Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Dragon's Crown

PlayStation 3, Vita

Dragon's Crown
Six adventurers fall into a web of ancient magic and political struggles in the kingdom of Hydeland. Dispatched on numerous errands by the nation's royalty and local eccentrics, the group plunges into monster-packed ruins, haunted castles, and even worlds beyond their own.
Dragon's Crown is a game of fierce appetites. Fantasy realms unfurl as wide and detailed as oil paintings. Towering, snarling creatures of legend fill the screen. Savage battles blur into chaos. Pneumatic amazons and sorceresses strut around, half parody and half unvarnished titillation. Even a cooking mini-game is a smorgasbord of lovingly recreated meats and spices. It's all a bit much, and that's the point.

The origins of Dragon's Crown lie in the side-scrolling brawlers that died out far too soon in the 1990s, driven to virtual extinction by leaner, more competitive fighting games. As in those arcade attractions of long ago, Dragon's Crown invites players to pick from six stereotypes and take to the dungeons, fields, and besieged castles of a fairy-tale kingdom. Most notably patterned on CAPCOM's Dungeons & Dragons brawlers, Dragon's Crown stages itself as a grand quest against a forgotten danger, with characters gaining levels as they progress from one task to the next.

It's a well-aged concept, and developer Vanillaware stuffs it to bursting. The six available classes are nicely diverse, and none of them comes up short. The fighter prizes defense while the amazon prefers speed, satisfying two different methods of melee combat. The elf archer may favor attacks at a distance, but she's perfectly capable of close-range fighting. The dwarf warrior excels at powerful strikes and tossing enemies, but he's surprisingly quick compared to the heavyweights of similar brawlers. Even the magician and sorceress, who convention normally reduces to support roles, can stand on their own. Every character has a variety of attacks to weave into combos, and the game's even thoughtful in its controls: dashing is easy, and all special moves are simple button mixtures.

There's more to Dragon's Crown than the short-burning thrills of an arcade quarter-muncher. In every stage you'll find new weapons to uncover, allies to revive, beastly mounts to ride, and everything from crossbows to full-size cannons to lug around. In fact, there are even times when the game gorges itself on its own trappings, when everything's lost in a fury of fire spells and axe-whirling amazons and enormous bosses. Yet that's where Dragon's Crown truly impresses, seizing the intense wonder found in only the best brawlers.

Dragon's Crown does its best to keep players occupied. The main quest sprawls out well past 15 hours, even if it cheats a little. The party makes several return trips to previous dungeons, though some pleasantly challenging bosses and clever ideas justify it. One level might culminate in a race to grab a magic lamp and summon a genie, while the next might force players to defend a statue while it attacks a rival golem.

At least the revisited locales are pretty. Vanillaware's unique hand-drawn art is taken to new heights by the game's spectacular backdrops and portraits of the various overblown fantasy stereotypes. From the massive warriors and delicate nobles to the kingdom's lush countryside, everything is replete with detail. It's not all comforting, though.

Yes, there's the matter of the amazon and sorceress. Vanillaware president, director, and lead artist George Kamitani rendered them salaciously in just about every frame of animation, whether they're ambling around town or mounting a dragonlisk. At first they're too absurd to be anything but jokes, like some old MAD Magazine distortion of the typical Frazetta-style barbarians and witches. But no one looks at a MAD parody for hours at a time, and that's why the joke wears thin. Worse things lie in the stage intermissions, where players might meet an enchained spirit woman (who winces as she's poked) or a fully armored nun splayed out like a centerfold. Dragon's Crown is an enjoyable game if you can overlook such things, but perhaps you shouldn't.

Morally acceptable or not, Dragon's Crown is best shared with others. Solo players are joined by allies they resurrect from skeletal remains, but that path is a bit lonely. Playing the game unaccompanied also makes it easier to notice the repeated sights or the generally hollow storyline. Atlus does a superior job with the flavor text and voices, but the dancing mouse sidekicks and perfidious nobles of Dragon's Crown are really just there to bridge the battles or extend the playtime. It's especially obvious when the game hatches a search for nine different magical gewgaws.

It's much better to slice through a harpy, a spider, or an actual dragon with the help of three competent allies. Too bad the multiplayer angle isn't immediately explored; at first only local players can join in, and online matchups don't appear until a few hours into the quest. The game also isn't directly playable across the PlayStation 3 and Vita. The versions seem similar, though the Vita may pull ahead. The handheld's touch-screen makes it easy to direct your lock-picking rogue sidekick or touch characters for humorous messages, while the PlayStation 3 version uses a clumsier analog cursor.

Dragon's Crown suffers from a stubborn refusal to hold anything back. It's a little too quick to pile on the clichés, and it goes too far in tribute to the reckless, chauvinistic id of the fantasy genre. Yet Dragon's Crown is worth a look beneath its controversial surface. There's an uncommonly well-crafted brawler lurking there.

Overall : B
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B
Presentation : A

+ Combat flows well, everything looks great
Levels are repeated, some of that gorgeous art is distasteful

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