after previous titles like Odin Sphere. All the animation and backgrounds for Dragon’s Crown are gorgeously hand drawn with an impressive level of detail. I don’t often take screenshots in games, but I couldn’t help myself with this, it’s such a treat for the eyes.
…which makes it all the more unfortunate that a fair amount of the art is problematic. Now, just to be clear, I’m not the kind of person who gets into a moral outrage over every exposed nipple, and I appreciate a decent amount of fanservice here and there myself. I also acknowledge that both video games and swords & sorcery fantasy have a long history of sexualizing women that I don’t expect to change very soon, and this game is in both categories. So even keeping all that in mind, the amount of fanservice in Dragon’s Crown is simply bananas.
You have the Amazon and Sorceress playable characters who are both scantily dressed in outfits that barely manage to hold back their heaving bosoms as they breast boobily down the town’s street and thrust their huge tracts of land forward with every aching opportunity. Mermaids that just happened to lose their top fleeing a kraken, tied up well-endowed spirits in see-through negligees, holy freaking MONKS with their legs wide open and inviting as they chat to you. I found myself facepalming and asking “Really?” at how absurd it felt the game was being to ensure these women’s sex appeal was as high as they could get without snagging an AO rating. That all said, it could be worse: The castle’s princess and the playable Elf manage to somehow dress modestly, and there is a single guy who’s a massive rippling wall of beefcake in the name of “equal” representation… but still.
A Crown Fit for a King
Overall, Dragon’s Crown is a highly enjoyable, gorgeous, old-school beat ’em up. The new things it introduces all add complexity and depth to the standard beat ’em up formula while still keeping a simple arcade feel to it, and it’s managed to be some of the best couch co-op I’ve played in ages.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Atlus for PS4. Screenshots provided by reviewer.